WHO ARE WE? | TATE EXCHANGE First Year Evaluation by Chrissie Tiller
WHO ARE WE? Project at Tate Exchange
Who Are We? is a cross-platform programme spanning the visual arts, film and photography, design and architecture, the spoken and written word, live art and music.
In 2017 Who Are We? was collectively researched to reflect on identity, belonging, migration and citizenship through arts and audience participation. Facilitating the co-creation, co-production, and exchange of knowledge among artists, academics, activists, and diverse publics around the multiple crises of identity and belonging in Europe and the UK.
Artists and practitioners from England, Scotland, Poland, Finland, Iraq, Italy, Germany, Bosnia, Serbia, Kosovo, Slovenia, Romania, Greece, Spain, Israel, USA and South Africa contributed to activities, installations and events to which the public was invited to engage and participate. The programme explored what it means to be civic, creating a space for encounters between people and communities often kept apart by binaries: artists versus audiences, academics versus artists, migrants versus ‘natives’, and activists versus publics.
The selection of artists emphasised participatory engagement rather than object-based practice and a purely specular experience. To this end, the installations relied on the presence of the artist and the engagement of audiences. The curatorial approach and gallery design foregrounded a diverse range of methodologies surrounding social engaged practice and generative, durational work.
The 2017 programming team comprised Counterpoints Arts, The Open University, Loughborough University, and Warwick University with contributions from Goldsmiths University of London, The Stuart Hall Foundation, Universal Design Studio, Graphic Thought Facility and with support from the Swedish Embassy London. Collaboration between Universal Design Studio, Graphic Thought Facility and artists materialised in a series of ‘props’ being fabricated – acting as triggers for audience engagement.
Evaluation: As part of the 2017 programme (14-17 March), we commissioned the writer and critical friend, Chrissie Tiller, to conduct a participant-observation in fitting with the participatory nature of the programme as a whole. What follows is Tiller’s evaluation. Find out more: www.whoareweproject.com http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/workshop/tate-exchange/who-are-we
New Union Flag by Gil Mualem-Doron
Design by Graphic Thought Facility and Universal Design Studio
WHO ARE WE?: TATE EXCHANGE The welcome board to Who Are We? at Tate Exchange qualifies its question with a stark and challenging quotation from W.H. Auden’s poem, ‘In Memory of W. B. Yeats’:
“In the nightmare of the dark/All the dogs of Europe bark /And the living nations wait /Each sequestered in its hate”
Auden’s farewell to his fellow poet is sombre and unsettling. While Europe was sinking rapidly into the nightmare world of WWII, it seemed to Auden that most people were so caught up in the petty concerns of their own lives they had hardly noticed what was happening. Veering between his fear that ‘poetry makes nothing happen’ and issuing a passionate call to arms, Auden’s work reminds us of the power of the poet: not only to travel with us into that dark ‘night’ but to open our souls to the possibility of ‘healing’. Who Are We? set out to bring artists, academics and activists together to explore themes of ‘identity, belonging, migration and citizenship’, by offering audiences the possibility to confront their own fears and prejudices through exchanging stories, uncovering data and engaging in dialogue. In the context of Tate Exchange’s aim, ‘to better understand how art makes a difference to people’s lives,’ Auden’s challenge seemed a fitting starting point.
Reflecting on the impact of the experience offered, I have chosen to focus on its more immediate effects on individual audience members, including myself. Firstly, to look at ways in which the programme addressed Tate Exchange’s suggested evaluation criteria by questioning whether it offered audiences opportunities to: - engage with art and ideas - explore a socially relevant issue - feel their ideas were valued - develop knowledge, understanding and an inclination to action on issues discussed
And, secondly, to consider how one might interpret the notion of needing creating ‘positive personal outcomes’ for audience members in the context of work dealing with the raw realities of our current refugee crisis. I then added what I felt was an important 5th criteria: the capacity for the programme to contextualise its work within the wider debate.
Who Are We? Placard by Graphic Thought Facility and Universal Design Studio
ENGAGING WITH ART AND IDEAS On The Forecourt The invitation to engage with art and ideas, including the new realities in which we are all living, is made before audiences even entered the gallery. In placing Alketa Xhafa-Mripa’s Luton truck on the Tate forecourt, Who Are We? provokes its audience into re-assessing one of the iconic images of today’s Europe. Whilst the Refugees Welcome truck itself is convivial and inviting with its carpeted space, easy chairs and a message of Hope, it is difficult for viewers not to be reminded of those images of migrants in lorries, dead and alive, that crowd our media. What does it mean, then, to be invited into a space to take a cup of tea with a refugee? And encounter ‘the other.’
There is a general sense of eagerness in those approaching the van. ‘Is it going to be a performance – like the belly dancer?’ someone asks. ‘Are they collecting money for something?’ ‘Advertising Tate membership?’ ‘Is it those birds again? Onlookers urge each other to come closer; participate in some way. For some this goes no further than having their photo taken inside the truck. But even ‘climbing inside the van’ creates ‘a new perspective’. It’s ‘much smaller’ than most people expect. ‘More claustrophobic’. ‘Difficult to think of it could be filled with people – or even bodies’. Some start to stay longer – to have that cup of tea and conversation and engage with the question of what has happened to the welcome Xhafa-Mripa says she felt when she arrived from Kosovo 20 years ago? Most of those entering the van still see themselves as people who want to welcome migrants. Does this mean people walking through the forecourt of Tate Modern have already pre-selected themselves; by their very interest in the gallery? Many are tourists but there are also young people on organised school trips, mothers and children, older people up, or down, for a day or two in town.
There are those who are clearly pleased with their own grasp of the metaphor. ‘A lot of them come here in lorries’, ‘I know someone who was in the trucks in Calais.’ One self confessed Brexiteer circles the van nervously before he decides to enter and engage in conversation. It’s not migrants like Mripa he is concerned about, he tells her, the ‘cultured and intelligent European’ ones, but ‘those who have come since’. Those whom he perceives as ‘less well educated’ and therefore, ‘more problematic’. Does it matter, in terms of measuring impact, that he was one of the few members of the audience who self declares his antipathy towards migrants? Or is it enough that a notable number of those encountering a piece of art that asks them to engage with an issue and ‘decide what we think’ are engaged enough to decide they will go into the gallery to see more? Not all of them have been to Tate before. Some of those who are not able to spend more time verbalise their regret at ‘not knowing this was on’. One group suggesting, ‘They (meaning Tate Modern) could have put up a sign’.
Refugees Welcome by Alketa Xhafa Mripa
In the Gallery Coming into the gallery, our expectations as an audience are already framed by the welcome board. Having been to events here before, the space feels encouragingly animated. ‘It’s like a kind of café’ someone tells me. Or one of those, ‘re-worked libraries’? For some of the audience, especially those with small children and those on school trips, it ‘feels important’ this not a silent space. Some graduates from City University tell me this is often the most intimidating thing about galleries and museums. ‘You feel like you have to know how to be.’ As I arrive, a father is reading the statements on the board out loud to a small child: explaining what a migrant is. There are people already sitting together on the sofas. Drinking coffee and laughing. This feels like a ‘safe space’ to engage with art and discover things.
those who have died in Abdulla’s own family: invitations to mark their lives that would have been published to record their deaths. The fact we can’t read the names is purposeful. We don’t need to. We find ourselves and our families as easily on the sheet of blackened paper as we found our neighbours in those boats. Or in imagining ourselves pulling the people from those boats. Or accepting, as before, we might be part of the cause.
Being asked to frame questions for the perpetrators of these terrible events or write our responses to the story ‘triggered’ by the postcard, we are invited as audience to be part of the making of the piece, shifting the meaning, collaborating in its significance and the way it might be viewed by future audiences. One of the important notes about the week is that people stayed in the gallery longer than normal. We, the audience, stay by this table. We ask questions and claim our own relationship to the piece. ‘Is this really your daughter?’ ‘Mine is almost the same age.’ ‘That must be your father with his friends?’ ‘I’ve photos of mine from India’, ‘I can remember when I was in Gaza.’ ‘Boys and water…’, ‘It’s the darkness of the sea…that reminds me’
Boats It is impossible to avoid Bern O’ Donoghue’s boats. Although there have been those, she tells me, who have just ‘walked right through them’ without even noticing. Someone has just asked her, having been being told what they represent, ‘Whose fault is it?’ Her response, ‘It’s yours, it’s ours, it’s all our responsibility,’ has left the questioner a little astounded. Art and artists don’t usually answer back.
There is a sense we are implicated as well as engaged in and affected by the story. Some people walk away in tears. Some prefer to turn their backs on the cameraman as we are asked to add photos to our written responses. Our post-it notes, written in Arabic as well as English and other languages, share our own family experiences, ‘my grandparents were refugees’, ‘I’m a twin and a mother’, ‘my father was a migrant’. ‘I have always been safe and settled’, ‘As a refugee I have been through a lot’,
But as the week goes on, it becomes clearer, it is the capacity for these artists to have opinions, to engage with us directly, to challenge us, refuse to let us off the hook as audiences that is one of the strengths of the work. Not only are we prompted to ask questions we are confronted with the difficult answers. Data, like the boats in Bern’s installation, is not clean and abstract. It is impossible, in the end, to separate the boats as artefacts from the reasons for their existence.
‘It’s not an insult to be called a refugee - it’s a badge of strength.’ Our ID style photos show people of different ages, genders and ethnicity. Our images are as much part of the final installation as the drawings of Behjat’s daughter sleeping or a faded photo of his father and uncles playing as boys in a river in Iraq.
A group of school children listen as carefully as adults to these facts. Bern is an excellent artist/educator - as are many of the artists whose work is part of this programme. Another strength. Her stories engage audiences. The numbers astound them. ‘I can’t believe she hasn’t got them all out yet.’ ‘There’s just so many’. Participating in the construction of the boats, and adding a name or a relationship, ‘We’ve put our friend’s name’, reinforces the notion that these are not just numbers in an excel document. It is made clear that taking action to stop this happening is a possible option. The different interventions are not grouped as they might be in a more traditional gallery but our journey through them is carefully curated. Sometimes in ways that invites us to reflect and sometimes in ways that make it difficult for us to move on without engaging. The sofas next to the boats seem to encourage parents with children to stop and speak about the activities they have just taken part in. Needing eventually to turn and move through a ‘corridor’ containing the oversized images of a sleeping child and the sea that make up part of Behjat Omer Abdulla’s From a Distance, quickly makes us realise it will be difficult to respond simply as viewers.
From a Distance From a Distance offers us the story of a terrible mistake made on a boat supposedly taking refugees to safety leading to the death of both children. Is this story of the twins in the boat a myth or a fact as the postcard we are offered asks us? Perhaps, as a piece of art, it is all the stronger for its metaphorical potential. One dreadful story is one dreadful story. ‘Sometimes these things are too massive to comprehend.’ But, like a Greek tragedy, this piece resonates with every member of the audience. ‘My parents were refugees’, ‘my grandmother fled her country’, ‘I have no idea what it means to be a migrant, but I am a mother’. We are not separate from this experience. Under a sheet of black paint are the names of
From a Distance by Behjat Omer Abdulla
From a Distance by Behjat Omer Abdulla
Dead Reckoning by Bern Oâ€™Donoghue
DEVELOPING KNOWLEDGE, UNDERSTANDING AND AN INCLINATION TO ACTION
Citizen Sense All of the above projects could easily have been placed under this heading. It was difficult to decide which outcome we might be measuring any one project against.
But there are clear signifiers, a long desk with computers, projection screens, flip charts, people sitting and listening through headphones, that the non-human migrants’ project, might be where real science happens. Joining the group at the table takes a little more nerve and commitment. The title uses the word ‘laboratory’. This is definitely a place ‘to develop knowledge.’ And as I join, a Powerpoint presentation is about to begin. The first slide contains a statement, a question and a suggested solution. - We have a crisis - What are we going to do about it? - Collaboration is the only way forward
It takes me, and the two participants sitting next to me, a minute or two to realise the slide is not speaking about human migrants, but European eels. The parallels, however, soon become unnerving. We are told how the sea claims most of their lives: 99.8% of them dying on the journey from their breeding grounds to the Bay of Biscay. How even then, those who reach Europe’s shores find themselves blocked by man-made barriers. Where once, the leaks, cracks, warping of wooden sluice gates and defences allowed a certain amount of manoeuvrability and flexibility, the concrete walls of Europe’s 25,000 hydro-power stations keep everything out.
Not only are the eels themselves suffering but the rich cultures that surrounded them, the fisherman, the makers of nets, the cooks and chefs are also disappearing. And now, it seems, the eels like the humans are being trafficked. Hidden in the hold of ships, crammed into suitcases. There is big money to be made through sales to new markets such as China: their fate at the mercy of human greed. The only way it seems the eels and the allied livelihoods can be rescued is through trans-national collaboration: across country borders, across sectors, across generations. Changing their fate needs co-operation: between scientists and non-scientists, between professionals and volunteers. People will need to be prepared to share knowledge. And skills. And to work together.
The ‘unintended’ metaphor is a powerful one. Questions follow about how to use the data. How to make it meaningful to audiences. I share a project the Citizen Sense team know, where two artists used GPS to follow the route of milk from Latvian dairy farms to Germany and the Netherlands – and the return of the empty churns: the journeys reflecting those made by migrants. Antti Tenetz’ hybrid practice clearly brings art and science together in a powerful way. Moving across borders, tracking journeys and revealing systems it promotes co-operation and investigation across arts disciplines and between the arts and science. Everyone at the table feels challenged to ‘know more’, to understand where this ‘kind of collaboration’ might lead us.
Citizenshop by Nele Vos
Trigger Warning The wit and humour of There There’s seaside amusement arcade installation offers a different approach to developing knowledge and understanding. Children and teenagers are drawn straight to the playfulness of the piece but engagement with the piece is inter-generational. While small children ‘loved’ hooking a duck ‘job’, it is the parents who ‘ruefully’ stop to read the list of jobs migrants have supposedly stolen from us. The impossible challenge of obtaining a passport in the bucket, replicating the fairground model of the ‘fixed’ game, seems to appeal particularly to fathers and young men. There are possibilities to discover what might await us after Brexit – hard facts and data mixed with fortune cookie style predictions – as well as engaging with the wheel of ‘Benefit Rights’. But, like the boats, the simplicity of the game like structure, offers a way in for parents and children to discuss more difficult topics. And a group of teenagers, who have not really engaged much with the rest of the gallery, take endless pictures of themselves using The NHS Wish You Were Here photo opp. Why? ‘Because it’s fun.’ ‘You can just be stupid and silly’, ‘I took it for my Nan.’
In terms of the gallery and who visits, the audience for this piece highlights questions around class as well as engagement with the issues. The amusement arcade is so much part of the ‘ordinary culture’, Raymond Williams speaks about that its presence in the gallery context only seems to underline the sense of there being an invisible ‘other’. An awareness of those who are not in this or any other gallery. Those who would still feel out of place if invited in, unless perhaps, like the group of teenagers, they were brought here by their school or another organisation. EXPLORING SOCIALLY RELEVANT ISSUES
Life Jackets As the lecture ends we are conscious of a constant buzz of conversation coming from the next space. Through a mix of live and Skype conversations we are able to learn about a group of artists and volunteers who have set up the Life Jackets project on Lesvos: making handbags of the life jackets migrants discard as they land on Europe’s shores. Someone asks, ‘What will you do when run out of life jackets?’ The whole notion of supply and demand is being turned on its head. The irony, we are told, is that these cheap life jackets, probably made by poorly paid migrants in Turkey, are now being cut up and remade into useful objects at the other side of the sea. Many of them journeying off across the borders their creators cannot pass, some even returning to their country of origin in a new form. An endless cycle. A parody of the notion of ‘mobility’ we are endlessly speaking about. This is creativity and art as a form of resilience and resistance. ‘We have plenty of plastic,’ the refugee camp organisers console us, ‘And plenty of artists who can work to create amazing things with it’. The evaluation card I pick up at this point asks me, ‘How has this changed what you think?’ I’m still not sure. I ask a woman, leaving the table with a bag she has made, if she came here because she knew about the event, or by accident? She tells me she knew something about this initiative from friends and had done some work in the area. But she wasn’t a frequent visitor to the Tate and didn’t know about this space before. What has surprised her and affected her, by spending some time here, is the ‘juxta-position of different kinds of projects’, of ‘different ways of looking at the same important question’.
Trigger Warning by There There
Weight Ania Bas wonders whether the part of the gallery her installation is placed in might have become ‘therapy corner’: offering audiences the possibility to reflect on their experiences as well as engage differently with the questions posed. Bas and Butler’s installation of the iconic brands that divide and unite a nation of Brexiters and Remainers, provokes questions around national identity in a time when the ‘nation’ seems most divided. Two confident young men underline a sense of who is in the gallery and who is still absent. Happily wandering round the installation, they tell Ania and I they are ‘positive’ which of these objects would appeal to the ‘lower classes’. They are less sure on those that might have united people and surprised to learn one of the shared brands is the NSPCC. Ania explains someone seems to have taken the ‘mother’ doll from the family representing them. We wonder together if its absence is ‘arbitrary’ or is ‘intended as a comment’? There is a sense in people’s responses to the piece: ‘good we agree about something’, ‘money and taking care of children –mmm’, ‘I was wrong about quite a few things’, that we are all still seeking ways back in to the shared conversation.
Outside the Box In highlighting small acts of kindness or solidarity Outside the Box not only challenges stereotypes but offers the possibility of things being different. Looking at the cardboard box sculpture Laura Sorvala has created from stories of hope, empathy and thoughtfulness contributed by participants on social media, a number of people speak about being ‘quietly moved’ by things like, ‘the little personal details’. ‘It gives you hope’ a young woman in a hijab says. ‘It’s so easy to dismiss people and think the worst of them.’ Many stop to share similar stories. ‘I remember this man on the tube who’d been looking at me like he disapproved, then he suddenly stood up and offered me his seat when he saw I was pregnant.’ The colourful graphic comic style makes the stories accessible. Once again a number of children stop and stand with their parents and speak about them, nervously wondering if, ‘in a gallery’, they are ‘permitted’ to turn the boxes to see the end of the story. Taking on the idea that none of us are quite as we are portrayed in the media the project gives a voice to those who want to share different stories. The older woman I have spoken to earlier tells me it is a good ‘reminder of the benevolence of some people’.
Weight by Ania Bas & Season Butler
Outside the Box by Laura Sorvala
VALUING OUR IDEAS The New Union Flag Project Gil Mualem-Doron’s act of re-working of the Union Jack is topically political – especially as it includes a petition to Parliament to consider adopting it as the official UK flag. An ironic echo of the flag on the back wall of Xhafa-Mripa’s Luton truck with its neon message of Hope, Doron engages his co-creators in considering what a flag that includes textiles and designs from former UK colonies – as well as the different ethnic groups that make up the UK today – might look like. Asking participants to respond to a series of questions about favourite foods and colours and objects and experiences Dorn also invites them to create their own flag using stickers. What matters more than the flags are the conversations that take place around them. Doron is another skilled artist facilitator. As at ease with a large group of primary school children as with two Japanese tourists or elderly ladies who don’t ‘quite get the point’. All of them end up making and taking away their flags. There are also products ‘on sale’ with the new flag on them – or at least to be photographed with – challenging the role of the money making gallery shop and the question of who has the right to reproduce what. The two women who agreed in principle with the idea of questioning what kind of flag might represent us today choose to have their photo taken in front of the Union Flag because ‘we’ve grown up with it and it still feels more comfortable.’ 50 Rooms Somehow I miss much of the performance that accompanies the 50 Room exhibit. Watching it on video later I see how moving it is for the audience and regret the artist has not been there to facilitate people’s responses to the installation of drawers filled with memories, objects that in performance recreate a powerful sense of a life lived in transit and its impact and meaning. In the end I have to accept that even in a week I will not experience everything. Many of the exhibits are being shared on other occasions as part of other exhibitions. I am waiting eagerly to catch this one.
Citizenshop Even for those already actively engaged in ‘doing something’ in the field, there were possibilities to be surprised. The piece that resonated most strongly with two young activists, there to take part in the Learning Lab on arts and politics, is Nele Vos’ Citizenshop. ‘I valued it because the state was the subject of the work and not refugees as such’. ‘It was shocking though to see the reality of the double standards.’ By taking us into the territory of citizenship as a commodity, Vos’ installation challenges our very notion of the citizen: inviting audiences to enter the dialogue. By asking us for their own definitions of, ‘What makes a good citizen’, Vos’ transforms us from consumers, albeit of art, to co-producers: re-imagining the concept for those who might come after. In the context of citizenship as product, it is encouraging to read the many calls to action for us to work together to improve this world. ‘Courage, compassion and action,’ ‘Contributing to the welfare of all’, ‘Constantly improving where we are,’ ‘Do unto others as you would have done to you’ being among the responses.
New Union Flag by Gil Mualem-Doron
50 Rooms by Natasha Davis
CONTEXTUALISING THE DEBATE Culture, Identity and the Contemporary Art Museum poses the question, ‘Why at this particular conjuncture is the art world not out there in the media challenging what is going on?’
The Chair suggests possible roles for the gallery. Is it there to shape the dominant culture – its attitudes and its language, or to act as a gatekeeper, narrating a shared sense of culture but in doing that also excluding? There is an agreement galleries and museums are always embedded in a complex relationship with the wider culture. And questions asked about whether they exist to respond and interact more immediately with what happens around them or will always need to take a distance because exhibitions and events need to be curated years ahead.
50 Rooms by Natasha Davis
Marta Gili, Director of the Jeu de Paume asks if museums can ignore the social, economic and political contexts in which they sit? I wonder if Tate Exchange might be a way of doing exactly this offering space for something more immediate – inconstant dialogue with what is taking place in the world outside and what is being shown in the main galleries?
People speak about how when we fear strangers and ‘the other’ we build walls, create structures to keep them out. Someone mentions Trump, another Israel. People wonder if the refusal to engage with the lives of others is sometimes reflected in our cultural institutions. Others speak of the constant confiscation of words and language by the populist right wing and wonder the lexicon of radicalisation needs to be recreated by museums. Do they always need to search for consensus? Could they also engage with Mouffe’s concepts of antagonism. Gili shares a story of how Jewish protests around an exhibition they were curating of work by a Palestinian photographer almost closed the gallery until another artist being shown and the gallery workers came together to insist it remained open.
Francesco Manacorda, Director of Tate Liverpool, asks us how galleries can begin to think about how knowledge is produced and how we can work more actively with audiences. He wonders if we need to look more closely as whose interests we are serving if we are going to be active in the civic sphere. This, he suggests, will mean greater democratisation of culture and the need to address social justice and access not only in content but also in governance. Asking, if there ‘Are ways of producing content that are as important as the product?’ ‘Can we co-produce knowledge with audiences?’ ‘Can we try to start with a question rather than telling people what to think’ he also wonders why we still seem to start from the Western tradition? And cites projects such as the Canadian gallery that asked elders from the indigenous community to share their stories around objects.
50 Rooms by Natasha Davis
Okwe Enwezor, Director of the Haus der Kunst in Munich, reminds us that museums are very much part of the particular context in which they are placed. He also suggests they all have blindspots and barriers that need negotiating which means they can too often repeat the same narrative. And wonders how we can begin to disrupt those narratives. He explains the particular context of his own museum and what its history through Nazi times and describes the impact of the 1994 Stuart Hall New Internationalism conference at the Tate on his thinking. He asks us to think about the role of museums and galleries in making things visible. But then describes how when MOMA decided to respond to Trumps embargo on migrants by re-hanging part of its collection to show the work of migrant/refugee artists what it revealed was gaps in its collections. It didn’t have work from many of the countries of the refugees and migrants. In taking away work made by migrant artists, Wellesley College took quite a different approach. The blank walls made the point more effectively in the end.
In the Questions and Responses that follow people note that the demos is often self selecting in terms of those who might engage with these actions in the museum. They ask how we might. build a constituency who help us see our blind spots? How we could break down the silos?
Wonder if Tate Exchange could act as a Trojan Horse? People feel we may have addressed some issues such as gender, ethnicity but have still not dealt with class or economic circumstances. Some comment on the increasing ‘self-policing ‘of institutions often influenced by responding to their sponsors. People wonder if institutions are taking less rather than more risks. There is a suggestion that museums should start to create spaces for encounters between different subjectivities: not only audiences and art. People question whether we need to think of constituencies rather than audiences and wonder whether museums should be more accountable to their constituencies. Or if this might be an equally dangerous path?
Manacorda suggests we need to think ‘What are we willing to change as museums.’ He speaks of how class creates barriers for people and how the historical funding of museums, often on the back of slavery, creates on-going dilemmas. How do museums whose very presence depends on the colonisation begin to reflect on this?
How Are Arts Involved in Enacting Civil Rights? explores the shift in autonomy of expression in who can perform politics/who can perform arts within the political arena. It looks at the language or protest and civil rights and asks how we might begin to ‘do things with rights?’
Farah from Toronto, describes how she came to art from politics and activism. Realising she couldn’t get in to speak to immigrants in detention centres she said she was doing art therapy with them. Then used the entry this gave her to speak to detainees. Art, she told us, has the power to ask questions of the state. Ask questions to power. And speak truth to power. She describes how she took the image of migrants arriving in boats and created a white boat of white people arriving in the centre of Toronto challenging people to question whether it was just immigration in general that concerned them or immigrants of colour or from certain races or countries. She mentions the ‘Beautiful Trouble’ tool box she has created for activists wanting to work through the arts.
The need for artists, like arts institutions, to compromise on their politics because of their need for funding is mentioned. And people speak about how often they find themselves self-censoring or making work that moves towards consensus rather than antagonism or disruption. Speaking of the work of Sarah Ahmed, others note that as soon as you bring up the problem you become the problem. People question whether things like this means artists were giving up on criticality? And speak of the deep rooted collaboration needed between artists, activists and institutions. Arts institutions, especially in spaces like Tate Exchange, still have the power to invite people in and ask those difficult questions. The Unlearning Lab and the possibility of subversion within the gallery being noted. Artists also want to speak about what they feel is the growing exploitation of the narrative by researchers and the need to resist this and work together to undertake our own story-telling. Using Black Lives Matter as an example, some felt the work of both activists and artists has sometimes become invisible in the writing up of what happened. Others ask about how we can influence how society values artists. Especially refugee and migrant artists. How does the discourse become wider? Younger artist/activists ask how they can begin to learn from what has been done and build on it and stop the fusion of art and activism being problematic.
Shed Your Fears by Richard DeDomenici
Is there a need, someone asks, for there to be an either/or? Art is a knowledge in itself someone points out. We need to know the rules of the game because the game is the problem and then think how we come together to challenge those rules. PERSONAL OUTCOMES
One of the most important successes of Who Are We? is the possibility for audiences to reflect at different stages and for artists and the curators to capture some of people’s personal experiences and ‘outcomes’.
Shed your Fears Beyond the Babble and Shed Your Fears are both in what some of the artists have come to refer to as the therapy corner. Both invite audiences into a ‘final’ moment of self reflection. Asking us once again to think about the question Who Are We? they also prompt us to ask, ‘What are we afraid of?’ ‘How do we see ourselves?’ ‘What has contributed to our identity? We are comforted in both by a certain amount of invisibility. The questioner in one. Our shared invisibility in the other. How do we share our fears and concerns with others? Richard DeDomenici’s Shed your Fears gives us the option to engage with our ‘opposite’ or not afterwards. The longest time someone stays in is 40 minutes, or an hour, or even longer. Over the week the story has become apocryphal.
While lapsed Catholics run away in fear of reproducing the horrors of the old confessional, conversations people never expected to have begin to take place. Some are prompted by people’s experiences so far, others by the medium itself. A mother and her sons find their invisibility to each other enables them to share things they haven’t done before in ‘real life’. A child afraid of monsters with 16 eyes is able to ‘confess’ and explain their reasoning to an unseen listener. A Brexit supporter who came to ‘look around’ while his wife was at the theatre Is able to admit he is now questioning some of his thoughts. He has never ‘been to a gallery much before’ but now thinks he might come again. An artist at one side of the confessional finds a connection through football with his fellow confessee: despite their political and social differences. Beyond the Babble In the Beyond the Babble booth we can be watched by anyone but no one, apart from the artist, hears what we have to say until anonymous edits are shared as part of the sound installation. It is a precious time to reflect. Lucia Scazzochio prompts us, pushes at little openings, encourages us to reveal a little more. In terms of participation she is the one with the power. We learn nothing of her. But this is the contract. We share. She listens. There is a clarity and an honesty about this. She parks her assumptions. We are allowed to speak without judgement, without interruption. One woman, having entered the booth, confesses she hates her identity and does not wish to share. She closes down the conversation. Scazzochio wonders what the responsibilities are of the artist who asks people to share their thoughts and stories and is then left with difficult responses. People’s written responses on the final feedback board capture the intensity of people’s reactions. Almost all are positive – but many also contain within them the possibility of art to be thought provoking, raise difficult questions, even make us feel uncomfortable. Yet still bring about a ‘positive outcome’.
Beyond the Babble by Lucia Scazzochio
Using a more traditional evaluation approach I have also tried to capture what people felt worked and where there were reservations or criticisms. What Worked
The diversity of artists and their work – ‘to communicate the issue of diversity’, offering audiences the ‘possibility to discover new artists’
Mirroring this, the diversity of the audiences – brought in by these artists and the communities who know them The inter-connectedness of the work in its responses to the themes.
The bringing together ‘thinking and feeling’ and ‘engaging the heart and the mind.’ Words such as ‘Thought provoking’ and ‘touching’ were equally used by audience members describing their experience. The ‘sense of debate’ – and ‘wanting to ask questions.’
The curation of the space - encouraging people to stay and engage in different ways with different interventions. ‘This,’ someone said, ‘is what a gallery should look like.’ The number of activities that engaged different members of the family and worked across generations: ‘we stayed because we could’. The ‘live’ nature of the art – and the ‘possibility to contribute’ to its development.
Someone spoke about the project’s ‘integrity and honesty’, calling it ‘the best thing I have ever experienced at the Tate’. Awareness was mentioned a lot even when people were already empathetic this was increased. Some Reservations One person wanted greater diversity of views ‘especially on Brexit’ – wondering if we are already ‘in the echo chamber’? One felt it gets ‘wearing’ to suffer a “guilt trip?”. Many of the artists felt a need ‘to go out there – to schools and to public places where this work would be more difficult.’
Others voiced a need to ‘come in’ and have the work shown and shared alongside the other work in the main galleries. How do you discover Tate Exchange activities by chance? One man definitely did – but what more is needed to bring the unsuspecting visitor into the space?
Extra Thoughts Some people mentioned not being clear always how to get engaged in Tate Exchange as an experience beyond the day.
It really made a difference when artists were able to be with their work and were skilled facilitators, or even if there were people like the young ‘invigilators’ who had personal connections with the pieces of work. I wondered how one might organise this with all the demands on people’s time. What is the role of sign-posting? How do people know what they are engaging with who only wander through the space? Who just see the boats but not what they represent? Is the art enough in itself? What is the role of the facilitator, the educator in the gallery?
And following this what triggers the audience to do something other than a wander through? There were certainly people on Saturday who walked through as if they were ensuring they did something on every floor, walked through the whole gallery. No time to stop and look at anything. The importance for many of these artists of being in the Tate. But also wanting to be in the Tate in other ways. The worker from the camp and those back in the camp speaking on Skype, that they felt they and their community were here. In the Tate Modern.
The importance for the artists of meeting and having conversations with fellow artists sharing work and stories. And, thinking how rarely this happens, most were hungry for more dialogue. Where does the ownership lie in a project like this? What does something like the collaboration between the academics and the artists mean when it’s largely invisible once everything is in the gallery setting?
In the context of the debate on the role of museums and galleries, the live nature of the issues of migration and the connections audiences were also making to Brexit and Trump’s America. And the impetus for audiences to engage actively with these issues. It made me wonder what might have happened if we had been able to see this work curated alongside Wolfgang Tillmans’ critique of Blair, or Rauschenberg’s work: the juxtaposition of cause and effect? Which brings me back to the visitor and the questioner at the beginning asking. ‘Who has caused this?’ How might a gallery like the Tate, begin to enter into another kind of dialogue with its audience around such questions, and use Tate Exchange? The interface between the lives of the audience and the lives of the artists. Like a woman I met who had come for a debate and stayed for the art. She had been an ESOL teacher in Syria and was now making her own book about Damascus now and then at an art class in Morley College. Brought up in a Polish refugee camp herself she was now married to a Tibetan refugee with a daughter who is married to a Brazilian. The crowds on Saturday afternoon. Greatest numbers in Tate Exchange exceeded!
Images: Marcia Chandra, Gil Mualem-Doron, Cathrin Walczyk and Blerim Racaj Design: Nelli Stavropoulou