The Materiality of Dialogue (revisited)

 The Materiality of Dialogue (revisited)

From 2017 to 2018, I participated in Locating the Social in Architecture: co-organised by the ICA, the Architecture Space and Society Centre at Birkbeck, and the Consortium for the Humanities and the Arts South-East England UK.  

As a Research Participant and Presenter (2017-2018), I represented the UAL as an art practitioner. I delivered a paper on the Material Dialogue in Socially Engaged Art at the concluding symposium held at the ICA (2018).  This June, I revised this paper for a call and response programme for a research-in-progress event involving arts and humanities research students and supervisors from several institutions. 


Hi, my name is Joshua Y’Barbo. My research on Institutional Critique After the Educational Turn focused on the salons at Chelsea College of Arts, which formed part of the teaching practice of Brian Chalkley, former course director of MA Fine Art. Chalkley conceptualised the salons as something that exists outside the curriculum of the course. For me, the salons offered a ready-made participatory structure for accessing social phenomena using the pedagogical tools of art institutions. From 2009 to 2016, I organised a series of salons with fellow artist Laura Carew. Through independent research, I’ve come to see certain salons as socially engaged activities that constructed temporary learning environments as a form of institutional critique of the art school. 


Before I begin, I will introduce some terms. The Tate defines the socially engaged practice as ‘…art that is collaborative, often participatory and involves people as the medium or material of the work’. Also, I refer to collaborative teams in the case study, which refers to myself and others who designed and organised the salon for students, but not always in collaboration with students. Finally, I refer to collaborative frameworks to describe multi-layered participatory structures (such as spoken language or tasks) that created verbal and non-verbal interactions between salon participants.  

Purpose Statement

I researched the salons at Chelsea College of Art to develop a method of capturing and analysing socially engaged art. For a time, I avoid going into the theoretical debates between Kester, Bishop, and Bourriaud and instead opt to focus on Pablo Helguera’s concepts of community, collaboration, and antagonism as material registers of dialogue. I hope to provide conceptual building blocks for practitioners who may find material components of socially engaged art material useful.

Case study: Art Droppings Salon (2015)

The Art Dropping Salon was a collaboration between artist Daniel Devlin, my colleagues Laura Carew, Brian Chalkley and myself and Devlin’s concept of collecting discarded materials. Together, we formed a collaborative team and gathered a community of MA Fine Art students at Chelsea College of Art by first, inviting them to discard materials in containers placed across Chelsea College studios, and, second, encouraging them to participate in the spatial rearrangement and discussion of the amassed art ephemera in an advertised salon event. The results of sharing and placing neglected art objects led to discussions about art, every day, and values which challenged practices of handling and displaying art objects. 

Community: The Construction of Multi-layered Participatory Structure

According to Helguera, socially engaged art gathers communities into temporary social groups through collective experience using multi-layered participatory structures. Helguera (2011, p. 9) stated, 'Not only does each SEA project depend on a community for its existence, but such projects are, most people agree community-building mechanisms'. These participatory mechanisms include nominal participation, such as an exhibition visitor, where the participating subject reflects a passive detachment to aesthetic experience, and directed participation, where the subject completes a contributing to creating work. Participation can also be creative, where the subject shares responsibility for developing structures established by the artist or collaborative, where the participating subject shares the responsibility for developing structures and content in collaboration and direct dialogue with an artist. Helguera (2011) identifies structures that are: voluntary, where participating subjects actively engage in authored structures; non-voluntary, where subjects are forced to participate with arrangements set out by the artist(s); or involuntary, where subjects engage without full disclosure. 

The Art Dropping Salon (2015) showed multiple layers of participation, which allowed students to create their own experiences by handling objects and asking questions within conditions set out by us, the collaborative team. First, participants engaged as an audience viewing materials nominally as observers entering the room where we hosted this salon. Second, some participants would arrive encouraged to handle the discarded materials by invitation (verbal or written in emails and posters), thus directing participating subjects to ask questions and position objects around the room. One layer of participation encouraged participants to complete the suggested task to creatively engage within this salon by submitting their materials, choosing objects that caught their attention and discussing topics that touched their interests. This flexible structure for participation allowed students a place in direct and indirect dialogue with the collaborative team and the collected material. 

Collaboration: Accountability and Expertise

Following gathering communities as a material practice based on dialogue and relationship, Helguera (2011) offers collaboration as another tool of socially engaged art. While Helguera (2011, p. 51) stated, 'Collaboration in SEA is thus defined largely by the role the artist assumes. There are two main issues to consider in setting up that role: accountability and expertise.' Expertise and Accountability refer to the role of the artist as faciliatory rather than social agent looking to solve a community’s problems and clear responsibilities between artists (or collaborative teams) and communities. In SEA, this is often artists acting as the non-expert or deskilled practitioner. Therefore, collaborative frameworks rely on a series of relationships and multi-layered participatory structures between the artist(s) that establish levels of input expected from decision-making teams and targeted communities. Individuals and groups working in collaboration must build ownership in the decision-making processes while valuing individual participants and their unique contributions. 

As part of the collaborative team for Art Droppings Salon, we relied on our and the student’s expertise as a prerequisite for participating in this salon. We established ownership in the decision-making process for this salon between ourselves. We invited students to participate by discarding materials and meeting us on a specified day and space in the college. Each of the team became involved in gathering and handling materials and asking questions alongside other participants. Our collaborative framework saw students directed into participation under the pre-conditions set out by the collaborative team and further directed by interactions with other participants as they arranged objects in space. Individual participants then had the opportunity to creatively and collaboratively contribute objects or topics of discussion to this salon. The final component of this salon’s collaborative framework is the institutional space of Chelsea College, which offered a seminar studio. Far from a neutral location, this art institution carries with it specific policies that govern its functioning principles, which directly and indirectly influenced the values, validation, and display of art objects. 

Antagonism: Critical Stance and Participation

The relationship between gathering communities, and establishing collaborations between groups, led me to critical positioning and antagonism. Helguera (2011, p. 59) specified, 'Antagonism is not a genre but rather a quality of art-making  [that] implies taking a critical position on a given issues without necessarily proposing an alternative. Its greatest strength is in raising questions, not in providing answers.’ Indebted to the critique of contemporary art institutions, this quality of socially engaged art attempts to expose restrictive power structures and functioning principles of social, aesthetic institutions. This social, aesthetic enquiry is not reliant on the convivial dialogue and negotiation with an audience associated with the previous two material components. However, antagonism as practice uses the same participatory structures when seeking out participants, forming critical positions and establishing agendas. These participatory structures include: subjects voluntary and actively engaged in authored structures, subjects finding the artist's agenda (s) non-voluntary forced onto them, or subjects’ involuntary acceptance and support of the artist’s critical position without clear awareness. According to Helguera, antagonism can be a means of directing an audience towards controlling the circumstances in which they find themselves. The degree of confrontation used by social practitioners is accountable to their intended ends, which characteristically aggravates greater critical awareness in groups and communities but must justify its means of antagonism.

In practice, the Art Dropping Salon furthered targeted systems of value in art's pedagogy and display through pedagogical encounter. The double act of collecting and contextualising arts neglected objects established this Salon’s critical position: to challenge and talk about what art is and what makes an exhibition. This salon antagonised art schools, galleries, and museums for their traditions attachment to valuing, displaying, and contextualising art objects. This salon openly questioned the value of objects in the art within a formal learning environment but grounded in an informal situation and propelled by direct and indirect dialogue. Students either directly joined in the intended critique subverted in the concept of rearranging art droppings or involuntarily walked into the salon without any understanding of the critique underway but engaged in discussion with others regardless.

Qualitative Analysis: Social Value and Claim 

In conclusion, the materiality of dialogue offers discursive registers of gathering communities, establishing collaborations, and position critical stances against established ideas about art. Thus, my reflections on the interactions between art students, institutional hosts and art objects led me to value and reassess dialogue as an artistic material that advocated social relationships to be ethically and politically more significant than the quality of the products circulated between them. 


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