For over 40 years the community arts field has worked to create a dialogue with the intention of creating a catalyst for what many people hope will be changes on local, national and even global scales. A term derived in the late 1960’s we begin see a large movement at work, making its way through the world within small sectors of vast nations. Dialogical practice is the process in which community groups begin to work collaboratively with artists, whether these are contemporary artists, actors or so on. The groups involved are often from areas where there may be environmental, cultural, economical and social barriers as explained by Kester, Grant (Conversation Pieces – Community and Communication in Modern Art 2004) who wrote ‘community in the 1960’s and 1970’s referred to segments of the public that were often alienated from the institutions of high art, poor or working class people for example’. Commonly referred to as community engaged art we see various forms of media used to give the groups participants a platform on which to express themselves, improve their own skills and potentially even their quality of life. The artists often encourage the groups to respond to specific requirements the immediate community may have, such as gardens, murals, installations etc, with the experience potentially considered an informal type of education the participants can become more engaged with their surroundings and perhaps find a revitalised/new sense of pride or involvement within the communities in which they reside.
One important aspect to be considered is the concept that a stigma may follow artists who decide to venture into these communities. It could be perceived as the artists believing themselves to be somewhat superior to the art groups participants due to the idea of them ‘helping’ these people and the presence of choice to be in the areas unlike the individuals who may have no alternative but to live there. The artists have the ability to leave whenever they choose, whereas for the reasons stated above the participants may find themselves in situations where they are unable to get away. Grant Kester (2004) wrote ‘for many artists who have sought to define their practice through dialogue across boundaries of privilege and differences of race, culture and class, the question “why are you here” has remained both necessary and troubling’ this is echoed in the words of a local resident ‘Richard’ who worked with Tim Rollins during his time working on the Group Material Gallery in New York, Richard was quoted saying “you know, like I don’t want to be nosy, and we all got our reasons for doing what we do with our lives, but I wonder- everybody here on the block wonders – why are you here?”. This question is poignant and one that is highly subjective. Without any definitive answer it is nonetheless a vital one which needs to be approached when taking a look into dialogical practice as it really begins to shed light on the potential issues artists and the communities may face when becoming involved in this form of practice.
By looking into the writings of Grant H Kester in Conversation Pieces – Community and Communication in Modern Art (2004) partnered with The Case For ‘Socially Engaged Arts’: Navigating Art History, Cultural Development and Arts Funding Narratives by Marnie Badham (no date provided) and various studies into the impact of community arts, this paper will begin to present an insight into whether dialogical practice provides a solid framework to engage the individuals/groups who may otherwise find themselves disengaged from the arts or alternatively if the concept in fact does nothing more than create a smoke screen in which to hide real issues within the communities in which we all live and know today. Ideally the work arts facilitators and artists put in to create would output nothing but positive and fulfilling outcomes for everyone involved, but it is important to consider what negatives there may be to this type of work.
Work Of Relevant Practitioners
On the outskirts of Rio De Janeiro lies the worlds largest landfill site, the Jardin Gramacho. Home to between three thousand and five thousand people the dump also provides approximately fifteen thousand people with a source of income from various activities related to the site. In 2008 Brazillian born artist Vik Muniz travelled from his home in Brooklyn, New York to the site to begin to form relationships and a dialogue between himself and the film crew of the soon to be documentary Waste Land (2010) that joined himself and the Catadores of the dump. Catadores are the individuals who work within the site picking the recyclable material, their hard work and dedication meant that the area had one of the best recycling rates in the world, they showed great pride in the fact they had the jobs they did. In particular the female workers expressed particular delight, as the alternative for them that they felt would have no dignity for them was prostitution. Within the mountains of rubbish transported into the dump every day these people have found a real sense of purpose.
Waste Land (figure1) was a 2010 documentary by director showcasing the work Vik Muniz created with these individuals, it went on to win over fifty awards and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. The main body of work Muniz produced and the focus of the documentary was ‘Pictures Of Garbage’, a series of portraits the photographer took of six people he had worked with during his time in the dump. These were then recreated on a massive scale after the images were projected onto the ground within warehouse and built up to vast pieces of art using the recyclable material the Catadores had collected. Muniz went on to photograph the remade portrait to then have them sold at auction. Particularly interesting to this project is the giving of money back to the Catadores from the auction of the images and the proceeds of the documentary itself, this money was intended to help to improve the living and working conditions of those involved and each individual who had been photographed for the project also received a portion of the donation.
Community art is focused on engaging individuals in the arts, these are often people who may not have much experience with these processes or may have never experienced them before. Part of Muniz’s process with the Catadores was to introduce them to the world of art which was found by reviewers to be a particularly resonant aspect, the Illywords editorial team in their review of the film titled Waste Land Movie Review- Art, Garbage and Social Change, stated ‘what moved me to tears was when Irma the cook saw her portrait in the MAM in Rio and said “I have never been to a museum before”. This type of engagement not only brings new experiences to the workers who were involved with the creation of the images, but it also demonstrates to the viewers the power these types of projects can have on individuals, had Muniz not chosen to create this project as he did, Irma and perhaps other members of the workforce may never have experienced things many people living in more economically developed countries take for granted such as visits to museums and access to basic arts activities. It is the contrasting of the two worlds, one in which many people would feel like working in a dump is a negative and the people in Jardin Gramacho who feel like this opportunity is one to feel immensely proud of, that begins to really hit home with audiences. The Illywords editors also pointed out that ‘rich people who do everything to avoid dealing with their garbage are willing to buy an image of it when it is branded ‘Vik Muniz’’.
Figure two is of Tião, the man responsible for forming the Cooporative Association of Pickers of Jardin Gramacho. Recreating The Death of Marat (Sebastião) Tião poses in a bathtub found within the landfill site. A powerful image in itself, the depth is only further enhanced by the details that can be seen under closer inspection. Toilet seats, traffic cones, stuffed toys, shoes, clothing, plastic bottles and a vast expanse of hundreds upon thousands of various other recyclable objects create this powerful and hard hitting image. With art being considered something of beauty the contrast between these everyday items we perceive to be nothing more than waste to recreate this image really pulls the viewer into the piece, allowing them to begin questioning the way in which they themselves interact with these objects and perhaps guide them towards reconsidering the difference they alone can make when recycling. In 2011 the Guardian writer Philip French spoke highly of the pieces when he wrote ‘these pictures not only give them pride and dignity but are later exhibited and sold to provide them with the money to realize useful projects that enhance their lives and the world around them’. This side to the project is not one we often see within community arts projects, when considering the subject the general consensus is that yes the community in which the artists work will be left with something they perhaps didn’t have prior to the artists arrival, however these are usually contemporary arts based as opposed to finances. Although the details of what the individuals did with the money has not been disclosed, it is assured that they have benefited from it and it has been used to make improvements in both their personal and working lives. An interesting aspect to the project, however it is one which could be considered by some to be more intrusive into the personal lives of the participants than is acceptable, many artists feel as though it is the duty of an artist to facilitate the people to make potential changes to their lives of their own accord through the skills shared during the experience.
On the opposite end of the community arts spectrum is public art, purposefully designed to be in public domains this type of art is accessible to anyone whether they choose it or not. The dialogue created between the public and the piece of art itself is the key aspect to public art, a stark contrast to the work of Vik Muniz however who’s majority of content lies within the personal relationships, personalities and back stories developed and exhibited between the artist and the people involved in the art creation, namely the Catadores. Audiences to these public art pieces are able to interact with and perceive these pieces however they wish, which in the past has been known to create some very negative situations. One of the most famous of which is Richard Serra’s 1981 piece, Tilted Arc.
Richard Serra was a Fine Art graduate from Yale University in the United States, already a well established artist at the time of the commission the court case that was to ensue the creation and installation of one of his most controversial pieces of work to date would spark global debate. The 120 foot long, 2 and a half inch thick piece of self oxidising steel was the product of years of planning on the behalf of Serra. The piece was specifically created for the space in which it would be installed and according to the Tate blog writer Jennifer Mundy (2012) Serra was adamant when the piece was inevitably removed after a number of years that because it was a site specific piece the work was ultimately destroyed and wouldn’t function as an artwork if moved elsewhere, the piece was also labelled by the same writer as being ‘seen as ugly, oppressive and a graffiti catcher’. The majority of the issue people who came into contact with the piece had as seen in figure 3 is the fact the piece stretched across a vast amount of space, intercepting many peoples commuting routes, much to the annoyance of the workers in the building it was commissioned for it also blocked views and almost a sense of segregation.
Tilted Arc fetched much negative criticism over the coming years and after two petitions fetched approximately 1300 signatures the case to have the artwork removed was taken to a public hearing. Robert Storr in his paper ‘“Tilted Arc” : Enemy of The People?’ (no date provided) wrote “this hearing does not attempt to build communality of interest in the public realm. Although Tilted Arc was commissioned by a program devoted to placing art in public spaces, that program seems now utterly uninterested in building public understanding of the art it has commissioned” It seems as though Storr feels the blame for the workers/general public’s distaste at the piece was the fault of the program, perhaps had they informed people that the piece was going to be installed and informed them of its purpose, it may not have been met with such hostility. He goes on to say ‘This is not a hearing about the social function that art might play in our lives. Rather it is a hearing convened by a government administrator who seems to believe that art and social function are antithetical. That art has no social function.’ As already pointed out in this essay, the general public (in this case referring to those who are not an artist) often do struggle to understand the workings of artists within the public domain. This is a point which is presented to community engaged artists worldwide, it seems that Storr feels one of the core issues is if the government is to commission these pieces of work and to then allow a case in court to have it removed, they are facilitating the issue these artists face. Furthermore he points out ‘What makes me feel manipulated is that I am forced to argue for art against some other social function. I am asked to line up on the side of sculpture against those who are on the side of concerts or maybe picnic tables. But of course all these things have social functions… It is a measure of the meagre nature or our public social life that the public is asked to fight out a travesty of the democratic procedure over the crumbs of social experience’. When speaking to people magazine during the court case in 1985 Serra stated ‘I have the weight of the government- not only their deception but their heel-on my head’. Much to the dismay of Richard Serra the piece was removed in 1989 despite his appeal.
What can be inferred about community arts from these two pieces?
Despite their vast undeniable differences, what both of these pieces did was begin to make people question the way in which they interact with their everyday lives. For ‘Pictures Of Garbage’ audiences began to see waste as something more than a mere inconvenience to be ignored, but instead a powerful part of day to day living that we take for granted with the ability to change peoples lives forever, including being turned into something as spectacular as the work created by Muniz and the Catadores. Whereas for Serra not only did the general public who interacted with the Tilted Arc each day, have to work their own lives for example commuting and the way they had to redirect themselves around the piece. Although Tilted Arc made many artists more aware of the issues faced when creating public art pieces, there will always be some form of opposition to the pieces created when they are purposefully placed into busy settings, however more attention was brought by the case to the idea that in our society many people face the issue of legal systems favouring businesses over ‘our democratic freedom of expression’ in Serra’s own words. Community art is about creating various forms of dialogue within particular areas and between the residents using art forms, both of these artists in their own way successfully managed to create a dialogue regardless of the direction in which the publics emotions towards each were orientated.
In its most basic form ‘Pictures Of Garbage’ is exemplary in its adherence to what many would deem a standardised approach to community-engaged art. Not only did it include the stories and characteristics individual people from a setting the artist may not have been familiar with but it also had the creation of various outcomes which involved the Catadores and something was given back to the people of the landfill site. By contrast this is where Tilted Arc begins to see a slight downfall, despite Serra creating the piece for the space in which it was placed and with the intention for it to affect the public, his work does not follow the standard process which would be associated with community engaged art, perhaps had Serra involved more members of the public in his planning/creation process and ensured they were provided with substantial information on the piece he may not have lost the court case which saw his work ‘destroyed’. Despite the common confusion as to why artists are becoming involved in certain areas, it is interesting to see what types of work and what creative processes the public are more willing to accept into their communities. Art that they feel disengaged from, just as they do in the cases of what Brian O’Doherty deemed the ‘white cube of the gallery’ and Tilted Arc, where the work had been planned, created and installed with no input from the public and without them having any knowledge of its pending installation, is where tensions begin to build between general public and artist.
The impacts each piece of work had on the people it was intended to affect greatly differed, where Muniz wanted to touch these peoples lives in a positive way and enlighten them to the ever changing and developing world of art, Richard Serra’s work was created to purposefully be an interruption to the daily routine they have grown accustomed to. Community arts traditionally is aimed at assisting people in developing new skills, which is where Muniz’s work really shines, whilst also aiming to cause people to become more engaged with their surroundings. Broadening the way in which people see specific areas whether that is the people who live there or audiences from further afield is something both artists can be said to have achieved.