Over a three-month period, from March to May 2022, I collaborated with six Scottish Borders writers and performers, collecting audio recordings of their work around the theme of resilience. A series of sound and audio-visual pieces was established, an archive from which a variety of radiophonic, installation and exhibition pieces can eventually be realised. One of the benefits for any resident artist artist is the ongoing publicity and profiling generated by the host organisation. None of this happened during the term of this particular project so I'll do my own.
A lot of robust, conflicting and sophisticated discourse has been generated by artists, academics and commentators around the broad field of socially-engaged art, community-based art, experimental communities, dialogic art, littoral art, participatory, interventionist, research-based, conversational or collaborative art (take your pick).
One argument has it that all of these approaches privilege exchange and dialogue over 'a single instantaneous shock of insight, precipitated by an image or object' (Grant Kester). The work is considered to be durational rather than immediate. Any evaluative framework should be centred not on any object or outcome but on the condition and character of the exchanges themselves (I paraphrase Grant Kester here). Another view sees problems in practices which unwittingly push us back towards a platonic regime where art is valued for its truthfulness and educational efficacy—not for inviting us to confront the more complicated considerations of our predicament (here I paraphrase Clare Bishop) . I like to think that I navigated such rough waters as the project took shape.
Words on Resilience is a work of engagement with people who write and read their works in public. Ostensibly the outcome or outcomes were directed towards an installation in a virtual gallery. The writers and I provided audio material - spoken work, music, images and short video loops. As I write the virtual gallery is under construction so I'll report on the details when they come to light.
For me however, under the hood so to speak, the real work took place in the assumptions, conditions and limitations of the project, in the close conversations and other engagements with my collaborating colleagues and also with the host organisation whose interest converges, quite reasonably of course, on realising specific products. Throughout the project many interesting and often challenging and even difficult circumstances were placed before me. As I learn to distance myself from these challenges, to keep myself out of the way, I'll be able to report later on their significance. I do wonder though if this is the real reason that some artists choose to develop a socially-engaged practice, to put themselves in the middle of an institutionally mediated petri dish in order to experience the tensions and releases, the evolutionary mutations and (hopefully) the creative rewards of a collaborative activity. Not to mention the financial incentive.
I'm grateful to have worked with writers Susan Allen, Carol Byers, Hayley Emberey, Jane Houston-Green, Rhys Pearce and Barbara Usher. They selflessly offered their time and creative energy over a three-month period and fully embraced the aims of the project. I was privileged to have been offered insights into their working practices, the sources of their inspiration and the challenges they faced not only throughout life in general but in particular throughout the dark days of lockdown. The complexities and nuances (nuisances) of resilience were brought to light in both conversation and the spoken word.
I'll leave you with one of those happenings that nobody could have predicted and which makes these projects priceless. Barbara offers refuge to farmyard animals and an important element of her practice involves reading her poetry to the animals, all of whom have individual names (and of course characters) I'm still trying to compute the metaphorical implications of what happened below.
When Barnabas the Voluble Snaffled and Ate Barbara's Poem