WITH FOR ABOUT: Conversations About Collaboration

Anthony Schrag speaking at With For About

Published: 11 December 2015

Over a day, 73 people descended upon St Helens town hall. Artists, producers, caretakers, educators, participants and commissioners gathered to talk, share, shake hands, drink tea and devour the treats on offer. The event aimed to create the space to explore validation, working in context, public art and publics and approaches to professional development.

The series of conversations generated a provocative sometimes heated discussion. As a consequence of the backgrounds and concerns of invited speakers, who initiated conversations, there was an emphasis on social context and alternative approaches to ‘working with people’.

Such conversations can result in more questions than answers and are influenced by who is or who isn’t in the room. So below is not a detailed analysis of what was said, more a flavour of the questions and observations raised for you to consider.

Validation beyond the gallery

Opening conversation with Anthony Schrag and Sheila Ghelani

  • Why do we need validation?
  • Validation is a practical necessity to have.
  • Validation is important because it brings financial support.
  • Validation needs to be there because our voice needs to be heard.
  • Is working with people enough to make a link?
  • Who is doing the valuing or more importantly who is doing the de-valuing?
  • Need many different validators.
  • Validation comes from the audience.
  • How do we talk about value?
  • Professionalism is coming from the idea that socially engaged is a new practice, so institutions want to take hold of it and have control of it. And this is really problematic!
  • Socially engaged art is suddenly fashionable by those capitalist models. It’s being appropriated into the mainstream and we need to challenge that!
  • Reject working in the gallery. 
  • What mistakes can we learn from the past, so we don’t repeat?
  • Language (especially visual arts) is a barrier.
  • Does the label of Artist = Ego?
  • Who else should be in this conversation?
  • Need a platform so our voice can be heard.
  • Need new registers and ways of talking.

Working in Context

Conversations with Idle Women, Britt Jurgensen, Ian Brownbill and Evie Manning

  • What’s the starting point?
  • About understanding the issues in people's lives.
  • People create the space - not institutions.
  • Need to shift the value system.
  • Need to change the production model and let institutions dissolve.
  • Does art matter to people with real needs?
  • Art is a loaded word.
  • About changing the narrative, naming and illuminating.
  • Create the space where people can breathe.
  • Building networks that are ground up.
  • Social capital from social engagement prompts invitations from institutions, who look to cash in.

Public Art and Publics

Conversations with Joshua Sofaer and Mary McCarthy

  • Is the word public a trap?
  • Is public art context dependent?
  • Is public art becoming too instrumental and institutionalised?
  • Where does permission come from?
  • Permission is afforded through naming art!
  • Who is the expert?
  • Where does legitimacy come from?
  • Too many unrealistic expectations around social capital and regeneration.
  • Should be okay to fail - but it’s not!
  • Too much fear from commissioners.
  • Should always be brave without being dictatorial.
  • Does the public have ownership, if they did would everything be magnolia?

Exploring Professional Development

Conversation with In-Situ and Chrissie Tiller

  • How engaged practice is still taught in universities is out-dated.
  • What are those alternative models that support artists to make work?
  • Artists should share their inspiration.
  • Language is out of date.
  • Is the label of artist still right?
  • Need to be more cross-disciplinary.
  • What does a sustainable career look like?

I will give the final word to Anthony Schrag, who has been to many such discussions.

“I’m still not sure we all have the same intentions when ‘working with people’...politics, arts, social work, social justice, criticality, institutionalised critique...or even whether ‘working with people’ is enough of a criteria to make a ‘field of practice’, but there is the desire to make it so, so that’s a start!”

Check out some photographs taken at the event on our Facebook page, watch a film we made at the event and follow the conversation at #WithForAbout.

Mark Smith Mark Smith

Executive Director of Axisweb

[email protected]

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