C Words: Disgust, Integrity, Solidarity

Article 1 Apr 2010 jane

In The Live Art Almanac Vol. 2, March 2011.

Introduction, 24.8.10

The text below is from a blog written in February 2010. It reflects on reactions to PLATFORM’s 50-day live exhibition and season of over 70 events on art and activism at Arnolfini, Bristol, called “C Words: Carbon, Climate, Capital, Culture“. This took place in October and November 2009, in the context of the run-up to COP 15 talks on climate change in Copenhagen.

For 25 years, PLATFORM has worked between art, politics, activism and research, aiming to catalyse social change and to challenge power. In response to Arnolfini’s invitation to “do our work”, we decided to fill the galleries with our networks, through events, teach-ins, performances, and specifically to commission 7 artist-activist groups to make work for C Words. Just as PLATFORM has rarely sited its work inside gallery spaces, Arnolfini had rarely seen such an infestation of social processes within its walls, let alone comprising artist-activists and campaigners. The hubbub was big, the galleries were crowded, and the fit with “contemporary art” was often deeply uncomfortable and troubling.

For more critique, visit the blog for pieces from the gallery’s stewards, and “It was doomed from the start” from Gary Anderson of the Institute for the Art & Practice of Dissent at Home

Nearly three months have passed since C Words closed and I’ve been re-reading the blog entries, my and others’ copious notes and records, the heaps of rich and mostly positive feedback we’ve collected on paper, in emails, interviews on video, audio, and anecdotally.

This compensates for the tiny art-critical response: one interesting and thoughtful review by David Trigg in an (Artists Newsletter), a mention in Gavin Grindon’s great article in February’s Art Monthly, regular tracking and comment on the RSA’s Art & Ecology website (C Words is 9 out of 21 “Highlights of 2009″), quoted in a piece by Madeleine Bunting in The Guardian on the rise of art & climate change…

Then there was the rather Daily Mail-like piece in the Guardian “Artists use public money to fund Copenhagen summit protest”.

But the art world at large, it seems, did the three-monkey act with C Words: we won’t see it, hear it, or talk about it. We did get lots of hearsay transmitted to us mostly via Arnolfini’s Director, Tom, such as “X told me he liked our “piss-take” of a climate change exhibition”. Or, “some of the stewards are embarrassed by the work”. Or “But this is THEATRE!”, (said critically of the opening weekend’s events). One steward said to us, thoughtfully, “PLATFORM clearly doesn’t want to be reviewed in Art Monthly.” Much later in the run, a member of staff said to us about the art world, “If you’d been to Goldsmiths* and were referencing the right art theory, you’d be fine”. All very interesting, potentially, about power structures, the role and aims of art and activism, and certainly needs thinking through if PLATFORM wants to do more of this.

In the opening event for C Words “Who’s Recuperating Who, Pt1″, writer and academic Wallace Heim spoke with anticipation about what she hoped for in C Words. She said that the work would and should cause disgust. It should disturb and offend. It should make us recoil. If the work did not, then it would have failed in the context of activism and art. This was a bit hard to hear with my campaigner hat on – surely, given our aims, we are trying to lure and bring people in, not alienate? But, I believe Wallace was talking about a particular category of response, a response from a certain quarter, the quarter that believes it “knows better” about art, the quarter that believes it has the power to decide what art is.

She explained: “There is a situation in theatre that is analogous – loosely – to bringing an activism into the art gallery. This is when activism, direct action or especially environmentalism is represented onstage, when it’s acted out under the conventions of building-based theatre. However good the production, it can be difficult to watch. It can be embarrassing. The response to it can be almost physical – you want to turn away… the feeling that something is in the wrong place, it’s exposed, or doing the unseemly thing….
An aesthetic judgement is being made, which is visceral – emotional – and then intellectually justified…
But I think the feeling of something like disgust, if it happens, is significant, and almost to be welcomed. It’s an uncontrolled response that says some tacit rule or historical procedure is being unobserved. Differences haven’t been smoothed out, already negotiated or sidestepped….”

She then went on to speak about integrity and solidarity – that the season was a form of public movement-building, with its guts exposed. More on this another time…

Back to disgust. It was a funny old schizophrenic business, working daily in the galleries. The weekends were stuffed with events, encounters, and people. A real hubbub of excitement. Many diverse views, much exchange, a great deal of commitment. People who had deliberately come to the events mixing with people who had stumbled across them and had chosen to stay. Collisions of people from finance, art, direct action, research, education… We had dozens and dozens of conversations and rarely came across anything more negative than sceptical curiosity, or sometimes bafflement. It seems the disgust lay more with the specialists.

This comes into relief right now, partly because I’ve got to write the Arts Council report (specialists!), but more than that, PLATFORM needs to make sense of what we did and consider how – and in what direction – to move forward with work of this kind, and in relation to the art world and its norms. To present our practice in a gallery on this scale was a massive experiment, and one we undertook after months of discussion, and in the face of some serious misgivings from some colleagues. The Arts Council has project-funded us pretty loyally for over 18 years, recently making us a Regularly Funded Organisation. None of this support has been about working within the world of galleries. All of it has been because of our interdisciplinary work, made in places selected for their social, economic, geological, political possibilitiies, their potential to provoke real change. Sites which 99.9% of the time are other than “art”. There is a long and rich tradition of artists working in this way. Some of these artists work in relation to galleries and the art world, and many not.

Given that, our question was, what should we do with this bold invitation from a leading gallery, this huge opportunity? “Do your practice!” said the director of Arnolfini, who’d invited us. So, we did. We moved into the gallery for two months with groups and allies whose work we find important, political, and provoking. We did what we do, but in a public gallery, which is to enable conversations, skill-shares, trainings, performances, installations, poetry-readings, screened films, hosted walks, and meals. We spoke to 100s of people. We worked closely with Arnolfini staff on a very stretching timetable. We improvised, got things wrong, got things right, made new colleagues, fostered new networks. We publicly listened and reflected on everything in the weekly Critical Tea Parties and elsewhere.

Towards the middle of the C Words season, we realised that of all the staff at Arnolfini, only the stewards were really witnessing C Words in anything like its entirety. The office and programming staff could only really pass by, their responsibilities being to get on with the next programme. This presents some problems for our kind of work. With a conventional exhibition, you select, promote, install the work, have an opening preview, the artists go home, and the programming and planning team largely move on to the next show. With a season of over 50 live events, and PLATFORM in effect in residence in the gallery, for C Words the artwork is the whole thing: the live events and static exhibits or installations, from beginning to end, and beyond. But actually, very few people in the institution were seeing it.

This was also the same challenge for audiences and participants, and other colleagues in PLATFORM. A member of the audience may come on one or several visits, deliberately or as a passer-by. The sense of the totality unfolding over time may elude that visitor or participant – this was one area which we would definitely address differently next time. Yet for locally based and other people who engaged regularly with C Words, we received a lot of positive feedback on the sense of excitement, the fluidity, the sense of making something happen in real time which they felt from each event, each visit to the evolving galleries.

Sarah Warden, who looks after Live Art programming at Arnolfini, understood this when she said that we wouldn’t be able to judge or make sense of C Words til Day 50, and even then, it would only be a beginning. But our programme was hosted under “Exhibitions”, not Live Art, and herein lies the interesting tensions, delicious frictions, and monstrous aggravations. (By the way, only some fraction of these came out in the blog, I notice. Was it too tender and difficult to raise at the time? Maybe. But also it was such a rollercoaster, time-squeezed experience that to try to describe something very tricky and yet also hackle-raising on the fly could have risked some almighty blunderings that might have backfired. So it’s only now that we can get our heads around it, slowly. Some might say we should have blogged warts and all. Not only might this have increased interest in the work, but also “outed” the issues, been more transparent, more confrontational. Maybe, but that would have upped the institutional tensions dramatically; and that was not needed by anyone. That would be a different artwork.)

Anyway, as a result of our realisations about the stewards’ exposure to C Words, we proposed to them that they became critics, and write some responses for us. A kind of “What the Stewards Saw”. Four of them did this and we are going to publish their often critical pieces very shortly on this blog.

Looking back, I can’t help but think that this one is a slow-burner. A massive intense outburst of production for those involved during October and November, but the harvest is only just beginning.


We’ve been to see so many art & climate change exhibitions/seasons in the last year or so: FACT’s Climate for Change, Radical Nature at the Barbican, Earth at the Royal Academy, 2 Degrees by ArtsAdmin, Rethink shows in Copenhagen… What’s certain is that mainstream culture is attempting to grapple with climate change. This is arguably a Good Thing, as many people felt about the election of Barack Obama to President in terms of race issues. A good thing? But, as with the question of Obama, the devil’s in the detail, not the principle. What are the dangers of a kind of innoculation? Of an anaesthetic reaction, encouraging us to feel better, to pat ourselves on the back, to sense, to engage, but not to act. We consumed that exhibition, we voted for that President, so our work on the issue is done. We sense, feel, think about the issues, but in the end we can be numbed and separated from the most useful – the most hopeful – kind of pain: the pain that can make us act.

What does all this contribute? In whose interest is it made? Who is it talking to? Who cares?

Questions that C Words has to answer too.

Parting new thought: the critique over the aesthetic in C Words – an overtly activist project – can end up as another anaesthetic. A shield of affronted reaction to an aesthetic deemed out-of-place in a gallery, in order to avoid something even more uncomfortable?

“But I think the feeling of something like disgust, if it happens, is significant, and almost to be welcomed. It’s an uncontrolled response that says some tacit rule or historical procedure is being unobserved. Differences haven’t been smoothed out, already negotiated or sidestepped….”

Jane Trowell

*part of University of London, famous for its fine art and curating courses.

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