What is the role of artists in defining place and creating change in the world?
Anthony Luvera: I find this an interesting question to tackle with you Synthia, as a curator working in a large public institution. For me, this question spins out a whole bunch of considerations not only about the role of artists, but about how artists and communities can be implicated in the agendas of cultural organisations.
Synthia Griffin: I think my perspective is an institutional one and I’m interested in the balancing of all of these different kind of voices or relationships of power. Arts institutions like Tate Modern play a big role in cultural led regeneration. They have a vested interest in the set of power relations that surround them but are often also advocating the role culture can play in a local area helping to celebrate and preserve specific histories. They also play a role in helping to strengthen the arts infrastructure and cultural economy that they are part of. In the case of Tate Modern, we help steer initiatives such as the South London Art Map––a network of smaller galleries in the area surrounding the gallery. We have also supported architecture collectives, such as Exyzt, who have done a series of temporary installations on a site that is about to undergo redevelopment in the neighbourhood near to the gallery.
Anthony: I think you hit on something there when you mentioned the idea of balancing voices between those who have power and those that don’t. It seems to me, in many ways, these types of practices and the communities and places they’re situated in can often be positioned to give shape to the corporate social responsibility of the commissioning organizations.
Synthia: I sit on a kind of Corporate Responsibility Group and the agenda for that group is purely philanthropic. Its aim isn’t to instrumentalise the work of artists.
Anthony: Regardless of the good intentions of the organization I find it interesting how, inescapably, there is always a groundswell of agendas that sit beneath the very real human relationships built by the artist in the places they’ve been commissioned to work in. Their activities and the outcomes are meant to reflect not only the artist and the people taking part, but are often also supposed to represent specific things about the commissioners and funders as well.
I work in ways that are often described as participatory, collaborative or dialogical. I’m interested in inviting the people I work with to contribute to making or saying something about themselves and the places they live in. 2014 was a busy time with the culmination of two long-term projects in Brighton. The first was co-produced by three organizations: Photoworks, New Writing South, and Pink Fringe. I was commissioned to create a new body of work with queer people, titled Not Going Shopping, which was exhibited in outdoor public sites across Brighton and Hove as part of LGBT History Month throughout February.
At the same time, 3,000 copies of the Not Going Shopping newspaper were distributed free throughout the city to accompany the exhibition. I also co-edited Queer in Brighton, an anthology of creative writing commissioned essays, photography, documentation of cultural ephemera, and extracts from over 100 oral history interviews. Ideas to do with representation and language, family, politics, and place, drove the making of this work. It was conceived to celebrate the cultural heritage of queer people in Brighton and Hove, as a way of preserving a social history of place which may not be otherwise represented in mainstream accounts.
The second project was Assembly, a body of work created over a twelve-month period with homeless people living in Brighton exhibited in October as the headline exhibition for the Brighton Photo Fringe festival. Assembly is an extension of the work I’ve been making with people who have experienced homelessness in towns and cities across the UK. As part of Assembly I initiated a partnership with the Brighton Housing Trust support services, First Base. This Regency period hall was formerly located near the Pavilion Gardens and was one of the most popular assembly rooms of eighteenth century England before being moved brick by brick to Montpelier Place, where it is now the home of First Base Day Centre. It’s an extraordinary building. I was interested in somehow responding to this unique environment. So in addition to inviting participants to work with me to create photographs, I was keen to create sound recordings and to work with a community choir.
The organisations I’ve worked with have commissioned me in various ways. Sometimes this has been through their education or participation programs. At other times the production of the work has been initiated with curators interested in working with artists using ideas of pedagogy, collaboration or dialogue. In either case, what can often bring about a certain type of conversation, and sometimes a source of tension, is the way in which the organization may seek to frame my practice as having social benefits or being able to bring about change to the people and places I work in. Part of the challenge is to negotiate these expectations and agendas, and to make work that first and foremost reflects the participants and me, our process of working together, and the things we want to say.
Synthia: That gives me a really good sense of how you as an artist have worked around these kind of complexities of space, people, physical space and how groups are identified and then how you’re then commissioned to navigate those relationships and do something meaningful. I think it’s quite interesting that you said the body of work took at least a year to create. These kinds of transient ideas of what place is, what it represents and who it represents, take time to reflect on. It responds to this idea of a city as a living, breathing thing itself that’s in a constant state of flux.
In the context of Tate Modern, in ten years there has been rapid change. In terms of Brighton there are strong perceived characteristics of what the city is and who it appeals to, for example the big student population or the gay community. The image we have of the classic British seaside town and how that changes over time is actually very different to inner city London. In 2012 I commissioned artist Ahmet Ögüt to develop the Silent University. We worked with migrants and with people who had experienced being refugees to establish a knowledge exchange platform. The group we worked with would move from week to week to a different part of London. So their experience of place was constantly shifting. The focus of the Silent University was focused on knowledge and how it’s valued, alternative currencies, power relationships and silence as an active state and contested spaces, be they imaginary, physical or otherwise. These are the kinds of the realities that some communities in urban locations face and perhaps there are some similarities with the experiences of the homeless groups you have worked with.
Anthony: I’ve worked in London with people who have experienced being homeless since around 2002. Working in the city I live in, having a sense of knowing the city and being part of it is very different to working in a city I don’t live in. When I travelled to Belfast to create Residency in 2006 I had a sharpened sense of my position as an outsider not only in terms of my economic or social position, but also in relation to my political and cultural identity. I began by identifying a homeless support service, the Welcome Organisation, that was willing to host me, and I worked in their kitchen cooking and serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. Through doing this I invited the people I met to take cameras away and to photograph the things they were interested in, and to share their photographs with me. I also invited them to create an Assisted Self-Portrait. As part of this I asked participants to take me to places that have some kind of personal significance to them.
I spent many days being taken on interesting walks throughout the city to the sites where we worked together to create Assisted Self-Portraits. Through this process one of the things I noticed was how––perhaps because of the way people identify with place, socially, politically, and in terms of religion––there were very different kinds of conversations to be had in relation to issues to do with housing, homelessness, social care, and the experience of living in the city. It seemed to me that for many people you’re not just from Belfast you’re from a particular part of Belfast and this can weigh in on how you identify with the city and how people perceive you. And when your claim to a geographical address is stripped from you, a whole other set of issues can become quickened. This seemed to be particularly heightened at this time––between 2006 and 2008––when urban regeneration was really beginning to take hold in certain areas of Belfast, literally changing transforming the place, architecturally, economically and socially. So when it came to working with the photographs created by the participants, one of the ways in which I was curious to look at the collection was to consider ideas to do with the changing topography of the city and the demarcation of place, but without wanting to be too blunt about the geopolitics of Belfast.
Synthia: I don’t know whether you would agree with this, but you kind of touched on it when we began talking, this idea that artists are put into quite complex situations perhaps sometimes with not enough time to really map a place. I guess that whole process of how you work with people in a location is a sophisticated and a complex one. At Tate Modern we worked with artists French Mottershead to create “Walkways” working with four residents who lived in some of the neighbouring boroughs near Tate and exploring their daily walks in their neighbourhood thinking about performance in relation to how they engage with their neighbourhood. Exploring their different rituals, how that connected with their own interests, life and aspirations and capturing some of that really interesting undocumented knowledge. Some of the performance work looked at the decline of markets. Then there was a resident who unofficially manages their housing estate and as such she was a purveyor of undocumented knowledge.
In Belfast, do you feel like you were side-stepping the politics all of the time or did you feel like that wasn’t of interest to you? Did you feel like it was more about the people and their connection to the city and collective histories?
Anthony: I initially went to Belfast because I was keen to study an archive of photographs initiated by a grassroots organisation. I spent time researching community photography in the UK and I was particularly interested in the work of Belfast Exposed Photography. Belfast Exposed began in the early 1980s as a collective of photographers brought together by a shared dissatisfaction with how their home was being represented by the media through the Troubles. They put a call out to the communities of Belfast to send in photographs that showed ‘the real Belfast’ and organised touring exhibitions. They also hosted workshops with groups of people in the different communities of the city. The photographs created by the photographers and the participants of their workshops have been held together over the past thirty years or so, and a very interesting organisation has grown up around this archive.
So Belfast Exposed seemed a good place to approach to think through the practical, theoretical and ethical issues involved in handling a collection of photographs made by other people. I met the curator––an astute woman called Karen Downey––and talked to her about my interests. We came up with a two-strand residency. Alongside working in the Welcome Organisation I would also study the formation of the Belfast Exposed archive. I spent time with the collection and with documentation related to the archive. I interviewed the staff, volunteers and community groups involved with the organisation, its founding members and its Board of Trustees. Throughout this process the connections people have to the city and their collective histories were very much of interest to me. The politics of the place are woven through these narratives yet they weren’t the primary reason for my enquiry.
Similarly, while working at the Welcome Organisation issues related to people’s social, political and economic experience of place factored into many of the conversations that drove the making of the work. So while I wasn’t there to directly address the politics of Belfast I didn’t feel I was side-stepping the politics of the place. Spending time getting to know the people who work and volunteer with the organisations I work with and the people who use the services is really important to me. And it’s important that this period of time takes place organically to enable me to talk to people about why I’m interested in them, to find out what they’re interested in, and to see if we there is a way that we can work together.
Synthia: And you can’t really shortcut that, can you?
Anthony: No, I don’t think you can.
Synthia: I think if we are thinking about how artists can help shape a sense of place, a big factor which contributes to how meaningful that work is, is duration and the timeframe in which they are asked to respond. I’m not convinced it can be done quickly, are you?
Anthony: Relationships with people and places take time to build. Which isn’t to say that short-term is bad or long-term is good. Both are different and the terms of the invitation need to be made just as clear in either case. For me it’s important to have the ability to take time. This is something I learnt early on when I spent almost two years working with people dealing with addiction issues in the Specialist Addiction Unit at Homerton Hospital. I never did anything with the work we created. It was purely about going in every week, working with people, facilitating their image making, and talking to them about photographs. And it was a valuable experience. I realised that the period of time you take to getting to know people without fixed ideas about what you’re going to do with what you make together is absolutely key.
Synthia: Yes absolutely. I often find that you can begin to connect with people about their territory or place but in order to do that you need to build a sense of mutual trust and the longer that is given to develop the better. In terms of your practice, you’ve worked with groups who meet around an area of need or interest e.g. homeless groups or the gay community in Brighton. The ethics of representation must become really heightened when you’re working with such a defined groups. How have you dealt with such complexities?
Anthony: The problems of representation have always been very much of interest to me. This became even more acute when I was invited to work with queer people in Brighton. Initially I thought, ‘Why would I?’ But then I thought as a gay man it would make sense for me to try to understand queerness through my practice. Especially if one of the things my practice predominantly is, is an inquiry into participation and self-representation of other people who are generally overly spoken for.
When beginning to create Not Going Shopping, I was keen to access participants through a local community organisation. I wasn’t able to find just one that would reach all of the different kinds of people who might define as queer. So I organised a callout through a number of different networks inviting people to meet with to me. The group of people that came together, while determined by one way of describing themselves, brought with them very different questions, experiences and points of view about that label. I think it was this multi-vocal perspective that was a valuable component of the making of this work.
Synthia: I’m just asking you this because often, I’m just thinking about the kind of briefs that we develop at Tate Modern and a recent commission involving the photographer Chloe Dewe Mathews in 2014. The brief was to explore changing neighbourhood’s responding to the Tate Modern project; the capital project to create a new eleven story building. After a period of research, she was inspired by the rise of faith groups in South London in particular African Black majority Churches. A lot of the space the churches were occupying were former industrial spaces, empty office blocks or empty bingo halls and often they’re neighbouring artist studios art galleries and it seemed to signify the change in the High Street. We’re becoming more of a secular society but actually it depends where you look, and the kind of particular way in which she worked and developed this body of work was really about responding to that kind of change and transformation. Her area of interest was really about the contrast between various architectural exteriors and interiors, ecstatic worship and services, and the kind of collective experience of faith and modern notions of what spirituality and religious practice. But it was closely linked to architecture, and therefore the kind of people came second and I just wondered if you ever worked around place from different starting points that weren’t necessarily from a group’s perspective?
Anthony: In a number of ways I have, although I’m mostly interested in the ways people experience place and how this impacts on their lives. When I first approached First Base I couldn’t help be struck by the fact the centre is situated in St Stephen’s Hall, a former ballroom from the Georgian era. I spent time researching the different ways groups of people have used the building, historically and now. The building has an extraordinary history and wonderful acoustics, and a number of choirs use the main hall as a rehearsal space. I became fascinated by how I might work with the users of the centre not only to explore photography but to also create sound recordings. I wanted to record conversations with people, as well as the process of working with people to create Assisted Self-Portraits. I also provided digital sound recorders for participants to take away and record their experiences of Brighton. In addition I worked with a community choir to sing and create recordings together in the Hall.
All of these different sound recordings were then edited together to create a soundtrack to accompany the visual material. I found it fascinating using sound in this way and was especially interested in how the distinctive sounds of Brighton feature in the recordings, capturing a sense of place that can’t be represented in any other way. And when the work was exhibited in the Phoenix Brighton gallery for the Brighton Photo Fringe, without any prior warning in the middle of the launch event, we all sang together. This created such a wonderful atmosphere that really disarmed the gallery audience and turned the event in a great celebration for everyone.
About the contributors: Synthia Griffin leads Tate Modern’s work on Regeneration and Community Partnerships, she is passionate about the role contemporary art and culture can play as a catalyst for discovery about the way we interact with social and public space as well as the built environment. She will be part of the Open Engagement Social Practice and the Art Museum panel, moderated by Allison Agsten. Room 310, 3rd Floor, College of Fine Arts Building, CMU on Saturday from 5:00PM-6:30PM. tate.org.uk/modern/transformingtm/community,
Anthony Luvera is an Australian artist, writer and educator based in London. His photographic work has been exhibited widely in galleries, public spaces and festivals including the British Museum, London Underground’s Art on the Underground, National Portrait Gallery London, Belfast Exposed Photography, Australian Centre for Photography, PhotoIreland and Les Rencontres D’Arles Photographie. His writing appears regularly in a wide range of periodicals and peer-reviewed journals including Photoworks, Source and Photographies. Anthony is Course Director of BA (Hons) Photography at Coventry University, and has lectured for institutions such as Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, London College of Communication, University for the Creative Arts Farnham and University College Falmouth. He also facilitates workshops and gives lectures for the public education programmes of the National Portrait Gallery, The Photographers’ Gallery, Barbican Art Gallery and community photography projects across the UK. luvera.com