A Participatory Project in East London – In Pursuit of Village Gossip
Linked with OVER & OUT, on Wednesday 10th September, Jemima Wilson kindly gave WOA a talk on ‘Dear Neighbour’, a participatory art project she developed whilst studying Criticism, Culture and Curation at Central St Martins, transforming her Victorian street into a gallery and her neighbours into participants – or perhaps even artists.
Participatory art, also known as ‘socially engaged practice’ and ‘dialogical art’, took off in the 1990s, but the roots can be found in 20th Century Avant Garde movements such as Paris Dada and the Situationists. This art practice is about engaging with people and creating conversation – as such it operates outside of the contemporary art market and so it is not widely known. Participatory art is difficult to exhibit; it cannot just be hung on a wall or placed on a plinth because, more often than not, there is no tangible object. Instead, archival documentation, including photographs, audio recordings, artists’ talks and essays aid our understanding of past projects.
Rrikrit Tirvanija with his communal pots of rice left cooking in gallery spaces,
Thomas Hirschorn with his temporary pseudo community centres revolving around the ideas of a chosen philosopher,
Christoph Schlingensief’s shipping container of immigrants called ‘foreigners out’ installed in a public square in Vienna,
Turner prize winner Jeremy Deller, with his re-enactment of the miners strike Battle of Orgreave and an American road trip with a bombed car from Bhagdad.
Many of these projects are fiercely political, but often the artist’s concept facilitates the opinions, recollections and ideas of the viewer, or participant, rather than dictating his or her own. Rather than artist, we might think of the role in the terminology of theatre, with the artist as producer or director.
Art helps us engage with the world and each other as it provokes conversation, internal dialogue, which itself may lead to further questioning and research.
Many British art galleries and museums became free under the Labour government, open to all, but even though these institutions strive for inclusivity in the 21st century, not everyone feels welcome and comfortable, whether standing in front of Old Masters or contemporary installations. They are free, but they have a limited audience of ‘art-goers’. And then there’s the geography, if you live in the middle of nowhere, how can you appreciate these tax-funded institutions?
Jemima spent a year working in the Projects Department at the Almeida theatre and this seemed a more active way to get people engaged with what is essentially a writer and director’s artwork. Theatre and visual art all came together for Jemima when she visited a retrospective exhibition of Jeremy Deller’s work at the Hayward Gallery on the South Bank in London. She described it as “a really enlightening experience…it was like an archive and costume box had been tipped open and found their way onto the walls.”
Jemima was presented with the challenge of making art totally inclusive. A question that was asked was; how can we provoke conversation amongst everyone?
This one Victorian street would provide Jemima with a varied an audience in terms of age, race and interests, contrary to many such projects which have strictly targeted audiences. Her method of initiating participation was to write every household a letter. Mail art is a genre in itself, and with the nostalgia attached to handwritten letters she thought this unexpected post could be a nice surprise.
How would the project take form? Empty shops and street murals are part of the fabric of East London – so she needed to be original. The answer was in the architecture of the mid 19th century terraced street, with its symmetrical low sash windows that could easily translate to a gallery space. This ‘site specific’ response to the street also become symbolic; windows are a peculiarly transparent barrier, and so the portraits serve as a link between households. Its quite interesting that the pioneering artist Stephen Willats, who working in the late 1970s, talked of “the major subconscious role of the living room window”. He created an exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery with people living in social housing tower block in Stepney, by photographing residents and asking them questions including what they could see from their living room windows.
Nearly 40 out of 80 residents participated in Jemima’s project.
If we do not talk to each other enough in our digital age, especially in the hostility of our capital city, participatory art is a way to reinvigorate communication with the people we live among and around. Jemima grew up in the village of Westonbirt, and gossip, however dull, spread like wildfire. So if we replace gossip with conversation addressing art and culture, an umbrella for issues big and small, and give it some air in a particular community, perhaps it could become as infectious as gossip. In Dear Neighbour, even those households who didn’t join in by sticking up their portrait, probably did read her letter and spoke or thought about it before deciding not to join in. This is a good thing too, as participation should never be enforced, “I merely wanted to minimize the barriers that people can be confronted with.”
“I will use libraries as my studio and streets as my exhibition space.”
See the Dear Neighbour website: www.dearneighbourlondon.wordpress.com/blog
See Jemima in action in her video: www.youtube.com/watch?v=hoz7xGuzmd4