Saturday 01 October 2016 – Sunday 01 October 2017
Rapid Responder or Slow Burner? How are artists reacting to political and social change in times of crisis? b-side on the Isle of Portland hosted a day of conversation, featuring contributions from artists, producers and curators.
In the picturesque Dorset town of Portland, a secluded island attached to Weymouth by a thin road, b-side Assemblies gather for a day of conversation. b-side has brought together a panel of creatives to share their views on a weighty subject: how do artists respond to political and social change in times of crisis?
b-side is itself an organisation with a history of collaboration and activism through both its bi-annual festival and local campaigns, which in many ways mirror the island that it inhabits (successfully protesting a planned palm oil plant away from the island in recent years). Most notable is b-side’s site reactionary work, luring artists from across the country and abroad to the island, a place that seems more than confident in its identity and values.
We form outside St. Georges Centre: a national group of creatives sipping coffee and tea in the summer heat and discussing the potential topics of the day, the general election result sticking in the back of our collective throats. The crowd is optimistic, the atmosphere one of relief. Gordon Dalton, Network Manager of VASW and host of today’s talks starts the proceedings with an apt statement: “I feel like there’s a sea change happening and art can be a part of that”. Today we discuss if this is true.
The panel is made up of practising artists, activists and art organisers. Throughout the day’s talks the underlying message is clear: there is work to be done! Each panel member has dedicated their respective career to the arts in some way, whether out of necessity or a compulsion to do so. Now more than ever, art must be fought for by the creative industries and those outside it (this event taking place only a week before the downgrading of Arts and Culture by a ministerial restructure). Audience members’ anger over the gutting of our art education is clear, heard here not for the first time. The artist’s talks are dwarfed by the audience's desire to discuss the current political and social crisis we feel happening around us.
The first encouraging topic of discussion is lead by Paula Crutchlow, an artist who has found collaborative work and dialogue vital for her creative endeavours. She discusses the shedding of art spaces and theatres, galleries and forums, replaced by direct art and action. By taking work into public spaces, artists needn’t invite debate into a space as it is waiting for them in the outside world. In much of Paula’s work, most recently her Museum of Contemporary Commodities (MoCC), she places herself and her work outside the echo chamber or art bubble. As Paula describes a future project in which she will take to the streets with a megaphone, “there’s going to be someone somewhere in that space who has a difference of opinion to you”. As a group of artists, creatives and academics our own lack of inclusivity and failure to connect with wider audiences hangs over both the group and the creative industries at large.
Katy Bauer's talk entitled ‘How does an activist eat potatoes?’ is most promising. As an activist and artist, Bauer works quickly and out of necessity. Both her talk and workshop are fuelled by a desire to reach out to people. A fundamental question for the art world is 'who is art for'? Her one word answer to the question ‘who is the audience?’ is simply perfect: everybody. As we find out first hand, her work is made quickly and for a point. In a climate of uncertainty and confusion, it is Bauer (a native Brit raised in apartheid South Africa) who cuts through the noise with her unwavering moral compass and stripped down, back-to-basic approach to art.
The timeliest talk is delivered by Farhad Berahman, entitled ‘Art From Exile’. He focuses on his time as a photographer, touching on his recent project ‘Uncertain’ made with and inspired by asylum seekers. Berahman is largely interested in memory and how we can capture that through photography. Fundamentally, both Bauer and Berahman work in a reactionary way. Though taking many different forms (pottery, painting, film, writing and music) Bauer is often working to counter someone else’s opinion, citing a piece she made encouraging people to vote after Russell Brand's famous 'don’t vote' videos. Similarly, Berahman’s photography is a reaction. He tells the stories of those who are unable to but who have been massively affected by world events.
“We are being reactive to these events, when we need to be proactive!” shouts one voice from the crowd. It’s an important point to make: how can artists discuss, provoke and engage if they are only ever reacting to something? How can artists set the agenda if they are forever on the back foot? I can’t help but think how paradoxically, the topic of the day is ‘how artists respond to social change in times of crises’. Are Berahman and Bauer’s work any less poignant because of this?
A room full of artists will always have a lot to talk about, too much for a single day of conversation and a Q&A. As a day of conversations, b-side Assemblies' strict time allocation is both a blessing and a curse. There is plenty to cover but at points the audience want to talk about some topics in much more detail. The opportunity for creatives to pick the brains of this very well curated panel is paramount but I would also argue that a larger variety of activities would be welcomed. The clock is fast approaching 5pm and before these weighty questions can be answered the Q&A is over. It’s clear to me however, as we leave the centre, that we are sure of one thing - there is work to be done.
James McColl – June 2017
Working towards a South West where talented artists thrive, and a resilient and connected visual arts ecology that inspires more engaged and diverse audiences to value and advocate for its work.
Part of the Contemporary Visual Arts Network