Curating Community and the Value of Agonism

by Alison Rooke

19 September 2014
Originally published in our Old Blog.

As an academic who has been working with arts organisations who do participatory and socially engaged art work with residents and ‘targeted populations’ (such as older people, young people, refugees and estate residents) for over a decade, I have become interested in the conflicting needs and desires which come to bear on these projects. I have carried out numerous evaluations of arts-based interventions, on a scale which spans the local to the global.

In evaluative research, the question of deciding on the criteria by which we might evaluate a project is more than a matter of identifying tools, indicators and producing evidence. Project evaluation is the moment at which the tensions and failures of a project can be either used as opportunities for reflection or ‘dirty secrets’ to be discussed later in informal settings where they are less dangerous and disruptive. However, it is these very tensions and failings which are indicative of the ethical and political dilemmas facing artists and arts organisations delivering participatory and socially engaged art practice.

I organised the AHRC Cultural Value Expert Workshop entitled Curating Community? out of an awareness of a body of literature concerned with the cultural politics surrounding regeneration and gentrification, debates in arts evaluation and my own research into the micro-politics of arts participation. The workshop brought together artists, commissioners, researchers, educationalists and practitioners from community development and range of arts practices including community, socially engaged art practice, participatory theatre and participatory arts with the aim of reflecting on the opportunities and dilemmas facing practitioners working with ‘communities’ in this context of urban regeneration and gentrification. The workshop asked the following questions:

  • How are forms of ‘community’ instantiated and negated through participatory arts?
  • Is there scope for making apparent the conflicting positions of stakeholders in arts participation projects?
  • What are the consequences of such an approach?
  • What is the ‘community impact’ of participatory arts?
  • What is its relational significance?

The use of the word ‘curation’ in the workshop title, rooted in the Latin ‘to care’, is an acknowledgement of the arduous and careful affective labour involved in much of this work and, in turn, its affective impact on the practitioners, (often working in precarious and exacting conditions). In London’s context of rapid regeneration some arts practitioners are working on self-initiated and ‘activist’ initiatives, working with, or as part of, communities in critical and creative responses to the effects of regeneration and gentrification such as displacement, the privatisation and securitisation of urban space. Here artists are often making apparent the uneven social consequences of urban development. The desire to ‘curate community’ bringing residents together through creative interventions, emerges from mixed motivations. Public, third and private sector bodies recognise the potential of participatory and socially engaged art as a means to ‘restore the social bond’ (Ranciere 2006; 57) and ‘tighten the space of social relations’ (Bourriaud 2002:15).

In this process ‘socially-engaged’ or ‘participatory’ art practice has become more professionalized (see Hope 2011). Other drivers here include arts organisation’s desire and need to enhance the traditional demographics of gallery audiences through ‘education’ ‘community’ or ‘local’ programming (in part driven by arts policy and accusations of elitism) and the targeting of ‘vulnerable’ groups (refugees, young people, older people, migrant groups, ex-offenders and LGBT groups for example), through participatory processes. Within this strategic approach to working with communities, arts practitioners negotiate complex circumstances, tasked with creating spaces of dialogue and exchange through participatory social programmes in a context of increased socio-economic inequality and population churn.

Due to its dialogical nature, socially engaged practice is particularly suited to agonistic (Mouffe 2007) circumstances. It has the capacity to reveal the on-going, unpredictable, and multiple dialectics between power and resistance. Rather than predictably reproducing an illusion of unity and a ‘cohesive’ and convivial community, socially engaged practice has the potential to mediate and negotiate and make apparent these social contexts and offer what Mouffe describes as an alternative ‘social imaginary’ in their creative response to them. On-going critical exchange and ‘dialogical aesthetic’ (Kester as 2004) between all ‘stakeholders’ often shape a projects’ eventual realisation. Community art projects, funded through agendas which seek to produce democratic outcomes (such as civic awareness, active citizenship, community cohesion, equality, or inclusion), are paradoxical in that these aims must be ‘deconstructed’, and sometimes disrupted in the course of the project if an agonistic approach is to be successful (Mouffe (2007).

An abundance of evidence has demonstrated that participatory art can address social problems, however, an agonistic approach recognises that this may not be in ways that bring about desired behavioural changes as defined by the state, the corporate world or other social bodies not directly involved in the day-to-day lives of those most impacted by, inequality and social injustice. Working creatively with the agonistic aspect of socially engaged and participatory processes art is not a case of merely solving conflict in order to get on with the work of produce a satisfactory output or outcome. Conflicts and problematic issues, or antagonisms are in Mouffe’s words essential ‘impurities’.

It is therefore more a case of finding cultural value in making and maintaining conflict and tension through a collective creative process. However, this flexible, iterative and critical approach is so often at odds with the demands of delivering and evaluating planned projects with predetermined aims, impacts and outputs. Those working in social practice can find themselves in difficult ethical positions, torn between the desire to ‘start from the middle’ navigating the labyrinth of the competing demands and desires of communities and their obligation to satisfy funders and commissioners predetermined aims and objectives of project ‘delivery’. The ability to juggle these demands, cope with periods of chaos, pull a project together and make sense of it critically is one of the under-recognised skills of the socially engaged artists.

These complex situations are indicative of the uneasy fit between a tradition of arts participation, which has evolved out of radical practice, as a part of a project of social justice and societal change (Negri 2011; Bruyne and Gielen 2011) and the instrumental deployment of arts participation in urban development on a global scale. It is therefor not surprising that arts practitioners concerned with participative and socially engaged practice find themselves facing complex ethical and political dilemmas. In the ‘Curating Community’ workshop we discussed the viability of developing alternatives to orthodox evaluative frameworks and methodologies which are integral to arts the governmentality of culture. Evaluation could open up an opportunity to reflect on the value and significance of failures, differences and disagreements within a project. Generative and integral approaches to project evaluation, which incorporate the principles of ‘critical friendship’, triangulated peer review and participatory action research, offered ways of unpicking and recognising the cultural value of antagonism and heterogeneity in participatory arts.

A longer report on the AHRC Cultural Value Curating Community Expert Workshop can be found here.

Dr Alison Rooke is a former co-Director of CUCR at Goldsmiths, University of London.

︎ Images by Alison Rooke.