Ruth Barker

Back Over The Horizon

2007

 

Paper given at the Common Work conference at Tramway, Glasgow, discussing the Commissioned work Placed Upon The Horizon. 

 

Placed Upon the Horizon is unusual – though not unique - because it is a published book that was commissioned as a permanent public artwork. Placed Upon the Horizon is a collection of the edited transcripts of 28 interviews that Niall Macdonald and I undertook with a series of professionals, all of whom were involved in the field of public art in some way. I’ll speak later about how those individuals were chosen, but to give you some kind of overview for now, they ranged from artists to project managers, from educators to students, from consultants to curators. In the artist’s camp, we chose people who were working on projects across the spectrum, from non-object based contemporary practices, to more traditional sculptural pieces, to those who discussed political activism or effectiveness as a way to talk about their work.

Each interviewee was asked to talk about both their role and their perception of the field, and each interview was then presented on an equal platform, with no one testimony given priority over another. This was quite an important way of structuring the relationships between the texts – that they were ordered alphabetically rather than grouped in terms of experience or position. Many of the transcripts contradicted each other and the validity of that difference was something we wanted to preserve, though one text might come from an undergraduate student, and another from an internationally known thinker.

As an artwork Placed Upon the Horizon exists as an example of contemporary non-object based public practice. However, it can also function as a way to talk about the field itself in a broader sense, by reflecting on the kinds of ideas that the interviewees raised, and so I’m going to start by describing the work itself and then in the last ten minutes I’ll focus more on some of those ideas.

 

 

 

Placed Upon the Horizon was a commission from South Lanarkshire Council, and specifically it came from Keith Donnelly, the Arts Development Officer there who’s based out at East Kilbride.

 Niall and I were originally asked to develop a permanent text-based sculptural work for a park in the Rutherglen area, but because we had been invited ‘cold’ if you like, we actually wanted to set ourselves quite an explicit entry structure so that our intentions – and obligations – would remain very clear to all parties concerned. We made use of a version of the Artist Placement Group ‘3 stage’ model, beginning with a research period concluding with a proposal for a permanent work that the council were under no obligation to commission.

We felt quite strongly that the context was key, and not just the physical context, but also the fine-art context, and the critical context. Through the initial research period we decided that we had to propose a work that contributed to current ideas about public practice and that actually spoke about the real potential of public work to be at the avant-garde; to be challenging, to be unexpected, and to progress the field.

This sense was very much influenced by the time we spent on site. After speaking to the people who used the park on a regular basis we felt that it was inappropriate to pursue the council’s initial brief of a permanent text-based sculptural work. This option just wasn’t wanted by the public. The park was well used and people felt a very positive sense of ownership over it - we didn’t feel there was anything we could add to the space through making this kind of work, and neither did we feel that it was anything we could benefit our own practices through doing.

We felt that actually public art had moved on. Contemporary public practice is no longer limited to sculptures in public gardens, and the commissioners needed to look a bit further than that. The people who wanted an artwork, we felt, were the Council, so we decided to invert the situation and make a new permanent work with South Lanarkshire Council as a primary audience; as a secondary audience we would address the public art community, including the artists who are engaged with the field. In some ways there is a tension here – to address an art-audience through a public work, but sometimes tensions are worthwhile things to engender. After all, a great many very honourable public works are re-contextualised for an art audience anyway – as in some ways they have to be to maintain an artists’ professional career and position within a critical art-context. To do so explicitly and to be aware of that tension was a decision we made very consciously.

On the other side of that balance, to embed the Council’s presence within the work we had Placed Upon the Horizon both printed and published by South Lanarkshire Council themselves. When the work was finished, half the books were kept by Niall and myself and half were left with Keith Donnelly to distribute throughout the council channels as civic literature. Everyone who contributed received a copy, and more have been given to libraries and institutions. They are also now on sale in an independent art-bookshop in Glasgow, and so they continue to have a life.

The selection of interviewees was a process of curation in a way. We wanted to represent a cross section of experiences and yet we wanted to have something of a web of connection, and so often we allowed one interviewee to suggest others. Taking care not to get people who might be too similar, we constructed a map of relationships within the field – one notable limitation being that because money was unfortunately tight, all interviewees were based in Glasgow or Edinburgh.

Each interview was recorded on mini-disc and initially transcribed word for word. The text was then edited to take it from spoken English to written English. This process of translation became an integral part of the ‘craft’ of the work, as a great many decisions had to be taken about the methodology and implications of preserving or representing the individual voices of the interviewees. How colloquial should the texts be? What is more important – accuracy to the event or clarity to the reader? That turn of phrase is so beautiful, but so off-topic: should we keep it in? How about that anecdote: it’s hilarious but libelous, do we have to take it out?

In the end, the transcripts are almost like painted portraits in that they exist within a third space between ourselves as the artists and the interviewee as the sitter. They record an interaction, a moment of conversation, and that moment is as complex as it is fleeting.

I want to read you an extract from the prologue:

 

“A point of ineffable metamorphosis occurs at the transition between the spoken and the written. Translation becomes a negative space of quandary as language somehow jettisons fluidity, subjectivity, and inflection, and receives instead truth, permanence, and authorship. Once language has been curtailed into the written word it is more durable, but perhaps more culpable.”

 

The moment of conversation as art, and as a specifically public gesture, of course has a long history. In many ways the importance of conversational interview is quite a classical idea if we think of the Dialectic as a method and Socrates’ conviction that:

 

“…the discovery of philosophical truths could best be achieved by the interplay of opinions in co-operative enquiry by question and answer. Plato used the term ‘dialectic’ to mean the philosophical method in general,”

 

- which just reinforces this idea that conversation is a key tool in the generation of new knowledge. In art, ‘conversation’ as a methodology has been used by everyone from Joseph Bueys to Suzanne Lacy, but Placed Upon the Horizon uses a slightly more specific framework in that it uses the structure of the interview.

If the structure of a conversation is all about balance, then the structure of an interview is all about gesture. A good interviewer should be all but invisible as they allow the subject to reveal themselves but not to feel manipulated. It’s the moment of the artist making things visible, and then standing back from that process.

In conducting an interview, the artist takes the part of active listener and that in itself is quite a powerful gesture. For many people, especially those who are just starting out in their careers or who think of themselves as being the more invisible links in a chain, the act of speaking to an attentive listener can be quite significant. Part of that comes of course from the tools you bring with you as an interviewer in order to keep people talking. Keeping eye contact, nodding, smiling, and mirroring body language are all strategies, but there is also a very honest and very genuine engagement that occurs at the same time.

The shift in your own perception as you focus on another individual’s perspective is an act in a way of artistic dislocation: It’s a willing subsumption - becoming subsumed by the process of another’s chain of thought. It’s that sense that you have to hold onto if the edited transcript is to have the authenticity of the original interaction.

 After the interviews were transcribed and edited, we sent proof copies back to each interviewee to check before going to print. We knew there would be some amendments, but we were unprepared for the quantity of qualitative changes that were requested. Although every person we spoke to was aware that their interview was being recorded for inclusion in a book it seemed incredible how swiftly they let their guard down and spoke about things that in some cases could have cost them their positions, and which we had dutifully transcribed and were now re-presenting them with. This placed us in a difficult position.

 

Firstly, we felt we had an ethical responsibility not to act in a way that would cause negative repercussions to people who had been so generous with their time and their support by contributing to this work. 

Secondly, we felt we had to maintain our integrity as artists by honestly representing the conversations we had had with people.

Thirdly, we wanted to produce a rich and rewarding artwork that would be interesting to read and the censored parts were often the richest and most rewarding.

Finally, and I want to use this to move into the second half of this talk, we were very concerned that this self-censorship – done for the most necessary if frustrating of reasons – skewed the picture we were trying to present of the field.

 

The people we had spoken to had talked not just about their successes, but they had also been just as candid about their frustrations, their failures, and their fears. Now, many of them wanted to present an entirely positive picture of their experiences. The original transcripts had portrayed a dynamic field of enquiry that was also laced with sophisticated tensions. This portrayal, which we felt was fairly accurate, was now jeopardised. Worse, the censored work might actually reinforce some of the misapprehensions that initially it might have challenged.

How could we resolve this? In the event, though we did respect people’s wishes, we also returned to those individuals who’d asked us to remove particularly significant aspects of their transcripts to talk about why we felt it was important to leave them in. In most cases a compromise was reached where names or identifying details were removed, or where criticism was made in a more abstract or general way. It’s a difficult area to talk about. Clearly we didn’t want to put interviewees in a difficult position, but likewise if you deny that there are any difficulties with a situation when there actually are, then you negate the possibility of addressing those difficulties in order to improve your lot. It’s important, when we talk about Placed Upon the Horizon as a series of testimonies, to recall that those testimonies are not always entirely unadulterated.

Who are these testimonies from, then? The fact that many people within the field have several different roles makes it complicated to break down our 28 interviewees into different groups. However, taking the role for which we chose to speak to people, we have the following:

 

Artists:                                    13

Curators:                                 4

Educators:                               3

Project Managers:                  3

Researchers/thinkers:           2

Funders:                                   1

Strategic Planners:                 1

Consultants:                            1

 

Interestingly, of the 15 individuals who were not interviewed primarily because they are artists, 40% nevertheless described themselves as artists in addition to their other role. Artists are over represented here on purpose – in order to suggest something of the variety of practices, and also that the artist remains the essential figure in the field of public art. None of the other roles would, after all, exist without artists being there as a fundamental figure.

 

Breakdown Of Artists Interviewed

 

Sculpture based:                                        4      30.7 %

New media based:                                     2      15.3 %

Performance / personal interaction:        2      15.3 %

Approach varies with context:                    4      30.7 %

Facilitation based:                                       1       7.6 %

 

 

Work on self directed projects:                  5      38.5 %

Work on commissioned projects:            8      61.5 %

 

 

Work on projects they fund themselves:              4      30.7 %

Work on projects that someone else funds:       9      69.3 %

 

 

Students:                                                        2      15.3 %

Professionals:                                              11     84.6 %

 

 

Work on gallery and public projects:        8      61.5 %

Work on public projects only:                     5      38.5 %

 

 

Currently work mostly on permanent works:       5      38.5 %

Currently work mostly on temporary works:         8      61.5 %

 

 

Explicitly socially engaged work:                5      38.5 %

Not explicitly socially engaged:                   8      61.5 %

 

 

 

As you’d expect from the variety of people we spoke to, the testimonies do not always agree. To give you a typical example, in one transcript we read a project manager explaining that their role is to resolve the brief and contract and framework of a commissioned work before the artist is appointed, so a clear structure is there to support them, so they know how much they’re getting paid, so that everybody’s responsibilities are clear and no-body gets screwed. That makes sense, but then in another interview, we hear that apparently it’s fundamental to get the artist on board before a brief is drawn up, before a contract is written. This person explains that the artist has to be involved all the way through the process so that they can have the maximum influence, and so that the work can actually be really integrated in the whole context. How do you reconcile those two very insightful views? Should you try? Perhaps they are actually describing two different kinds of practice? Does one undermine the other? What becomes important is not to propose a woolly consolidation of opinion where – oh how nice – we all get along and everybody’s view is important. I’m certainly not saying that everybody is right. Perhaps what I am saying is that these views perhaps ought to be fought over to the death, but that this has to be battled as we understand that art practice is about variety and that there will never be single model of behaviour. If there were such a model, I as an artist would want to contravene it. In some ways I would feel obliged to. Perhaps effort has to be put into mapping what does happen and conceding that there are reasons for that, rather than emphasising what ought to happen.

 

The points at which people diverge are often the points on which they feel most strongly because they have perhaps had to defend their position in the past to those who think differently. They are also the points people feel deeply passionate about because they’re at the crux of what defines public art and the discourse that surrounds it. Often the dissonance is caused in part by language because often what it reflects is that in the field of public art we have a multiplicity of specialists using a multiplicity of specialist terms, sometimes at cross purposes.

As artists try to talk to architects, try to talk to consultants try to talk to manufacturers, a need for a redefinition of terms as well as ideas through critical investigation was something raised over and over again by interviewees, sometimes in surprising quarters. How can we develop a really incisive or progressive discourse of public art without the tools to articulate ourselves? There was a sense that until very recently public art was the poor cousin of gallery practice when it came to theory. We got their hand-me-downs that didn’t quite fit properly. The difficulty of course is that everyone thinks their own terms are the best.

Often this question of definition is related to a kind of uncertainty about people’s roles. Roles were raised often as an idea, and in many cases directly related to that idea of language: how can people define (and defend) their own role while reflecting the shifts in thinking and practice that have to occur all the time, as the idea of art shifts and evolves? Should they try to retain a specific role, or should everyone be embracing a multiplicity of positions?

Clearly, the question of what is public, and what is private is obviously a very charged one. Tramway, for example, is a public building. Does that make the work that gets shown in here ‘public’? What about a privately commissioned sculpture that is sited in a public square? Or a publicly-funded sculpture in a private space like a shopping centre, a community garden? These are some of the legitimate issues that people were wrestling with when we spoke to them, as well as the questions of responsibility that they perhaps pertain to: does a work have more (or different) responsibilities the more public it becomes?

That’s obviously a really central issue, but it’s also a reflection of how public art practice is influenced by shifts in other fields, such as cultural theory or sociology. As these discourses re-position the idea of ‘community’ – moving from a ‘modern’ notion of homogenised groups to a post-modern conception of interconnected moments within the diaspora the ‘public’ in public art has also had to be re-imagined. Has that happened to a great enough degree? Again I think it depends on who you talk to because of the complexity of networks within the field of public art practice.

People were very vocal about definitions of the field itself: do we talk about art in the public realm; public art, socially engaged practice, new genre public art, dialectical aesthetics, or  relational aesthetics?

Everyone puts a case for their own, but one person we spoke to – Gerry Grams the city design advisor for Glasgow - actually echoed my own feeling that this unease about any single definition is actually a good thing. Unease and discomfort it promotes the kinds of discussions we’ve had at this conference where we start to pull some of those questions apart and really ask them what they mean. Sometimes its good to be uncomfortable. Sometimes its good to feel those abrasions when things rub each other up the same way because perhaps it would be more dangerous if we actually concurred. I feel like I should make some kind of analogy about irritation and grit and pearls, but I won’t baby-sit you. You can make that up yourselves.

 

 

Art, after all is about the things that are not always easily categorised, and public practice is one of those things. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about it though, just that we shouldn’t expect to agree. The voices in Placed upon the Horizon are often discordant. They contradict. They have individual priorities, bias, and blinkers. As a choir however, what they shout about is at least partly a cacophonous statement about the importance of listening to people no matter what they have to say. And of my own pleasure as an artist in allowing these by turns philosophical, personal, or professional testimonies to be read and to contribute to the discourse of public art today when we’re still at the beginning of the 21st Century.

What we take from the work is maybe something else. Maybe we should take it as an incitement to ask questions of one another, but to listen to the answers that we give and not always to assume that they’re right. Does this mean we need a new model of practice to follow in these changing times? Only if we realise that to define it might be to render it obsolete.