Neutrality as a Benchmark in Socially Engaged Art practice

The relationship between the artist and the participant in socially engaged art practice is full of landmines but the one most artists and art organisations struggle with is power. Funding is an influential dictator in setting up situations for artists to engage with many communities but the agenda set by funding bodies rarely coincides with that of the groups they are supposed to be helping or the artists who are commissioned to do so. Funding bodies are reluctant to give up control when their money is being spent but it is control and therefore power which is so crucial to projects that, cynically or not, are aimed at disenfranchised communities. The artist and art institutions are equally reluctant to give up control over the outcome of what could be an expensive and time-consuming project.[i] This power relationship leaves the people who are supposed to participate in a project at the bottom with only one card they can play, in what can sometimes be a very perverse game, and that is not to play at all. This is where the start of good structures can begin and end. Why should anybody participate?

One of the ways that artists have been getting around this quagmire is to develop frameworks for situations that are neutral in the role of power. These works may have an agenda but the structure allows participants to engage with it in their own way and therefore maintain control and power. Neutral point of view has long been a phrase that was used to call newspaper articles to account for bias and personal agendas when representing events. The idea that a journalist is meant to be absolutely objective and report the scene without prejudice is of course impossible but it is crucially what is meant to be aimed for. It is a benchmark that is meant to hold journalists above propagandists[ii].

This benchmark has occasionally strayed into socially engaged art but it was Douglas Huebler, a 1960’s conceptualist, who really kicked off the artist positioning himself within the neutral sphere. When he did his show “Douglas Huebler 1968” at the Seth Seiglub gallery the press release stated how the works were to be viewed without the artist pointing the way. The works were participatory propositions that were to take place at different locations. They were only presented in booklet form and there was nothing on the walls. If the viewer wanted to view the works they would have to participate by going to the location and imagining the works. What one would see was up to the individual and the time they chose to see it. Huebler merely created the structure and it was the viewer turned participant that created the works. This neutral structure is what can help social engaged art practice to day.

This structure becomes necessary because without it the artist is vulnerable to becoming the very abuser of power that they are sometimes criticising. The Copenhagen based artist Asa Sonjasdottir did a project called “a Life = a Life”[iii] that illustrates this point well. Sonjasdottir won a commission by a carpet factory to create a design for a rug that would then be made by the company. Instead of designing the rug herself, Sonjasdottir who had previously made works with a predominately Muslim community, decided to work with an asylum seeker, Asif Mufeed, and create a rug for the Danish minister of immigrations office. The work was presented as collaboration with both Sonjasdottir and Mufeed as equals when in reality they were anything but. This is where the problem lays. The desire of the artist to be the advocate of another group of people while prescribing the artwork made by her dispensable asylum seeker is duplicitous and misrepresents the power structure of the work. I have no doubt that this work was done with the best on intentions but by using her collaborators identity as a rhetorical tool she has reduced him to the same position of power he has when being denounced by anti-immigrant campaigners.

One work that circumvents the traps of advocacy is “Intervention to improve the conduct of public debate”[iv] by the Viennese art group Wochenklauser. This project took place in Nuremburg with the group seeking out groups that had played out conflicts in the media. The polemics subjects ranged from the rights foreigners to traffic policy. The groups that represented each side of these polemics were invited by the institution to meet and discuss their differences. These meetings were held in private spaces that were constructed in public places. These spaces were made from europallets. What makes this project an exemplar of artistic neutrality is that the artists were not involved in anything other than constructing the space and creating the conceptual framework. The institution contacted the groups and organised the meetings while a professional mediator was hired for each meeting. The participants acted on their own desire to engage in dialogue. Many groups declined to participate.

A work that is close to the method of the Wochenklauser piece but misses a crucial element is Phil Collins “Shady Lane Productions”[v]. The work asks people who’ve been on reality TV shows to talk to an interviewer about their experiences on video. These interviews are then shown in the gallery. Collins has done his due diligence in making sure that all of the participants want to do the work and know exactly what he is going to do with the interviews. They are contacted by his team at the Tate and decide to participate or not. They are not being coerced but do they really understand how they are repeating the same mistake they are bemoaning in the first place? Collins has fallen into a similar trap to Sonjasdottir in that he has prescribed his participants identity and therefore has negated any intersubjectivity, which again makes the work rhetorical.

Neutrality is about fluidity and giving participants and viewers the choice of positioning themselves within the work. Until people are offered a choice within the structure of ideas then they will either choose not to enter into it and close off the dialogue or they will become rhetorical tools. Aiming for neutrality in methodology allows the artists to separate his/her views form the subject and allow the participants to discuss the ideas freely and to be swayed by the conversation not by the artist’s agenda. There is no law or rule or ombudsman that says artists cannot represent participants in this way but until socially engaged art practices allow the intersubjective to exist within their work then there is no room for words like re

[i] Miwon Kwon “One place after another: Site-specific art and locational identity” (Cambridge, MIT Press 2002) 116-117





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