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A summary in images

July 4, 2011

… and yes, the music is perhaps a little overly dramatic for this purpose, but it’s called Summer in the City and it *is* summer in the city, and it *was* still summer in the city when Showing Up, Speaking Out took place… so maybe it’s okay 😉


Curatorial statement

July 3, 2011

Hello everyone!

Many months have passed since Showing Up, Speaking Out (SUSO) drew to a close. The experience was both positive and challenging in many ways, and I remain truly grateful to everyone who participated. These include the community members who collaborated, the artists who shared ideas and enthusiasm, the community service groups that circulated information within their networks, and the partners and funders that so generously provided the space and resources necessary to bring the project to life on such a large scale. Thank you!

I’ve had an opportunity to to reflect on the project, and though everything happened so long ago, it still feels like it’s growing and changing. Indeed, just as I had hoped, SUSO developed a life of its own and ebbed and flowed in many unexpected directions. Most exciting is the way in which some projects continue to resonate within the city, but I’ll get to that a little later.

Instead of writing a conventional curatorial statement—a dense essay packed with theoretical context and allusions to other relevant practices in curating and community arts—I’d like to offer something a little more pragmatic in the form of a report to community members that might be described as an experiential summary. This report, or summary, will be divided into several sections as follows:

Please click on any of the above links to read the corresponding section on this blog. Or, if you prefer to read this document as a .pdf, please click here.

Thank you for taking the time to visit this website, which is the final form of documentation for this project. Information and ideas relevant to the project that are not necessarily directly related may still be posted going forward. And, of course, your comments, questions, and ideas are always welcome at any time.

All the best,
Milena Placentile, Independent Curator, Winnipeg
June 22, 2011

What is/was Showing Up, Speaking Out?

July 3, 2011


Showing Up, Speaking Out was a one-time project made possible thanks to a partnership between Art City, Urban Shaman Gallery, aceartinc. and me, Milena Placentile, an independent curator based in Winnipeg. SUSO was created from a desire to connect audiences and artists throughout the city using an open-format structure that encouraged direct involvement in the co-creation of thoughtful artistic actions about community life presented in public spaces. The project came to life over the course of four weeks (September 1 – October 5, 2010), and involved two local, one national, and two international artists.

aceartinc. was one of three sites involved as a staging ground where participants collaborated to determine projects, make props, and plan delivery in various types of public space through a collective decision-making process. The second, Art City, was an after school production site for its primary participants, children and youth, and the third, Video Pool Media Arts Centre, served as the site for the majority of sessions on accessibility, given its more physically accessible location. aceartinc. simultaneously provided space to exhibit ephemera related to the actions, including used props, photographs, digital video, messages to other participants, and so forth; it was also a destination for discussing the potential impact of the actions, and reflecting on experiences following participation.

The interventions devised in partnership between artists and community members sought to be interdisciplinary in nature, and planning took place to facilitate performance—but also painting, drawing, printmaking, digital projection, textile work, and audio, among other media. These activities were all supplemented by a blog and other social media interfaces, each of which sought to encourage discussion while also sharing news about actions and welcoming future participation.

What motivated this project?

July 3, 2011

While planning this project, I thought about the widely-acknowledged capacity for art to evoke emotion and inspire thoughtful contemplation, while simultaneously recognizing art’s ability to motivate action as a somewhat less understood concept. Works of art with documentary tendencies, like Ed Burtynsky’s photographs of mass-scale manufacturing juxtaposed with images of environmental fragility, might make viewers evaluate their purchasing habits. Ron Benner’s outdoor garden and billboard installations that address the corporatization of life through gene patenting initiatives might prompt viewers to question the limits of public domain. The large-scale photographic dioramas produced by Carole Condé and Karl Beveridge in collaboration with trade unionists, communicate their shared concerns about water security and deforestation, which might encourage viewers to consider labour issues in relation to questions of responsible stewardship.

As a curator, I am interested in partnering with living artists who explore how society works and how we communicate with one another as citizens. Following this, it is my goal is to help artists and diverse community members connect. I am also motivated by a sense of responsibility to audiences, by embracing their ideas and experiences and ensuring they have opportunities to try and realize those ideas. I have, through my past work as a curator, grappled with the notion of curator-as-connoisseur, taste-maker, caretaker of objects, and/or gatekeeper of ideas. I believe these categorizations invalidate artists and audiences as real people with valid ideas and experiences concerning the meaning of art, the nature of civilization, and art as commentary on society. I have, therefore, worked to develop a practical position that might be described as part facilitator and part provocateur.

Though it might sound cliché, it is still worth noting Gandhi’s famous suggestion that one needs to “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” The notion seems easy in principle, so what dissuades people from enacting this as a basis for everyday being? First, as we all know, people lead busy lives and this is all the more challenging when the media construes politics as an impenetrable process that is too complicated for the so-called average person to understand. Some disengage from civic matters because they are tired of feeling voiceless and have given up. Others are riding a trendy wave of cynicism and have concluded that political engagement is nerdy, if not just plain boring. Let’s be honest: recent elections where the popular vote was in no way reflected by the official outcome has also contributed steadily to reduced engagement. The big question connected to this is: ‘If no one listens, what’s the point?’

The connection is neither immediate nor obvious, but if contemporary art is capable of fostering critical and creative thinking, why shouldn’t it also play a role in inspiring social change through action? Thinking in a new light can kindle new ideas, including the feeling that our voices matter… we just need to figure out how to be heard—and maybe less by the so-called ‘powers that be’ than by one another—so that we can start to become more interested, engaged and concerned with the state of our communities locally, nationally, and beyond. Finding that we have more in common than we thought sure is one way to start working together, and perhaps that’s the point from which change can truly grow.

Thus, a goal of this project is to form a context through which participants and passersby can imagine becoming more active in their community lives by finding opportunities to address important social issues in positive, inclusive, and inspiring ways. Another goal of SUSO is to contribute to reopening the public sphere to diverse voices by flattening hierarchies; in other words, to challenge the idea that only some people are adequately qualified to express their opinions on civic matters, (such as poverty, social housing, policing, environmental care, waste management, and recreation and culture), and that these same people are the only ones adequately qualified to speak out in public. Sure, experts, politicians and business leaders do this regularly—and the media generally pays attention to their perspectives, giving slim space to a few short letters to the editor, or sound bytes from eye-witnesses—but does that mean this is the only way to go about speaking out? Artists speak out all the time through their work. Whether they’re concerned with conceptual experiments, expressing emotions, or communicating opinions on real topics, artists regularly develop formats for the presentation of ideas and deliver them in public, including in art galleries, but also sometimes in outdoor spaces for anyone and everyone to see.

Who was involved, why and how?

July 3, 2011

In the section titled ‘What motivated this project?‘, I mentioned my desire to flatten hierarchies by increasing opportunities for people to provide input and make decisions. This isn’t something I hoped would just be reflected in the project, it is something I hoped would be ingrained in the project’s very development. I therefore solicited active involvement from others in the community with expertise in diverse fields including culture, social work, urban studies, political science, economics, and rhetoric and communications, among others. And when it came to finding project partners, I put as much effort into extending invitations.

Artists were invited to participate based on a three-part process intended to keep the potential for contribution as wide as possible, thus moving beyond my own assumptions and curatorial control, while increasing the range of community issues that might be considered through the project. The process was structured as follows:

  • First, I conducted the usual curatorial research methods to connect with a few national and international artists/artist-teams, such as reading about past exhibition and intervention projects, as well as posts about artists’ works on a range of blogs and other electronic resources.
  • Next, I contacted Urban Shaman: Contemporary Aboriginal Art and invited them to co-select an artist or collective to be involved in the project, with the understanding that the artist would select a theme of interest. In the end, and somewhat unexpectedly after considerable discussion, we decided to engage Stop Violence Against Aboriginal Women Action Group, a group that contacted us through the open call described below.
  • Finally, I held an open call for a local artist by inviting interested parties to contact me and explain why they would like to participate, identify the civic issue they wanted to address, and give examples of past experience partnering with community groups. Realizing this type of artistic practice is not entirely common in Winnipeg, I emphasized intent over experience, thus welcoming participation by an artist who sincerely wanted to be involved in a non-hierarchical collaborative art-making experience, even if she/he had never had a chance to do so before.

Realizing that there was still room for one more artist, I went back through my preliminary research and contacted Kristin Nelson, as I was aware of the spectrum of issues she has explored in her past work about urbanism (i.e. her parking lot project, as well as her collaboration with Suzy Smith for Art Building Community that addressed the high number of abandoned homes in West Broadway). After detailed discussion, Kristin agreed to participate and selected the topic of accessibility.

The scope of community organizations with which this project sought and initiated relationships was a reflection of the open, community spirit that drove the process. I was, and remain, deeply motivated to emphasize the creative and intellectual capacity of artists to contribute to society as critical thinkers, problem solvers, and bridge-builders. The project thus aimed to encourage individuals and communities not already involved in the arts to work with artists in finding new ways of expressing themselves through creative and mutually respectful public discourse. It was therefore about more than protesting—it was about speaking with others using alternate forms of language. My hope was that participants would feel collective ownership over the decision-making process leading to the development of each project, and that these engagements would contribute to the formation of lasting relationships between the art world and other communities, and between people of different communities.

Conceptual planning for the project began in 2007, and was put on hold due to competing obligations. When the opportunity arose in 2009 to begin thinking about the project again, I contacted Art City, knowing that one of their core activities involves the pairing of professional artists with local youth to produce works of art, while simultaneously developing critical thinking and leadership skills. Following enthusiastic conversations, we agreed that the best issue for our young audience to explore would be recreation and culture, since young people have ideas about the subject and would enjoy creative opportunities to express them. Inge Hoonte, an artist from the Netherlands then living in New York, was proposed as the appropriate artist to work with both youth and adults, and after discussions with the artist we collectively agreed that she would also hold a separate workshop with adult community members on the same topic.

Inspired by the socially-engaged work of Australian artist, Deborah Kelly, whose work addresses a range of topics including sexual diversity, gender, and immigration, I contacted Mentoring Artists for Women’s Art and the Institute for Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Winnipeg to enquire if they were likewise interested in her practice. The answer was yes and we proceeded to work together in order to bring Deborah to Winnipeg.

Another partnership took place with Video Pool Media Arts Centre, who generously offered in-kind support of video equipment rentals and editing suite time to facilitate any video-related work that participants wished to produce through the course of the project. Video Pool also provided access to its studio as a gathering space for participants in the sessions on accessibility

With the partner organizations and participating artists set, it was time to connect with other types of community groups whose members might not encounter information about the project through the usual art channels. I contacted a wide range of groups both directly and through an extensive list of contacts, and those most interested in being involved in a formal sense included: the Rainbow Resource Centre, Social Planning Council of Winnipeg, The Winnipeg Citizen’s Coalition, Art from the Heart, and the University of Winnipeg Students’ Association. I had many phone conversations and meetings with other types of community service groups, and a fair number of them were keen to pass on information about the project to their networks. Stop Violence Against Aboriginal Women Action Group further disseminated details about SUSO via their contacts with the Manitoba Government and General Employees Union and Amnesty International.

All events were open for anyone to join, and the range of interested participants included people from all parts of the city and with many diverse interests. To access the schedule of events, please click here. To read about the various projects that were imagined and undertaken throughout the course of this project, please click here.

Did people really show up, and what happened?

July 3, 2011

Yes, and it was quite exciting! Over the course of four weeks, a range of citizens representing different ages and backgrounds collaborated with professional artists to develop projects responding to an array of civic issues; these included recreation, housing and poverty, accessibility, diversity, and the systemic problem of violence against Aboriginal women. True, some days were a little quieter than others: toward the end of the project, there were a few occasions when a couple of visitors stopped in to see what was going on, but didn’t have time to co-develop a project with us. There were, however, many other instances when we had a packed house with over 40 people working together to plan and deliver actions in public space. Ultimately, what mattered more than the quantity of participants was the quality of the experiences generated.

The diverse array of experiences generated through the project was reflective of the personalities and interests of those involved. Some people worked very fast and wanted to produce or perform something immediately, in keeping with the ‘flash community’ spirit of the project, while others preferred to think about potential actions over a longer period of time. With everything happening so quickly and in such a compressed period of time, one of the most interesting overall features of the project is that it created a number of new and perhaps lasting relationships between community members, and between individuals and community service groups. Stronger ideas and interpersonal bonds are more likely to organically develop over a longer period of time, so sessions conducted on a weekly basis (instead of daily ones) probably could have laid the foundation for a stronger long-term effect. Still, there is something to be said for people letting down their guard and getting into things right away, so to speak.

This often worked in interesting ways, as there appears to be evidence of rich interaction initiated and enhanced through personal engagement during the course of the project, as well as thanks to media coverage and social networking (i.e. Twitter and Facebook). These relationships developed primarily between individual community members, but also between community members and representatives of service organizations previously unknown to them, as well as community members and local and visiting artists. For example, it was exciting to receive informal and spontaneous promotional support from United Way Winnipeg, and to discover interest from other types of organizations concerned with equity and social justice, such as unions and advocacy groups. Some spin-off projects have grown out of this process, which I will further outline below.

All in all, the project was realized as expected insofar as the logistical aspects were concerned. The only notable difference from the original proposal concerns the amount of work realized outdoors. As alluded to above, participants who were very involved in conversation did not always wish to translate that into a project realized in public space. As I discovered, this was due in part to the unfamiliar nature of the experience, and potentially to a degree of hesitation about whether we really could just go outside and ‘do stuff’. Of course, practical considerations were also a factor, as several ideas were too ambitious to be realized within the time available. Where possible, the artists, Matthew Koop-Pearce (a volunteer with the project), and I worked to realize projects on behalf of participants who were unable to do so personally. This seemed fair enough, as it was still a group effort to decide what the project would be and how it would take shape.

A wide range of interesting things occurred during the four weeks of SUSO, outlined as follows:

Inge Hoonte’s visit to Art City introduced the concept of public libraries in a unique way. Many participants began the week with only a marginal interest in books and rather little experience with the idea of libraries, but over the course of the week demonstrated great interest in making their own books and reading books created by their peers. They identified books as both repositories for information, and as vehicles for stories to be created and shared. Libraries, by extension, were appreciated not only as quiet spaces for resting, thinking and enjoying ideas, but as places where books can be shared, and information across a wide range of topics can be accessed. The participants were also interested in gardens as another type of public good, and were keen to add handmade flowers to the Art City library façade that divided the general work area from the newly created space.

Art City staff and volunteers noted significant differences in the way participants interacted during the installation of, and following the dismantling of the ‘Art City Library,’ and realized that participants were proactively using the library as a space to find calm when they felt overstimulated. Given the success of the temporary library, staff have considered how they might be able to create another do-it-yourself library on a longer-term basis. A summary of the activities undertaken in the sessions on recreation were as follows:

  • Art City Library and book-making project (x 5 days)
  • A session on recreation hosted at aceartinc. in which people in the streets were interviewed about their favourite places in Winnipeg, following which the data was collected and presented in the gallery. An interesting map was produced that categorized the spaces as either public, private or in-between. Participants considered further analyzing the data and making it available through a poster or flyer for circulation outside of the gallery, but this did not materialize due to a lack of time.
  • Inspired by the Art City Library, a bookshelf was made from scrap wood and used as an outdoor lending library, stacked with books from a second hand shop that were packed in resealable bags to protect them from rain. The bookcase was left outside in West Broadway with the statement: “Need a book? Take a book, but don’t forget to leave a book.”

Calgary-based artist, Tomas Jonsson, spent a week in Winnipeg facilitating conversation between a wide array of community members, including citizens, students, anti-poverty advocates, city planners, architects, and even real estate agents. Together, they addressed the topics of housing and poverty, and the intersecting issue of gentrification. Tomas sparked dialogue with a number of groups in the city, including Social Planning Council of Winnipeg, and he’s eager to return and follow up on this dialogue with a more long-term contribution. We are in the process of working something out, and if an initiative materializes, it will be announced here. The activities undertaken during the sessions on poverty and housing included:

  • A self-guided psychogeographic tour titled Home is Where the ___ is, that was created with contributions from multiple groups over the course of five days. Hard copies were distributed throughout downtown Winnipeg, and in classified ads in the real estate sections of various newspapers. URLs linking to an online .pdf were also submitted to real estate websites
  • Notes to neighbourhoods walking tours (x 2 days)
  • A map outlining suggested expansion for the community garden program (contributed by a participating community member)
  • A City Hall vegetable garden action (a planned contribution from two participating community members that was unrealized)
  • Critical home marketing campaign billboards (planned but unrealized)
  • A community housing performance action (planned but unrealized)
  • An interview with Ed Ackerman concerning his fight to maintain rights over his home under renovation at 89 Gertie Ave. (as yet incomplete)

Local artist, Kristin Nelson, worked with a diverse group of community members on the topic of accessibility. Their sessions produced a number of small projects in the city and online, all drawing attention to a range of issues, among them the need to consider barriers to participation in the arts community by artists with disabilities. From what I understand, Kristin was subsequently approached by a group to produce a project inspired by this discussion… again, if it materializes, I’ll be sure to post information here. The activities undertaken in the sessions on accessibility were as follows:

  • Chalking project that re-visioned 280 McDermot Ave. as an accessible site
  • Wheelchair accessibility notice sign for 69 Albert St.
  • Online intervention involving a fictional call for a disability arts coordinator at a fictional arts council
  • Design and construction of a symbolic bench as a gesture for those who need a moment to rest while passing through the city (developed in several phases, with assorted contributors bringing it into fruition)
  • Imagine Your Day If lottery card intervention project, utilizing scratch cards left at lottery kiosks throughout the city that invited participants to contemplate how their day might be different if they needed to navigate the city with differences in ability to walk, see, hear or process information
  • Assorted interviews and questionnaires

Winnipeg-based Stop Violence Against Aboriginal Women Action Group (including collaborating artist, Leah Decter) received comprehensive media coverage for the project they co-developed with community members through SUSO, which took the form of a human billboard where citizens wore t-shirts that spelled the message, No More Stolen Sisters. This phrase was the title of a recent Amnesty International report concerning the shocking number of murdered and missing Aboriginal women in Canada, and the government’s overall lack of action in addressing the situation. Amnesty International endorsed SVAAWAG’s co-authored project and helped promote it online. Human billboard actions were carried out on three separate occasions in public spaces: the second was covered by CBC and APTN, and the third was covered by CTV Manitoba and CTV National. This was a tremendous amount of media coverage that—given the undeniable role of mainstream media in shaping public opinion—is an important part of getting a new dialogue started in the public realm. The project included the co-development of statements written on t-shirts, and written material distributed at action-sites. In addition to raising awareness throughout the city, one of the most important outcomes of this project is that it became a topic of discussion during a recent mayoral debate on human rights. In addition, various groups working to draw attention to the issue are considering building a coalition. SVAAWAG’S work continues: please click here for more information.

Deborah Kelly
, from Sydney, Australia, worked most closely with two groups: PeerProject4Youth (a program organized by Winnipeg’s Rainbow Resource Centre); and FemRev, a group of young feminists. During a brainstorming session on the first day, youth participants brought forward a concern unknown to those of us not currently in high school. The River East Transcona School Division has been systematically censoring discussion about three topics critical to the development of healthy sexual attitudes: homosexuality, abortion, and masturbation (HAM). HAM is a covert policy that has been in effect since 1989; though it was hotly debated at the time of its implementation, it eventually fell out of the spotlight. Since then, Canada has changed tremendously, particularly insofar as gay rights are concerned, and to treat this subject as taboo effectively marginalizes gay youth and perpetuates bigotry and feelings of shame. Kelly worked with the participants to develop understanding about what a public awareness campaign entails, and helped them create visual strategies to communicate their concerns.

By the end of the second session, the participants had created a full-fledged campaign concept called HAM Happens: So Let’s Talk About It, drawing attention to the School Division’s outdated policy. The participants utilized a blog and other social media tools, and created promotional material, a video, and props for a demonstration, (including a HAM mascot costume which didn’t get finished in time, but may well pop up somewhere in the city at some point in the future). They teamed up with the Day of Action Against Homophobic Bullying (October 20) and issued a statement about the ongoing presence of a policy that limits access to unbiased information at a time when youth need it most. Thanks to the participants working with Kelly, the lingering and practically covert HAM policy was exposed in the media through numerous articles, and was featured on CBC Radio in Manitoba and across the country. Art alone isn’t responsible for the River East Transcona School Division’s decision to reconsider its policies, (per their public announcement to that effect on May 13, 2011), but art plus energetic, creative people with good ideas and a desire to make the world a more compassionate and progressive place clearly results in the potential for real change. Congratulations to all the HAMsters for their hard work—it’s really paying off, so stay strong and keep it going!

As mentioned, Deborah also spent time in conversation with FemRev to brainstorm projects that happened in association with the PanCanadian young feminist festival, RebELLEs 2011 which took place in Winnipeg from May 20 – 23, 2011.

While in Winnipeg, Deborah also gave a well-attended talk at Mentoring Artists for Women’s Art about activist art practices that inspire her, and projects that she has been involved with personally.

The overall project grew and was documented within the Flux Gallery at aceartinc. Ephemera connected to discussions and brainstorming, paired with contributions from other members of the community, gave the gallery the feeling of a Temporary Autonomous Zone (TAZ), where anything could be imagined as a possible reality, through dreaming, reflection, discussion, and planning. Additional projects were added to the space by local artists, including Becky Thiessen’s Postcards from North Point Douglas and Elvira Finnigan’s See… hear… say… do (a response to the recent trial of Willie Pickton), September 29, 2010. Community members also left written text and drawings on the walls, and posted messages that included responses on postcards provided by the Winnipeg Citizen’s Coalition. A little video that animates still photos taken during the installation, occupation, and tear down of the TAZ in the Flux Gallery will be available here soon.

What could I have done differently?

July 3, 2011

While many positives emerged from the four week-long series of participatory art-making sessions, there were also a few hiccups. For example, the project took place at a very busy time of year: not only were students heading back to school, but the city was in the thick of a municipal election. And despite the fact that many of the issues raised through SUSO were relevant to the concerns of a broad range of citizens, it was often difficult for people to find time to participate if they were campaigning on behalf of candidates. There were still many active participants, but I wonder what it might have been like if life was a little less hectic, and more people had been able to return to realize projects that were initiated in principle.

On that note, the pace of the project was also somewhat harried. It had been my hope, as curator, to keep the blog updated on a daily basis in sync with the project itself, but I admit that with fewer volunteers than expected to help with the promotion and day-to-day administration of the project, made other tasks more pressing. That said, at least everything did run smoothly, so in the end, I suppose it’s not too bad that, at the time of writing this report, I’m still catching up with coverage of the activity of each day! In any case, it would have been quite a different experience with a little more support ‘on the ground,’ as they say.

A third consideration pertains to the original goal of the project, which was to really get outside and literally cover more territory. In hindsight, I should have found out what parts of the city participants were based in. Although it had been my hope that the projects devised collaboratively would reach out physically into areas beyond the downtown, this did not happen apart from two SVAAWAG actions in shopping areas. Were this project to happen again, I would seek out additional networking partners in advance, either through community centres or other types of locally-based organizations, to find venues for actions, or perhaps satellite planning and production sites.

Finally, those of you who regularly followed this project and the blog may recall that one of the goals was to produce an e-publication that documented and analyzed the experiences connected to SUSO in a reflective fashion. I invited four writers with different perspectives to respond to the project—a community arts administrator/coordinator, a community activist, a sociologist, and an artist—but in the end, (because so many of the writers were overextended with other activities, often including different forms of community action), only one person was able to complete her text. As such, it seemed more logical to post it here on the website than to unnecessarily go through a whole new commissioning process. Her text about the contested aspects of community arts practices is now online and can be found here. This website, now the primary repository for all that transpired through the course of this project, has been made possible with thanks to a generous donation by a local internet hosting company,

Closing thoughts

July 3, 2011

Although Showing Up, Speaking Out was a Winnipeg-centric project that sought to create opportunities for as wide a range of citizens as possible, and thus focus on social issues of concern to Winnipeggers, it is a project that could have happened anywhere people seek new ways of coming together, thinking together, and taking action to make their community a more open, equal and considerate place. The inclusion of national and international artists served to bring a few fresh artistic perspectives into the city, which is a benefit for citizens at large as well as for local artists.

Overall, the artists had opportunities to build on their existing practices by working with community members in an open, experimental, and flexible environment. Unlike many community arts programs, they did not come to the project with a predefined concept; rather, they worked with community members by sharing their embodied years of experience in helping to shape conversation and the format of projects. This was an opportunity for them to make contact with community members and share not only the nature of their work, but also the wide range of ideas and skills they bring to their practice. This experience was like a mini-residency, giving time and space to create new works in collaboration.

As for me, this project provided an opportunity to better connect with fellow Winnipeggers including artists, social service organizations, and the community at large. It has also given me a chance to make an interesting contribution to the city insofar as dialogue pertaining to activist-motivated arts practices are concerned. I am still very excited about the incredible support this project generated from so many different types of groups and individuals—I’m grateful that the Canada Council for the Arts and Winnipeg Arts Council felt it was a worthwhile endeavour, and I’m thrilled others agreed.

On another personal note, this project helped me realize the goals of my practice and discover areas which ought to be developed further. There is massive potential for fostering citizen engagement with social and political issues through the arts, primarily by facilitating self-empowerment through acts that demystify issues such as power and authority. In the same way artists don’t generally sit around and wait for someone else to declare their right to practice in the public sphere, citizens should likewise feel comfortable creating, and taking opportunities to think, act and articulate ideas in public space simply because they feel motivated to get out there and try. We live in a society that is increasingly isolating, despite growth in technologies claiming to help us better connect. Mainstream media, various types of formal and informal education/socialization, and fear of authority encourage people to accept the status quo as the only option imaginable, but art reminds us otherwise. Participation in the arts, whether as an active member of the audience, or as co-producing peers with professional artists, fosters confidence and imagination, and these are things we all need tremendously.

These reflections relate to my practice in that they are the concepts that intrigue me and motivate my work as a curator. Finding new methods to bridge art and activism in ways that are welcoming/do not intimidate is my greatest creative objective. Beyond that, I am convinced that greater participation in the arts and, by extension, other areas of community experience will help achieve improved quality of life for all citizens. And on that note, especially after a project like Showing Up, Speaking Out that brought together so many different types of people and ideas, I am reminded of why I’ve chosen to live here, and that is because Winnipeggers willingly make space for intelligent, enthusiastic, and experimental creativity. I’m pleased the project happened as it did, and I am motivated to keep going. Maybe the project has encouraged others to feel this way, too?

Text by Leah Decter

July 3, 2011

For roughly twelve years, my work has included engaged practices along with (and sometimes as part of) an inter-media studio practice. This work has ranged from large-scale capacity-building public art projects and collaborations with members of geographic communities, to gallery installations, engaged performances and public interventions. Although I was involved as an artist with The Human Billboard Project(1), (which was in turn part of Showing Up Speaking Out), I will not be reflecting directly on that in this essay. My intention is rather to look at some of the intersecting issues, questions and considerations that are implicated through engaged practices in general.

I use the term ‘engaged practices’ to describe a range of overlapping approaches to work in which artists engage with what is broadly labeled ‘community’. In this discussion, I am particularly interested in work and methods that aim to interrupt dominant social and political narratives, either overtly or in subtle ways. Variously defined as social practice, relational aesthetics, littoral art, dialogic practice, public art, new genre public art, community art, activist art, community cultural development, or social sculpture, forms of engaged art—although far from new in practice—have experienced varying degrees of acceptance within contemporary art discourse over the years. Alongside renewed interest in Joseph Bueys’ concept of social sculpture(2), writers such as Suzanne Lacy, Suzi Gablik, Nicolas Bourriaud and Grant Kester laid pivotal foundations for critical discourse around this work during the 1990s and for several years into the new century. Contributing significantly to a shift in its position within contemporary art contexts, this evolving discourse also served to broaden understandings of the roles that art and artists can occupy in society. Over this time period, engaged art practices have seen a resurgence marked by the involvement of prominent artists, burgeoning academic research and programming, targeted arts funding and critical scrutiny.

With greater numbers of artists being drawn to this work, and with engaged practices gaining a footing in contemporary art contexts, the stakes of inclusion have increased. This dynamic has been fueled by the regressive conditions of neoliberal ideology, a dominant force in political and economic discourse that manifests in part through shrinking budgets for social and cultural activities, as well as increasing restrictions on civil dissent. In this climate—a perfect storm of reduced cultural funding, increased potential for art world recognition, and greater demands on art to work in the service of social problem-solving—competing claims for legitimacy have been heightened. With the importance of validation through art criticism amplified, exactly how to approach the critique of this work has been hotly contested. The protracted public debate precipitated by Claire Bishop’s 2004 article in OCTOBER magazine, ‘Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics’,(3) was to some degree symptomatic of these conditions. Many other voices have since added to this discussion, though the entrenched positions still reverberate: some approaches to engaged practice have to prove their relevance to the art world from the margins, while inclusion is assumed for others.

This is not to say that all cultural workers who practice social engagement are necessarily interested in falling into the arms of contemporary art discourse, funding structures, and critique. Beyond the realm of art publications and international biennials, a discussion is growing about engaged practices that is little concerned with whether the work is recognized by art critics, or satisfies a pre-inscribed notion of conceptual complexity, authorial vision, and originality. In this realm, emphasis is placed on the work’s capacity to affect change, and the means by which it does so. Some view the long-held outsider status of the community-engaged artist as a key contributing factor to accomplishing meaningful social change in resistance to inequitable dominant structures.(4) Conversely, it has been argued that strategic benefits are gained when hybrid approaches incorporating art with social and activist agendas identify themselves as art practice. Finland-based group The Iconoclast Collective, now known as IC-98, advocate for this approach stating that “the world of contemporary art [is] the most flexible environment for diverse projects, being a free zone of experimentation within the society at large”, adding that “the strategy [of labeling projects as art)] works as long as the concepts of art do not come to dominate the discourse.”(5)

Whether or not this work is embraced in the avant-garde or wedded to art through a marriage of convenience, artists are increasingly venturing into forms of engagement. Some of this activity is a result of increased visibility and funding, some responds to current social and political imperatives and some is clearly due to the fact that this work is currently fashionable. Trendiness aside, this shift foregrounds some important developments, in particular a heightened interest in re-examining the role of both art and artist. The 2010 Open Engagement: Art and Social Practice conference hosted by Portland State University’s Art and Social Practice MFA program focused on questions of responsibility, intent, the potential of trans-disciplinarity, and “the social role of the artist.”(6) Goddard College’s event Making, Meaning, and Context: A Radical Reconsideration of Art’s Work, asks directly, “At this time in history, what does it mean to pursue an art practice or identify as an ‘artist’?”(7) Although these questions do not strictly settle into the domain of engagement, the overlap is both considerable and significant.

By engaging directly in public and social spheres, artists working to engage communities are by definition broadening their roles and the function of art in the social and material landscape. Discourse around the role of artists helps to relocate the focus from the relative legitimacy of different forms—a gate-keeping of sorts—to a productive critical re-envisioning of how artists participate in society. The evolution of artist Laurie Jo Reynolds’ prison-related work in the United States is a cogent example. Reynolds had for many years made work about prisons and was involved in developing a program that sends letters and poems to prisoners. It was not until one of the inmates receiving poems wrote back saying “Hey, these poems are great, but could you please tell the Governor what they’re doing to us down here?” that she began working directly toward prison reform. (8) Reynolds describes her subsequent project Tamms Year Ten, The Campaign to Reform the Supermax as Legislative Art, and proposes that artists are “uniquely qualified to change law and policy [as they] are used to attempting the impossible… know how to work with limits… and can fail grandly, and start again.” She asserts that Legislative Art “doesn’t deny you any of the… collaboration, authorship… or magical strange beauty” of art, and urges artists to “move a little closer to power [as] for some issues there may be no-one else.”(9) As Reynolds’ work illustrates, questions of the artist’s role speak not only to aspects of trans-disciplinarity, but also to issues of responsibility.

I’m not interested in focusing here on the question of whether artists have a greater obligation toward social responsibility than other citizens; the specter of responsibility also raises questions in relation to intent. Do artists who include engagement with people through their professional process have an obligation to consider the impacts of the process on those people, to ‘do good’ or at least to ‘do no harm,’ and how might this be measured?

Concepts of ‘good’ and ‘harm’ are, of course, not universal. While there may be obvious and arguably measurable choices in terms of doing harm or good, there are also many gray areas. Social change rarely comes without some level of discomfort, and strategies of discomfort are often deployed by artists and activists as effective agents of change. Where individual discomfort might teeter into the territory of harm cannot necessarily be accurately determined. Artists may be tactical about whom they intend to inflict discomfort on, ‘comfort(ing) the afflicted and afflict(ing) the comfortable’,(10) though the consequences of the experience of engagement cannot be fully controlled. As such, the risk of harm might be seen as inherent in any social engagement.

Although it can be thrilling in its potential, work that engages is messy. It is rife with complexity, uncertainty and contradiction, and is a minefield of power dynamics and ethical factors, all of which are deeply entangled with questions of doing good and harm. Contrary to what is often portrayed, even work that intends to ‘do good’ and is successful in its goals often also contends with conflict: though usually rendered invisible, this conflict is no less real. The idea that engaged art produces utopic mini-communities obscures the very real presence of discomfort and conflict with all their productive and deleterious potential. Risk, failure and conflict are as integral to this work as anything else. Given this landscape, it is crucial for artists to “consider a project’s relationship to its material consequences”,(11) recognize the implications of unintended outcomes, and make informed decisions accordingly.

While these conditions point to the need for the inclusion of ethical considerations in both practice and criticism, they should not preclude other analyses through which the work can be understood. Engaged practices are heterogeneous and hybrid in nature. As such they are inhabited by principles rooted in art discourse, as well as intersecting fields such as sociology, community development, urbanism, environmental studies, and so forth. These diverse and sometimes contradictory philosophical and methodological underpinnings can effectively inform each other to strengthen engaged art practices in conceptual and social terms. Rigid adherence to ideological doctrines squander the potential of this cross-generation while risking contrived production and instilling reductive critique that cannot address work in relation to its distinct contexts. A discursive, trans-disciplinary, self-reflexive approach to critique that can address the multiple constituents of a work would contribute greatly to increasing the rigor of these practices, and to generating work with social, political, ethical, aesthetic, and conceptual significance.

Leah Decter, June 2011
(Download as .pdf – link forthcoming)


(1) The Human Billboard Project was a community-engaged public intervention project which I undertook as part of Stop Violence Against Aboriginal Women Action Group, a grass-roots collective of Aboriginal and Non–Aboriginal women working to impact the issue of violence against Aboriginal women in Canada.

(2) Social sculpture is a concept developed in the 1960s by German artist Joseph Beuys. As described by the Social Sculpture Research Unit,, it is ‘a territory where inner and outer work coincide. It emphasizes the role of imagination in transformative social process and the centrality of alternative modes of thought. Social sculpture is concerned with exploring strategies, methods and principles that enable us to see, understand and act imaginatively to shape a humane and ecologically viable world’.

(3) See: Claire Bishop’s, “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics,” OCTOBER 110, pp. 51–79; Liam Gillick’s “Contingent Factors: A Response to Claire Bishop’s ‘Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics’,” OCTOBER 115, pp.95-106; “Claire Bishop Responds,” OCTOBER 115, p. 107 ; and Jennifer Roche’s ”Socially Engaged Art, Critics and Discontents: An Interview with Claire Bishop”; Grant Kester, Response to Clarie Bishop’s article “The Social Turn: Collaboration and Its Discontents” in Artforum, May 2006; Leisure Arts Blog, and,,

(4) See, among many others, Irwin Oostindie’s ”Uncomfortable Choices: Inside the World’s Most Livable City” in Access All Areas: Conversations on Engaged Arts (Visible Arts Society, 2009).

(5) Iconoclast 1998 as quoted in Leisure Arts: “ARTFORUM – New Art Practices – Cross Pollination,” (accessed December 2010).

(6) Open Engagement: Art and Social Practice (accessed January 2011).

(7) Making, Meaning, and Context: A Radical Reconsideration of Art’s Work (accessed January 2011)

(8) From Laurie Jo Reynold’s presentation at the Creative Time Summit 2010, (accessed December 2010).

(9) ibid.

(10) Interdisciplinary artist Pam Hall, from a discussion following the Risks Panel at the Live in Public conference initiated by grunt gallery in Vancouver. Quoted in Access All Areas: Conversations on Engaged Arts (Visible Arts Society, 2009).

(11) Nato Thompson, “Contributions to a Resistant Visual Culture Glossary,” Journal of Aesthetics and Protest, Issue 3, 2004.

SPARK Arts and Disability Network Annual General Meeting

June 19, 2011

June 23, 2011

The SPARK Arts and Disability Network Inc. is pleased to invite you to our first annual general meeting.

Our journey of three years began with the SPARK Initiative, a community art piece created by Susan Gibson in May 2008 at MAWA (Mentoring Artists for Women’s Art and ILRC (Independent Living Resource Centre). Through Susan’s initiative people were able to come together, many for the first time , to engage in dialogue about accessibility to the arts and the added challenges of working as an artist with a disability. This initiative would eventually grow into what is now officially the SPARK Arts and Disability Network Inc.

Our vision:

The full inclusion of artists and audiences with disabilities into all facets of the arts community.

Our mission:

To facilitate a network of artists and stakeholders from both the arts and disability communities that supports artists with disabilities in achieving individual artistic excellence, promotes higher visibility of these artists within all disciplines and promotes policies and practices intended to make the arts more accessible to all Manitobans.

Please join us for the SPARK Arts and Disability Network Inc. 1st Annual General Meeting:

June 23rd, 2011
4:00 pm – 6:00 pm
Reaching E-Quality Employment Services (REES) Boardroom
305-1200 Portage Avenue

Refreshments provided

RSVP attendance only by June 20th: or Ph: (204) 897-8423, Susan Gibson, Multiple Things Training

Please let us know if you require American Sign Language interpretation in advance so that we can make arrangements.

Parking can be found on Camden Place and Newman Street. There is a ramp and automatic door at the front entrance of the building and an elevator in the lobby to get to the third floor. Reaching E-Quality Employment Services is to the left of the elevator on the third floor.