Socially Engaged Art

Interview for Neighbourhood Spaces

Added on by Zachary Gough.

Alana Bartol in Conversation with Zachary Gough

Former Neighbourhood Spaces Program Coordinator Alana Bartol talks with upcoming Neighbourhood Spaces artist-in-residence Zachary Gough.

Zachary Gough makes festive, conversational and social art projects that critically explore personal values, often by connecting people and groups with one another, to challenge and inspire the ways we operate today.  He holds a BFA from Mount Allison University in Sackville, NB and is currently a candidate in the Art and Social Practice MFA program at Portland State University in Oregon.  His Neighbourhood Spaces project, Wellness Radio will take place at Huron Lodge long term care in Windsor throughout December 2013. You can follow his progress on the Neighbourhood Spaces,Arts Council Windsor & Region & Broken City Lab websites.

Alana Bartol is an artist and community developer based in Windsor, ON. She will be speaking on the panel: Engaged to be Wary: De-authorizing Social Practice, organized by Reena Katz at Broken City Lab‘s upcoming Homework Conference.

Can you talk about your development as an artist and why you were drawn to socially-engaged art?

If I’m to speak honestly, and I think I should, I was first attracted to art making because it is fun. I’m a little embarrassed that the 18 year old me, starting out in college was excited to go to class because the teacher let us listen to music, and that it was easier than writing essays.

The sociality of art making was always attractive to me. I came to post-object, participatory forms through trial and error, a kind of stumbling in the dark, exploring my dissatisfaction with consumer art, clutter, frivolity, object-fetishization and authorship. I think that the fun of art making is still an important point in thinking about art that can actually have some impact in the world, especially in the realm of creating new alternative social and cultural landscapes in real time.  If the new systems aren’t more appealing than old ones, why would we be enticed to counter the norm, or alter our predetermined paths?

How have your past projects been funded?

I’ve received support from some festivals such as Ok, Quoi!? In Sackville and Nocturne in Halifax, as well as some public funds through the municipality of Halifax when I was living there.  Residencies in Canada sometimes pay too! They say that you have to apply to 20 calls [for applications] to get support for one, so by that measure I’m doing better than average.

What are some of the strategies you have developed in executing your own projects that engage various communities? What has worked? What hasn’t worked?

I worked with a good friend, Jeff Wright on a project called Poultry Party in which he put out a call to urban poultry enthusiasts connected by an online Yahoo group.  For a month we kept baby chicks in a storefront window at a busy intersection in Downtown Portland. At the end of the month we hosted a storytelling/information session/community gathering for urban poultry enthusiasts and their birds.  The first thing that worked for Jeff – his incredible charm helped – was connecting with the group that was already a group: Yahoo users who are into urban poultry. The next strategy that worked was 24/7 access to ‘incredible cuteness’. People walking along the street loved those birds and the neighbourhood watched them grow into full sized chickens.

In regards to participation, it’s been helpful for me to think of these interactions as an exchange. What am I offering the participant, and what are they getting out of it? Or in the case of my Hitchhiking project, Stranger Danger, what are they offering me, and how do I return the favour to them? I try to be wary of how much I am asking of people.  

One thing I’ve learned is that different strategies work for different people.  For me, the best thing I’ve been able to do is nurture personal relationships, especially with people who have a broad knowledge of a particular community. Sometimes you get lucky, and make friends with someone who acts like a gatekeeper to the community.  Their trust in you allows others to follow in trusting you as well.  I experienced this with Dr. Rosemary Sotta, who worked on Dentistry at the Museumand who is now a good friend. I should emphasis that I’m still very new at this whole thing. I’m really looking forward to my time in Windsor because I’ll be forced out to work across difference with people whose lives are more institutionalized, whose mobility and independence are compromised, and who experience greater challenges than I do.

 Do you feel you have the freedom to fail when creating socially engaged works?

This is a good question. Certainly the gallery ‘art’ space offers some safety for experimentation that more public, social practice does not. Do I have the freedom to fail? Sure, I’ve failed tons of times. Have those failures caused more harm than good? Usually not, but it’s not hard to imagine failure that does, so should we never take any risks?

Hmm, another thought: Mistakes are not the same thing as failures. A failure to me implies that you’re striving for X, and X doesn’t happen. In my experience, it’s not as simple as that, you strive for X but instead get Y. The terminology of ‘failure’ seems more appropriate for a science experiment than an art project or community project. There are so many moving parts in a community, that you simply cannot have a full understanding of the tensions and measures community members create to maintain a balance. If we don’t achieve what we’re shooting for, we get something else instead, and learn from the process. Sometimes it’s more interesting than what we strived for in the first place.

How you consider or your work in terms of political activism?

I don’t really think of it that way. Not yet anyway but I just read Darren O’Donnell’s Social Acupuncture, which I quite liked. He compares his work to the practice of acupuncture in Chinese holistic medicine. As needles alleviate the restricted flow of Chi in the physical body, so do his projects address restrictions, tensions and imbalances of the social body. They’re only small pinpricks, not massive demonstrations. Maybe once I’ve accumulated enough needles I’ll be willing to phrase my work as activism, I’m not sure.

You are doing three residencies over the next several months: Klondike Institute of Art and Culture in Dawson City, Yukon and Sackville’s Campus Community Radio CHMA in partnership with Struts Gallery in Sackville, New Brunswick, in addition to Neighbourhood Spaces. When entering into a community, what are some of the considerations for developing a project? How do you build trust and interest with communities?

This will be easier to answer once the residencies are over! I’m learning, slowly and surely, to find the right balance between artistic vision and responsiveness. First, I need to have some inkling of what might be a good project in these communities. I lived in Sackville, have visited Dawson and grew up in Southern Ontario so I know a bit about these communities. [I will] develop a project as thoroughly as I can on my own, and finally abandon it completely before going there. The idea of entering into a community to do a project is such a colonial action if it’s not carried out with a large degree of openness and responsiveness. Does this community even want you there at all?  

What considerations are you giving to the legacies of the projects you are creating for your upcoming residencies?

For myself, they’ll be documented on my website. That’s an archive of my work that is useful to me, and I hope interesting to some: In terms of the projects’ lives after I leave those communities, I can’t pretend that they would live on in some form. I’d love that, to give birth to projects that become self-sustaining, but I’ve failed at that enough times to know not to expect it.

One of my interests these days is of participant labour. Isn’t that one of guiding questions for Broken City Lab’s upcoming Homework Conference: What is the Labour of our participants? It takes a lot of work to run a community group, ice rink, choir, marching band or radio station. For my projects I’m paid in money (sometimes) AND social capital (always). To ask others to carry it on, I’d need to know that they’re going to get out of it at least what they put it. It’s funny how art projects look like economic exchanges sometimes.   

Can you discuss how you developed Wellness Radio and your interest in applying to Neighbourhood Spaces?

Radio is great and it’s free to listen to. You can also do things while listening to it, the dishes for example, or painting, sex, driving. It should be obsolete but isn’t. People who don’t have homes can have radios. I love its ephemerality. It works great with music, and it presents conversation as the main attraction, which is awesome.

The idea for Wellness Radio came about while building my pirate radio transmitter.  I love how accessible radio is, but making it – being a part of its creation – is a little more difficult. My transmitter has a limited broadcast range, so I needed to share it with a community where a lot of people live in close proximity. That was the first restriction for the project. The hospital was the first thought but an RV park, a seniors’ residence, a nursing home or a homeless shelter would all work. With each of those sites come a whole series of issues to be addressed. So, like any good radio station, it becomes a place for people to address the issues within its broadcast range. There will be a public, Internet component of the project as well, but the understanding will be that that is a secondary audience. I’m really looking forward to see how it shapes up exactly. It will depend on a lot of forces beyond my control.

How is this project important to you personally and artistically?

A seniors’ residence is personally interesting to me right now. I’ve been talking to my 93 year old Grandfather on the phone.  He’s very hard of hearing so it’s quite a challenge but I also have no idea what to ask him about. I really don’t know what life in assisted living is like, especially when he’s at life’s last stages when the scope of your future is filled with ‘ifs’ and is generally about managing discomfort.  

Artistically, I’m really excited for the experience and nervous. I’ve been dreaming of a serious radio project for some time, so I’m excited to work through the challenges that it poses.  I’m excited to listen to the radio we produce as well!

How do you envision the documentation of Wellness Radio?

I see it as being open to any form of documentation. There will be some recordings documented on a website for the project, and hopefully we will create some radio pieces that may get played on larger stations in Windsor and beyondA note about documentation: remember how there was a time when people suspected that having your photo taken meant that part of your soul would go with it? I do think that when you photograph someone there is a power gesture there. It can be an act of surveillance. What happens to those photos and how do they depict the participants? I hope that those involved in Wellness Radio will help decide how the project is represented and shared.

In doing research for Wellness Radio, you discovered that ‘Hospital Radio’ has been developed since the 1940s, mainly in the UK, which even has an established Hospital Broadcasting Association. Hospital Radio produces audio broadcasting specifically for the in-patients of hospitals and other types of long-term care facilities. Your piece, Wellness Radio could fall under this form of audio broadcasting. Does this discovery affect your thinking about the project as art and how do you differentiate this project as art from a regular radio program or community project?

No. The answer is no.  It didn’t really affect how I view the project.  I guess I’m of the disposition that I don’t need to distinguish it as art or community project. I’m perfectly content with it being both, or one or the other. I’m still interested in the project, no matter what you call it. If one person views it as social work or something, and another as an art project, I think that’s ok.   

Maybe the question is: Are ingenuity and innovation important criteria for socially engaged art? It certainly feels good when you come up with something novel, but I think that’s true for all things not just art projects. But the discovery does allow for the project to evolve into something very different.  

How do you determine practicalities and expectations when developing projects?

Trial and error. Expectations need to shift as the project develops. Wellness Radio really hasn’t even begun yet, so it’s a mistake to assume much before I get to Windsor.

How will you measure the success of Wellness Radio?

There’s a really great article by anthropologist Charles Hale that I’ve been telling everyone about called What is Activist ResearchIt’s short and fascinating in that he outlines an ethnographical approach wherein the researcher and subjects are equally invested in the outcome of the research project, and both researcher and subjects determine the success or failure of the project. ForWellness Radio, I guess step one will be to create some shared goals/expectations for the project, or at least be clear about differing goals. Once [the project] has wrapped up, connect again with participants to see how they felt about it. I’m interested in how artists are looking to other disciplines to figure out how to navigate ethical concerns in working socially.

Dentistry At the Museum saw two mobile dental clinics parked in the Portland Art Museum courtyard: one providing urgent care to underserved community members from the surrounding neighbourhood, the other providing on-site cleanings to museum goers.

For this project, you partnered with Medical Teams International, the Portland Art Museum as well as the curatorial team of your colleagues in the Art & Social Practice MFA program at Portland State University. What were some of the challenges you encountered in developing this work and what do you feel is most important when solidifying and maintaining partnerships?

Answering this would involve recounting a whole year of challenges! This was by far the hardest project I’ve ever attempted. It was literally 8 months in the making, and went through a dozen different variations and forms before finally settling on the one outlined above. At one point, I gave a Powerpoint presentation to my classmates chronicling all of its different iterations and reasons for why it had shifted.

The best way I can describe shaping that project is that it was like a very complicated ven diagram where one circle represented the Medical Teams International mission statement, one circle was the mandate of Shine A Light (a one-night art event at the Portland Art Museum), another circle was the physical and support limitations of the Portland Art Museum, yet another the scope of services provided by Outside in (another partner of the project), and the last circle being my personal artistic vision.  

I had to be very loose about the kind of statement I was making, just in order for dental care to happen at the museum at all. The hardest part though of that project was jumping through hoops for the museum. Unfortunately, Museums still aren’t up to speed on supporting SEA, and when they do it’s through the education departments, with little funding, often in sides spaces away from the main attractions.

In terms of solidifying and maintaining partnerships, you have to find the right partners for the project, making sure it’s mutually beneficial, and treat them with professionalism and respect.  

What were some of the responses and reactions to Dentistry at the Museum from museum goers, museum staff, healthcare workers, neighbourhood residents and the arts community?

I wish I’d collected recordings of responses. The group that responded best to the project was the group I worked most closely with: the healthcare providers. They really appreciated the idea of bringing dentistry to the art context, and are involved everyday in the injustices of access to dental care. They were also the ones that invested the most energy in the project.

I also had some nice responses from the arts community about the gesture of comparing access to art and access to dentistry. The people receiving care were pretty preoccupied with their treatment but on the whole, were probably a little confused. A couple [participants] really dug it, and I think a couple others were not pleased by the [project], but most were grateful for the free dental care. We performed $6500 worth of treatment that day, and would have done more had the generator on one of the trucks not malfunctioned.  

How do you build trust and interest among participants and partners?

There’s a lot to be said for enthusiasm and charisma. Claire Doherty refers to the role of the artist as a ‘charismatic agent’. Any human being knows how to build trust. Trust takes two people.

You have performed various roles for your work: ornithologist, hitchhiker, bird of paradise and a “performative facilitator”. I am interested in learning more about the role performance has played in your past works and how that influences your current projects.

What I like about performance is its ephemerality and ability to exist amidst the social fabric of society. It is a great way of indicating that art, or at least something out of the ordinary, is happening. For example, take my project Canis Latrans Thamnos, a six-part video/performance investigating the migration of the Coyote to Eastern Canada. As a hitchhiker, I didn’t feel like I was performing at all. Transitioning out of performance [work] came with my discovery of social practice and uncovering a community of artists practicing in social forms.

Another thing that I took from performance was the artistic gesture, whether performing it bodily or in response to and with community, making gestures is what I care about most. In the project Novus Ordo Seclorum with Parallel University, we had to act for the purposes of the gesture. Sandy and I were so nervous (and I think I was a pretty bad actor) but we pulled it off.  In that circumstance, we were performing a certain kind of social relationship – one of power and domination – to make a point about the importance of facilitation in horizontal community organizations.    

In the Event of a Hitch Hiker, you asked strangers to “be the DJ”, calling for submissions of audio material to be played in your car when you picked up a Hitch Hiker. I am curious to learn what was on the tapes that people mailed in and what the reactions were when they were played.

Busted. You got me! For that project I only got one tape sent in from my friend Andrew Patterson. I did play it (a couple weeks after receiving it), when I picked up a young Québécoise woman on her way home from work. I explained to her that he had sent it in for this very moment, and that he was djing the experience for us but she didn’t care, she was too tired after a long day.

 The tape was made with special care, my friend selected songs for their nostalgic qualities, not songs that he had specific connections to but that had a certain ability to hold nostalgia.

In your later piece Stranger Danger, you took on the role of the Hitch Hiker. What types of exchanges did you have and did you reveal that you were an artist carrying out an art piece?

I told some participants that it was an art piece. If you listen to the podcast, you’ll know that there was a very diverse spectrum of people who participated but sometimes it’s not helpful to them or me to tell them it’s art. It wouldn’t help the recordings, or make much sense to them. And beyond that, they’re not missing out on anything not knowing it’s for an art project. Everyone knew [their participation] was for a podcast and when folks didn’t know what that was, I explained it. Anyone can understand how it’s cool to make a podcast from the perspective of a hitchhiker, interviewing drivers and collecting their stories.  In this case, calling it art doesn’t add much to the equation.  

A side note: I’ve become friends with BJ, who was the last participant on the podcast. He took me Surfing again and introduced me to his Estonian friends who he mentions in the story when they came to visit.

You can listen to podcasts of many of Zach’s radio pieces and follow his work on his Images courtesy of Zachary Gough.