Tony Fegan, Tallaght Community Arts at Create's National Networking Day. Photo: Fuchsia McAree.

Practicalities and Possibilities

Reflections on the National Networking Day for Collaborative Arts
Dr Fintan Walsh

There exists a specific sensory experience that holds the promise of a new world of Art and a new life for individuals and the community, namely the aesthetic. 

- Jacques Rancière, Dissensus (2010)

The National Networking Day for Collaborative Arts

The morning began with a brief address from Ray Yeates, Artistic Director of the Axis. Yeates welcomed delegates, and stressed the value of thinking and working ‘developmentally’ as collaborative artists already tend to do. This aspiration was echoed by Sarah Tuck, Director of Create, who hoped that ‘new perspectives could be seeded and developed’ as a result of the inaugural meeting.

The World Café networking session was the first exercise of the day. Introduced by Gary Keegan of Brokentalkers, this workshop provided the opportunity for delegates to brainstorm on their work for over an hour. Participants circulated around six stations to answer focus questions on their practice with the help of a faciliator:

  • How do you describe what you do?
  • Where does it happen?
  • Who does it happen with?
  • What motivates you to work in this area of the arts?
  • What is the relationship between process and product and where do you place the emphasis in your experience?
  • What does quality look like in this practice?
  • How would you like to professionally develop your practice?
  • What supports would that need?
  • What kind of publics are you addressing or communicating with?
  • What kind of publics would you like to be talking to?

Despite only spending ten minutes at each table, members had the opportunity for rapid, intense engagement with each other’s work. Later, some of the outcomes of this session were summarised by Tony Fegan, CEO and Artistic Director of Tallaght Community Arts, who managed to find numerous points of contact and divergence among the responses. ‘I’m an artist…facilitator…creator…I make stuff…and make stuff happen,’ delegates claimed, ‘in my studio…in my head…wherever the work happens.’  It transpired that this work takes place in a wide variety of settings, from schools to hospitals to prisons. Attendees expressed being motivated to work in the collaborative arts for a wide variety of reasons. Some cited a desire to respond to injustice and inequality, which can be implicitly supported through uneven arts access and provision, while others expressed not being happy working in isolation in the studio all the time.

Holly Crawford surmises that ‘collaboration is a process that is engaged in by two or more persons that work together towards a specific end that may be an object.’  This complex relation between process and product also came under examination in the session. Many artists described the process as the stage ‘where the interesting stuff happens,’ while others stressed that having some kind of product in mind gives focus to a project, whether this be an object or not. In general, however, it was agreed that this balance should be decided upon as early as possible in a project’s development. ‘The quality of the product depends upon the quality of the process,’ one contributor maintained.

This issue of quality was subject to deeper scrutiny at one of the stations that asked delegates to analyse what quality looks like in their practice.  One artist located quality in the ‘rigour of planning and negotiation,’ while another suggested it was ‘an aesthetic plus.’ Others agreed that quality could relate to aspects of process and product, although it was not always a visible or tangible property. Asked about what kinds of publics people would like to engage more frequently, delegates mentioned accidental publics, the private sector, government ministers, as well as cultural critics and reviewers.

Representing European Cultural Contact Point (CCP) in Ireland, Niamh McCabe provided a presentation on funding available for collaboration between artists across Europe. Co-funded by the Commission and the Arts Council, the role of CCP Ireland is to provide practical information, advice and technical assistance and support to those applying for funding under the EU Culture Programme 2007–2013. McCabe explained that her work involved hosting information seminars and networking events throughout the year, and helping interested parties engage in collaborative projects with colleagues elsewhere in Europe and beyond.

Many of the discussions raised in the day’s first session were pursued in greater depth in the forty-five minute workshops that followed McCabe’s presentation. Participants chose to attend one out of three events that included Collaborative Practice and Film, led by Nicky Gogan of Still Films; Arts and Rural Context, led by visual artist, Fiona Woods; and Dance and Social Engagement, led by Laurie Uprichard, Director of Dublin Dance Festival. In each session, the facilitators shared their own experiences of working in participatory contexts, before inviting questions and discussion from the group.

Relaying her involvement with Seaview (2008), a documentary film about the Asylum Centre at Mosney, Gogan emphasised the value of ‘spending time with your subjects,’ in order to build trust and gain insight. This point was reiterated by some members of the Arts in Rural Context group, who suggested that the artist occupies a strange and sometimes estranging place in the rural imaginary. Simply chatting with locals over time is an important part of building up a relationship with any community, delegates felt. In the Dance and Social Engagement workshop, the value of investing informal time with subjects and communities was also underscored. Here, one participant recalled tea-drinking for days with locals in Donegal in order to forge a relationship before commencing any formal work. With children and teenagers, this can even be a lengthier, more complicated process, some participants proposed.

In addition to time, delegates took issue with certain terms which are central to collaborative arts practice: words like ‘community,’ ‘locality,’ and  ‘public’ all came under inquiry. In the Arts and Rural context group, some contributors felt that while these terms might be strategically useful, sometimes the central and more difficult task lies in actually creating these formations through practice rather than engaging them from the outset. This discussion of art and social effect, however brief, resonated with a growing international trend that is somewhat suspicious of the liberational promises of relational or encounter-based art.  Implicit in some of these exchanges was the notion that the more urgent aim might be to think of collaborative arts practice as a way of ‘mediating’ knowledges, as Nikos Papastergiadis has suggested elsewhere,   by collectively reworking the sensory or aesthetic domain in the manner elaborated by the philosopher and critic, Jacques Rancière.

In her brief speech, Orla Moloney, Head of Arts Participation, Arts Council, reassured those present of the importance of their work. Speaking on the eve of the National Campaign for the Arts Day of Action, Moloney proffered: ‘Art is part of our lives…we need to be challenged, astounded and inspired.’ Moloney claimed that while the arts certainly produced economic benefits, we should not be afraid of speaking about their ‘intrinsic value.’ Significantly, Moloney asserted that ‘we should be wary of avoiding failures.’ Failures are inevitable, she suggested, but this does not prevent the process of creation being extremely valuable. Further, Moloney issued a call for ‘a more critical culture’ that would broaden the debate about the significance of collaborative arts practice throughout the country. In this, she drew attention to the need to explore further how best to evaluate collaborative arts projects. Given that this kind of work is often multi-disciplinary in nature, and engages very different kind of subjects and communities, the question remains as to whether or not there are shared models and languages for discussing and evaluating work, not only from the artist’s perspective, but also from the community’s? The question as to how dialogue and critical discourse might be developed and sustained with media partners was raised, and it remains an issue to be considered further in future.

Many of the ideas exchanged in these workshops resurged in the final three-hour session. Here, practitioners had the opportunity to present their projects in an in-depth manner. Claire Meaney, Assistant Arts Director, Waterford Healing Arts Trust spoke with Justine Foster, Education and Community Coordinator, West Cork Arts Centre about her experience of managing arts in health care settings. Philip de LaMere, Arts Officer, Roscommon County Council spoke with Monica Corcoran, Head of Local Arts, Arts Council about his extensive experience of artist in the community initiatives.  Finally, artist Sheelagh Broderick spoke with Katherine Atkinson, Project Support and Professional Development, Create about her residency on Sherkin Island in 2009. Her project, A Cosmopolitan Cosmology, involved developing a pinhole photography programme with locals. These sessions provided an invaluable opportunity to hear about specific case studies in detail, but also to learn about how artists approached some of the challenges aired earlier in the day.

In his Fifteen Theses on Contemporary Art (2004), eminent critic Alain Badiou writes that ‘Art is the process of a truth, and this truth is always the truth of the sensible or sensual, the sensible as sensible. This means: the transformation of the sensible into a happening of the Idea.’   To put it another way, Badiou emphasises that for art to maintain a connection to people’s lives and social and political activity in contemporary times, it should be a process that enacts ideas through reworking the sensory/aesthetic realm.  As the first event of its kind, the National Networking Day was an important enactment in its own right towards exploring issues surrounding the relationship between art and a variety of social and political spheres in Ireland. Delegates had the chance to meet new and familiar faces, to discuss each other’s work, to explore practicalities and possibilities face-to-face. To build on this event, it seems necessary that the momentum generated should be rapidly harnessed in the service of creating other embodied and virtual ways of connecting with colleagues and potential partners throughout the year. The two day event planned by Create for Cork next year, that would include artists and their collaborators, is an example of one such initiative that might be bridged in other ways throughout the year. While solo artists may not always be accustomed to or indeed comfortable with regular communication with other artists, when it comes to participatory practices, this is important not only for support and reflection, but also for beginning to process a shared critical language that would draw artists, subjects, communities and the wider public into a deeper engagement with the collaborative arts, and towards an understanding of why and how this kind of work matters.

 

Dr. Fintan Walsh is Research Fellow at the Samuel Beckett Centre, Trinity College Dublin.


Notes

[i] Jacques Rancière, Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics (London and New York: Continuum, 2010), 115.
[ii] Holly Crawford (ed.), Artistic Bedfellows: Histories, Theories and Conversations in Collaborative Arts Practices (New York: University of America Press, 2008), xi.
[iii] On relational and encounter art see Claire Bishop, ‘Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics,’ October, No. 110 (Fall 2004, No. 110): 51-79 and Rustom Bharucha, ‘The Limits of the Beyond: Contemporary Art Practice, Intervention and Collaboration in Public Spaces,’ Third Text, Vol. 21, No. 4 (July 2007) 397-416.
[iv] Nikos Papastergiadis, ‘The Global Need for Collaboration,’ Collaborative Arts: Conversations on Collaborative Arts Practice. Viewed at http://collabarts.org/?p=201
[v] Jacques Rancière, Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics (London and New York: Continuum, 2010), 115.
[vi] Alain Badiou, Fifteen Theses on Contemporary Art (2004). Available at  http://fascisimile.com/node/6