Friday 22 May 2009

The art of democracy

Mobile Conference, London, 15 March 2009

Only two out of five people voted in the last UK general election. The current critical standpoint of democracy is of individuals’ ignorance, apathy or disenfranchisement amid the pervasive power of globalised institutions. Of citizens’ inability to speak politically and collectively due to the lack of identifiable, non-commodified public space. The very idea of democracy is mediated to mean intolerance of difference, war crimes and state sanctioned terrorism. This is the climate in which individual agency in democratic acts outside the ballot box and governmental institutions needs to be re-invested and re-articulated. This is the political backdrop to Mobile Conference: an event on the 15 March 2009 organised by South London Gallery (SLG) and Peckham Space, exploring play, democracy and contemporary art in the public realm.

The conference was a fringe event of Tate Britain’s Tate Triennial, and asked questions such as: can contemporary art provoke democratic participation? How can contemporary art reclaim the public realm through play? It centred upon two contemporary art projects: artist and play-worker Jess Thom’s current outreach with the residents of Seaux Gardens - a project that facilitates children’s play on the Seaux Gardens council estate in Peckham as part of the SLG’s three year lottery funded programme Making Play; and Peckham TV, a 2008 project commissioned by Peckham Space, in which artists Harold Offeh and The People Speak carried out a live game-show style public consultation in Peckham, soliciting locals’ responses in order to collectively design an advert for Peckham.

Discussions on the democratic, public and artistic spaces these two projects enabled were chaired by representatives from Demos - the independent think tank for everyday democracy - and artists The People Speak. The conversations were located at several itinerant sites – Seaux Gardens estate, the entrance foyer of Camberwell Arts School and a local community sports centre. This nomadism aligned itself with Triennial’s Altermodern Manifesto – which advocates a peripatetic, journey form of contemporaneity - and signalled the progressive nature of the conference. It also ensured the event was itself mobile: a physical, spatial match to its subject matter; each location providing a space for political, collective speech on non-institutional acts of democracy in a non-governmental public platform.

Outside a set of empty retail lots on the Seaux Gardens Estate, one of which is rented by the SLG specially for Making Play, delegates joined Thom, local children and their parents in a discussion about how their sense of esteem, community and personal security increased through play. They discussed how they had managed to reclaim their estate after their requests for play areas (solicited in a public consultation by Southwark Council) were actively legislated against in the form of large signs warning children not to play on the grass. The empty shops were a stark reminder of the economic unviability of this particular inner city estate compared to the aspirational council town planning of the 1960s, and underpinned the fact that public space, moreover ‘free’ time or play, is at a premium: its architecture aimed at targeted consumption/production.  Playing then, defined by Thom as freely chosen, personally directed and intrinsically motivated activity, is critical in that its insistence upon unmediated and individual agency represents ‘unproductive’, uncertain and risk-laden usage of space to the institution. Thom’s project articulates these children’s play as political, an act of everyday activism; a subversive sociopolitical performative act that reclaims public space and enables a different - more everyday - form of democracy outside the institution.

Amid the fun of its game-show format, Peckham TV also enacted a critical mode towards the agency of the individual to participate fully in the public realm. Based in Peckham Square, the project explored the possibilities of democratic decision making, with game-show participants publicly and collectively voting on the design of the advert for Peckham, but also on the rules of the game show itself. In the foyer of Camberwell School of Arts, Offeh talked of how – because of logistics, time and money - the collective to-ing and fro-ing of the public voting could not be translated into the final advert. As a result, he was unsure whether the outcome of Peckham TV would be representative of the public’s participation.

Peckham TV reveals a tension between collective, democratic process and artistic product. It raises questions, not of the participation – ie. how to progress or make decisions whilst consulting everybody, or where to draw the line drawn between selective listening and blanket acceptance – which seem to fall back into the current, problematic dominant order. Rather, it asks questions about the inevitability of the end point of such participation - the desire for closure, a definitive result and product. The project articulates a scenario in which the everyday democratic process, or non-institutional political speech, is endowed with agency as product in and of itself, and in being duty bound to hear the to-ing and fro-ing of oppositional voices, resolution remains politically – democratically- out of reach. It is a vision of an everyday, non-governmental form of democracy that is always in progress, insufficient and provisional.

Over the course of the day, questions were asked about the instrumentalisation of art in the public realm - how the artistic integrity of these two projects was ensured against the pressure to fit into an infrastructure of social inclusionist policy and box-ticking in the publicly funded arts.  Conversation focused briefly on the absence of the public funders; the implication being that devoid of the big spenders the discussion somehow lacked integrity. But this line of thinking falls prey to the authority and power of the institution. It denies the efficacy of the non institutional decision makers in the room and the individual choices that have been made by the funders not to accept the invitation to be at the event.  Democracy gives (democratic) meaning, or enfranchises an individual’s capacity for non participation and potentially undemocratic action. 

Questions were also asked about the definition, ownership, agency and intellectual property of the art in the public realm; where is the art? Whom does the project belong to? Is the artist the new agony aunt? This kind of probing – vaunted for being open and honest - has been the dominant (postmodern) order in socially engaged art for over thirty years. But again, it is a mode of critique rooted in opposition to a problematic institutional and commercial framework (defining the role and status of the artist, her product, and its quality). As such, it falls back into dualist, modernist dialectic regarding art and artists (that art is apolitical, transcendental and is problematised in its encounters with everyday life). And it defies the aim of post-autonomous socially engaged art, which is to trouble hierarchical, patriarchal models of artistic production, as well as notions of sovereignty and copyright.

In contrast, Mobile Conference attempted to articulate a much more blurred, hybrid or altermodern mode in relation to democracy and art in the public realm. It is a mode that ‘works within’ to re-invest agency in everyday democratic acts and public space beyond banal machinations of capitalistic exchange. It is a way of working that recognises the delineation between private/public space is no longer clear, that the central institutions of our time cannot be so readily identified (what isn’t an institution in the context of Mobile Conference: Demos, Tate Britain, Camberwell Arts School, SLG, Peckham Space?). And that an outside/inside position of critique/complicity with regards to both democracy and art in the public realm can no longer be clearly occupied.


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