Andy Abbott and Lara Eggleton in Conversation
Following the completion of the Centre for Socially Applied Arts pilot programme in 2018, Leeds-based arts writer and editor of Corridor 8 magazine Lara Eggleton conducted an interview with Andy Abbott by email. Lara had been following the programme closely throughout and used this as an opportunity to reflect on the overall programme and its context.
LE: Your role as Producer Music And Visual Arts has been shaped by your interest in working with local communities and your own research into DIY culture in visual art and music, but it has also been influenced by Bradford University's targets for public, student and staff engagement. To what extent do you see CSAA (Centre for Socially Applied Arts) as a product of these different agendas?
AA: I arrived in Bradford in 2011 when writing up my PhD around self-organised and DIY culture. I’d been an artist and musician in that scene since moving to Leeds in 1999; with the art collective Black Dogs based in Leeds, and as a musician touring the international DIY/not-for-profit underground circuit. Through these experiences I was left with a question; ‘does art and culture have more impact when experienced in non-traditional spaces, and when made with and by non-traditional audiences? Does it benefit from being presented and received as “art” or is it better experienced as an intervention or a “stealth practice”?’
The part time role at University of Bradford I took on was ‘Fellow in Music’. The University had intermittently offered arts Fellowships since its formation in 1967. These were designed as opportunities to bring arts practitioners on campus in order for them to develop and share their practice with staff, students and the wider public. The University is a technology institute without taught arts provision, so I felt it was an ideal context in which to explore the questions I had about art in unusual places.
Also I’d been organising music and arts stuff in Bradford from around 2006 and had started to get excited about the present-day DIY and independent cultural activity that I was involved in (at that time the 1in12 Club, The Bradford Playhouse under the directorship of Eleanor Barrett, and No Hands club night), as well as the legacy of countercultural activity in the city that had laid their foundations (Bradford Arts Festivals in the early 70s, South Square Centre artist-led community centre, the people-led Bradford Festival and Mela in the 80s, Bradford College staff and alumni pioneers like Albert Hunt, John Fox and Sue Gill of Welfare State and IOU Theatre). Helen Kaplinsky did an excellent job of unearthing more on this underground activity through Subveillance.
Through my time as Fellow In Music (until 2015) and then as Producer Music and Visual Art (until 2018), I had formed the opinion that Bradford could be seen as an early adopter and key driver of art that actively seeks to engage and operate in non-art contexts with socially transformative aims. In 2016, I proposed that reframing the arts activity coming from the Arts on Campus department at the University as a ‘Centre for Socially Applied Arts’. This felt like a neat way to encapsulate this idea whilst resonating with the University’s vision of being an international, interdisciplinary, research-led technology institute with a commitment to equality and social justice.
LE: I found Subveillance a bit difficult to engage with. It felt like the materials that accumulated over the course of the exhibition – which were mostly archival and quite information-heavy – had relevance to some locals but were perhaps lost on visitors who didn’t grasp the wider significance, or couldn’t find a way in, or just found it hard work. I’m wondering how important you think display is to these kinds of projects, which do the important work of unearthing local histories, subcultures and movements but risk falling a bit flat in terms of capturing the imagination?
AA: I wouldn’t want to talk on Helen’s behalf about Subveillance as she was curator of the project, but it was by my invitation and I worked closely with her. It was a challenging project, especially when it came to devising an appropriate way to make an exhibition of the research, but I think her solution was very well considered and the right way to go.
The brief I set was to look at the role the University had played in Bradford’s counterculture from 1967 (when the University formed) to 2017. Helen has done some excellent work in this area working with archives and art histories, and I had touched on some of it through the ‘Guided Goitside’ project we’d done with Black Dogs. However, when it came to digging a little deeper (and wider) into Bradford’s counterculture, we both realised it was a much larger project than a single exhibition could do justice to.
Helen had previously worked with existing archives and material (in Bradford a lot of that stuff was still in people’s attics, or their heads!), so the practical and ethical dimensions of capturing those stories and presenting them really came to the fore and that took a lot of time and emotional labour for everyone. Also, Helen was keen to treat the gallery and the exhibition as an active site, so people could add, amend and contest the story that was being told by her as a curator and the University as an institution, which I think was wholly appropriate. I appreciate that visitors may have found the amount of information overwhelming, but it reflected the process quite well! In hindsight, maybe we could have broken it down into a series of smaller shows or projects.
LE: Bradford does not immediately spring to mind as a destination for visual art, and Gallery II is (arguably) even further off the beaten art trail. As programmer of that space, how have you addressed this challenge, both in terms of footfall and appealing to non-art-educated audiences?
AA: Yes, I guess my approach was to understand marginality or fringe position with regard to the institutional art world as both a challenge and an opportunity. The challenges are very real. They mostly revolve around people not having the resources to take part; as audience, spectators, participants, collaborators and so on. In a largely multiply deprived city like Bradford there is not the surplus of spare time for people to engage in activities that may be seen as non-essential. This is compounded by the wider context of austerity and Higher Education where students are having to spend any time they aren’t studying working low-paid jobs to offset the debt they are accruing.
The challenge is to make art and cultural activity not just appealing but relevant and essential, one that the Bad Practice collective took on directly. At different times I took on a number of roles with the Gallery; programmer, curator or director of an alternative learning space. On reflection, I think the Gallery was most effectively used as a space in which to develop new work and share that process with passers-by and invited audiences. Students and staff were more interested and got a lot out of talking to artists with research-led, interdisciplinary practices that offered a different perspective on some of the issues and topics relating to their areas of study, such as when the art collective UNIT used the gallery to pose questions about automation and the future of work. Car Design students found that fascinating. Equally, it can be both important and beneficial for artists to break out of the art world bubble and present their work and working methods to non-art specialists and the wider public. Those conversations and experiences can influence and inform the direction of the work, taking it to new places.
LE: I really liked how Bad Practice met the arts project problem head-on by being completely transparent about the use of public funds, and doing it in a way that was visually engaging. In particular I’m thinking about that pie chart that itemised the budget, laying bare the division of labour and different rates of pay across artists and participants. This felt like as much an artwork as an info-graph – it was informative and visually pleasing but it also seemed to put the question back on the visitor: What is all this for? Is it worth it? Do you think there’s a need for work that activates rather than simply informs the visitor/viewer, particularly when trying to engage wider audiences?
AA: I really liked that part of the Bad Practice show too, and I think we had all been inspired by the art collective ‘What, How And For Whom’ who did a similar thing when they curated the Istanbul Biennial in 2009. Of course that sort of mapping or diagramming of complex systems is still only able to offer a version of what it tries to represent, or a partial transparency, but I think it’s a great gesture, especially for visitors who don’t necessarily know the inner workings of the art word or public funding. It’s amazing how such a simple thing can feel so radical and provocative.
Certainly Bad Practice, and I hope the rest of CSAA programme, aimed to activate audiences. I guess that happens in a number of different ways from agitating and inspiring through to informing and resourcing. Bad Practice, Wur Bradford (who contributed to the Full Scale exhibition), and the opening up of the Tasmin Little Music Centre as a student-led space, all sat on the more pragmatic end of that activation, but Bad Practice’s aims were to set some conversations and networks in motion that would have a longer term impact.
LE: There is an abundance of socially led/ engaged projects being produced in the art world, often generously supported by public funding bodies who see them as drivers for positive social change. In this climate, is there a risk that projects cease to be challenging, or indeed, interesting? (Is there a productive middle ground between criticality and community engagement?)
AA: In 2007, around the start of my postgraduate study, I was thinking and writing a lot about the ‘co-optation’ of social practice by public and private bodies, and the risk in it becoming an uncritical - and potentially boring and ineffectual - orthodoxy. The end of the pilot for the CSAA has coincided with the Arts Council and other bodies embracing the language and methodologies of social practice and collaborative co-production. The outcomes of this renewed interest in these ways of working are yet to be seen but, yes absolutely, one outcome could be more state-sanctioned reformist ‘ameliorative’ practice and art as drivers of neoliberal regeneration and gentrification.
I do feel, however, that the devil is in the detail and if, like me, you see Socially Engaged Practice as an extension of public, site specific, and context responsive practice, then with that comes a recognition that each case needs to be understood on its own terms. What may be seen as a twee or uncritical approach in Leeds - such as organising a themed party that all aspects of the community are invited to - takes on a much more provocative edge when occurring in a place like Bradford where there is less opportunity for people to come together and the need for the reclamation and animation of public space is more immediate. The UnCommons programme evolved as another way of exploring this through a series of events in collaboration with organisations like Brick Box, National Science and Media Museum and Bradford Museums and Galleries.
But yes, in general I feel like there’s a danger that social art practice will be reduced to a set of predetermined participatory methods (with accompanying moralistic guidelines) that artists and curators follow to the letter. I hope that what I, along with the artists, audiences and organisations that all contributed to the CSAA pilot, were doing has done more to diversify and ‘deterritorialise’ what we consider to be a socially transformative practice, rather than shut that down.
LE: I agree that places such as Bradford have a greater need of socially-generative activity, and it’s good that public funding bodies have come around to the idea of relational art (if only a few decades late). But isn’t there a risk in this climate that all art will start to look like Arts Council sanctioned art, that an ameliorative remit will push out less overtly ‘transformative’ voices that could also be part of a conversation in a place like Bradford?
AA: Yeah, I think it’s a challenge for arts practitioners and organisations alike to try and keep a critical, transformative edge to practices that are undergoing that type of recuperation. In a sense I was glad of the opportunity to have to come up with a slightly different language to that of ‘socially engaged art’ for the Uni. It helped to distinguish the sorts of practices I think could work especially well in Bradford from a more generic ‘participatory/community arts’ approach and that conversation, and practice, definitely needs moving along.
LE: And what about the artists that don’t see collaboration as part of their practice?
Can you have a socially-minded practice that doesn’t involve collaboration? I would say yes. But in terms of artists whose work doesn’t directly tackle social issues, or perhaps don’t feel the need to evaluate their practice against that social horizon, I think there’s still plenty of opportunities for them to do what they do, and there always will be!
LE: Where do you draw the line between art and community-led projects, and is this an important or valid distinction?
No, I wouldn’t draw a line between the two - or if I did it would have to be erased and redrawn so many times as to be an indistinguishable smudge. There are times when it’s useful to present something as art. That may be for purposes of getting funding or building resources. Equally, sometimes it’s not necessary and can actually curtail a critical appraisal of the activity by the audience. Questions around why somebody is doing something, why something is happening or why something exists are sometimes too quickly answered with, ‘because it’s art’.
In the mid 2000s, Black Dogs had a period where we tried to drop the art tag altogether, or certainly ‘artist’ as a professional title. I tried to do that with my own practice as well when I was organising events like Festival of Pastimes. I found that people would often fill the spaces left by removing ‘art’ and ‘artist’ with something else, often even more off-mark, assuming I was a council worker or theatre practitioner. So in the end we decided to stick with art and hopefully contribute to the redefinition of that term. WochenKlausur have some really interesting things to say on that subject (they gave a talk as part of the Full Scale public programme; they believe that the definition of ’Art’ is one of the few things that is able to change with public opinion and that it’s our collective duty to bring about that change.
Likewise, I think ‘art’ designates a particular ambition to do something differently, to develop and represent new perspectives and fresh ways of seeing the world that ‘community-led’ projects may not.
LE: That’s a nice distinction. I wonder if the failure to shrug off associations with ‘art’ and ‘artist’ are linked to this offer of new perspectives? With many regenerative projects, what starts out as a ‘community-led regeneration project’ ends up with an artist’s name attached to it (Liam Gillick-designed lending library at Coniston’s Mechanics Institute, or Assemble’s Granby Workshop in Toxteth, to give two examples). The Office of Useful Art and others would have artistic autonomy and authorship done away with altogether, but there is something about the singular intention or vision of the artist(s) that gives many socially engaged projects a certain uniqueness or character. I agree that there’s a problem with ‘crying art’ to sidestep criticality, but equally, isn’t there a need to defend the role of the artist in community-based projects because it adds something valuable to the equation?
AA: I enjoy and definitely see the value in working with artists, probably because I am one. But I also see the tensions that arise around the issues of authorship, and even intellectual property, that artists bring with them into community contexts. I don’t necessarily think it’s all about ego though – a lot of the time artists have a much more discerning eye for detail, aesthetics and conceptual rigour. These are determining factors in producing successful, exciting projects. Interestingly, I think designers, technologists and architects are starting to take on a similar role in community projects, as with the examples you’ve mentioned. So whilst I think there is a need to defend an artistic approach in the social sphere (and more grandly the shift towards an aesthetic rather than techno-scientific paradigm), whether that work is done exclusively by artists-with-a-capital-A (those that have been through art school for example), or can be performed by a wider range of committed and innovative practitioners in other disciplines, is definitely something I was keen to explore in the CSAA programme and beyond.
LE: CSAA has involved individuals, communities and organisations outside the art world, many of them Bradford based. Has this curatorial approach raised any issues around authorship and artistic agency, and how have you dealt with them?
Yes, with any project that aims at including, involving, facilitating and representing voices beyond that of the artist there are plenty of hurdles to negotiate and ethical considerations to take into account. This is particularly the case in Bradford where many of the people with whom an artist may work, or wish to engage, fall into the ‘hard-to-reach’ bracket, and may not have had many opportunities to do so previously.
Subveillance was an interesting case. I think Helen’s curatorial approach was very thoughtful and inventive but we had perhaps underestimated the emotional aspects for participants, many of whom had not had chance to have their ‘stories’ told before. On refection, we might have done a traditional oral history project first, upon which Helen’s more creative investigation could be built. That project raised questions about what is and isn’t fair to expect of the artist, who also need to learn and challenge themselves.
Personally, I’ve dealt with this by trying to put myself in a role where I can adapt how I present myself and the role I fulfil in a given situation. I was never keen on being seen as the ‘director’ or ‘gatekeeper’ of a particular venue or space. The first thing I did as Fellow in Music was to help resurrect the Bradford University Music Society so that they could have their on-campus music centre as a student-led space. Likewise I brought in and paid facilitators to run initiatives like Bradford Scratch Orchestra, rather than me being too attached to it.
Where possible I’ve attempted to present things with a collective rather than individual face – the Bradford Threadfest and Recon festivals, for example – but people do have a tendency to want to know ‘who’s in charge’ and avoiding this can damage the sustainability of projects. Collective co-authorship can be seen as confusing, a potential weakness when applying for funding. So there’s a challenge there in terms of redefining structure and leadership that is played out in the ‘safe space’ of art, and the subsequent learning that could be applied on a broader social level. In the end I suppose that’s what excites me about the potential of art for social change - that it can be a place to test and experiment with alternative ways of being together in the world.