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Connected Culture
Connected Culture

“Engaged, Community and Participatory Arts: Vernacular Practice for a Networked Age?”

Posted by Connected Culture on 17 January 2014

"Radical imagination begins with a move beyond complaint and resistance, beyond reactive tinkering or hunkering down or cynical accommodation. The first big move is an alternative picture of how things could be instead," Anthony Weston How to Re-imagine the World.

While planning this roundtable series at the RSA, Jocelyn Cunningham and I have considered the varied approaches and practices described as engaged, community and participatory arts. Like conversation one thing leads to another.

As the previous post detailed considering this work as a spectrum of practice has avoided “either” “or” conundrums and polarized positions. Rather than seeing artistic practice as hierarchical, adversarial and competitive one can, as American choreographer Liz Lerman says, “hike the horizon” and view it as a horizontal field, as a continuously shifting landscape of exchange.

Liz Lerman used the phrase when exploring how the art sector thinks of itself as hierarchical. Considering how national, regional or local are used as terms of evaluation she noted that even within an art form, the tendency to appoint value to practices exists – so opera, classical, jazz, country and western or me singing reggae loudly in the kitchen are conceived like floors from an escalator. Her observation is that this is changing. People move more freely not up and down the floors of culture but across it. The institutions and forms are equally valuable at different times. Access is more open than previously. We pick and choose. Read more of her thinking here.

So is it that the forms of creative expression are changing as we move from the imperial industrial revolution to a more globally conscious online age? It is possible to extend Lerman’s notion and embrace all key influencers as part of an art-work. While not necessarily complicit they evidently affect it. Isn’t engaged, community and participatory work really made by a combination of those who commission it, its practitioners, those who engaged with it and those whose reflections shape it? The Practitioners, Commissioners, Participants and Thinkers of our roundtables at the RSA.

Lately I’ve been looking for artists who work at this juncture where lived experience meets creative practice.  They reveal this interconnectivity in their practice. Their work implies a dynamic connected landscape; alive, contemporary and evolving. For instance:

Anne Bastings whose current work is “inspiring action and dialogue around creating a more connected community as we age”.

Mammalian Diving Reflex’s mission is “to bring people together in new and unusual ways”.

DADDA “views disability as a problem of exclusion from ordinary life, and not a medical condition” and is “focusing on creating significant positive social change and opportunities for people with a disability or a mental illness”.

Marty Pottenger “uses theater to encourage people to think about issues, ask questions and engage in dialogue with their communities.”.

Theirs is creative practice existing within the world, alive to changes in social, economic and political landscapes. It’s specific to place, connected to and shaped by frameworks, resources and thinking in the US and Australia. It's evolving practice made by individuals who gather influence, advice and references from many sources in the world around them. Perhaps they are building the “New Role for Artists” John Fox has been imagining.

But let’s not get carried away. The practices referred to are not commonplace. In other places the resources available in the US and Australia don't exist. Contexts are varied. The tools artists have to hand are very different. And yet work that seems related is being made. It’s productive to consider what they have in common, and how or why they vary.

Yet another reason the notion of a spectrum of practices is useful. It allows for variety, diversity and risk to be embraced as key elements within a flourishing cultural spectrum.

Of course community, engaged, and participatory practice in the UK is specific to place and its practices have a very particular history. Some of the people participating in the roundtables are living libraries of that history. The history of the practice is their lived experience. It is their vernacular art form. It’s fascinating to see the diversity of their considerations appearing here;

Arts and Society
Commissioners Roundtable
Thinkers Roundtable
Practitioners Roundtable

The online Connected Conversation is growing. Please feel invited to join in. After all you too are the expert in your experience.

“The thing about Obama is, well, we all got up and rolled up our sleeves and went out and voted him in. And then we went home and left him to it”
Angela Davis responding to a question about the hope before Obama’s first Presidential election and the mood two years later.

Dominic Campbell
Connected Culture


Follow the conversation on Twitter via @CCAdultArts and @ArtsSocietyUK #connectedconversations

Find out more about Connected Conversations; Passing It On


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