Art, Education, Activism

Article 1 May 2003 jane

Presented at "Artist as Educator", Ikon Gallery and University of Central England, May 2003 as part of Arts Council England's "Interrupt" Symposia. Republished: a-n Collections April 2007.

“The process of social change is in desperate need of creativity and imagination, and the aesthetic process in urgent need of social engagement” (from Course Document for the MA in Interdisciplinary Art and Social Change, University of San Francisco, USA, 1993)

I want to introduce you to Platform, ‘social engagement’ and ‘education’ via three themes, three fundamental questions that we in Platform ask ourselves that I think pertain to this discussion, rather than try to illustrate our practice and extract themes from those illustrations. I feel that the field has evolved to the extent that we should get beyond illustration and description: we know enough about the various practices that can be described as ‘socially engaged’ art, but to what degree are we ‘socially engaged artists’ working to sophisticate and complicate our understanding of what this art is, what our politics are, and what our motivations are for doing this kind of work in the first place? From a desire to work from the issues outwards, I won’t be showing any images of our work today. A quick note on terminology: it is interesting that the term we are being asked to work with is ‘socially engaged’ – to my mind this in theory encompasses almost every artistic practice known to humanity. After all, no practice is devoid of some sort of social context. If we are talking about social change, or even social justice, can we not be more explicit in our terminology? This is a big issue which needs to be addressed, but for now let’s move on.

Platform is at an interesting moment: we have been working now for twenty years. We are a collaborative, consensus-based organisation, a charity and a company limited by guarantee. We work interdisciplinarily within and beyond the arts. We currently work between two and three days per week, sometimes more for certain projects, and currently do all our own administration. The three current core directors – myself, Dan Gretton and James Marriott – are not all artists, yet we consider – in the Beuysian tradition that our work is essentially an artistic practice, “social sculpture” as Beuys puts it. In coming up to our twentieth anniversary, we have been involved in a lot of reflection, and last summer together with our two ongoing collaborators artist-campaigner Emma Sangster and corporate researcher Greg Muttitt we rewrote our statement of aims as follows:

‘ Platform – promoting creative processes of democratic engagement towards social and ecological justice’.

Our agenda is clearly orientated towards that political goal, and the ‘creative processes of democratic engagement’ are for us the essential and imaginative means to that end. In our work, the question of whether what we are doing is ‘art’ or ‘education’ or ‘activism’ is very blurred, and we think that is entirely natural. I’ll return to this point later.

Let me outline the three questions I’d like us to address today: Firstly, who ARE we and why are we doing this work?
Secondly, who sets the agenda?
and finally, ‘art’ , or ‘education’?

1. Why do we believe it is important for ‘socially engaged artists’ to be able to articulate – at least for ourselves – who we are – politically, artistically, economically, materially? 

Let me tell you a story:

A while back, in 1998, producers Artangel (whose work I’m sure many of you are familiar with) commissioned Brazilian theatre-social activist Augusto Boal to facilitate a piece of Forum Theatre The Art of Legislation that would provide some serious civic engagement with the fact that for the first time in fourteen years, London was going to have a breed of representative government in the form of the proposed London Assembly. They had booked the main debating hall of the old Greater London Council building for the event, and the idea was to bring together a truly representative group of Londoners, including politicians, to ascertain, through Forum Theatre techniques, what the concerns of this imminent Assembly should be. Artangel held a preliminary event at the Conway Hall, Red Lion Square, where a most astounding range of people came together to hear Boal present his work and how he felt it could work in London with this project. So far so good – it was a great idea, and they had successfully managed to reach a very impressive range of people across race and class, and from many different sectors.

At the end of Boal’s gripping presentation at Conway Hall, it was time for questions and answers. In the packed audience, many were straining to get attention. After a number of questions, Michael Morris of Artangel nominated a woman near the front, a black woman who it became clear – was a little wound up. She asked Morris “Who are you?” Morris replied, “As I said in my introduction, I’m Michael Morris, co-director of Artangel, and I am…” She interrupted “NO, I asked who ARE you?” The hall became absolutely silent. Morris repeated patiently “I’m Michael Morris…” “You don’t get it” she said, “I’m asking who you ARE, what are you doing here, what’s this about?” The subsequent exchange was difficult, and hinged around the fact that the woman, subsequently agreed with by some others, felt totally uncertain as to the agenda of this project, the real politics of it, of its conception, of its implementation, of its long-term real goals, indeed the intrinsic socio-political aims of Artangel itself. There was for some, deep suspicion of it being ‘art’, and how it was that Artangel had the power to put on this project. In other words, her question “Who ARE you?” was a call for the initiator of the project to identify himself and his organisation politically, and this, it was felt, had not been done, which rendered the project initially suspect to a number of people. To his great credit Morris engaged at some length with the woman and others after the close of the event, but it was, maybe, a little late for some.

I’m sure we all have stories like that one, where we have been naive that others would accept our ‘good’ intentions without question. This can happen especially when collaborating outside the arts. Furthermore, I would argue that even when we are working with groups who don’t verbally challenge us on our politics (children for example), it does not mean we should take advantage of that situation. In fact, ethically it becomes more important to be transparent to ourselves with such groups: we always need to know who we are. Whatever ‘socially engaged’ means, it cannot possibly avoid questions of politics – personal or institutional, yet yesterday a whole day went by without the ‘p’-word being mentioned.

I believe – Platform believes – this question is a call to all of us involved with ‘social practice art’. Barbara [Steveni] yesterday quoted Tony Benn’s five questions to those in power. Radical educationalist Henry Giroux puts it succinctly thus:

“Who speaks, under what conditions, and for whom?”

He continues later:

“Educators need a language that makes them sensitive to the politics of their own location… self-conscious of the historically contingent nature of their own theories, methods, and modes of enquiry. As educators, we need to recognise the partiality of our own views in order to render them more suspect and open-ended.”1

I said earlier that Platform is happy that ‘art’ and ‘education’ are so close – let’s try that quote again substituting art for education, artists for educators…

“Artists need a language that makes them sensitive to the politics of their own location… self-conscious of the historically contingent nature of their own theories, methods, and modes of enquiry. As artists, we need to recognise the partiality of our own views in order to render them more suspect and open-ended.”

We need to know who we are if we are to operate ethically and clearly as artists with or within a social agenda. The materials we use, the locations we work in, the participants we engage with… it boils down to the inescapable fact that we are in some way shaping the participants’ experience, framing their enquiry, that we are therefore ‘in power’. Who we ARE is therefore a vital question, a question if truly answered keeps us humble and at the same time non-delusional about power, how we got it, who gave it to us, and whether we are using it mindfully, transparently…

So, let’s begin with me – who am I?
I’m essentially an educationalist in art and design. I studied music and art history at university, and subsequently did a PGCE, and later an MA in art and design education. For my MA dissertation I focused on examining theories and practices from pedagogues who are primarily concerned with social justice and liberatory praxis. There were so few people writing about such practices from inside visual art that I began to look beyond, to people such as the Brazilian literacy educator Paulo Freire, US black feminist, writer and educator bell hooks, US cultural theorist Henry Giroux, as well as the radical Austrian thinker Ivan Illich.

And Platform? Platform is a deliberately small organisation, a meeting point of left, green, feminist, peace, collectivist and queer politics. We are also – the three core directors, two of whom are founders and one (me) a director since 1991 –three white, middle-class, university-educated, people. We are from the ‘dominant class’, even if we – as Pierre Bourdieu puts it – are from the “dominated fraction of the dominant class” (in other words we have rejected our contemporary dominant culture’s political values)2. Since 1996, we have in fact made this social strata a focus of our work, as I’ll describe later. Interestingly, given the ‘social inclusion’ remit of the current government, DCMS, ACE etc, the selection of people invited to participate in this event seem also to come – in the main – from the dominant class: white, university/college educated.

The dominant class is dominant because it has intrinsically a sense that it is backed up by those in power, which therefore leads to a sense of great choice and control. In this country that translates as having academic qualifications to back you up or fall back on, a sense of self-determination and initiative, verbal and social confidence (in white, middle-class-dominated situations at least), confidence about colour of skin in a white-dominated culture, supported by the fact that however precarious artists’ funding is from time to time, a sense that material safety nets exist somewhere… Whatever your background – whether you have rebelled against it, and realigned yourself or not – is crucial in shaping your value systems, communication, biases, hopes etc.

How can these deep factors not be significant when working in social contexts, in working with others? How sensitive are we to the politics of our own locations?

bell hooks, is usefully clear, speaking here in her role as educator : “…When I entered my first classroom…[I was] fearful that I might abuse power [and ] falsely pretend that no power difference existed between the students and myself. That was a mistake. Yet it was only as I began to interrogate my fear of ‘power’…that I began to understand that power in itself was not negative. It depended on what one did with it.“3

Again, let’s substitute in to this quote the language and contexts of ‘socially engaged’ arts practice:

“…When I did my first socially engaged project…[I was] fearful that I might abuse power [and ] falsely pretend that no power difference existed between the participants and myself. That was a mistake. Yet it was only as I began to interrogate my fear of ‘power’…that I began to understand that power in itself was not negative. It depended on what one did with it.”

Perhaps one can see how the politics of the artist as benign missionary, friend, trickster, engineer, researcher, educator or activist needs to be laid open, carefully, slowly. Who we are in these contexts is as much our own political assumptions as the political assumptions of those who have funded us to be there…and the political assumptions of those who we are working with.

So, what’s our agenda in working in a ‘socially engaged’ way, in our case towards social and ecological justice? Let’s each of us here ask ourselves that question: it surely becomes more important to address this in times where there is a boom in governmental belief in the socially transformative value of arts practice – and therefore a boom in funding available for artists and agencies to undertake such work. Surely it is a matter of urgency that artists and agencies become critically articulate about not only the politics of this development but also their participation in it. Most artists in our society need money, but a sudden interest in ‘socially engaged’ arts practice driven by funding can often be a short road to real disaster for all concerned – we can all tell stories of woefully poorly prepared and inadequately supported artists being completely overwhelmed by the social reality of their project. More alarmingly, we can all tell stories where the seemingly well-intentioned project resulted in a ‘disadvantaged community’ feeling more misunderstood, confused, abused and cynical than ever as a result. Beware the position of artist as canary: sent in to test how hostile the environment is…Beware the position of the artist as paperer-over-cracks…as Anya (Gallaccio) just said, ‘the community’ can often ask why the money hasn’t been spent on much needed litter bins… Beware the position of artist as visionary cure-all: ego-rampant in ‘socially engaged practice’ is not much different from ego-rampant in all other art practices…

What’s my motivation for working in this ‘socially engaged’ way, with Platform? Paulo Freire speaks about a “pedagogy of indignation”. He says:

“I have indignation because in my country, Brazil, there are 32,000,000 people in extreme poverty. I cannot sleep well if I do not say at least once a day that it is immoral. This is absolutely immoral. This is real pornography.”4

Art of Indignation, pedagogy of indignation: I feel it in my entire body that there is a grave connection between my country’s relative material wealth and other countries’ material poverty, and the same can be said for material privilege/disadvantage within this country, internal colonialism. I’m from a once-imperial nation which gained its wealth from global trade, for whom a public display of ego and power still remains rampantly seductive – witness ‘our’ recent invasion in Iraq. For me it’s far better to work on it than to keep up the effort of averting eyes, or engaging only periodically, both of which I did for many years.

On another front, it hailed earlier today for about ten minutes. It’s May! Maybe it will snow next week, followed by eye-scorching drought. We fossil-fuel hungry few are expelling obscene amounts of carbon into the atmosphere just for a quick trip to Paris or New York, or the supermarket, changing our weather and the weather of the planet, and its happening before our eyes. Platform gives me a space where I can address the issues that matter to me in a way I consider to have a strong ethical base, worked out and returned to again and again through consensus. Though we all have different sensibilities and sometimes different emphases within Platform, these feelings – of outrage, grief and a need to communicate, to push sustainably for change – fuel the work.

Platform started life in 1983 from two desires that became mutually fulfilled: student activists who felt fed up with the lack of imagination in the rather macho and rather formulaic protest politics at that time, and student actors and performers who felt that political theatre of the time was struggling, fractured, and largely speaking to the converted. The initial group that came together worked in the street on local issues – a form of agitprop in that long tradition. However, the group formed alliances with local campaigns – a far cry from a lot of student activism at that time which was focused on distant elsewheres such as Nicaragua or Grenada. Platform created a piece with and in support of striking hospital cleaners, among the very first in the welfare state to suffer from the tidal wave of privatisations. This piece was taken up by the TUC and did a tour. The model in the early years was one of forging alliances across class but towards the same political end – this was when ‘left-wing’ was still a current and everyday term.

Thirteen years later, in 1996, we started a long-term project called 90% Crude which works more or less exclusively with a community of our peers, but a group of peers who we believe to be both seriously disadvantaged as well as seemingly immensely more ‘powerful’ than ourselves. These are people largely like us, but who are (to reverse some of the implicit notions of ‘socially engaged art’) vastly wealthier than us: those who work in transnational corporate business. We are currently on our eighth, ninth and tenth projects within 90% Crude, a sustained investigation into the power and impacts of transnational corporate trade and business. The current sub-projects comprise a durational performance on genocidal aspects of corporate psychology to a small group of targeted participants from business, the arts, psychology, campaigning and education (killing us softly); a research, campaign and cultural intervention project on Shell and BP oil companies (Gog and Magog); and a series of experimental interventionist walks in the Square Mile – London’s financial district (Freedom in The City). One of us – James, the only one who went to art school – is at this moment in Azerbaijan with a group of local and international campaigners researching whether BP’s human rights and environmental behaviour along the route of a major pipeline they wish to build, is matching the claims made in public documents… (By the way, I’m not sure if the other campaigners know that James identifies himself as an artist – I know they think he has extremely interesting approaches… which relates to Barbara’s description of many of APG’s (Artists Placement Group) residencies)

Our work has clearly evolved in formal terms a lot since those early days of course, but the core aims remain the same: interdiscplinary creativity, ecology, democracy.

2. Who sets the agenda?

Who or what decides our aims, our artistic and ethical framework as ‘socially engaged’ artists? It can be temptingly easy to say it is simply between us, the participants and the commissioning agency. But we believe it is never as equal as that – money is crucial at creating limits to such frameworks.

Platform had, between 1983 and 1991, no concept that our work would be paid. We were working within the activist model, which meant that what fueled the work was desire and commitment to change. Of course, money was a factor: some people did other part-time work to support themselves, some had some private resources, some were on the dole, but what came first was the work itself, most always done on a shoestring. Even though our thinking has changed – we would like to promote our way of working as a lot more mainstream – and we have now achieved a situation where we are paid – part-time – to work together, the core commitment remains: an activist practice that operates from first principles.

Activists want to set agendas, change agendas. It’s also in our definition a practice that wants to be as responsible as possible for all outcomes good and bad, that we have only ourselves to blame for failures, difficulties etc. In other words, we want to understand the whole picture of any project, from funders’ agendas to our own, to the participants, to the biggest possible picture we can imagine. This means a lot of researching, investigating, talking…but – and this is crucial – for us this IS the work as much as the ‘project’ is. The project will fail or falter if the agendas are not understood as far as they possibly can be, and then checked regularly to see if priorities have changed.

Returning to money, we have been finding ourselves moving towards a way of operating with funders where we engage much more deeply with them and their agendas from the start, highlighting with them where opportunities lie that meet their needs as well as the needs of new artistic, environmentalist or social strategies and practices. As ‘socially engaged’ artists we feel we need to have a rounded vision of why all people and agencies are involved in the work – some of our greatest mistakes have been when we have merely assumed we understood agendas when we did not.

3. Art and/or Education?

To what extent is art – in and of itself – educational or indeed activist? We could argue that a painting is educational in its own terms as much as ‘socially engaged’ practice is. In Platform, much of our Production work, as illustrated by 90% Crude above could be called educational. However, we also call one third of our work ‘Pedagogy’, an explicit recognition of the fact that a sizable area of our work has a dedicated and visible educational remit, rather than the implicit ones contained within production. All our work aims to create spaces where others can come together to share ideas, experience, feelings and expertise, but only some of these happen within dedicated educational contexts – schools, universities, art colleges, voluntary sector and activist workshops etc.

A recent development takes our pedagogy work onto a new level: we have been asked by Birkbeck, London University to create a course on how art, politics, and social and ecological justice interface; how collaborative interdisciplinary practices can evolve. We have devised a 12 x 3 hour pilot course – ‘The Body Politic’ – which will commence in January 2004, aimed at artists, community and other activists, environmentalists, and other interested people who wish to study and explore this field.

We are not alone in trying to address how an artist might be educated for socially engaged practice dedicated explicitly to social change – there are, internationally, a growing number of major courses around this area. The University of San Francisco (quoted at the top of this article) Visual and Performing Arts department currently states:

“We believe that visual art and performance are powerful tools for human and social transformation we seek to prepare visual and performing artists to enter into central positions in society in order to create and form a new and more just community.” They run a BA programme specifically titled ‘Performing Arts and Social Justice’.5

California State University at Monterey Bay has a Visual and Public Art major which states “As we enter the 21st Century, the changing world challenges us to see ourselves in a diverse society where art is an expressive form more open to the needs of communities. Artists need to become flexible practitioners who can think, research, organise, and produce work that transforms people and places. The power of art lies in artists connecting themselves in reciprocal relationships with their public audiences in order to create a more humane life relevant to their time.”6

However, to date we have not found a course that offers an interdisciplinary approach to this – in other words, how artists and other concerned individuals can work together on such issues. In this course, we will be creating a space for a series of conversations and experiments where – among many other things – some of the basic tenets outlined in this presentation will be explored: who we all are and why we are interested in doing this kind of work, who sets the agenda, and what are the lines between art, education and activism.

We’d like to thank David Butler and Viv Reiss for asking Platform to participate in Interrupt and to formally contribute to the education session.

However, I should like to point out that one drawback for us is that the Interrupt budget only allows for one person from an organisation to participate at a time. This is not good for flat, consensus-based organisations, who want to represent the practice with at least two of people, if not more. Such practices are interdisciplinary and dialogic – to represent the practice by one voice alone does not show the dynamic and difference between us. So, a plea for everyone really: please can we all build budgets and select venues that allow for proper representation of consensus-based or joint practices…

1 Giroux, Henry, Living Dangerously, Multiculturalism and the Politics of Difference, Lang, 1993

2 quoted in Gretton, Tom, ‘Canon Fodder’, Engage, Issue 8, 2001

3 hooks, bell, Teaching to Transgress, Education as the Practice of Freedom, Routledge, 1995

4 Freire, Paulo, Freire at the Institute, Institute of Education, London University, 1997

Republished with kind permission of Platform and interrupt project organisers, David Butler and Vivienne Reiss


Jane Trowell


Focus Areas