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Artists Working within Higher Education was an event I attended on 21 January 2015, held in a space in Manchester currently being used by Castlefield Gallery.

There is already an excellent and comprehensive overview of the day here written by PhD researcher Rachel Marsden, who took the photo above, but for the benefit of the Cultural Intermediation project, I have written my own overview of the day’s speakers and discussions, concentrating on some of things I found most interesting. Ways that individuals negotiate issues of structure and agency while engaging in university-based cultural production forms a big part of my own research, and this day also highlighted examples of this.

The event was part of Co-producing legacy: What is the role of artists within Connected Communities projects?

The legacy project runs from Feb 2014 to June 2015 at University of Sheffield, with partners in Manchester and Leeds, and explores the legacy of the AHRC/ESRC funded Connected Communities programme. The research already carried out in the Connected Communities programme has been strongly community focussed and much of it has been co-produced with local communities and groups of non-academic practitioners. The methods or modes of enquiry developed and employed have included some innovative artistic practices combined with social science methodologies. This particular part of the legacy project, which has the title Artists Working within Higher Education, has looked at 60 of the Connected Communities projects (out of a total of around 250) in which academics and artists have worked together to realise ideas in imaginative and participatory ways, and today’s event here was organised to disseminate some of the findings so far. Out of these 60 projects, in which artists have done things like run workshops, contribute to journal articles and book chapters and facilitate parts of projects and produce work that draw on their unique strengths and skills, 9 cases have been researched ‘in depth’ with the aim of understanding how existing and emerging ways of working across disciplines and in collaboration with non-HEI partners may be changing the research terrain.

The choice of space for this event reflected this ambition too, as it was not a University-managed space but the ’empty’ top floor of an eight storey former office building with a screen and projector, a kettle and lots of folding chairs. Federation House is a large building close to the Victoria Station in Manchester, on the corner of Federation St and Balloon Street. I have always liked the name Balloon Street, its name refers to the first balloon ascent made in Manchester by James Sadler in 1784! The street is also home to the headquarters of the Co-operative Bank, in fact the Co-operative Group (formerly the Co-operative Wholesale Society) have been based in this part of Manchester since the late 19th century and Federation House is one of their unoccupied buildings currently being used by Castlefield Gallery as a ‘pop-up’ project space.

More than just a gallery, Castlefield Gallery has also been working as an art space development agency since 2006, brokering low cost project and gallery spaces for artists and creative practitioners in shopping centres and empty buildings in the North West of England, an initiative that goes under the heading New Art Spaces.

Castlefield Gallery’s director Kwong Lee gave a quick welcome in which he mentioned this initiative, then legacy project co-investigators Kate Pahl and Steve Pool introduced the day, beginning with an outline of the Connected Communities programme which seems to get more complicated every time I see someone attempt it! Kate went on to say that some of the individuals who have been involved in this legacy project describe themselves as artist/academic ‘hybrids’ and they recognise that their outputs will face different audiences. A slide in the introductory power point mentioned that amongst emerging issues in this project was the notion that as co-investigators, artists felt they have to ‘lose something’ in the process of collaboration, which provoked an immediate intervention from an audience member, an artist, who asked should that be ‘gain’ also? And another asked if artists felt that they lost something in collaboration with higher education, then what did academics ‘lose’? In this way a discursive tone for the day was set, as Kate, encouraged by the intervention, explained that as the day’s sessions would be recorded and these discussions would contribute to the research project.

The first speaker on the programme was Jeanie Scott, representing A-N Artists Information Company, which is now a membership organisation for visual artists dedicated to research, advocacy and support for the sector. The company used to produce Artist’s Newsletter magazine, a valuable guide to issues and developments in the arts scene. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a copy, but this trusty journal used to be a must-have subscription for arts developers and practitioners while I was working in the cultural sector. Concerned with what the employment options currently are in the visual arts sector, particularly for the 4,500 new graduates entering a workforce where long periods of unpaid labour are now the norm, the organisation has recently been involved in the Warwick Commission’s Cultural Value project (whose report came out yesterday).

Jeanie talked us around this fascinating map of The Ecology of the Visual Arts produced by Emily Speed

This was commissioned by A-N in 2013, here the arts sector has been imagined as a city and its constituent groups are represented by buildings. Interesting how the word ecology seems to be replacing the word economy in documents dealing with cultural policy.

Next, Professor Vanessa Toulmin talked about University of Sheffield’s Festival of the Mind, a festival that fitted the criteria for my PhD research so well that I now wish I had been able to include it in my fieldwork last year. Taking notes during this personal summary was the next best thing, though, as Vanessa included a huge amount of self-reflexive commentary in her presentation, something I have been seeking in my interviews with festival organisers. She is an academic and a historian, specialising in early film, circuses and travelling and fairground entertainments. She is currently Director of the National Fairground Archive at the University of Sheffield and also worked for a number of years on heritage and regeneration projects with Blackpool Council. It was the idea of “city vibrancy” demonstrated by this work with Blackpool that she told us she had used as the argument to access £35,000 worth of free venue space from Sheffield’s local authority for the Festival of the Mind in 2014. Bus and train sponsorship followed, as the event took place in fresher’s week to offer newcomers to Sheffield “a curated way of knowing the city”.

She spoke at length about how further in kind contributions were leveraged and how she believes she gets things done by working strategically through all levels of the university and using the procedures already in place, but I’ll leave all that for my thesis and concentrate on the bits about the role of artists here. 30 new commissions were funded and through this, the festival’s public content was produced. Artworks and installations were made by artists working in collaboration with academics from the University of Sheffield, with many of the connections linking arts practices with scientific researchers. To start the ball rolling, a speed dating event took place on a specially hired bus, with tea and cake laid on for successful ‘matches’ to sit down and work out their ideas together. Vanessa modelled the way the commissions worked on her own experience of working with sculptor Anthony Bennett. With a background in entertainments rather than arts (an important distinction that is sometimes not clearly articulated, I think) she found that the artist’s ways of working were a “new world” to her, but it seems that she stayed at arm’s length and allowed the practices to evolve. She also believes these projects brought back “the joy of discovery” to scientists who it turned out were not at all reluctant to get involved and even built in funding for some of the projects into their own bids. Money for arts projects is “peanuts” compared to the sums they usually bid for, she explained, they were used to dealing in bigger amounts than the festival’s entire budget. As a result of this big drive for engagement in the run up to the 2014 festival (it’s third edition and it seems, was the biggest so far) it would appear that the entire science research programme now builds funding for engagement into all their bids and University of Sheffield is a Catalyst University for Public Engagement with Research. Sheffield doesn’t want to be “the university on the hill”, she said.

Next James Oliver from the Centre for Cultural Partnerships, University of Melbourne, led a short, discursive session before lunch that took as its starting point something a previous speaker had said: ‘everything is related’. He wanted us to think about how relations are frequently unequal, reading a line from a letter to Marx from Engels sent during his time spent in Manchester about ‘dialectical ideas’. Binaries are unhelpful, James said, like the way cultural and creative work becomes labelled as practice-based or theoretical in hierarchical relations within academic discourse. Practice was a way to think-through problems and creativity should not be thought of as simply innovation or as a way to ‘translate’ social science, but a “mode of imagination and improvisation, which is open to other ways of being”. Durning the discussion which followed, a comment from a practicing artist was interesting, as she had been artist-in-residence in an archive project within a University department which is one I have encountered as part of my fieldwork.

As an artist working with, or alongside, different groups in a university setting – including staff who weren’t academics and students – “your status is unclear” she said. And while it is common for art to disrupt the brief it has been set, she wondered how the artist’s role is constructed prior to the residency and suggested that if the artists don’t conform to expectations, where does that leave the commissioner? I understand the problem and I agree that the production of art is a disruptive process and one that often takes critique as its central project, but as institutions are not keen on being made to feel uncomfortable, there are limits to autonomy which are often experienced in self-reflexive, internalised ways.

The discussion moved on to the subject of the project-based model in which most of the Connected Communities work has taken place, with many comments about low pay and precarious employment from artists and academics alike: “How are we affording the time to be here today?” and “We are talking to ourselves most of the time”. Vanessa made an interesting point, suggesting that “most academics don’t know how to pay artists”. She had been surprised by how much the artists in the Festival of the Mind project expected to get paid varied, which isn’t the case in the entertainment industry as it uses Equity pay levels as basis for a pay system.

The afternoon sessions seemed to take the works of art themselves as the focus for the talks, starting with artist and Professor in Creative Practice Steve Swindells’ talk, from the perspective of Huddersfield University, about what it means to be an ‘engaged artist’ working within an ‘engaged university’ in a town rather than a city. Creatively engaging individuals from the local community using dialogues that involve art practices and occupying spaces in the town is the idea behind the present ROTOЯ partnership which he has developed between Huddersfield Art Gallery and the University of Huddersfield. He describes it as a mutually beneficial relationship that showcases research by academic staff in the faculties of art, design and architecture. Steve mentioned a recommendation of the 2014 Farrell Review of Architecture and the Built Environment, which was “Every town and city should have an urban room where people can go to understand and debate the past, present and future of that place.” Urban rooms, already popular in Japan and China, would help to bridge the gap between architects and the general public and are places where the history of and future plans for the area are displayed and discussed. In the ROTOЯ project, work was exhibited in Huddersfiled that had been made in the town, but had previously only been shown in national and international venues. The project outputs include this published collection of critical essays and we heard that the ICA in London are also now partners in the project.

Finally Sheffield-based artist Paul Evans talked about being the recipient of a grant from the Leverhulme Residency Programme which allowed him to develop new work with an academic partner. Paul is interested in exploring the cultural significance of animals, with a particular interest in whales, so the grant enabled him to make a series of artworks based on 10 months spent in the Cardiff Osteological Research Group’s bone room at Cardiff University. While this was an experience he had clearly enjoyed, it was interesting that he mentioned in this presentation that the Leverhulme Trust was established by William Hesketh Lever, the founder of Lever Brothers (now UniLever). “It’s important to know who you’re in bed with” he said.

Paul’s work in Cardiff was mentioned in the Osteological Research Group’s 2014 REF impact case study in which he is quoted as saying “My collaboration with Dr Mulville and Guerilla Archaeology has had a substantial impact on my professional practice”, which is something that is also important to the legacy project.

The arts practice and co-production methodologies discussed here have illustrated a range of ways of working, but what I am interested in is how an artist’s autonomy fits with and complements an institution’s own objectives. All of us want to practice according to our values, which leads inevitably to conflicts of interest, so who is it that changes their approach or ‘loses something’ and what is losing something worth? Chantal Mouffe has this to say on strategies for hegemonic resistance in the domain of art and culture, which is where subjectivities are constructed:

‘Critical artistic practices do not contribute to the counter-hegemonic struggle by deserting the institutional terrain but by engaging with it, with the aim of fostering dissent and creating a multiplicity of agonistic spaces where the dominant consensus is challenged and where new modes of identification are made available.’ (Mouffe, 2013, Artistic Strategies in Politics and Political Strategies in Art)

(James Oliver also made reference to Chantal Mouffe and agonistic pluralism in his talk)

In contemporary, post-fordist conditions, where according to Mouffe “forms of exploitation characteristic of the times when manual labor was dominant have been replaced by new ones”, the objective of critical artistic practices should be the production of new subjectivities that contribute to the development of better social relations. Her comments aren’t specifically directed at the context of artists working with universities, but it’s the spirit of the argument that seems to fit.

While understanding the reasons why some prefer to advocate complete withdrawal from the existing powerful and hegemonic institutions and concentrate their efforts in constructing alternative social forms, Mouffe’s strategy is one of engagement with institutions as part of resistance to them. Believing, like some of today’s speakers, that the institution can be changed from within, she says “hegemonic confrontation” takes place in “the multiplicity of places where hegemony is constructed” implying that critical artistic practices will encourage agonistic spaces to occur inside the very institutions which secure the dominant hegemony, in the hope they can transform the way they function. It’s a pluralistic perspective that I think emerges repeatedly in Connected Communities projects, and while not all participants in the 250 projects (and counting) are obviously in pursuit of radical political change, the project is finding ways to hold onto individual differences, articulate them, value them and find equivalence among them.

Find out more:

Co-producing Legacy is led by Kate Pahl (School of Education, University of Sheffield), Helen Graham (School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies, University of Leeds) Steve Pool (Artist) and Amanda Ravetz (Manchester School of Art)

Interview with Kwong Lee on New Art Spaces

ROTOЯ partnership

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