On Thursday evening of June 23, 2016, I attended “Bridging the Gaps,” a Chataqua dialogue hosted by the Art for Social Change (ASC!) research project and facilitated by Judith Marcuse. The Chataqua participants were Art for Social Change (ASC) practitioners who represented a diverse range of experience and community-engaged arts work. These practitioners had worked closely with their communities throughout Metro Vancouver and BC. As someone who has only recently learnt about ASC, the event was, without any doubt, a great learning experience.
In this reflection, I want to highlight ideas about the importance of language, including in dialogue and in issues of accessibility. In the course I took in Spring 2016 with Professor Shayna Plaut, “Ethics and Qualitative Methods in Human Rights Work”, we discussed how important language can be to frame and understand an issue, as well as in defining one’s personal and professional identity.
Upon reflection, I realise that I would not have understood much of the conversation without having taken this Ethics course at SFU. Even though the class did not specifically teach me the ‘languages’ of ASC, there are overlaps between the fields of human rights work and ASC. These language overlaps stems from how both fields question the relationships between the different spheres of research, activism, community and the arts. More specifically, the ethics class I took taught me about the languages and frameworks in research and activism used by funders, stakeholders and institutions. This includes the challenges of gaining access to a community, working with them, and the ensuing responsibility to ethical and reciprocal practice. These overlapping themes echoed back and forth in the Chataqua dialogue. As an outsider stepping in to ASC, I can see that there are many access points into these languages – and that it is crucial that we work to make these accessible to others. The conversation was all in English, but I would not have really understood the references, the nuances and the particular definitions had I not been fortunate enough to be equipped with the basics of this language. I am also aware that I probably did not understand all of the nuances in the discussion. I very much look forward to learning more.
ASC practitioners, although in many ways speaking the same language, do not always agree on the meanings of certain words. They are in constant negotiation with each other, even as they appear to be discussing the same thing in the same room. The awareness of this underlying tension really helped me understand this dialogue as part of a dynamic process of shaping the languages of ASC.
For example, during this Chataqua dialogue, participants discussed the idea of “doing good”. Judith asked the group, “Are we here to “do good”?” Discussion opened up. Is this a primary motivation for making art for social change? Where do aesthetics fall into this? And what are the ethics and responsibilities behind the notion of trying to “do good” in a community? Interestingly, the participants agreed to disagree: “No, we are not here to “do good”” As a person just coming into this field (many of us seeking to “do good”), this question is perplexing. Could it be that “doing good” has a specific meaning I am not aware of? Perhaps it connotes a white savior complex or some kind of colonial perspective? – a common criticism of “doing good” initiatives. Admittedly, I do not know the answers, and the answer will probably vary from person to person, practitioner to practitioner. And as a newcomer, discussing the question of “Why are we here?” – is probably a good starting point.
Participants passionately raised and discussed their concern that art for social change has been struggling to find its own language. There was a lot of focus on the growing trendiness of “socially-engaged” art in all its forms. As soon as the language of socially-engaged art starts to catch on, shallow interpretations of the words like “engaged”, “social practice” and “community” are likely to become token buzzwords featured in guidelines created by funders.
We asked many questions, some of which were: “How can this language not be co-opted by medium-to-large institutions trying to do ‘quickie’ projects?” Where do we stand? What do we advocate for? Do we, in this room, share a language that we agree on? Answers weren’t developed in this dialogue, but it was clear that this concern is something artists and practitioners in this field are grappling with.
Judith raised a point about collaboration that I thought was very important. She said that for a long time there has been a disconnect between artists and researchers. There is a growing need for academics and artists to work together more. This is especially pertinent because research can do a great job to theorize, analyst and enrich the work that artists and activists do.
In a time where many funding cuts hit hard, addressing this issue, Judith proposed two scenarios: “crabs in a barrel” or collaboration. Not surprisingly, we are starting to see more an more “crabs in a barrel” situation as artists and organizations struggle from day to day just to survive financially. What we need is more collaboration between organizations – especially with those in other sectors who value the qualitative and quantitative impacts of ASC work that is also useful for them.
Another impression I got from the Chataqua discussion is that funders and juries want to see results that are quantifiable, numbers to measure how much art has impacted or benefited lives of human beings. They want quick, tangible results.
The group also agree that funders often ask them, “Why does it take so long to gain access and trust with some communities?” Do funders have the same level of expertise, experience and understanding of ASC? Why do funder not understand that community-engaged work takes time? Collaboration is not only important between academics and artists, or artists and other sectors – funders need to be part of the conversation. This may be naïve of me to think, seeing that the participants expressed that they have been met with tremendous resistance on many fronts. But what are the options?
In retrospect and conclusion, this dialogue has made me realize that most people haven’t learned or had an experience that will help them understand this field’s language or framework (for example, by reading relevant pieces, joining various ASC programs, participating in dialogues such as this one). How can future policy makers or the public make and advocate for better decisions when it is not easy to understand what ASC is? Reflecting on the importance of language and the challenges of finding a shared one, it is also not easy to explain the nuances of ASC. As challenging as it may be, current artist-practitioners and researchers must reach out and invite more people to join the conversation, as well as mentor younger people to continue the work in this important field.
Some final questions:
How do we invite more people to join this conversation, make it accessible and inclusive rather than “exclusive”? How do we make this conversation more accessible to the general public? How do we encourage people to start talking about art for social change and help make it a more widely accessible form of art and activism?
Special thanks to SFU Professor, Shayna Plaut, for giving me the foundations and the language to explore this realm which I find so fascinating. A lot of gratitude and respect to Judith Marcuse for including me in this Chataqua dialogue and taking time to guide me in the process. I have learnt a lot from everyone gathered there. Thank you to the most wonderful Kim Gilker and Nicole Armos for all your guidance and company, I cannot ask for better! Last, but not least, thank you to all the participants for coming and sharing your knowledge. I am very humbled to have attended this eye-opening dialogue.
Prodpran Wangcherdchuwong is a student at Simon Fraser University, entering her last year of undergraduate studies in International Studies with a concentration in International Development, Economics and Environmental Issues. Her areas of interest are human rights, food, arts and research. She has recently joined the ASC! Project’s communications team for the summer.