In an era of global fluctuations and migratory networks, the concept of community appears more prevalent than ever. Especially in public art, where “community” has been relegated to the bottom of the pile as a non-critical expression of amateur creativity, the revived interest in community from government policies to art world trends has been notably on the rise, particularly in linking public art to neighbourhood outreach, education and civic regeneration.
The first inklings of this article began last summer when I was midway through a six-month residency in the UK. I was writing and curating for an arts organization that has been parachuting international contemporary artists into the small town of Huntly to create work around social issues affecting their community. The organization had been working with the slogan “The town is the venue” and the project I proposed was to review the town on an ongoing basis as if it was a perpetual art exhibition, which meant I began reviewing my daily life experiences, from dog walks to pub chats, encounters with racism and exploitation, to explorations of identity through history and global economics. (1) What I ultimately took away from this residency was that the town was never consulted about being “the venue.” In fact, the town had never agreed to participate–but, in the spirit of being good neighbours, it has been accommodating. The arts organization believed it was hosting events for the town, but in reality, it was the town that was hosting the artists and their visitors. In this sense, community was founded on an ongoing negotiation of hosting along with participating.
The surge of community art programs in the UK can be traced back to the New Labour Party politics of conflating community outreach programs with arts funding. London-based researcher Sophie Hope has been actively questioning the implications of increasing public dependency on “a culture of commissioning art to effect social change.” (2) The heavy burden of community art embroils artists and researchers in an ethical quagmire in negotiating the needs of the commissioners with balancing the ecology of an existing community. Hope’s practice-based work resembles an archive of methods and critical reflections on how we negotiate the problems and limits of cultural democracy, including critiquing the status quo of unpaid internship labour and redefining artistic authorship. Her strategy, along with others like the South London Gallery, aim to critically address the complicated role that artists play in commissioned community engagement.
The politics of community art are redefining themselves, often through the filters of process-based collaboration, but there is no consensus, not even a palpable agreement, as to what actually constitutes community art. Ranging from urban farming to public interventions, the umbrella grouping of community art has spawned terms such as “social practice” and “socially engaged art,” which in the end, are non-definitions that have fuelled a backlash of resistance and internal critique within this growing field of production. Nobody wants to be called a “community artist,” but as social practice programs pop up from coast to coast, and funding continues to fuel community development programs, the understanding of “community” is going through its own rejuvenation process.
Feeling So Much Yet Doing So Little: 12 years of Instant Coffee
Earlier this year, Instant Coffee celebrated their 12-year anniversary with Feeling So Much Yet Doing So Little at the Western Front Gallery in Vancouver. Forming in the 9os, inspired by the collectivity and mass-media subversions led by then Toronto-based General Idea and fuelled by an underground culture of risk and transience, Instant Coffee first began hosting events for themselves and their peers. “When we first started,” says Jinhan Ko, one of the co-founders of IC, “anybody could throw a great party–once. We wanted to see if we could sustain this idea.”
The artist collective has never identified with community art, but they have always created work for their community, a community largely defined by their social and professional circles. One of their favourite slogans, “Instant Coffee loves everyone AND you,” is a response to the impossibility of cohesive social inclusion, and one of the most damning critiques of their work is that their events are nothing more than just hanging out with hipsters.
Gathering in their Downtown Eastside studio one evening with all four Vancouver members (Jinhan Ko, Jenifer Papararo, Kelly Lycan and Khan Lee), the social dynamics of Instant Coffee played out over the course of our conversation as four very different personalities emerged under a shared sense of finding value in working with others.
“Some of our practice is about [socially engaged art], but we are not a part of that. It pains us to say that we have never been in the centre of any art world,” quips Ko, who is perhaps the most visible member of Instant Coffee.
“There’s this assumption that working collectively is difficult,” says Papararo, who, along with Ko, was part of the original IC formation. “But working alone in a studio is difficult too.”
When asked about how they have been able to work collectively after all these years, Papararo replies, “We use to say with deprecation it is because we’re all so passive aggressive. As a response it has some truth and merit, and without denial we have all used it as a tactic, but I think we use that response to deflect the question because the question tends to lead us to focus on our individual personalities and not the drive and meaning behind what we do.”
Repetition and ephemerality have become the hallmarks of Instant Coffee, as their exhibitions from Los Angeles to Berlin have turned into marathons of art openings, where night after night audiences are subjected to talks and performances and opportunities to socialize. The audiences that attended their events in Vancouver were largely from an art background, but when IC hosted another public art collective, Other Sights, to discuss the rezoning of the Mount Pleasant neighbourhood, the impetus of their actions became more than just a tagline: Instant Coffee really did mimic the real thing without the pretense of being better. This evening sticks out in my mind in a blur of social happenstances as the main exhibition room of Western Front was packed from floor to ceiling. The atmosphere resembled a town hall meeting and not an art lecture, with dissenting voices volleying back and forth, presenting different backgrounds and perspectives. The event was hosted by Other Sights who in turn were hosted by Instant Coffee, who were themselves invited by the Western Front to occupy their exhibition space. The evening became an actualization of several different communities pulled together under the guise of one commonunity, and their success was the setting itself. Being purveyors of social architecture, a design concept that is consciously expressed through spaces that encourage social behaviour, Instant Coffee’s best attributes are the re-imagination of social settings to encourage new scenarios in existing spaces.
For Feeling So Much Yet Doing So Little, stadium-style wooden seating provided the stage and scene for a series of events. Creating a temporary venue for public space in a city obsessed with private space, Instant Coffee provided a glimpse, if not a taste, of what the arts community was missing, which in the end, may just be a regular gathering place for artists to meet.
I attended almost all of the events over the course of the seven-week run. Lee asked me what I thought the difference was between an event hosted by Instant Coffee and Fuse, the opening-night parties at the Vancouver Art Gallery. My response was that I had never been to the latter. That is the difference. I have no motivation to pay to mill around with the arts community, but I am interested in being hosted. Lycan agrees that IC’s work is an ongoing act of hosting. She says, Its a huge offering, when you consider we’re all working full-time and still putting on events three or four nights a week, it’s exhausting. We all got sick [during] the run of the show. That’s part of why we work in a collective, because we can trust in sharing the commitment and energy it requires to do what we do.”
Common-unity and Uncommon-unity
Whether it’s their light bar or the theatre at Western Front, Instant Coffee are working in a state of perpetual research. They have formalized qualities and gamble on working site-specifically, but as they readily admit, social architecture requires a certain degree of commitment from a largely unwilling community. The same observation about an unwilling community has been expressed by UK-based Anthony Schrag. I met Schrag while working in Scotland and again when he completed a three-month community engagement project with the Vancouver Parks Board. In Huntly, a town with a population of 4,000 and a wariness for strangers, he had fewer problems getting people to engage in his events compared to the resistant attitudes he faced for his residency at Trout Lake Park’s Community Centre.
He says, “Most experiences I have had in North America, generally, reveal a prejudice that ‘art is for artists: As a way of example, when I arrived to start this project [in Vancouver] I was speaking to community members who kept saying ‘Oh, that’s very interesting, I will let my friend who is an artist know about this project: If you explain the project isn’t only for artists, then the assumption is that your project is a workshop for children.”
Beginning this fall, Schrag will begin his PhD at Newcastle University, exploring the role of conflict in socially engaged practices, specifically relating to cultural policy. His research will examine the fundamental policy structures that belie socially engaged art within the public sphere and, like Hope, critically examine the role of artists in affecting change while being submerged within a system of box-checking and meeting funding requirements.
“I think in North America, people need to know an endpoint–they need to know the final product before they engage, whereas, in other parts of the world, people are generally more comfortable in taking part and being part of a larger process without having to know the endpoint,” shares Schrag, who holds both Canadian and UK citizenship. “My most successful community engagement project was in Pakistan where I worked with over I,000 people over three days. I simply created a project that people could take part in if they wanted to, and people dived in, but that was coming from a culture that is used to needing to work together due to issues of poverty and political strife. It seems the more wealth and power there is within a community, the less they want to engage.”
While determining success in a community art project is as convoluted as defining the practice itself, the lack of an endpoint in community art demands a different model for evaluating and engaging work that has been built by multiple authors during an intensive process-based timeframe. Success can no longer be evaluated on the quantity of participation or on the reach of its concept and documentation, but on how effective a project has been for all parties involved. The community is not those left behind after an intervening change, but the community that is formed based on that change.
I recognize that the term “community” is tired and marred, inciting cringes and nostalgia, and lacking any significance on its own. This point was brought up to me by Eric Moschopedis, whom I first knew as artistic director of The Bubonic Tourist, one of Calgary’s most respected and experimental theatre companies. Moschopedis has since completed an interdisciplinary MFA at the University of British Columbia on the creative everyday.
From his home in Calgary where he teaches at the university in the drama department, Moschopedis shares, “There’s been a political shift in understanding community, which is exclusive to our sense of inclusiveness. It’s become common-unity; but we in fact want uncommon-unity. Our communities are structured in ideological bubbles rather than geographical locations. That’s what’s dangerous: we are setting up spaces for dissenting voices or disparaging opinions, structuring them into allocated spaces. We need social relationships and antagonism, because without genuine discourse and debate, we don’t have democracy.”
One of the most productive dialogues to emerge from the field of community art is the notion of antagonism in social dynamics. As a hot topic, through the scholarly work of Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau, Rosalyn Deutsche and Claire Bishop, encouraging antagonism within communities has become a significant practice in triggering necessary, albeit uncomfortable, conversations about social dynamics through art. The impetus to antagonize shares its pulse with challenging the hegemony of power structures, including those operating within the contemporary art world.
On the importance of retaining an ethos of politics in community art, Moschopedis says, “If you’re creating this kind of work without a sense of politics, then you are at risk of maintaining a status quo or cultural hegemony. Social practice should create context for critique. As artists we haven’t done enough for our audience, it’s our responsibility to share with people, not that we have to dumb down our work, but we have to be willing to talk about it and engage with it. Audiences [for] art shows are almost exclusively other artists. We need to get outside of the framework of the gallery and theatre spaces.”
For cultural producers like Moschopedis, the Dadaists have already asked not what is art, but when is art, and this sentiment fits perfectly with how we can critically engage with community art. There is a wave of community artists that operate as pop-up activities or self-identified artists, and the question should not be if they are making art, but within what circumstances does their labour become art?
As we turn towards the surges of uprisings across North America with Occupy Wall Street (ows) and, happening as I write this, the Montreal student protests, there is once again a vivid encounter between art and politics in the everyday. Increasingly visible is the slew of artists and activists who sit uncomfortably around these seemingly arbitrary lines of art and action, a category that traces back to ACT UP during the AIDS Crisis and throughout the Civil Rights movement and feminism. Artists have always been part of political movements, but the divide between artistic practice and political life is merging once again.
Creative Time’s Nato Thompson’s recent article in Art Papers points out, “It seems absurd to say that artists are a central component of ows. Not that this is inaccurate: an unusually high number of self-identified artists are involved in the movement. But while ‘artist’ might have been used to designate a specific career or person in the early and mid-twentieth century, at this point, it is a catch-all for a generation brought up under vast cultural production. And cultural production isn’t a job. It is a way of existing within space and culture. Identification with this ‘artist’ demographic–people interested in manipulating the cultural symbols around them, aware and participating in the production of representation–is simply part for the course. Art, it would seem, is a central language of this movement.”
There is a correlation that runs through all of this–from the role of manipulating cultural production and symbols in revolutionary movements to the rise of social consciousness in art world practices. The difference lies not in self-identified versus professional artists, but the difference that exists in the point of crisis. In other words, their defining moment lies not in the what and the whom, but in the when of their actions. Community art cannot be prescribed from the outside, but must be self-determined between the collaborators. After all, “community” is a loaded term where ideology competes with the limits of geography and must be self-realizing if it is going to persevere.
Antagonism and Being
Darren O’Donnell, a facilitator for Instant Coffee and now artistic director of Mammalian Diving Reflex, has been increasingly working from a point of anarchy, specifically by empowering children with antagonistic scenarios. With projects such as Haircuts by Children and Eat the Street, the premise of O’Donnell’s projects is based on a utopian prospect for the youth of our society–what the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child has called “a new social contract” wherein children are invited to be present as children.
O’Donnell writes, “I think that social difference is one of the key ingredients in maintaining a strong social practice. You can’t just have a bunch of artists hanging around feeling cool; or even hanging around discussing critical theory. You have to engage with difference and accommodate different desires. [Thomas] Hirschhorn is strong on this. His monumental events manage crazy participation that is appealing to little kids, Surinamese immigrants living in Holland, and the most famous and current European philosophers.”
In a new West Coast Mammalian group involving school children in Surrey, British Columbia, youth are encouraged to participate in art events once a month as both a group outing and a subtle intervention by an unlikely audience. Familiarizing the kids with art events and vice-versa, O’Donnell is attempting to move beyond discrete categories of social engagement, community art and public outreach.
“Participation is something that people have come to expect from mediated events and situations,” continues O’Donnell. “I don’t think that’s going anywhere and there’s no going back; artists may also sit in their studios and paint paintings, but dynamic immersive experiential work that collides people together is likely to remain an important part of an artist’s repertoire.”
Participation, institutional critique and other meta-art movements over the last 20 years have been viewed as passing trends and memes, but theory does not meet praxis when we simply look at the amount of action-led gestures happening today. Much of the community art currently being produced has come as a response to speculative cultural production and cultural consumption. Community-driven projects are intervening in the face of deregulation, but as this medium of practice grows so must a critical dialogue that understands community art for what and when it is rather than lambasting this form for what it is not–namely, a consumptive end product.
Returning to Instant Coffee’s garish aesthetic and snappy rhetoric, their increasingly non-trademark neon pink and acid orange colour schemes are some of their most dynamic gestures. For their latest public art project in an alleyway off Fraser Street in Vancouver’s South Hill district, Nothing Happens in Good Weather (2011-13), they turned an underused blank alleyway into a visually charged arena for neighbourhood residents to sit and gather. Sharp zigzags of neon pink and black pronounce themselves as you wander into an otherwise nondescript zone. The space is transformed into a path and a setting, with fluorescent painted stumps offered as makeshift seating. Suddenly, the liminal space of urine-soaked alleyways is suggested as a public space for congregation.
Musing on past public art projects, Papararo recalls, “For the Olympics, we were trying to figure out what downtown Vancouver needed, and we ended up with the Light Bar because of the city’s tight restrictions on liquor licensing. We just had no idea how badly people needed it.”
Since the Light Bar, a temporary makeshift bar hosted and frequented largely by visual artists, a number of artist-led speakeasies have appeared throughout Vancouver’s arts community. IC can only speculate on whether they were the instigators of this trend, since no consensus is reached.
“We are looking for meaning rather than offering meaning,” says Lee. “We are looking at the problems here and asking questions. If you don’t offer meaning it’s an easy point to attack, but we like responding to problems–and there are a lot of problems here.”
Arguments continue to break out and prosciutto and pears are served. Throughout the course of our interview, we leap from discussions on foreign investment to the influence of Donald Kuspit. In the end, Instant Coffee has the last word: “Socially engaged art or relational aesthetics–or whatever you want to call it–it’s such a small percentage of people who actually do [it]. What we’re doing is more like a way of being.”