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Art as Social Practice

I remember the battle of Orgreave, but not its re-enactment… perhaps a measure of my own social engagement when I was a student versus when I was employed by the forces of capitalism with two small children and a mortgage in 2001. The Battle of Orgreave (2001) by Jeremy Deller is just one of the examples of participatory art that Claire Bishop discusses in Chapter 1 of Artificial Hells, The Social Turn: Collaboration and its Discontents (Bishop 2012). She orders her discussion into five themes, introducing examples of collaborative, socially engaged and participatory projects to address each theme, and sets out as a principle that however necessary such projects are for “repairing the social bond”, they should not be exempt from critical examination as art.

  1. Creativity and Cultural Policy – governments have appropriated creativity to build a workforce that directs creativity to business. Investments and attention to the creative industries has more to do with outcomes than art. This is reflected in curatorial writing on Tenantspin, and internet TV station for residents of a tower block in Liverpool, by the collective Superflex where its outcome of a “stronger sense of community in the building”, is applauded with no attempt to address what it meant to be executing this project as art.

  2. The Ethical Turn – in this section Bishop uses the examples What’s the time in Vyborg (Liisa Roberts 2000-), the Turkish collective Oda Projesi and Bataille Monument (Thomas Hirschhorn 2002) to examine her assertion that “Consensual collaboration is valued over artistic mastery and individualism, regardless of what the project sets out to do or actually achieves”. For example, Hirschhorn’s work is seen as being a lesser work because it does to adhere to the collaborative and ethical ideals of one critic. Similarly, in comparing House (Rachel Whiteread 1993) and East Meets West (Loraine Leeson) the works have been compared by one writer as art based on community engagement without considering “forms” and elicited responses.

  3. The Aesthetic Regime – addresses the role of aesthetics, if it has any role at all to those promoting socially collaborative art and challenges the “ethical turn”. Bishop also introduces Jacques Rancière and the politics of aesthetics which she says that she leans on in two ways: how art that is non-didactic can still provide an affective experience and that the meanings conveyed by how art is presented will constantly change.

  4. Directed Reality: The Battle of Orgreave – fairly detailed examination of Deller’s work, The Battle or Orgreave (2001), and his role in that and the associated works – the Mike Figgis film (2001), the oral history The English Civil War Part II: Personal accounts of the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike (2002) and The Battle of Orgreave Archive (An Injury to One is an Injury to All) (2004) – that create an aesthetic, which Bishop defines as the means by which work is mediated to a subsequent audience.

  5. Emancipated Spectators – discussion of participation versus viewing. Bishop appears to be arguing that in promoting participatory art, some advocates assume it is the only way that art can be inclusive – middle classes will see art in galleries, the socially excluded can only be involved through physical engagement, thus pre-assigning an impotence to such participants.

Of all the projects of a purely participatory nature that Bishop discusses, The Battle of Orgreave is the one that she subjects to the most detailed analysis which she admits is enabled by its multiple identity – live performance, TV film, book/oral history recording and exhibition. Its availability in these media allows commentary from diverse critics leading to analysis of it as a political work from politically non-committal, to biased towards the miners and taking sides “with the police, the state and Thatcher’s government”. She concludes:

The fact that so many views can be thrust at The Battle of Orgreave, and that it still emerges intact, is evidence of the work’s artistic plenitude: it can accommodate multiple critical judgements, even contradictory ones.

And, as in her introduction to the book she states:

What matters are the ideas, experiences and possibilities that result from these interactions. The central project of this book is to find ways of accounting for participatory art that focus on the meaning of what it produces, rather than attending solely to process. This result – the mediating object, concept, image or story – is the necessary link between the artist and a secondary audience (you and I, and everyone else who didn’t participate).

I think this project also has her tacit approval as participatory art that can be, and has been, evaluated as art.

I agree that as participatory art, The Battle of Orgreave, has left enough in its wake to allow for a future audience. I watched the Mike Figgis film and found it a compelling document of the re-enactment – the work of art – and effective telling of the miners’ stories of the original event. However, I struggle to see what differentiates this from the spectacle which, if one sees participatory art as a continuation of Situationist thinking, would be considered out of place.

I’m not sure how one can review and assess a participatory project as art in the aftermath unless there is some output on which to judge it. Even then, what is being reviewed, the output, or the event / process that created it. In the case of The Battle or Orgreave, it was the film/documentary on which I was forming a critical opinion. A project whose exhibition I visited was Boerenzij (Wapke Feenstra 2019). Boerenzij translates as the rural or farm side and was used in an uncomplimentary way to refer to South Rotterdam, where rural migrants from the Netherlands and beyond came to work in the port. The intent of the project was to collect real rural stories (facts, memories and village culture) from migrant residents, enabling their stories to be retold, “recalibrating that nickname” and challenging the perception that rural and urban are opposites. At the time I was quite excited about the exhibition as the story collection had been done around meals and I was planning a meal event in my studio and this was another example of eating being used in the context of an art project. Other than that, though, the collection of artefacts and stories presented did not provide a basis to make a critical judgement of the project as art.

Boerenzij, Wapke Feenstra (2001), TENT Rotterdam

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