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The Copenhagen Experiment: The Report

The past decade has witnessed a surge in “artistic activism,” both in practice and its study. Whether it actually works, however, is still a matter of faith more than fact. What has not been done is an evidence-based, empirical comparative study of the variable impact of creative versus more conventional forms of activism on a public audience in terms of ideas, ideals and actions. Until now.

Over the course of three days in May of 2018, Stephen Duncombe, Silas Harrebye and their research team mounted activist interventions on a popular and well-traveled bridge in the middle of Copenhagen, Denmark. Each day we paired a conventional activist intervention — public speaking, petitioning, flyering — with a creative way of accomplishing the same task, in a classic A/B experimental model.

After a year of analysis of 108 interviews, 30 observation sheets, petition and pamphlet tallies, hours of film footage of the events, and 25 follow-up survey responses, we are pleased to present our findings. You can read and download the full report, or a short 2 page summary below.

Download pdf Summary: The Copenhagen Experiment (Summary)

Download pdf Full Version: The Copenhagen Experiment

Contact the authors of this report

Watch the video

the C4AA Streaming Soiree

If you donate to the C4AA this month, you’ll get a ticket to the big, live, online meetup we’re calling “The Streaming Soiree”.

C4AA Streaming Soiree

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We’ve been thinking about all of you – our far-flung compatriots, and we want to hang out. We want to gather round a campfire and talk about all of our big adventures, and our weird side projects we never talk about. We want to hear what you have been seeing in your corner of the world. We want to ruminate together and brainstorm to solve the pressing problems – How do we rally people? How do we do something amazing with no budget? How do we make sure the next elections go our way? Who should our main audience be if we want to change things? What crazy intervention will actually get people to stop and think? We want to talk about the things you’re wondering about.

As a ticket holder you can:

-Submit questions in advance we will actually research and give our smartest answers to!

-Ask sensitive questions like “where does your funding come from?” or “have you ever had a workshop that ended in disaster?” or “what’s the story with that rash?” and we will do our best to answer them. And honestly!

-Meet other C4AA supporters and learn about their work

-Make suggestions for future Pop Culture Salvage Expeditions outings!

-Get a sneak preview of our upcoming book, “How to Win: A Practical Guide to Artistic Activism!”

-Weigh in on future program ideas we’re developing at the C4AA!

 

You’ll also be the first to learn about the next C4AA Soiree – if there ever is one. This may be the only one – don’t miss it!

Why are we doing this?

We want to spend time this year getting cozier with good people. It keeps all of us inspired. So these hangouts are a way to make sure we’re all connected and feel like we’re in a community.

And we are raising funds to support C4AA’s work. Our passionate focus right now is helping new leaders – we’re passing along our experience, skills and contacts to people new to this work, people who don’t have access to training and networks. We care about creating a global community of people who are doing artistic activism really well, and are making significant strides in social and environmental justice.

Your donations are critical because while most of our funding comes from foundations, it is rare to find funders who support the fundamental costs of running an organization. We need your help to keep the servers roaring, pay staff/interns/residents to do the necessary admin tasks, keep communications flowing to broadcast what we do and find partners, and block out time for our directors and board to think about what’s next.  Very few large funders allow us to use their grants in this way.

This is why we need individual donors and small foundations to support us in the invisible work of running the C4AA.

More reasons to support us.

Why support C4AA? Douglas Rushkoff says we don’t suck. And some of our other alumni seem to agree. Check out these short videos they sent.

Why C4AA?

The Center for Artistic Activism has been helping make more creative activists and more effective artists since 2009. For the past few years we’ve helped some of the most vulnerable people under some of the most repressive regimes around the world. Now we turn our attention back home, and use what we’ve seen work elsewhere to help build a vibrant alternative. More about what your support does to help artistic activism.

2019 marks ten years since the C4AA’s first program. Since then we’ve worked with thousands of artistic activists in 14 countries, on 4 continents. We’re excited about what’s ahead and need your support to get there.

Support Artistic Activists Around the World

Your donations allow us to serve communities who normally wouldn’t be able to afford our programs and help us focus on the most important work we can do. Check out some of our alumni stories to see the people we help.

We Believe in Artistic Activism

Negative predictions come easily and the world has enough bitterness. Right now the world needs your vision, your optimism, and your empathy. It needs your drive and motivation. It needs your most compelling stories, your creativity, and it needs your humor. We need new ideas of how the world can work, and new ways to get there.

The Center trains people to use these ideas in effective campaigns through proven methodologies. With your help, the Center for Artistic Activism supports groups and individuals who are looking for creative and effective ways to counteract bigotry, hate, misinformation and fear.

Your donation is tax deductible

Center for Artistic Activism is a not-for-profit, certified 501(c)(3) tax exempt charitable and educational organization.Under IRS 501(c)(3) tax exempt charitable and educational organization code, the full amount of your donation is tax deductible against your income. To fully benefit from this great tax benefit that helps you reduce your taxes, please inform and consult your expert tax specialist in regards to each donation you make.

Make a donation through your employer

You can ask your company to add us to their Matching Gifts Campaign. Supportive employees at Google and Netflix have already done this.

You can also check if your employer is registered through Benevity.

508 at Seattle City Hall

508 is the number of people who have died from overdose in the city of Seattle since the county’s Opioid and Heroine Task Force, unanimously, made a series of recommendations to stem the crisis in the county. These included opening a supervised consumption site (which we’d been working on with the Yes to SCS campaign). Since then the city has $1.4 million dollars unspent for over a year and earmarked for drug user health – specifically opening an SCS.

This installation was designed by the Center for Artistic Activism with Seattle’s Public Defender Association. The tubes are for people to leave behind memorials, notes, flowers. We tried to plan it well, but the day the numbers went up they were already behind the actual death count. We’re hoping as the politicians who have made promises walk by this, they may have a renewed sense of urgency.

The director of Real Change News Real wrote a short piece about the work. Director’s Corner: A successful approach to addiction demands political courage and compassion.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer also has a story by Becca Savransky.

508 image
8 foot tall numbers that read "508". In the face of the numbers are flowers.

Legal Challenges

The Public Defender Association had to fight City Hall on several fronts to have this placed. You can follow some of this on facebook.com/yestodruguserhealth/ Here’s some excerpts:

The “508” art installation was intended to be installed inside the City Hall lobby, in the same location where city officials and many others regularly conduct political speech. The City refused permission for this, saying (counter-factually) that only City officials can hold speech events inside. While objecting on several grounds, we tried to compromise in a space where the City acknowledges others’ speech can be permitted—in the wide covered area near the 5th Avenue entrance. No success.

So late yesterday afternoon we were told “508” would have to move along. Ironically like drug users facing continuous displacement, the art installation was packed up and shuffled down to the Plaza below City Hall, on the Cherry Street side. The numbers now face inclement weather with poor protection. They await today’s rain wrapped in plastic sheets. Perhaps their new vulnerability and exposure more appropriately stand for the situation of many drug users in our community. In any event, this is our new home until September 19, which overlaps with International Overdose Awareness Day on August 31.

And a few days later:

Refusing permission inside the City Hall Lobby and in the original location at the City Hall 5th Avenue entrance, the City is forcing us to re-apply for a permit every three days until September 1st for its current location on the City Hall Plaza beside Cherry Street.

The City is requiring all-day attendance to “508” to satisfy our permit. So, please attend, interact, and record your attendance. Our staff is providing this the best we can for the time being, and have organized impacted communities who are members of Yes to Drug User Health to assist during the day and at night. To record your attendance, you can fill out the form below, or send an email or picture to [email protected] time stamping your attendance. In this way, we will “attend” the memorial with people power, organizing to collectively commemorate all people impacted by overdose and the drug epidemic.

The work has definitely touched a nerve with the City.

How it’s made

We designed this to happen on a timeline, hit a certain budget, be temporary and indoors. Each letter is 8ft by 4ft so they could be laser cut from a single MDF panel. The tubes are a variety of pre-made cardboard shipping tubes along with 8, 10, and 12 inch concrete form tubes you can buy at a local hardware store. We were hoping that cutting so many holes into MDF and using cardboard would keep it light, but the numbers are not light.

We originally designed the numbers for indoors – they were supposed to be located in the lobby of City Hall. If we were to do it again:

  • Outdoors, but not permanent, and slightly higher budget: Outdoor treated plywood and PVC pipe tubing
  • Outdoors, and permanent, and way higher budget: welded aluminum

Fabrication by Boomslang in Seattle.

Here’s some early sketches:

Seattle 845 sketch
844 Tube Sketch

The C4AA Reading List

These texts helped influence our perspectives, curriculum, and approach. We share them with you so you can dig deeper into some of the concepts, histories, and theories we draw from. At the C4AA we’ve examined a wide range of fields so please note: some of these books we adore from cover to cover, while others we disagree with entirely. With some we admire the ideas, but not the subject matter or the author. However all the research material we seek out has challenged us to make better work and we found these texts to be a useful starting point.

If you have suggestions you’d like us to consider adding to the list, contact us.

sister outsider audre lorde book cover

Poetry is Not a Luxury

from Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde

A non-poem by the great poet about the importance of culture and creativity in allowing us to reach places that our socialized minds tell us we can’t.

Library

Resistance Through Rituals cover

Resistance Through Rituals: Youth Subcultures in Post-War Britain

Edited by Tony Jefferson and Jamaican sociologist Stuart Hall. Looking for rebellion in unlikely places: punk rock, reggae, skinhead culture.

Library

Beyond a Boundary Book Cover

Beyond a Boundary

by C.L.R. James

Memoir of the great Caribbean intellectual on his love for cricket: an Imperialist game that, ironically, made James an anti-Imperialist.

Library

prison notebooks book cover

Prison Notebooks

by Antonio Gramsci

Stuck in a fascist prison, Gramsci thought and wrote about organizing and the role of culture in politics. A bit cryptic, but full of invaluable insights.

Library

politics of aesthetics book cover

The Politics of Aesthetics

by Jacques Ranciere

Useful discussion from a contemporary philosopher on the different ways that art can be political, from reflecting the world to rearranging our very sense of it.

Library

Lucy Lippard portrait

Trojan Horses: Activist Art and Power

by Lucy Lippard.

Now more than 3o years old, this is still the most concise and articulate argument for what activist art can do and why it matters. free PDF

Cultural Resistance Reader

The Cultural Resistance Reader

Edited by C4AA’s Stephen Duncombe

All you’ll ever want to read about Cultural Resistance in one convenient place.

free PDF

brecht on theater cover

Emphasis on Sport

by Bertolt Brecht

from Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic.

The radical playwright’s advice to his fellow artists that if they want to have an impact they they need to make their art more fun… like soccer.

free PDF

“Introduction” from Rabelais and His World

by Mikhail Bakhtin.

What does a Soviet literary scholar writing about a medieval French writer have to do with activism? One word: Carnival! A great meditation on the subversive quality of laughter and spectacle.

Library

combahee river collective portriat

Combahee River Collective Statement

A manifesto written by a black feminist collective in the mid-1970s. Classic articulation of the specificity of ones opression and identity. Useful to remind us that we are always dealing with particular people in particular contexts, not abstractions.

link

A People's History of the United States book cover

A People’s History of the United States

by Howard Zinn.

Classic overview of US history from the perspective of those fighting the powers-that-be.

Library

PR! Stuart Ewen book cover

PR! A Social History of Spin

by Stuart Ewen.

Ewen, an historian of advertising and Duncombe’s mentor, looks at how story, spectacle, and performance was used by corporations and marketers, as well as progressives, in the early 20th centrury. We can learn from them all.

Library

Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970

by Doug McAdam.

A great history of the Civil Rights movement, making the point, among many others, that the movement understood the power of performance.

Library

Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics Book Cover

Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics

by Frederic Spotts.

A sobering reminder that arguably the most successful artistic activists of the 20th Century were the Nazis. Arts and activism is a powerful combination, and ethics are always important.

Library

Re/Search: Pranks Book Cover

Re/Search: Pranks

Edited by V. Vale and Andrea Juno

Entertaining, and often inspiring even if the examples don’t apply directly or are… let’s just say unethical.

Library

Only Joking  by Jimmy Carr and Lucy Greeves Book cover

Only Joking

by Jimmy Carr and Lucy Greeves

If there is a book on comedy theory (that you’d actually want to read) this might be it. Analysis of the history of comedy, different theories about what makes us laugh, and lots of jokes.

Library

Sataristas Book Cover

Sataristas

Edited by Paul Provenza and Dan Dion

First hand interviews with comedians of all kinds. Many valuable insights that, with a little creativity, you can apply to your practice.

Truth in Comedy: The Manual of Improvisation Book cover

Truth in Comedy: The Manual of Improvisation

by Charna Halpern, Del Close, et al

If you take a class in improv, they’ll probably tell you to read this. Or they should. Covers some key ideas that can be helpful: agreement, building a scene, working at the top of your intelligence, and “truth in comedy” – a grounding in the truth is more conducive to comedy than entirely fabricated material.

Library

Dead Funny: Humor in Hitler’s Germany Book Cover

Dead Funny: Humor in Hitler’s Germany

by Rudolph Herzog

There were jokes in Hitler’s Germany – Nazi jokes, resister jokes, Jewish jokes. This book provokes us with the question; as many subversive jokes as there were in Nazi Germany, what impact did they have?

Library

Open Utopia Book Cover

Open Utopia

by Thomas More, edited and introduced by Stephen Duncombe.

The book that named the practice — much more interesting and politically useful than you might remember from High School.

free pdf

companion website

Library

Hope In The Dark, Solnit book cover

Hope in the Dark

by Rebecca Solnit

Keep handy for when you’re feeling negative about your work. This got Steve Lambert through the disappointment of the 2004 election.

free PDF

Promoting Nutrition and Physical Activity Through Social Marketing cover page

Promoting Nutrition and Physical Activity Through Social Marketing

by Rina Alcalay and Robert A. Bell

Dry, but loaded with information.

free pdf

Getting Things Done by David Allen book cover

Getting Things Done

by David Allen

Yes, it’s aimed at a business demographic. Yes it’s a sort of self-help book. But damn are there ever good ideas in it.

Library

The Now Habit by Neal Fiore book cover

The Now Habit

by Neal Fiore

If you have even the slightest tendencies of a perfectionism or procrastination (and who doesn’t?) the insights in this book are incredibly helpful.

Library

Oblique Strategies  by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt box

Oblique Strategies

by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt.

A deck of cards, each card offering an aphorism intended to help artists (particularly musicians) break creative blocks by encouraging lateral think

view them online

Dream or Nightmare by Stephen Duncombe book cover

Dream or nightmare: reimagining politics in an age of fantasy

by C4AA’s Stephen Duncombe

What can artistic activists learn from Las Vegas, video games, celebrity magazines and advertising? A lot. C4AA’s co-founder teaches how to create an “ethical spectacle”

Library

free PDF

How to Be an Explorer of the World Keri Smith book cover

How to Be an Explorer of the World

by C4AA board member, Keri Smith

Written to help cultivate creativity in people of all ages. No pretenses and a low barrier to entry.

Image of David Raney's "You are now less dumb" book cover.

You Are Not So Smart -and- You Are Now Less Dumb

by David McRaney

David McRaney’s books on self-delusion called “You Are Not So Smart” and “You Are Now Less Dumb” both offer a very accessible introduction to “discover the wonderful ways you delude yourself every day and enjoy a healthy dose of humility.”

Library

Thinking fast and slow book cover

Thinking Fast and Slow

by Daniel Kahneman

An international best seller and winner of several awards, this book helps get clarity on how humans think, make decisions, and evaluate change. Kahneman is the scientist behind the research, and does a great job at explaining the concepts and staying engaging.

Library

Don’t Think Of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate: The Essential Guide for Progressives book cover

Don’t Think Of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate: The Essential Guide for Progressives

by George Lakoff

How morals and values guide even our most “rational” political decisions. An accessible introduction to this important field.

Library

Holland book cover

The Conservative Psyche: How Ordinary People Come to Embrace Paul Ryan’s Cruelty

by Joshua Holland

A good, quick interview of cognitive theory and its importance in understanding why people hold the political ideas that they do.

free link

Will Storr book cover

The Unpersuadables: Adventures with the Enemies of Science

by Will Storr

Very readable overview on why facts don’t work. Storr covers how “the stories we tell ourselves about the world invisibly shape our beliefs, and how the neurological ‘hero maker’ inside us all can so easily lead to self-deception, toxic partisanship and science denial.”

Library

Westen Book Cover

The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of a Nation

by Drew Westen

A psychologists look into how emotions guide our political beliefs and decisions. Useful in thinking about and directing the affective power of creative activism.

Library

Friere book cover

Pedagogy of the Oppressed 

by Paulo Freire.

A book that changed the game by insisting that educators (and organizers) need to meet people where they are.

Library

Fran Peavey Cover

The Strategic Questioning Manual 

by Fran Peavey

A great shift in perspective on how we approach audiences, and how we can use respect and questions (instead of providing answers or challenges) to be more effective.

free PDF

Boal book cover

Theatre of the Oppressed

by Augusto Boal.

  Translating Freire’s ideas to theatre, and using performance for social change.

Library

William James book cover

The Moral Equivalent of War

 by William James

Classic essay by the great philosopher and psychologist on how we must understand and respect — and appropriate — the good desires that motivate people to do bad stuff.

Library

Electoral Guerilla cover

Electoral Guerilla Theatre: Radical Ridicule and Social Movements

by L.M. Bogad

From our own West Coast branch director, an important book on how activists have hijacked the electoral system as a stage to perform their own of politics.

Library

Rules for radicals cover

Rules for Radicals

by Saul Alinsky

Almost 50 years old but still the great guide to organizing. And a fun read too.

Library

Bible cover

“The Gospels” and “Acts,” from the Bible.

You don’t need to be a believer or even approve of religion to appreciate that Jesus was a master creative activist and his apostle Paul was an effective — if opportunistic — organizer. See also Moses, Muhammad, Buddha, et al.

Library

Demanding the impossible cover

A User’s Guide to (Demanding) the Impossible

by Gavin Grindon and John Jordan

This guide is not a road map or instruction manual. It’s a match struck in the dark, a homemade multi-tool to help you carve out your own path through the ruins of the present, warmed by the stories and strategies of those who took Bertolt Brecht’s words to heart: ‘Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.’

free PDF

Library

beautiful trouble cover

Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution

edited by Andrew Boyd and David Oswald Mitchel

An invaluable collection of examples, theories and case studies for those interested in creative activism.

Library

Re:Imagining Change cover

Re:Imagining Change: How to Use Story-based Strategy to Win Campaigns, Build Movements, and Change the World

by Doyle Canning and Patrick Reinsborough

People like stories. They help us make sense of our world and our place in it. This book shows you how you can use this in your work.

Library

Making waves cover

Making Waves: A Guide to Cultural Strategy

by The Culture Group

A smart and simple guide to using culture as part of an organizing strategy for social change, by some really experienced artistic activists, and friends of C4AA like Favianna Rodriguez,  Gan Golan, Jeff Chang, and others.

Free PDF

Continuum of impact cover

Continuum of Impact

by Pam Korza and Barbara Schaffer Bacon

Super useful tool set for thinking through and assessing the impact of your artistic activist projects from the folks at Animating Democracy

Free PDF

Carol Lloyd book cover

Creating A Life Worth Living

by Carol Lloyd

A practical course in career design for artists, innovators, and others aspiring to a creative life.

Library

Art & Fear cover

Art & Fear

by David Bayles and Ted Orland

Lorem ipsum Dolor

Library

Politics of Humor in an Age of Fools

Notes from Stephen Duncombe’s presentation Politics of Humor in an Age of Fools

HEMI Encuentro at UNAM, Mexico City, 10 June 2019

I’ve been thinking a lot about the politics of humor in these very dire and serious times.

So what do I think?

A great deal of humor points out the absurdity of the normal, the taken for granted, the everyday  — this is true for political humor as it is for a political humor.

But what if the everyday is absurd? How does humor work then? Or should I say now.

Take Satire, for instance. It is a politically potent form of humor.  An example we are probably all familiar with is  Jonathan Swift’s “Modest Proposal, in which he proposed that the problem of the Irish rural poor might be solved by selling their babies to the rich for food.

Swift’s satire “works” politically because:

Extends the logic of the British Empire’s policies regarding their colonies.

The solution is so absurd — “eat the poor” — that it casts the normal as absurd as well.

Assumes that the audience will see the absurdity, and with their “awareness raised” will resist these absurd policies of Empire.

But can satire work the same way today? When the absurdity of the policies of the National-Fascists, and the leaders who propose them, is so obvious?

What is there to satirize? They satirize themselves.

Take another form of humor: that of the fool, the jester, the clown…the Heyoka. The politics of their humor often lies in their ability to use their foolishness to make a fool of those in power.

But again: what if our leaders — and I speak as a US Citizen here — are openly fools? Does the clown have the same power?

I don’t think so.

My analyses so far could lead to despair. Lo ciento. But I want to end with hope.

For what I have described above is not all that humor does: it doesn’t just function as critique, it can also provide vision.

The clown doesn’t just show the leader up to be a fool, they perform a vision of a world that operates according to radically different norms and hierarchies and values of the “normal’ one we inhabit today.  That is to say: they “turn the world upside down.”

And there is another face to satire as well.  The model of satire we are most used to is  one of negation — critiquing power as it is, that is: critical satire. But there is another form, which we might call prophetic satire, which challenges the logic of power by envisioning power as it should be.

For example, when our friends here at the Encuentro, the Yes Men, appeared on the BBC as spokespeople for  Dow chemical to take full financial and moral responsibility for the Bhopal disaster, they were at one and the same time critiquing the “normal” behavior of corporations and imagining a world turned upside down where corporations care for people and take responsibility for their actions.

This is not to say that “critical satire” doesn’t have an implied positive ideal. It wouldn’t work as satire if it didn’t. But that implied positive is dependent upon a knowing audience that can imagine, or has a memory of, an alternative to the present. And I’m not sure we possess this any longer.  So we may need to make the implicit explicit.

So, I want to end my comments here with a challenge:

To move from a humor that merely critiques, or ridicules or “raises awareness” of the problems of today.

To forms of humor that inspire us to imagine the worlds we want to build for tomorrow.

Muchos gracias.

12: The Chevrolet Suburban

“It’s a brand new car!” The gang hit the road in a 2018 Chevrolet Suburban SUV. Rugged, automation, comfort, and luxury – how can we use these lessons in our activism?

Sound Note: This show was recorded in a moving car. Thanks to Jimmy Bigbee Garver who recorded, edited, and mixed this episode.

The Chevy Suburban

Why the Suburban? It’s the longest continuous use automobile nameplate in production, starting in 1935, and has traditionally been one of General Motors’ most profitable vehicles.

Chevrolet Suburban – Wikipedia

We were driving the 11th Generation of the Suburban. Truck front, station wagon back: it’s the reverse mullet of the Chevy truck line.

If you’re not familiar with the Suburban…

Chevrolet Suburban Interior

Chevrolet Suburban history

What do we make of fake engine noises?

 

Thank you

We want to thank our sponsor who made this episode of the Pop Culture Salvage Expeditions possible, The Chevrol– just kidding! That’s never gonna happen. This show is paid for by donations to the Center for Artistic Activism, a 501.3c non-profit organization.

If you like the show – donate! (It’s a tax-deductible and a little bit goes a long way)

DONATE!

Phoebe Davies

Hello there

Pictured: Phoebe Davies (left) with Jenny Moore and Chloe Cooper, co-creators of Bedfellows.

So, for me, I think that the reason that I work in the arts and not so in the charity sector is that we are able to challenge things and question things and push ideas outside of institutions or certain structures. You’ll only get to those places through challenging, through pushing, and thinking outside of how we choose to exist currently.

Phoebe Davies* is a social practice artist and producer based in London. She often works with mixed-media, including constructed social spaces, video, audio, and print works. Currently, Davies is working on multiple projects including Bedfellows, a sex re-education project working with adults and young people’s groups to explore desire, consent, representation, and feminist porn, while reflecting on and investigating current sex education.


*This interview was conducted in conjunction with the British Council’s Arts and Social Practice fellowship, of which Davies was a fellow in 2016.


Sarah J Halford: Can you tell me a little bit about how you came to your artistic practice?

Phoebe Davies: In my late teens, early twenties, I was studying my BA at Wimbledon College of Arts. That was a fine arts BA in painting. But very early on I stopped making 2D work and started thinking about making time-based work. I come from an education and youth work background, so I’ve always worked as a youth worker alongside my art projects. Following the BA, I was lucky enough to get a traineeship with an organization called Arts Happening and I had the position as Trainee Producer, working across art projects and education and their advisory service that they have for artists. A lot of Arts Happening’s work might be seen as contemporary theatre, where they situate work in public space, as well as working with traditional gallery spaces and theatres. I learned a large amount from them.

We worked very closely thinking about what audiences have access to the arts, and what barriers certain people to be able to access art and others not. I’m from a farming community in South Wales, and so moving and living in an art sector in London, I’m really keen for us to really think about who we’re choosing to make work for, and how that exists outside of maybe the privileged bubbles that definitely exist within art spaces and galleries in particular – what it means to walk into those spaces, or who has the right to walk into those spaces. It’s not always just an open door, I guess.

SJH: And how would you describe your practice now?

PD: So, I work as an artist and I also work as a producer working for other artists, supporting them on their projects. I am currently making a lot of video performance print-based work, and I also make constructed social spaces – which is how I describe them – which will exist where people will maybe read them within an art context as instillations. I make work often with groups of people, so I will do large amounts of research working with groups of people that might have different expertise or skill sets or might be in a certain community or age to unpack ideas that come from that on-site research, which are often social or political.

Because I come from a visual arts background and have lots of experience working in contemporary theatre as well, if we are hosting workshops and thinking about using a gallery space or a museum, often I have a very strong design eye and aesthetic to my work. So, I will think about how we will design that space to open up conversations. Whether that’s making furniture that exists in that space that can be used in many different ways, or we’re making backdrops, fly-posting, making up some tables that have got different references, or showreels within the space. So, I guess thinking about how we make spaces and use those spaces to often share knowledges but within a certain aesthetic that I develop.

Photo by Rowena Gorden

SJH: That’s great. You say that you like to create “constructed social spaces” that often take on a social or political bent – can you share an example of that?

PD:  One example of that toured in 2013-2014 with a project called Influences, which was a feminist nail salon that was always developed in conjunction to different women’s groups locally to where it was toured. We designed not only the space as a site for conversation around contemporary gender politics and what was relevant to the groups we were working with, but also it hosted a series of workshops and events and talks – and it was a functioning nail salon. So, it’s not only a space where you come in and cruise around and look at stuff, but more that you’re sat in it, you’re learning in it, you’re hosting conversations in it, and how do we develop design to look at that.

SJH: So how did the feminist nail salon, and the program in general, work?

PD: So, when we work in groups we talk about the fact that we have the platform, if we choose to as a group, to host a space that could open up conversations that are relevant to women and non-binary folk local to the area. We talk about what issues might be relevant that they may want to host conversations about. We run nail salons that depict women or people of influence who are conversation starters around those themes. So, they might be social activists who are fighting to end violence against women. They might be photographers who depict trans communities in townships. Then, we work together to design these nail designs that depict women or people who are doing work that might be socially or politically-relevant work. So, that’s where we start from.

We want to host that space for people to have their nails done and open up further conversation. So, when you enter the space there may be a design at different tables that you can take a seat and get your nails done, and when you sit down there you’ll get a menu of people that you can choose to have applied to your nails. Then, there’s most likely going to be a live reader that we’ve put together. When we were in South Africa, an artist duo called Sober and Lonely brought a fantastic feminist and SciFi library that we were able to host. There may be some audio work that you listen to. The space will also be designed with probably vinyl wraps or fly posters that we’ve designed showing images that we’ve found as a group that depict women working in different ways. You’ll also have information about the women who you’ll have designed on your nails.

So, we spend like two months running workshops, talking about what is relevant for young women and then who could open up those conversations. Also, we think about a demographic of who we’re trying to show, if we’re thinking about it as a set of 10 . Some of those people are local leaders, so you might have a very well-known female activist, like Malala, but you might also have somebody who’s doing really important grassroots work.

Photo courtesy of ArtsAdmin.co.uk

SJH: You conducted this project for a few years, which would suggest that something kept you coming back to it. So, what was it that you kept coming back, or that you thought was working?

PD: That project was in very high demand. Lots of groups were asking for us. So, when you get continuously invited by groups who you think are very interesting – that’s the reason that we kept developing that work.

SJH: Why do you prefer to create interactive art pieces rather than having someone come into a gallery and look at a painting or instillation?

PD: Sometimes I’ll make a piece of work that is to be viewed or read by the audience where there isn’t a conversation that goes past that. Other times, the work will host conversations, so it will be about opening up those conversations. The reason I hope for that to happen is because often it’s a very one-way experience within certain art sectors. And I think that, for me, some of the most interesting moments happen when there’s things that can be discussed or unpacked, not just by yourself when you leave that space, but currently located within the work. Also, I’m really keen to create ways that those conversations can happen across different audiences. So, what it means to have conversations with those you wouldn’t normally have conversations with. And so that’s why I like constructing spaces that allow that to happen.

SJH: Can you tell me about a time when those conversations were able to happen?

PD: So, an example of that would be a research project that I’m running with two other artists called Jenny Moore and Chloe Cooper, which is called Bedfellows. It takes many different strands of art – like live performance, print, workshops, radio shows – and unpacks how we learn about sex education, which is really a life-long process – we often call it sex re-education. Thinking about how we learn about consent and desire and relationship models.

It’s quite interesting, as well, because realizing how your role as an artist within that, your role or your team’s role of hosting or facilitating is so crucial is something that I’ve definitely learned through working with Jenny and Chloe. When we have an event that we run called Sex Talk Meeting, which is where we create a space made out of about 20 to 30 white duvets and we’re dressed in like, TLC silky pajamas and we have a soundtrack and we perform some dancing at the beginning that is very tongue-in-cheek, and sometimes we offer people drinks as well. We host an evening or afternoon of talking about different issues around sex. Obviously, politically, that can be very emotional, socially, politically, emotionally. I believe that you cannot create safe spaces but you can put things in space to make sure that those people in those spaces are choosing to look after themselves and other people there.

Photo courtesy of the Tate Modern

So, often we talk about the rules of the bed when we’ve made this love bed. Everyone’s invited to come and sit in the bed. We’ve done quite a few of these. We create these booklets, and during the evening we will show three different references, we’ll have some starter questions, and we’ll invite people to talk about these ideas with whomever is sat near them. So, you’re not necessarily talking about it with the people you’ve come with. And because we ask people to mix up in various conversations, people end up having really extended conversation with people who they may have just met that evening.

How we end up advertising these events will very much determine who’s sat in the room. So if it’s a group of local secondary school teachers, we’re trying to figure out how they discuss pornography at school, with the fact that young people access pornography so much freer than maybe they did when they were younger. So, you might get people who are there for the music who’ve come because certain people are playing and they come and take part in a sex talk meeting then.

Our role within that is so important – so how we choose to facilitate those spaces and how we choose to open up those conversations, being aware of how these conversations could be triggering. So, a massive part of this is to understand that we all come with different experiences, and to not pass judgment on other people’s opinions and experiences from that. And it’s quite amazing that you can actually host spaces where people will talk very openly about sexual politics.

SJH: Would you read us some of the starter questions?

PD: Sure. “Can you be queer without being L, G, B, or T?” “Is queerness merely an identity exercise or is it tied to the more tangibly political: like economics, racial injustice, or our relationships to the state?” “Is queerness about who you are or more about what you do?” And my favorite one is: “How can you be sexually free? How do you let go? Do you always have to have the same sex or does the sex you have change with different people? What does it mean to like being penetrated or being the one doing the penetrating?”

Photo courtesy of Phoebe Davies

SJH: Can you tell me about a specific night that went really well and why you thought so?

PD: Actually, the things I think of being most successful are the research groups that we’ve set up. So, we run monthly research groups where we have a rolling email list of people who might be educators, artists, producers, academics, researchers, or care workers, or sex workers, and we invite them in to spend an evening looking at certain texts with us in a really informal way, hosted in our studios. And that has been really important to inform how the work can exist. So, that isn’t the work, but it’s definitely the model that has helped us to unpack the ideas that we’re working on and how we want to push those things forward.

SJH: Can remember witnessing a conversation where you thought the impact was really powerful, even if the responses were difficult ones?

PD: I recently finished working specifically with a school in East London, Mulberry School for Girls, which is a predominately a Muslim girl’s school – 99.97% of the women who attend the school are Bengali Muslim. Those women taught me so much about how we learn about consent and desire. We made a print, which they call a zine, and putting this together really shifted my ideas of also ability for action within schools. The school is taking this as the basis for all of their future sex education from year seven on. They are retraining their staff, they’re getting us in to help us retrain their staff, and they are talking to the students about how they can potentially work with the parents. One of the largest conversations there was the fact that we cannot just have these conversations as women, we need to also push much more broadly within our communities, which not only means men’s groups but also means our parents and the community leaders outside who, often in the UK in particular, parents and communities are very nervous about what’s taught within sex education. All of this is currently being shifted in the next couple of years.

So, the young women I was working with have advocated for the zine that they made to be translated into three different languages because some of their parents do not speak English. So, not only are they saying, “Yeah this is great,” but that it needs to be in these three different dialects. I think around the table we had seven different dialects and were like, if we hit these three, then so many of the parents who would not be able to access this information would be able to. It just kind of blew me away that they suggested such a larger action outside of that.

SJH: And why do you think caused that to be so successful?

PD: It was about working collectively, it was about the fact that there were different opinions in the room – that my opinion was one of seven or eight equally valid opinions in that space.

The other thing is that when we work as me, Jenny, and Chloe, we work as Bedfellows, but we’re three white women in our early 30s. So, we’re really conscious of it’s really important for us to establish that we’re not an authority on any of this. We’ve done a lot of research into it, but we constantly collaborate with other artists. It’s really important to acknowledge a multitude of different histories and stories, not just certain voices.

Photo courtesy of the Tate Modern

SJH: And what about one of the sex talk meetings or workshops that didn’t go so well?

PD: That one, actually – we were invited to come and do a sex talk and it was the first time we’d actually done one. And what we wanted was about 50 people, and we wanted to make sure that everybody who’s working on it had been briefed before and everybody knew how we would work as a team to safeguard that area, and how we can make sure that, where possible, we’re making a space that people felt comfortable in. And we had 500 people turn up. This was in the galleries in the Tate that is really, really big. So when you plan to do something that you hope is going to be quite intimate, and then you have 500 people, you have to totally change the way you’re going to host those conversations with that work.

So, for me it was a huge learning curve because so much of it actually failed. Well, not failed, there were people who really got into the conversations and really benefited from what we were doing, but at the same time we maybe couldn’t give it as much time as we wanted to because we were hosting this very large group of people who all wanted to talk about different sexual experiences.

Photo courtesy of Phoebe Davies

SJH: It sounds like there have been some interesting conversations generated from your projects, but what happens after the initial conversation is over? What next?

PD: I think that the kind of projects that I’m involved with push toward long-term change. If you think about me working at Mulberry School for Girls, you can see very quickly an outcome: institutional change, the retraining of all of their staff. The whole of the senior leadership team having a conversation around queer desire. Offering sex ed, from year seven, all the way to being trans inclusive and intersex inclusive. These are things that are happening. Specifically, in the Bedfellows program, within work that’s maybe the video work that I do, the print work that I do, that you might see and then leave from it, it’s not so obvious where that sits. It also, to me, I don’t want it to be that obvious. I want it to slowly choose to challenge or question the perceptions you might have on how people choose to situate themselves within society.

So, for me, I think that the reason that I work in the arts and not so in the charity sector is that we are able to challenge things and question things and push ideas outside of institutions or certain structures. You’ll only get to those places through challenging, through pushing, and thinking outside of how we choose to exist currently. A lot of the choices that we’re making are influenced by the fact that we exist within a patriarchal, racist society, and the only way that we can dream of spaces that are outside of that is to be experimental and to be imaginative and to think about alternative ways, and one of the ways that I choose to do that is as an artist.

If you want to help C4AA train and continue to support more groups, artists, and causes like these, please donate. Your contributions really help.

Phoebe Davies

Pictured: Phoebe Davies (left) with Jenny Moore and Chloe Cooper, co-creators of Bedfellows.

 

So, for me, I think that the reason that I work in the arts and not so in the charity sector is that we are able to challenge things and question things and push ideas outside of institutions or certain structures. You’ll only get to those places through challenging, through pushing, and thinking outside of how we choose to exist currently.

Phoebe Davies* is a social practice artist and producer based in London. She often works with mixed-media, including constructed social spaces, video, audio, and print works. Currently, Davies is working on multiple projects including Bedfellows, a sex re-education project working with adults and young people’s groups to explore desire, consent, representation, and feminist porn, while reflecting on and investigating current sex education.


*This interview was conducted in conjunction with the British Council’s Arts and Social Practice fellowship, of which Davies was a fellow in 2016.


Sarah J Halford: Can you tell me a little bit about how you came to your artistic practice?

Phoebe Davies: In my late teens, early twenties, I was studying my BA at Wimbledon College of Arts. That was a fine arts BA in painting. But very early on I stopped making 2D work and started thinking about making time-based work. I come from an education and youth work background, so I’ve always worked as a youth worker alongside my art projects. Following the BA, I was lucky enough to get a traineeship with an organization called Arts Happening and I had the position as Trainee Producer, working across art projects and education and their advisory service that they have for artists. A lot of Arts Happening’s work might be seen as contemporary theatre, where they situate work in public space, as well as working with traditional gallery spaces and theatres. I learned a large amount from them.

We worked very closely thinking about what audiences have access to the arts, and what barriers certain people to be able to access art and others not. I’m from a farming community in South Wales, and so moving and living in an art sector in London, I’m really keen for us to really think about who we’re choosing to make work for, and how that exists outside of maybe the privileged bubbles that definitely exist within art spaces and galleries in particular – what it means to walk into those spaces, or who has the right to walk into those spaces. It’s not always just an open door, I guess.

SJH: And how would you describe your practice now?

PD: So, I work as an artist and I also work as a producer working for other artists, supporting them on their projects. I am currently making a lot of video performance print-based work, and I also make constructed social spaces – which is how I describe them – which will exist where people will maybe read them within an art context as instillations. I make work often with groups of people, so I will do large amounts of research working with groups of people that might have different expertise or skill sets or might be in a certain community or age to unpack ideas that come from that on-site research, which are often social or political.

Because I come from a visual arts background and have lots of experience working in contemporary theatre as well, if we are hosting workshops and thinking about using a gallery space or a museum, often I have a very strong design eye and aesthetic to my work. So, I will think about how we will design that space to open up conversations. Whether that’s making furniture that exists in that space that can be used in many different ways, or we’re making backdrops, fly-posting, making up some tables that have got different references, or showreels within the space. So, I guess thinking about how we make spaces and use those spaces to often share knowledges but within a certain aesthetic that I develop.

Photo by Rowena Gorden

SJH: That’s great. You say that you like to create “constructed social spaces” that often take on a social or political bent – can you share an example of that?

PD:  One example of that toured in 2013-2014 with a project called Influences, which was a feminist nail salon that was always developed in conjunction to different women’s groups locally to where it was toured. We designed not only the space as a site for conversation around contemporary gender politics and what was relevant to the groups we were working with, but also it hosted a series of workshops and events and talks – and it was a functioning nail salon. So, it’s not only a space where you come in and cruise around and look at stuff, but more that you’re sat in it, you’re learning in it, you’re hosting conversations in it, and how do we develop design to look at that.

SJH: So how did the feminist nail salon, and the program in general, work?

PD: So, when we work in groups we talk about the fact that we have the platform, if we choose to as a group, to host a space that could open up conversations that are relevant to women and non-binary folk local to the area. We talk about what issues might be relevant that they may want to host conversations about. We run nail salons that depict women or people of influence who are conversation starters around those themes. So, they might be social activists who are fighting to end violence against women. They might be photographers who depict trans communities in townships. Then, we work together to design these nail designs that depict women or people who are doing work that might be socially or politically-relevant work. So, that’s where we start from.

We want to host that space for people to have their nails done and open up further conversation. So, when you enter the space there may be a design at different tables that you can take a seat and get your nails done, and when you sit down there you’ll get a menu of people that you can choose to have applied to your nails. Then, there’s most likely going to be a live reader that we’ve put together. When we were in South Africa, an artist duo called Sober and Lonely brought a fantastic feminist and SciFi library that we were able to host. There may be some audio work that you listen to. The space will also be designed with probably vinyl wraps or fly posters that we’ve designed showing images that we’ve found as a group that depict women working in different ways. You’ll also have information about the women who you’ll have designed on your nails.

So, we spend like two months running workshops, talking about what is relevant for young women and then who could open up those conversations. Also, we think about a demographic of who we’re trying to show, if we’re thinking about it as a set of 10 [women or people]. Some of those people are local leaders, so you might have a very well-known female activist, like Malala, but you might also have somebody who’s doing really important grassroots work.

Photo courtesy of ArtsAdmin.co.uk

SJH: You conducted this project for a few years, which would suggest that something kept you coming back to it. So, what was it that you kept coming back, or that you thought was working?

PD: That project was in very high demand. Lots of groups were asking for us. So, when you get continuously invited by groups who you think are very interesting – that’s the reason that we kept developing that work.

SJH: Why do you prefer to create interactive art pieces rather than having someone come into a gallery and look at a painting or instillation?

PD: Sometimes I’ll make a piece of work that is to be viewed or read by the audience where there isn’t a conversation that goes past that. Other times, the work will host conversations, so it will be about opening up those conversations. The reason I hope for that to happen is because often it’s a very one-way experience within certain art sectors. And I think that, for me, some of the most interesting moments happen when there’s things that can be discussed or unpacked, not just by yourself when you leave that space, but currently located within the work. Also, I’m really keen to create ways that those conversations can happen across different audiences. So, what it means to have conversations with those you wouldn’t normally have conversations with. And so that’s why I like constructing spaces that allow that to happen.

SJH: Can you tell me about a time when those conversations were able to happen?

PD: So, an example of that would be a research project that I’m running with two other artists called Jenny Moore and Chloe Cooper, which is called Bedfellows. It takes many different strands of art – like live performance, print, workshops, radio shows – and unpacks how we learn about sex education, which is really a life-long process – we often call it sex re-education. Thinking about how we learn about consent and desire and relationship models.

It’s quite interesting, as well, because realizing how your role as an artist within that, your role or your team’s role of hosting or facilitating is so crucial is something that I’ve definitely learned through working with Jenny and Chloe. When we have an event that we run called Sex Talk Meeting, which is where we create a space made out of about 20 to 30 white duvets and we’re dressed in like, TLC silky pajamas and we have a soundtrack and we perform some dancing at the beginning that is very tongue-in-cheek, and sometimes we offer people drinks as well. We host an evening or afternoon of talking about different issues around sex. Obviously, politically, that can be very emotional, socially, politically, emotionally. I believe that you cannot create safe spaces but you can put things in space to make sure that those people in those spaces are choosing to look after themselves and other people there.

Photo courtesy of the Tate Modern

So, often we talk about the rules of the bed when we’ve made this love bed. Everyone’s invited to come and sit in the bed. We’ve done quite a few of these. We create these booklets, and during the evening we will show three different references, we’ll have some starter questions, and we’ll invite people to talk about these ideas with whomever is sat near them. So, you’re not necessarily talking about it with the people you’ve come with. And because we ask people to mix up in various conversations, people end up having really extended conversation with people who they may have just met that evening.

How we end up advertising these events will very much determine who’s sat in the room. So if it’s a group of local secondary school teachers, we’re trying to figure out how they discuss pornography at school, with the fact that young people access pornography so much freer than maybe they did when they were younger. So, you might get people who are there for the music who’ve come because certain people are playing and they come and take part in a sex talk meeting then.

Our role within that is so important – so how we choose to facilitate those spaces and how we choose to open up those conversations, being aware of how these conversations could be triggering. So, a massive part of this is to understand that we all come with different experiences, and to not pass judgment on other people’s opinions and experiences from that. And it’s quite amazing that you can actually host spaces where people will talk very openly about sexual politics.

SJH: Would you read us some of the starter questions?

PD: Sure. “Can you be queer without being L, G, B, or T?” “Is queerness merely an identity exercise or is it tied to the more tangibly political: like economics, racial injustice, or our relationships to the state?” “Is queerness about who you are or more about what you do?” And my favorite one is: “How can you be sexually free? How do you let go? Do you always have to have the same sex or does the sex you have change with different people? What does it mean to like being penetrated or being the one doing the penetrating?”

Photo courtesy of Phoebe Davies

SJH: Can you tell me about a specific night that went really well and why you thought so?

PD: Actually, the things I think of being most successful are the research groups that we’ve set up. So, we run monthly research groups where we have a rolling email list of people who might be educators, artists, producers, academics, researchers, or care workers, or sex workers, and we invite them in to spend an evening looking at certain texts with us in a really informal way, hosted in our studios. And that has been really important to inform how the work can exist. So, that isn’t the work, but it’s definitely the model that has helped us to unpack the ideas that we’re working on and how we want to push those things forward.

SJH: Can remember witnessing a conversation where you thought the impact was really powerful, even if the responses were difficult ones?

PD: I recently finished working specifically with a school in East London, Mulberry School for Girls, which is a predominately a Muslim girl’s school – 99.97% of the women who attend the school are Bengali Muslim. Those women taught me so much about how we learn about consent and desire. We made a print, which they call a zine, and putting this together really shifted my ideas of also ability for action within schools. The school is taking this as the basis for all of their future sex education from year seven on. They are retraining their staff, they’re getting us in to help us retrain their staff, and they are talking to the students about how they can potentially work with the parents. One of the largest conversations there was the fact that we cannot just have these conversations as women, we need to also push much more broadly within our communities, which not only means men’s groups but also means our parents and the community leaders outside who, often in the UK in particular, parents and communities are very nervous about what’s taught within sex education. All of this is currently being shifted in the next couple of years.

So, the young women I was working with have advocated for the zine that they made to be translated into three different languages because some of their parents do not speak English. So, not only are they saying, “Yeah this is great,” but that it needs to be in these three different dialects. I think around the table we had seven different dialects and were like, if we hit these three, then so many of the parents who would not be able to access this information would be able to. It just kind of blew me away that they suggested such a larger action outside of that.

SJH: And why do you think caused that to be so successful?

PD: It was about working collectively, it was about the fact that there were different opinions in the room – that my opinion was one of seven or eight equally valid opinions in that space.

The other thing is that when we work as me, Jenny, and Chloe, we work as Bedfellows, but we’re three white women in our early 30s. So, we’re really conscious of [the fact that] it’s really important for us to establish that we’re not an authority on any of this. We’ve done a lot of research into it, but we constantly collaborate with other artists. It’s really important to acknowledge a multitude of different histories and stories, not just certain voices.

Photo courtesy of the Tate Modern

SJH: And what about one of the sex talk meetings or workshops that didn’t go so well?

PD: That one, actually – we were invited to come and do a sex talk and it was the first time we’d actually done one. And what we wanted was about 50 people, and we wanted to make sure that everybody who’s working on it had been briefed before and everybody knew how we would work as a team to safeguard that area, and how we can make sure that, where possible, we’re making a space that people felt comfortable in. And we had 500 people turn up. This was in [one of] the galleries in the Tate that is really, really big. So when you plan to do something that you hope is going to be quite intimate, and then you have 500 people, you have to totally change the way you’re going to host those conversations with that work.

So, for me it was a huge learning curve because so much of it actually failed. Well, not failed, there were people who really got into the conversations and really benefited from what we were doing, but at the same time we maybe couldn’t give it as much time as we wanted to because we were hosting this very large group of people who all wanted to talk about different sexual experiences.

Photo courtesy of Phoebe Davies

SJH: It sounds like there have been some interesting conversations generated from your projects, but what happens after the initial conversation is over? What next?

PD: I think that the kind of projects that I’m involved with push toward long-term change. If you think about me working at Mulberry School for Girls, you can see very quickly an outcome: institutional change, the retraining of all of their staff. The whole of the senior leadership team having a conversation around queer desire. Offering sex ed, from year seven, all the way to being trans inclusive and intersex inclusive. These are things that are happening. Specifically, in the Bedfellows program, within work that’s maybe the video work that I do, the print work that I do, that you might see and then leave from it, it’s not so obvious where that sits. It also, to me, I don’t want it to be that obvious. I want it to slowly choose to challenge or question the perceptions you might have on how people choose to situate themselves within society.

So, for me, I think that the reason that I work in the arts and not so in the charity sector is that we are able to challenge things and question things and push ideas outside of institutions or certain structures. You’ll only get to those places through challenging, through pushing, and thinking outside of how we choose to exist currently. A lot of the choices that we’re making are influenced by the fact that we exist within a patriarchal, racist society, and the only way that we can dream of spaces that are outside of that is to be experimental and to be imaginative and to think about alternative ways, and one of the ways that I choose to do that is as an artist.

 

If you want to help C4AA train and continue to support more groups, artists, and causes like these, please donate. Your contributions really help.

Owen Griffiths

ssentially, it’s about: how can you subvert an artistic process to also be a useful one?…I think what’s happening in my practice is that I’m realizing that there’s an archipelago of projects which don’t necessarily function as art projects now, but were afforded or created through the mechanism of an art project and now continue in another way. I like the idea of the legacies of these projects being connected up. I think the strategy is part of a broader process of the need and the want to collaborate. Whether it’s with a housing association or with a local government, a gallery, or with other artists.

Owen Griffiths* is a social practice artist based in Wales, UK. Focused on site-specific, community-based projects, his work utilizes multiple mediums, including community gardens and edible landscapes, architecture, green public spaces, and more. Griffiths uses “art projects” as tactics to enter into publicly-owned spaces, transforming them into beautiful and useful landscapes that are co-authored by others in the community. Ultimately, this tactic beautifies the space, creates community buy-in, and keeps the space in the hands of the people – rather than sold to a private corporation.

*This interview was conducted in conjunction with the British Council’s Arts and Social Practice fellowship, of which Griffiths was a fellow in 2014.


Sarah J Halford: Can you tell me a little bit about your practice and how you came to it?

Owen Griffiths: I’m an artist. I work in the social practice realm of things. I work with communities, and on the basis of co-authorship and collaboration, which is sort of central to the practice. That means that sometimes with a gallery, sometimes with a community, or an institution, or organization. And it’s based around trying to work in conversation with as many partners as possible to create the work, or create a change, or create whatever the project is. So, my work is about seeking out the kind of constituencies that kind of feed into the process, place, or the objective of the work.

I had a kind of fairly traditional route to becoming an artist. I went to art school and got a B.A. and then an M.A. But where I work in South Wales, working with social practice here isn’t necessarily something that’s happening all the time. We aren’t as fluent, necessarily, in some of these ideas here in places like the UK – in Britain and in Wales. But I think there’s a real urgency around the political climate, the economic, social, environmental climate, and what’s happening in Europe where this work can actually play an important role in countries like Wales. So, even though I call it an artistic practice, and it’s sort of talked about as an artistic practice, it’s sometimes hard for galleries to get into that or think of a way of working with me. So, I tend to author a lot of projects myself or with other artists. Or work with communities on things.

SJH: For those galleries or to someone who maybe doesn’t know much about ‘social practice art’ – how would you describe yourself as an artist?

OG: I would say that I’m a social practice artist – I think that term is really important. But I think also what I’d say is that I’m really interested in finding out the potential of a place or a community through looking at the vernacular of a place, or things that are specific to that situation. I’m really interested in looking at the quality of that stuff, how we can build cultural confidence and build cultural partnerships. Whether it’s about celebrating their locale, or their role in that locale, or re-politicizing people to play a role in their community. So, that’s what I’d say – I’m interested in that work. That can take lots of different forms. But it’s not about saying that there’s a form to each project, and it’s not like you get the same project every time. You change and adapt, you’re site-responsive, you’re dialogue-responsive. So, you have to kind of move and shape-shift a lot with this kind of work.

Pictured: Vetch Veg – Swansea, Wales

SJH: Can you give me an example of a project that you’ve done that you thought went really well?

OG: I think the Vetch Veg project in Swansea was a seminal moment for me in how this kind of work develops and how I found my language as an artist. I was asked to look at the idea of developing a project in my local environment, and there was a football stadium that was being demolished just in front of our house, before you get to the sea in Swansea. It was the centenary of the football field, and they took the thing down and moved it out of town. So I thought, how can we develop this piece of land and how can we talk about what it’s future will be when it’s had this kind of iconic symbolism in the city for a hundred years? So, we ended up making a vegetable garden in one section of it. That is still there, 5 years on, and about 150 people garden and grow stuff through this project.

I think before I’d been working in and out of galleries, or on the fringes of things. I’d been teaching a bit, I’d been working with communities or children and educational stuff. And this project really accelerated the understanding of what social practice could be. And, also, I lived within a square mile of this place. So, it was a project that happened through the Cultural Olympiad in the UK in 2012; I basically worked on this thing every day for 2 ½ years, so it really took over my life. But it was incredible because what you’d see when you go there is that this is a functioning and sustainable resource that was created through the the processes of art but is now no longer talked about, or needs to be talked about, as an art project. It just exists as a community resource, which is really exciting.

But, what’s really interesting is that this vegetable plot influenced the future of the site and influenced people’s political and social consciousnesses in the area. To connect to this piece of land and say, “actually we want to keep this piece of land – we don’t want you to sell to Tesco. We think this is a really important place to keep green.” Because often in city centers we have a lack of green spaces or resources for children, a lack of tranquil spaces, and the connection between places like that and mental health are really, really huge. So, how, as an artist, can you work with a community on a project like that to help to be part of a conversation about what the future of this piece of land is, and how can you be an author of this piece of land rather than give all of that to the council?

Because we presented this idea to the local authority that owned the piece of land as an art project, we weren’t seen particularly as serious threats in the sense of – we’re taking ownership of a piece of land. Because we called it an art project, they let us do it because they thought it would either fail or it would be temporary or it would just be something for the Olympics and it would move on. But, as I said, 5 years later people are still there and the park is now green. Now, that’s not all because of the Vetch project, but it did play a significant role in how that piece of city center green space has been altered and kept green. So, I’m very proud of that piece of work and of the collaboration that we worked with in the area.

Pictured: A sketch of Vetch Veg – Swansea, Wales

We were there every day, in the rain, building raised beds for planting. The stadium was compacted into building waste that was buried underground. We scavenged bits of football stadium roof for the cafe and the shed, and all of the other things that we used, the roof of the bread oven, all of those things. We just borrowed materials from the demolition. So, it’s how a project like that can be a kind of social connector in that area – how this endeavor of creating a garden can bring a lot of people together and cross lots of boundaries.

The best thing was when we had 10 tons of topsoil delivered, because the kids would just climb this mountain of topsoil and play on it. Just to be outdoors with their neighbors and their families, that’s really great in an urban area to have experiences like that. Now, kids go there after school, they water the plants, there’s an old pipe where they’ll play with the water, and people are growing stuff – maybe not to feed their whole family on that stuff, but actually it’s a social space. That’s really important, as well as the growing. It’s sort of talked about, in Wales anyway, as a project which has started a conversation about what it is to work in your local area, what it is to work in communities, what social practice can be, and is recognized as an example of good practice, which I’m really thrilled about. But I definitely learned so much by doing it because I’d never done such an ambitious thing before, and it really changed the way I work and practice.

SJH: As a community garden, you obviously needed the community. So, how did you get their buy-in to work on this project?

OG: We basically just went around, knocking doors and talking to people and went for pints in pubs and talked to people about the project. We put posters up, and got people to just come and see it. We worked with local counselors, we worked with sustainable groups in Swansea to talk about the project, we just went around and chatted to people.

And, also, we realized that regular consultation groups weren’t the way to go – questionnaires and things. It needed the human conversation, which you can’t just do in a form and send in the form. It was really important to go meet people and talk to them. What would happen then is that people would say, “I’ve never talked to my neighbors and I’ve lived on this street for 20 years.” And you just thought, well that can’t be, surely, but actually these things are really common.

It was really interesting to see things like racial tensions come to the surface, and the changing relationship to the community – the effect of the student population, the Chinese community, the Bangladeshi community that lived in this area, and people who were from Swansea and born and brought up there. So, it was all of these stories coming together, and whatever these urban conflicts are – conflicts around parking, or whatever, that you find in areas of dense housing, it was really interesting to say, “well, we’re not going to talk about any of those things – what we’re going to do is build this thing together. And, none of us are gardeners, so let’s just try to build this infrastructure together and develop this project.”

And then, throughout that year it was building that community partnership, really working with lots of different groups in the community, encouraging the Chinese retirement home to be part of the project, encouraging the churches and the tenants association, and all of these different groups that are active to come and be part of the project. I worked with about 4 or 5 people who were totally key and who emerged as community leaders to the project who really saw the project through and are very active there today.

SJH: It sounds like the community was really hungry for something like this.

OG: Yeah, I think we just hit the right time. Nobody had asked them what was going to happen in this piece of land. They’d lived with an empty stadium for 5 years, which had gone into dereliction, and no one had ever really had conversations with them about what this could be. So, having established this community confidence through the work that we were doing, we felt capable of challenging some of these prescribed ideas or possible routes that this piece of land would go down.

SJH: Why a garden? Why not a community center or just make it a dog park or something?

OG: Well, they have a community center, they have a beach across the road where all the dogs go. It was more about creating a green space, really, than a vegetable garden. It’s not as prolific of a growing space that you could have if you didn’t have individual beds. But it felt necessary to have individual plots so that people might have a plot next to someone they didn’t know. You wouldn’t necessarily be next to your neighbor, but you might be next to someone you’ve never met before. Mixing it all up like that was quite key when we came to work on this.

SJH: How does a garden like this fit into your larger “social practice”?

OG: I think that since Vetch Veg the gardens have been quite a theme in my work, because what it gives you is a space to nurture something, a space to talk about everything – politics, place, community, identity – you can talk about all that stuff, but you can do it while moving soil or building something. So, really, it’s kind of a vehicle to get to the conversations and get to the work that you want to do. I suppose that I’m probably a frustrated landscape designer because I love the idea of these spaces as anti-capitalist spaces that are somehow connected to a community-oriented belief. So, in a privatized landscape, I think about how spaces like these have a real strategic importance, as well as a biodiversity importance, as well as a social, political, cultural importance. So, they kind of work on lots of different levels for me. And being outdoors working with other people is just such a great experience for people to connect food politics to a sense of place. I don’t always make gardens, but they’re definitely a theme that I’ve been working with.

Pictured: Hillside Secure Children’s Home – Neath, Wales

I also worked, as well, in a secure unit for 12 to 16 year old kids, which was basically a prison and a school all rolled into one, and they lived on site, just outside Swansea. We made a garden there as well because often in institutions like that, the outdoor spaces are not very cared for, there aren’t enough resources to look after them, and people aren’t empowered to take them on.

The prison project was in a place called Hillside Secure Unit. Its courtyard is basically the only space that the kids all use at some point in the day, crossing it to go to class or whatever. And it was a completely unloved space that was just mossy and damp and just really boring. So, we talked about linking that space to a pedagogical role. We created a raised bed system again and we worked with the kids and staff to develop an outdoor classroom, essentially, and a space where other conversations can happen.

Especially when you’re in a high security institution, sitting in a polytunnel and hearing the rain fall on the polytunnel and having a conversation with your therapist is such a nicer experience that sitting in a strip-light room where the furniture is bolted down and everything around you is about hostility and coldness. Even though the staff might be trying to bridge those gaps, the architecture is working against you all the time.

Pictured: Inside a polytunnel at Hillside Secure Children’s Home – Neath, Wales

So, after consultation with the staff about what we were trying to do and how it would work, this outdoor class would be a place where we could have conversations, they could have family visits there, and the beds were just chalk-full of stuff. It was a really rich biodiversity – a complete mixture of planting. We grew everything with the kids, so you really get to talk about the idea of the seed growing into the fruit. We would connect that garden to a bigger conversation of things in the outside world and how in a few years time when they might be leaving that place or going onto a different institution, how they’ll work with that. So, those transitional conversations about place, and also abstract conversations about life and the world and our place in it, ecosystems and materials, all these things. It’s just a great vehicle to talk about all of this stuff.

SJH: Did you have any specific goal in mind when you went in and did that end up changing by the end of it?

OG: The goals of the prison projects are really open because the environments are so different. They have different categories of people who are in there for different reasons, with a massive difference in needs and mental health, so you’ve got to be really flexible to sustain a conversation with a place like that. That is the goal: if you can have a conversation with the institution and create something that hopefully lasts beyond your intervention as an artist. So, the fact that the garden in Swansea and the Hillside gardens are still there and still used is a great result in that sense. We can leave something that doesn’t need prolonged artistic intervention to keep it up. So, I think that’s the goal when you go into a situation like that – how can you create something sustainable and useful through the project? How can you manipulate an artistic process or artistic funding to create a wider conversation about what the usefulness of this is?

SJH: What is it about these conversations that’s so important to you?

OG: Well I think that the conversations that you have as an artist – they’re interesting because you’re kind of like a trespasser, you’re coming maybe with no expertise in this sector, and you’re allowed in through the label of an artist to work with people or an idea, so there’s a sense of privilege around that a lot of the time. What’s amazing is that people will tell you stuff. You have amazing conversations with people about all kinds of things. But it’s incredible to learn about the perspective of the workplace or the world or politics from people in different situations. It informs your work and what you do, so it’s absolutely key in the way that we create a space and allow people to be heard. How you bring people into the role of a collaborator or a sense of co-authorship. You can’t do that unless you have a real understanding of them.

SJH: Regarding the prison project, you said that there was an effect on the students and educators. What did that effect look like? How did you first realize that it was happening?

OG: I think the effect was almost immediately because they very rarely get the time to spend outside doing something that’s not sports-related. So, to be outside with permission to do things like wheeling a wheelbarrow full of soil, and just really simple tasks like that, you could see how much they enjoyed doing it and how extraordinary the effect was of them being outside and doing something that wasn’t necessarily competitive.

You can use the garden as an example to talk about any educational process. So, that’s what was interesting was that they sort of began to see the possibilities of the garden. And then, we would sit in the polytunnel and have our tea breaks, but instead of having these really bad, sugary snacks we would bring in different, healthier things. And just that somebody had offered them something different and that we were sitting in this polytunnel listening to the rain, chatting, just the informality that the garden gave, you could see this kind of weight shifting – not necessarily lifting, because you’re still in this high-security space – but the sense of having permission to be outside in a different way. And then the staff came to us with ideas – it was their idea to bring the therapists into the garden. We had hoped that things like that would happen, but you never really know, depending on the context and what’s happening in the institution.

So, it was really great because the young people enjoyed being outside in a different way, and then the adults could see the possibilities of the garden as a metaphor for a bigger way of working in spaces like that.

SJH: And what about the conversations that happen within the groups that you work with? You said earlier that sometimes real social or political conversations can come up amongst the co-authors. What do you hope comes next?

OG: I guess you just take things from the conversation…I don’t know the answer to that, really. I think it’s just about…yeah, I don’t look at things like that. I just sort of carry on. They don’t stop, these conversations, they just carry on. You know, like after we’ve left a project, for example, or after I’ve stopped working on something — knowing when to stop working on something, knowing when to stop having those conversations is really difficult, because you might work with a group of people for 2 years and you become friends with them, and you develop relationships with people around this work and these roles and these ideas. There’s a sense of a real, common ownership of a project, and then you leave. It’s really hard for the community, it’s really hard for you as an artist. So, it’s a tricky thing for you to work on. And I think I’m learning how to do it all the time.

SJH: Were those conversations part of how you knew that the project was successful?

OG: Oh yeah, definitely. I think that the difficulty is that the markers of success in projects like this are very subtle, and actually you’d have to ask them what made it a success because my criteria would be different to theirs. Also my criteria is from the perspective of someone who leaves at the end of the day, and their criteria is that they managed to stay out there for an hour without misbehaving or being sent back in or being restrained.

Now, they might not be able to necessarily express the fact that that was a successful experience, but for the staff, they’d say, “Wow, it’s amazing to see so-and-so in the garden, he’s totally different here than he is in an educational context.” And I’d say, “Well, this is also an educational context, it’s just an informal educational context.” We’re talking about a lot of complex things like building, co-planting, but actually the informality and the outdoor element just gave people spaces to breathe. I think that’s so important in a high-tension environment like that. All the kids are between 12 and 16, majority of them in the 16 age bracket. So, they’re like these big teenagers with a lot of energy and hormones kicking around, and so to be outside and to give them spaces to talk about this stuff was really key.

So, yeah, I think the markers of success were kind of always moving and different depending on who was coming in and out, but I think when someone would say something like that to me, it was like – great! Because you might feel like something didn’t go very well, but actually then you’d be informed by one of the teachers that that was a really successful engagement. Specific environments offer different things; you have to attune yourself to those, and that takes a bit of time.

SJH: It sounds like you measure success with a variety of metrics that are based on one’s perspective. Have you felt that way about other projects?

OG: I think it’s with all the projects, really, when you’re working with groups of people. How do you evaluate the experience successfully, and honestly, and how do you use a process of evaluation as a creative process to inform how you go forward? So, you’re not doing it at the end, you’re doing it throughout. And I think that’s the key: to try to work with these processes throughout. And it takes a bit of time, but it actually informs a more sustainable practice of working. You basically get to achieve something that’s a more real connection to a place by adapting things all the time.

Pictured: A community gathering at Vetch Veg – Swansea, Wales

SJH: These sound like incredible projects, but what about the times when things don’t go so well?

OG: Yeah, I’ve certainly had projects like that where things haven’t worked for various reasons.

SJH: Does an example come to mind?

OG: Yeah, sure…I want to be somewhat vague with this because the project is still ongoing. But looking back now I can really see why it didn’t work, but at the time it’s really hard to work out. In a partnership project recently we had difficulty having a conversation with all the key partners. I think that’s a really important part of something. So, when things haven’t worked, it’s been about not having access to the people who have conceptualized this creative project, who have maybe thought: what we need here is an art project, when actually they don’t need an art project. But they bring in an artist and you work on this project and you get to meet people and have conversations, but actually you don’t get to talk to the right people or things aren’t properly communicated.

SJH: So is it that this project wasn’t hitting the right chord with the community?

OG: It’s not necessarily that, I think that when social practice projects don’t necessarily work it’s because what they need is an architect or a better resource. So, I think when it’s not worked very well it’s because they didn’t need an art project or the community didn’t want an art project but the landlord wanted an art project. Or the consultation they’ve done around this is just a form-filling exercise or something.

SJH: So in the project that you’re thinking about, what were some indicators that it was starting to go south?

OG: The fact that they’d say things like, “We’ve done a community consultation and we sent out 300 flyers and nobody showed up.” Things like that where you have a track way of doing things and you’re not willing to change your way of doing things. We were trying to do something different than what they normally deliver, and therefore you might want to change your consult methods. So, things like that were clues to this kind of conversation not going forward.

And, also the fact that we couldn’t speak to the director or the landlord of this piece of land, we were meeting other people. So, sometimes it’s really useful to speak to people at the head of an organization to talk about what this is, because actually what most people are not prepared for is the time that these projects take and the money they take because they can be big beasts sometimes. They take a lot of time and a lot of resources and money and they don’t always necessarily give you a big shiny thing at the end of it.

Pictured: Vetch Veg – Swansea, Wales

SJH: Do you connect these community-based projects to a broader idea of social change?

OG: I think so, yeah. I mean, they’re attempting to be – sometimes failing, sometimes succeeding. But I’m working in Wales, and I’m really interested in the idea of small nations as authors of change, and the idea of being based in somewhere like this, working in your locale as well as internationally, as a way of creating a sustainable shift, or a greater participation in something to enable things to happen. Of course, there are loads of other models and ways of doing this not as artworks, which are much more successful or give greater agency or at a greater speed, but I think what’s achieved through social practice can be really unique and really transformative, and can provide a really poetic space for intervention.

But, essentially, it’s about: how can you subvert an artistic process to also be a useful one? So, how can we use a Cultural Olympiad grant or commission to achieve something long term, all the way out in Swansea? I think it’s about that question, really, it’s about the usefulness of this and the utility of it. How can we participate in a greater idea of connection to place, to neighbors, to cities, to urban design, to the questions of the environment around us and how we can participate in those changes and not have things done to us all the time.

SJH: Do you think of your work as one-off projects or do you connect them all together to a larger strategy for change?

OG: I think what’s happening in my practice is that I’m realizing that there’s an archipelago of projects which don’t necessarily function as art projects now, but were afforded or created through the mechanism of an art project and now continue in another way. I like the idea of the legacies of these project being connected up. I think the strategy is part of a broader process of the need and the want to collaborate. Whether it’s with a housing association or with a local government, a gallery, or with other artists.

I think those small-scale changes are inspired by changes on a mass-scale. So they’re a part of bigger changes that I’m not authoring, but they’re part of a much bigger thing. So, the Venn Diagram of how these things connect up to a revolution around how we use land in this country. Or say food justice, social food politics, is the big issue, then this work connects up to that as a small part. So, I feel like there are plenty of enormous social change movements happening that these projects can assist in. I think they’re one and the same, really.

I’m always interested in the idea of collaboration, but I think now it’s about strategic collaborations, probably with other artists, to get these projects moving in a quicker way. That’s what keeps me in Wales and that’s what keeps me working here – the possibilities of working in a small community and creating these changes, creating the landscape that you live in, and also having international conversations from this perspective feels like a really good time to challenge the neoliberal structures, to challenge land privatization, to challenge the lack of green spaces in cities. These are conversations that a lot of artists are having, there’s a lot of artists becoming social practitioners now. It feels like a really rich time.

For more information on Owen Griffiths, visit www.aboutreconnection.com

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Owen Griffiths

[E]ssentially, it’s about: how can you subvert an artistic process to also be a useful one?…I think what’s happening in my practice is that I’m realizing that there’s an archipelago of projects which don’t necessarily function as art projects now, but were afforded or created through the mechanism of an art project and now continue in another way. I like the idea of the legacies of these projects being connected up. I think the strategy is part of a broader process of the need and the want to collaborate. Whether it’s with a housing association or with a local government, a gallery, or with other artists.

Owen Griffiths* is a social practice artist based in Wales, UK. Focused on site-specific, community-based projects, his work utilizes multiple mediums, including community gardens and edible landscapes, architecture, green public spaces, and more. Griffiths uses “art projects” as tactics to enter into publicly-owned spaces, transforming them into beautiful and useful landscapes that are co-authored by others in the community. Ultimately, this tactic beautifies the space, creates community buy-in, and keeps the space in the hands of the people – rather than sold to a private corporation.

*This interview was conducted in conjunction with the British Council’s Arts and Social Practice fellowship, of which Griffiths was a fellow in 2014.


Sarah J Halford: Can you tell me a little bit about your practice and how you came to it?

Owen Griffiths: I’m an artist. I work in the social practice realm of things. I work with communities, and on the basis of co-authorship and collaboration, which is sort of central to the practice. That means that sometimes with a gallery, sometimes with a community, or an institution, or organization. And it’s based around trying to work in conversation with as many partners as possible to create the work, or create a change, or create whatever the project is. So, my work is about seeking out the kind of constituencies that kind of feed into the process, place, or the objective of the work.

I had a kind of fairly traditional route to becoming an artist. I went to art school and got a B.A. and then an M.A. But where I work in South Wales, working with social practice here isn’t necessarily something that’s happening all the time. We aren’t as fluent, necessarily, in some of these ideas here in places like the UK – in Britain and in Wales. But I think there’s a real urgency around the political climate, the economic, social, environmental climate, and what’s happening in Europe where this work can actually play an important role in countries like Wales. So, even though I call it an artistic practice, and it’s sort of talked about as an artistic practice, it’s sometimes hard for galleries to get into that or think of a way of working with me. So, I tend to author a lot of projects myself or with other artists. Or work with communities on things.

SJH: For those galleries or to someone who maybe doesn’t know much about ‘social practice art’ – how would you describe yourself as an artist?

OG: I would say that I’m a social practice artist – I think that term is really important. But I think also what I’d say is that I’m really interested in finding out the potential of a place or a community through looking at the vernacular of a place, or things that are specific to that situation. I’m really interested in looking at the quality of that stuff, how we can build cultural confidence and build cultural partnerships. Whether it’s about celebrating their locale, or their role in that locale, or re-politicizing people to play a role in their community. So, that’s what I’d say – I’m interested in that work. That can take lots of different forms. But it’s not about saying that there’s a form to each project, and it’s not like you get the same project every time. You change and adapt, you’re site-responsive, you’re dialogue-responsive. So, you have to kind of move and shape-shift a lot with this kind of work.

Pictured: Vetch Veg – Swansea, Wales

SJH: Can you give me an example of a project that you’ve done that you thought went really well?

OG: I think the Vetch Veg project in Swansea was a seminal moment for me in how this kind of work develops and how I found my language as an artist. I was asked to look at the idea of developing a project in my local environment, and there was a football stadium that was being demolished just in front of our house, before you get to the sea in Swansea. It was the centenary of the football field, and they took the thing down and moved it out of town. So I thought, how can we develop this piece of land and how can we talk about what it’s future will be when it’s had this kind of iconic symbolism in the city for a hundred years? So, we ended up making a vegetable garden in one section of it. That is still there, 5 years on, and about 150 people garden and grow stuff through this project.

I think before [Vetch Veg] I’d been working in and out of galleries, or on the fringes of things. I’d been teaching a bit, I’d been working with communities or children and educational stuff. And this project really accelerated the understanding of what social practice could be. And, also, I lived within a square mile of this place. So, it was a project that happened through the Cultural Olympiad in the UK in 2012; I basically worked on this thing every day for 2 ½ years, so it really took over my life. But it was incredible because what you’d see when you go there is that this is a functioning and sustainable resource that was created through the the processes of art but is now no longer talked about, or needs to be talked about, as an art project. It just exists as a community resource, which is really exciting.

But, what’s really interesting is that this vegetable plot influenced the future of the site and influenced people’s political and social consciousnesses in the area. To connect to this piece of land and say, “actually we want to keep this piece of land – we don’t want you to sell to Tesco. We think this is a really important place to keep green.” Because often in city centers we have a lack of green spaces or resources for children, a lack of tranquil spaces, and the connection between places like that and mental health are really, really huge. So, how, as an artist, can you work with a community on a project like that to help to be part of a conversation about what the future of this piece of land is, and how can you be an author of this piece of land rather than give all of that to the council?

Because we presented this idea to the local authority that owned the piece of land as an art project, we weren’t seen particularly as serious threats in the sense of – we’re taking ownership of a piece of land. Because we called it an art project, they let us do it because they thought it would either fail or it would be temporary or it would just be something for the Olympics and it would move on. But, as I said, 5 years later people are still there and the park is now green. Now, that’s not all because of the Vetch project, but it did play a significant role in how that piece of city center green space has been altered and kept green. So, I’m very proud of that piece of work and of the collaboration that we worked with in the area.

Pictured: A sketch of Vetch Veg – Swansea, Wales

We were there every day, in the rain, building raised beds for planting. The stadium was compacted into building waste that was buried underground. We scavenged bits of football stadium roof for the cafe and the shed, and all of the other things that we used, the roof of the bread oven, all of those things. We just borrowed materials from the demolition. So, it’s how a project like that can be a kind of social connector in that area – how this endeavor of creating a garden can bring a lot of people together and cross lots of boundaries.

The best thing was when we had 10 tons of topsoil delivered, because the kids would just climb this mountain of topsoil and play on it. Just to be outdoors with their neighbors and their families, that’s really great in an urban area to have experiences like that. Now, kids go there after school, they water the plants, there’s an old pipe where they’ll play with the water, and people are growing stuff – maybe not to feed their whole family on that stuff, but actually it’s a social space. That’s really important, as well as the growing. It’s sort of talked about, in Wales anyway, as a project which has started a conversation about what it is to work in your local area, what it is to work in communities, what social practice can be, and is recognized as an example of good practice, which I’m really thrilled about. But I definitely learned so much by doing it because I’d never done such an ambitious thing before, and it really changed the way I work and practice.

SJH: As a community garden, you obviously needed the community. So, how did you get their buy-in to work on this project?

OG: We basically just went around, knocking doors and talking to people and went for pints in pubs and talked to people about the project. We put posters up, and got people to just come and see it. We worked with local counselors, we worked with sustainable groups in Swansea to talk about the project, we just went around and chatted to people.

And, also, we realized that regular consultation groups weren’t the way to go – questionnaires and things. It needed the human conversation, which you can’t just do in a form and send in the form. It was really important to go meet people and talk to them. What would happen then is that people would say, “I’ve never talked to my neighbors and I’ve lived on this street for 20 years.” And you just thought, well that can’t be, surely, but actually these things are really common.

It was really interesting to see things like racial tensions come to the surface, and the changing relationship to the community – the effect of the student population, the Chinese community, the Bangladeshi community that lived in this area, and people who were from Swansea and born and brought up there. So, it was all of these stories coming together, and whatever these urban conflicts are – conflicts around parking, or whatever, that you find in areas of dense housing, it was really interesting to say, “well, [at Vetch Veg] we’re not going to talk about any of those things – what we’re going to do is build this thing together. And, none of us are gardeners, so let’s just try to build this infrastructure together and develop this project.”

And then, throughout that year it was building that community partnership, really working with lots of different groups in the community, encouraging the Chinese retirement home to be part of the project, encouraging the churches and the tenants association, and all of these different groups that are active to come and be part of the project. I worked with about 4 or 5 people who were totally key and who emerged as community leaders to the project who really saw the project through and are very active there today.

SJH: It sounds like the community was really hungry for something like this.

OG: Yeah, I think we just hit the right time. Nobody had asked them what was going to happen in this piece of land. They’d lived with an empty stadium for 5 years, which had gone into dereliction, and no one had ever really had conversations with them about what this could be. So, having established this community confidence through the work that we were doing, we felt capable of challenging some of these prescribed ideas or possible routes that this piece of land would go down.

SJH: Why a garden? Why not a community center or just make it a dog park or something?

OG: Well, they have a community center, they have a beach across the road where all the dogs go. It was more about creating a green space, really, than a vegetable garden. It’s not as prolific of a growing space that you could have if you didn’t have individual beds. But it felt necessary to have individual plots so that people might have a plot next to someone they didn’t know. You wouldn’t necessarily be next to your neighbor, but you might be next to someone you’ve never met before. Mixing it all up like that was quite key when we came to work on this.

SJH: How does a garden like this fit into your larger “social practice”?

OG: I think that since Vetch Veg the gardens have been quite a theme in my work, because what it gives you is a space to nurture something, a space to talk about everything – politics, place, community, identity – you can talk about all that stuff, but you can do it while moving soil or building something. So, really, it’s kind of a vehicle to get to the conversations and get to the work that you want to do. I suppose that I’m probably a frustrated landscape designer because I love the idea of these spaces as anti-capitalist spaces that are somehow connected to a community-oriented belief. So, in a privatized landscape, I think about how spaces like these have a real strategic importance, as well as a biodiversity importance, as well as a social, political, cultural importance. So, they kind of work on lots of different levels for me. And being outdoors working with other people is just such a great experience for people to connect food politics to a sense of place. I don’t always make gardens, but they’re definitely a theme that I’ve been working with.

Pictured: Hillside Secure Children’s Home – Neath, Wales

I also worked, as well, in a secure unit for 12 to 16 year old kids, which was basically a prison and a school all rolled into one, and they lived on site, just outside Swansea. We made a garden there as well because often in institutions like that, the outdoor spaces are not very cared for, there aren’t enough resources to look after them, and people aren’t empowered to take them on.

The prison project was in a place called Hillside Secure Unit. Its courtyard is basically the only space that the kids all use at some point in the day, crossing it to go to class or whatever. And it was a completely unloved space that was just mossy and damp and just really boring. So, we talked about linking that space to a pedagogical role. We created a raised bed system again and we worked with the kids and staff to develop an outdoor classroom, essentially, and a space where other conversations can happen.

Especially when you’re in a high security institution, sitting in a polytunnel and hearing the rain fall on the polytunnel and having a conversation with your therapist is such a nicer experience that sitting in a strip-light room where the furniture is bolted down and everything around you is about hostility and coldness. Even though the staff might be trying to bridge those gaps, the architecture is working against you all the time.

Pictured: Inside a polytunnel at Hillside Secure Children’s Home – Neath, Wales

So, after consultation with the staff about what we were trying to do and how it would work, this outdoor class would be a place where we could have conversations, they could have family visits there, and the [garden] beds were just chalk-full of stuff. It was a really rich biodiversity – a complete mixture of planting. We grew everything with the kids, so you really get to talk about the idea of the seed growing into the fruit. We would connect that garden to a bigger conversation of things in the outside world and how in a few years time when they might be leaving that place or going onto a different institution, how they’ll work with that. So, those transitional conversations about place, and also abstract conversations about life and the world and our place in it, ecosystems and materials, all these things. It’s just a great vehicle to talk about all of this stuff.

SJH: Did you have any specific goal in mind when you went in and did that end up changing by the end of it?

OG: The goals of the prison projects are really open because the environments are so different. They have different categories of people who are in there for different reasons, with a massive difference in needs and mental health, so you’ve got to be really flexible to sustain a conversation with a place like that. That is the goal: if you can have a conversation with the institution and create something that hopefully lasts beyond your intervention as an artist. So, the fact that the garden in Swansea [Vetch Veg] and the Hillside [prison] gardens are still there and still used is a great result in that sense. We can leave something that doesn’t need prolonged artistic intervention to keep it up. So, I think that’s the goal when you go into a situation like that – how can you create something sustainable and useful through the project? How can you manipulate an artistic process or artistic funding to create a wider conversation about what the usefulness of this is?

SJH: What is it about these conversations that’s so important to you?

OG: Well I think that the conversations that you have as an artist – they’re interesting because you’re kind of like a trespasser, you’re coming maybe with no expertise in this sector, and you’re allowed in through the label of an artist to work with people or an idea, so there’s a sense of privilege around that a lot of the time. What’s amazing is that people will tell you stuff. You have amazing conversations with people about all kinds of things. But it’s incredible to learn about the perspective of the workplace or the world or politics from people in different situations. It informs your work and what you do, so it’s absolutely key in the way that we create a space and allow people to be heard. How you bring people into the role of a collaborator or a sense of co-authorship. You can’t do that unless you have a real understanding of them.

SJH: Regarding the prison project, you said that there was an effect on the students and educators. What did that effect look like? How did you first realize that it was happening?

OG: I think the effect was almost immediately because they very rarely get the time to spend outside doing something that’s not sports-related. So, to be outside with permission to do things like wheeling a wheelbarrow full of soil, and just really simple tasks like that, you could see how much they enjoyed doing it and how extraordinary the effect was of them being outside and doing something that wasn’t necessarily competitive.

You can use the garden as an example to talk about any educational process. So, that’s what was interesting was that they sort of began to see the possibilities of the garden. And then, we would sit in the polytunnel and have our tea breaks, but instead of having these really bad, sugary snacks we would bring in different, healthier things. And just that somebody had offered them something different and that we were sitting in this polytunnel listening to the rain, chatting, just the informality that the garden gave, you could see this kind of weight shifting – not necessarily lifting, because you’re still in this high-security space – but the sense of having permission to be outside in a different way. And then the staff came to us with ideas – it was their idea to bring the therapists into the garden. We had hoped that things like that would happen, but you never really know, depending on the context and what’s happening in the institution.

So, it was really great because the young people enjoyed being outside in a different way, and then the adults could see the possibilities of the garden as a metaphor for a bigger way of working in spaces like that.

SJH: And what about the conversations that happen within the groups that you work with? You said earlier that sometimes real social or political conversations can come up amongst the co-authors. What do you hope comes next?

OG: I guess you just take things from the conversation…I don’t know the answer to that, really. I think it’s just about…yeah, I don’t look at things like that. I just sort of carry on. They don’t stop, these conversations, they just carry on. You know, like after we’ve left a project, for example, or after I’ve stopped working on something — knowing when to stop working on something, knowing when to stop having those conversations is really difficult, because you might work with a group of people for 2 years and you become friends with them, and you develop relationships with people around this work and these roles and these ideas. There’s a sense of a real, common ownership of a project, and then you leave. It’s really hard for the community, it’s really hard for you as an artist. So, it’s a tricky thing for you to work on. And I think I’m learning how to do it all the time.

SJH: Were those conversations part of how you knew that the project was successful?

OG: Oh yeah, definitely. I think that the difficulty is that the markers of success in projects like this are very subtle, and actually you’d have to ask them what made it a success because my criteria would be different to theirs. Also my criteria is from the perspective of someone who leaves at the end of the day, and their criteria is that they managed to stay out there for an hour without misbehaving or being sent back in or being restrained.

Now, they might not be able to necessarily express the fact that that was a successful experience, but for the staff, they’d say, “Wow, it’s amazing to see so-and-so in the garden, he’s totally different here than he is in an educational context.” And I’d say, “Well, this is also an educational context, it’s just an informal educational context.” We’re talking about a lot of complex things like building, co-planting, but actually the informality and the outdoor element just gave people spaces to breathe. I think that’s so important in a high-tension environment like that. All the kids are between 12 and 16, majority of them in the 16 age bracket. So, they’re like these big teenagers with a lot of energy and hormones kicking around, and so to be outside and to give them spaces to talk about this stuff was really key.

So, yeah, I think the markers of success were kind of always moving and different depending on who was coming in and out, but I think when someone would say something like that to me, it was like – great! Because you might feel like something didn’t go very well, but actually then you’d be informed by one of the teachers that that was a really successful engagement. Specific environments offer different things; you have to attune yourself to those, and that takes a bit of time.

SJH: It sounds like you measure success with a variety of metrics that are based on one’s perspective. Have you felt that way about other projects?

OG: I think it’s with all the projects, really, when you’re working with groups of people. How do you evaluate the experience successfully, and honestly, and how do you use a process of evaluation as a creative process to inform how you go forward? So, you’re not doing it at the end, you’re doing it throughout. And I think that’s the key: to try to work with these processes throughout. And it takes a bit of time, but it actually informs a more sustainable practice of working. You basically get to achieve something that’s a more real connection to a place by adapting things all the time.

Pictured: A community gathering at Vetch Veg – Swansea, Wales

SJH: These sound like incredible projects, but what about the times when things don’t go so well?

OG: Yeah, I’ve certainly had projects like that where things haven’t worked for various reasons.

SJH: Does an example come to mind?

OG: Yeah, sure…I want to be somewhat vague with this because the project is still ongoing. But looking back now I can really see why it didn’t work, but at the time it’s really hard to work out. In a partnership project recently we had difficulty having a conversation with all the key partners. I think that’s a really important part of something. So, when things haven’t worked, it’s been about not having access to the people who have conceptualized this creative project, who have maybe thought: what we need here is an art project, when actually they don’t need an art project. But they bring in an artist and you work on this project and you get to meet people and have conversations, but actually you don’t get to talk to the right people or things aren’t properly communicated.

SJH: So is it that this project wasn’t hitting the right chord with the community?

OG: It’s not necessarily that, I think that when social practice projects don’t necessarily work it’s because what they need is an architect or a better resource. So, I think when it’s not worked very well it’s because they didn’t need an art project or the community didn’t want an art project but the landlord wanted an art project. Or the consultation they’ve done around this is just a form-filling exercise or something.

SJH: So in the project that you’re thinking about, what were some indicators that it was starting to go south?

OG: The fact that they’d say things like, “We’ve done a community consultation and we sent out 300 flyers and nobody showed up.” Things like that where you have a track way of doing things and you’re not willing to change your way of doing things. We were trying to do something different than what they normally deliver, and therefore you might want to change your consult methods. So, things like that were clues to this kind of conversation not going forward.

And, also the fact that we couldn’t speak to the director or the landlord of this piece of land, we were meeting other people. So, sometimes it’s really useful to speak to people at the head of an organization to talk about what this is, because actually what most people are not prepared for is the time that these projects take and the money they take because they can be big beasts sometimes. They take a lot of time and a lot of resources and money and they don’t always necessarily give you a big shiny thing at the end of it.

Pictured: Vetch Veg – Swansea, Wales

SJH: Do you connect these community-based projects to a broader idea of social change?

OG: I think so, yeah. I mean, they’re attempting to be – sometimes failing, sometimes succeeding. But I’m working in Wales, and I’m really interested in the idea of small nations as authors of change, and the idea of being based in somewhere like this, working in your locale as well as internationally, as a way of creating a sustainable shift, or a greater participation in something to enable things to happen. Of course, there are loads of other models and ways of doing this not as artworks, which are much more successful or give greater agency or at a greater speed, but I think what’s achieved through social practice can be really unique and really transformative, and can provide a really poetic space for intervention.

But, essentially, it’s about: how can you subvert an artistic process to also be a useful one? So, how can we use a Cultural Olympiad grant or commission to achieve something long term, all the way out in Swansea? I think it’s about that question, really, it’s about the usefulness of this and the utility of it. How can we participate in a greater idea of connection to place, to neighbors, to cities, to urban design, to the questions of the environment around us and how we can participate in those changes and not have things done to us all the time.

SJH: Do you think of your work as one-off projects or do you connect them all together to a larger strategy for change?

OG: I think what’s happening in my practice is that I’m realizing that there’s an archipelago of projects which don’t necessarily function as art projects now, but were afforded or created through the mechanism of an art project and now continue in another way. I like the idea of the legacies of these project being connected up. I think the strategy is part of a broader process of the need and the want to collaborate. Whether it’s with a housing association or with a local government, a gallery, or with other artists.

I think those small-scale changes are inspired by changes on a mass-scale. So they’re a part of bigger changes that I’m not authoring, but they’re part of a much bigger thing. So, the Venn Diagram of how these things connect up to a revolution around how we use land in this country. Or say food justice, social food politics, is the big issue, then this work connects up to that as a small part. So, I feel like there are plenty of enormous social change movements happening that these projects can assist in. I think they’re one and the same, really.

I’m always interested in the idea of collaboration, but I think now it’s about strategic collaborations, probably with other artists, to get these projects moving in a quicker way. That’s what keeps me in Wales and that’s what keeps me working here – the possibilities of working in a small community and creating these changes, creating the landscape that you live in, and also having international conversations from this perspective feels like a really good time to challenge the neoliberal structures, to challenge land privatization, to challenge the lack of green spaces in cities. These are conversations that a lot of artists are having, there’s a lot of artists becoming social practitioners now. It feels like a really rich time.

 

For more information on Owen Griffiths, visit www.aboutreconnection.com

 

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