Tuesday, 24 March 2009

‘Critical Encounters’

Image (c) Writing Encounters

‘Critical Encounters’ was a paper delivered jointly by Open Dialogues - Rachel Lois Clapham and Mary Paterson - at the Writing Encounters Symposium, York St John University 11-13 September 2008. It used our recent participatory writing project ‘Open Dialogues: New Life Berlin’
as case study with which to explore what happens when critical writing works with live, time based and participatory art. This is an excerpt of that paper.

Opening of New Life Berlin Festival


All the work in New Life Berlin shared a focus on the process of participation rather than an artistic product. The festival’s interrogation of ‘artistic responsibility and new modes of artistic being’ was located in the sustained and durational encounter between artists and participants throughout the festival, and not simply public performances or ‘end product’. Instead of audience members or viewers, New Life Berlin had co-producers, or co-conspirators, who could interact with the artwork and even change its course. The New Life Berlin artists also shared communal and semi-public living areas. In short, the process of artistic production was the artistic product in New Life Berlin.

The New Life Berlin festival took place over two and a half weeks in June 2008. The festival was curated from submissions received online via Wooloo.org, the organisers’ website-come-social networking site for artists, and included 15 international participatory projects, all of which employed collaboration and performance that, in their words, aimed to ‘examine notions of artistic responsibility and enact new modes of existing within artistic communities.’

New Life Berlin Festival: Flash Job Campaign


Within this environment Open Dialogues: New Life Berlin set out to explore what critical writing could be. We instigated a practical project that would put pressure on the encounter between writing and participatory art. We had only one certainty in mind. If the meaning of the work in New Life Berlin was produced in process and encounter, then our examination of critical writing would have to focus on the act of critical writing itself, and its encounter with art. We could not prescribe what would happen, only invite other writers to experiment in writing alongside us. And so in June, Open Dialogues travelled to Berlin to work with twenty writers, curators and artists from across the world, none of whom we had met before.

The Open Dialogues: New Life Berlin writing community

Once in Berlin, we formed Open Dialogues: New Life Berlin: a writing community at the heart of the festival. As a community, we worked with the festival organisers, the artists and their work, and the participants; we openly acknowledged and inhabited the closeness of our relationships – be they personal, professional, economic- that feed into critical writing; relationships that always exist, but often remain hidden in writing.

Intervention by writer Anga’aefonu Bain-Vete


We began choreographing our encounters well before the festival began. We started talking to artists, and highlighting our embedded approach. We worked with the artists to explore meaning as a form of collaboration. We built a structure for debate and dialogue that operated both in our act of coming to the writing and our writing itself-structures that attempted to make our writing more porous, to the work at the festival, to the artists. We held a ‘Live Review’ in the middle of the festival, a public debate where we turned the critical attention onto ourselves as writers. We held workshops, debates and discussions on writing from live and participatory art, how to get closely involved with the work, how to co-ordinate our encounters and how to locate criticality within our relationships with the art and artists in New Life Berlin.


Open Dialogues: New Life Berlin 'Live Review'


Our experiment at New Life Berlin raised intriguing questions concerning collaboration as meaning, the porosity of writing, il/legitimacy of voice and the proximity of a writer to her subject and object. It also left more questions concerning the location and agency of critical writing.
Ultimately, we were happy not to arrive at a resolution to these questions. The methodology of Open Dialogues: New Life Berlin was to fully expose, and so put pressure on, the existing patterns and power relations in the act of critical writing in order to locate the possibility for something to shift. We felt sure that in our focus of what lies off the page in the act of critical writing, we had created something different, or at the very least that we had inhabited the conditions of the same and poked around inside.

Our thanks to the writers of Open Dialogues: New Life Berlin and the other New Life Berliners.
Together, our writing marks only the beginning of an investigation. What happens next is …

Rachel Lois Clapham and Mary Paterson

Copyright Open Dialogues 2008


The Writing Encounters symposium was curated by Claire Hind and Claire MacDonald; it was multidisciplinary and international in its focus, and for writing artists, researchers, curators, producers and teachers who have an interest in the encounter between art, writing and performance.

More on our critical model here.

All images c. Open Dialogues New Life Berlin and the artists.

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