Wednesday, 20 May 2009

The Art of Democracy

Only two out of five people voted in the last general elections. The current critical standpoint of democracy is of individuals’ ignorance, apathy or disenfranchisement amid the pervasive power of globalised institutions. Of citizens’ inability to speak politically and collectively due to the lack of identifiable, non-commodified public space. The very idea of democracy is mediated to mean intolerance of difference, war crimes and state sanctioned terrorism. This is the climate in which individual agency in democratic acts outside the ballot box and governmental institutions needs to be re-invested and re-articulated. This is the political backdrop to Mobile Conference: an event on the 15 March 2009 organized by South London Gallery (SLG) and Peckham Space exploring play, democracy and contemporary art in the public realm.

The conference was a fringe event of Tate Britain’s Tate Triennial and asked questions such as: can contemporary art provoke democratic participation? How can contemporary art reclaim the public realm through play? It centered upon two contemporary art projects: artist and play-worker Jess Thom’s current outreach with the residents of Seaux Gardens - a project that facilitates children’s play on the Seaux Gardens council estate in Peckham as part of the SLG’s three year lottery funded programme Making Play; and Peckham TV, a 2008 project commissioned by Peckham Space, in which artists Harold Offeh and The People Speak carried out a live game-show style public consultation in Peckham, soliciting locals’ responses in order to collectively design an advert for Peckham.

Discussions on the democratic, public and artistic spaces these two projects enabled were chaired by representatives from Demos - the independent think tank for everyday democracy - and artists The People Speak. The conversations were located at several itinerant sites – Seaux Gardens estate, the entrance foyer of Camberwell Arts School and a local community sports centre. This nomadism aligned itself with Triennial’s Altermodern Manifesto – which advocates a peripatetic, journey form of contemporaneity - and signalled the progressive nature of the conference. It also ensured the event was itself mobile: a physical, spatial match to its subject matter; each location providing a space for political, collective speech on non institutional acts of democracy in a non-governmental public platform.

Outside a set of empty retail lots on the Seaux Gardens Estate, one of which is rented by the SLG specially for Making Play, delegates joined Thom, local children and their parents in a discussion about how their sense of esteem, community and personal security increased through play. They discussed how they had managed to reclaim their estate after their requests for play areas (solicited in a public consultation by Southwark Council) were actively legislated against in the form of large signs warning children not to play on the grass. The empty shops were a stark reminder of the economic unviability of this particular inner city estate compared to the aspirational council town planning of the 1960s, and underpinned the fact that public space, moreover ‘free’ time or play, is at a premium: its architecture aimed at targeted consumption/production. Playing then, defined by Thom as freely chosen, personally directed and intrinsically motivated activity, is critical in that its insistence upon unmediated and individual agency represents ‘unproductive’, uncertain and risk-laden usage of space to the institution. Thom’s project articulates these children’s play as political, an act of everyday activism; a subversive sociopolitical performative act that reclaims public space and enables a different- more everyday- form of democracy outside the institution.

Amid the fun of its game-show format, Peckham TV also enacted a critical mode towards the agency of the individual to participate fully in the public realm. Based in Peckham Square, the project explored the possibilities of democratic decision making, with game-show participants publicly and collectively voting on the design of the advert for Peckham, but also on the rules of the game-show itself. In the foyer of Camberwell School of Arts, Offeh talked of how – due to logistics, time and money - the collective to-ing and fro-ing of the public voting could not be translated into the final advert. As a result, he was unsure whether the outcome of Peckham TV would be representative of the public’s participation.

Peckham TV reveals a tension between collective, democratic process and artistic product. It raises questions, not of the participation – i.e. how to progress or make decisions whilst consulting everybody? or Where to draw the line drawn between selective listening and blanket acceptance? - which seem to fall back into the current, problematic dominant order. Rather, it asks questions of the inevitability of the end point of such participation - the desire for closure, definitive result and product. The project articulates a scenario in which the everyday democratic process, or non institutional political speech, is endowed with agency as product in and of itself, and in being duty bound to hear the to-ing and fro-ing of oppositional voices, resolution remains politically – democratically- out of reach. It is a vision of an everyday, non-governmental form of democracy that is always in progress, insufficient and provisional.

Over the course of the day, questions were asked of the instrumentalisation of art in the public realm - how the artistic integrity of these two projects was ensured against the pressure to fit into an infrastructure of social inclusionist policy and box ticking in the publicly funded arts. Conversation focused briefly on the absence of the public funders; the implication being that devoid of the big spenders the discussion somehow lacked integrity. But this line of thinking falls prey to the authority and power of the institution. It denies the efficacy of the non institutional decision makers in the room and the individual choices that have been made by the funders not to accept the invitation to be at the event. Democracy gives (democratic) meaning, or enfranchises an individual’s capacity for, non participation and potentially undemocratic action.

Questions were also asked about the definition, ownership, agency and intellectual property of the art in the public realm; where is the art? who does the project belong to?’ or ‘Is the artist the new agony aunt?’ This kind of probing – vaulted for being open and honest - has been the dominant (post-modern) order in socially engaged art for over thirty years. But again, it is a mode of critique rooted in opposition to a problematic institutional and commercial framework (defining the role and status of the artist, her product, and its quality). As such, it falls back into dualist, modernist dialectic regarding art and artists (that art is apolitical, transcendental and is problematised in its encounters with everyday life). And it defies the aim of post autonomous socially engaged art, which is to trouble hierarchical, patriarchal models of artistic production, as well as notions of sovereignty and copyright.

In contrast, Mobile Conference attempted to articulate a much more blurred, hybrid or altermodern mode in relation to democracy and art in the public realm. It is a mode that ‘works within’ to re-invest agency in everyday democratic acts and public space beyond banal machinations of capitalistic exchange. It is a way of working that recognizes the delineation between private/public space is no longer clear, that the central institutions of our time cannot be so readily identified (what isn’t an institution in the context of Mobile Conference: Demos, Tate Britain, Camberwell Arts School, SLG, Peckham Space?). And that an outside/inside position of critique/complicity with regards to both democracy and art in the public realm can no longer be clearly occupied.

Rachel Lois Clapham is Co-Director of Open Dialogues

This article originally appeared on the Culture Wars website.

Thursday, 14 May 2009


FREE PRESS is collaborative project between seven artists/writers exploring economies of ideas and alternative modes of dissemination and exchange. The Free Press writers participated in a three day closed workshop in March 2009 at Plan 9 in Bristol, and decided the form and content of Free Press, as well as its distribution and publication. As a result of the workshop, each artist/writer produced a case study detailing how they would like to collaborate with a reader (below). The seven Free Press groups will develop work together over the coming months...


Readers wanted to explore the possibilities of the essay form. What forms can the essay take and how can such texts be read? What is an essay and who is essaying and where? What kinds of knowledge can be produced? What is lost and gained in moving beyond conventional discursive approaches into using visual and textual material, the space of the page, variations of typography and design?


You are invited to take part in the The One-to-One Correspondence Course. On the course you will be sent letters, one per day, for 12 days; the letters are in sequence; each letter contains an image or word; the sequence forms a rebus; the rebus takes the form of a question. You are tasked with answering.


This case study examines the role that documents play in the production and reception of “meaning”, specifically in the context of contemporary art, performing conspirational scenarios within the structures of professionalism in the creative industries. The study will culminate in a collaboratively-developed archive of documents, distributed and circulated through Free Press, which employ the methodology of “action scripting” as a form of “stage directions” for potential public readings. I am seeking collaborators to reflect on the reversal of the relationship between script and action, between “original” and “copy”, as well as on the nature of documents, asking “what events do documents trace?” and “what events do documents produce?”. “Action Script” is the programming language of vector-graphic softwares like Flash. Like other programming languages it textually defines the parameters for “complex action”. It utilizes one-directional commands where the script defines the action. What if this one-directionality could be reversed – i.e. if the action could also define the script? You go to the grocery store and receive a receipt itemizing your purchases. You apply for a job and send along a CV that presents your accomplishments. You are researching and find a transcription of an interview. In all three cases, documents are acting as traces of specific actions/interactions. All these documents are scripts, offering the performative parameters to restage the action that originally produced the text. Similar to the Borges story, “The Garden of Forking Paths”, a narrative exists within multiple worlds, each moment of its imaginary course through time leading to forks in the road in which new “actions” can be staged, leading to new “scripts”: “Almost instantly I saw it – the garden of forking paths was the chaotic novel; the phrase ‘several futures (not all)’ suggested to me the image of a forking in time, rather than in space. A rereading of the book confirmed my theory. In all fictions, each time a man meets diverse alternatives, he chooses one and eliminates the others; in the work of the virtually impossible to detangle T’sui Pen, the character chooses - simultaneously – all of them.”


In a free press, readers do not simply buy and so receive pre-fabricated, finished products, writing or meaning. Rather, the reader physically scripts her own meaning, her own writing in and by the act of reading; understanding and improvising upon pre-authored products. As a Free Press project, Till Poems reads between the lines of reading: it is reading as understanding, interpreting a language and its signs. It is reading as a productive act, an act in which one can infer, substitute or replace meaning in systems. The project challenges you to do a big shop in your local supermarket or store. By placing your shopping onto the conveyor belt in a specific way, you will make sure the receipt spells out words of your own making. Reading the receipt down instead of across, your choreographed shopping will say something more than the items ever intended. In that moment of improvisation and exchange, your act of shopping becomes porous: a space you the consumer can inhabit, manipulate and occupy. It is a space where the consumer is equally productive as the producer, the reader equally productive as the writer.


I offer the reader an exercise in truth and deception. I offer you the opportunity for artful manipulation and skillful honesty. I offer you an excuse. You offer me a reason. The writer will send the reader a set of excuses. The reader will respond with a set of reasons. The two narratives will be fused, manipulated and altered by the both the reader and the writer. Decisions will be made, actions will be taken, conclusions will be drawn, consequences will occur, stories will be changed..


Reader/s wanted to collaborate on a project that will explore the subject of collecting - from collections of artists working with an ‘archival impulse’ to personal collections of ephemera. A postal correspondence will take place starting with an inventory of the collections held by the writer - the reader will respond similarly and the correspondence shall build into a collection of collections, taking inspiration from Aby Warburgs’ Mnemosyne Atlas, drawing on and connecting all the interests of the Writer and the Reader. This project will conclude with a publication documenting this exchange and the eventual outcome.


I’m interested in the notion of agency, how our acts have repercussions or influences; a chain of knock on effects. What is the agency of the reader? How much are they in control of how they read and how much are they under the subliminal influence of the author. Take C S Lewis, whose ideal reader would perhaps be both a child who would take on the fantasy and adventures of Narnia and carry it on in their own games and playtime, and on the other hand a well behaved Christian who would take on the moral meta-narrative. Here we have two forms of authorial intervention. Could we compare these to non-instrumental (e.g. psychogeographical) and instrumental (e.g. propagandist) intervention? In Thomas Pynchon’s ‘The Crying of Lot 49’, the unsuspecting anti-heroine Oedipa Maas comes across a series of clues and cryptic messages that lead her to uncover a secret postal service, an underground system, that functions not for overtly political aims but for society’s outcasts, conspiracy theorists and fugitives. These clues lead to her travelling across country on a bus trailing a secret postman. This underground system is a free press, a means of distribution and dispersion that relies on community, secrecy, romance and a high level of suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader. Exploring agency and intervention I will set up a meta-narrative that to be read requires the active engagement of a number of readers. Some who are ‘secret agents’ following my agenda and helping to install the clues, others who are ‘double agents’ adding their own twist to the work that I have to uncover and some who are genuine readers, detectives out to follow the clues and find the route to the exhibition/art work

Trade Union is a project initiated to explore ideas around late capitalism - in particular the economies of contemporary art and the possibilities that could arise from the current geopolitical climate.

Free Press Writers

Rachel Lois Clapham is a writer and curator. Her curatorial practice centres on live and participatory art that explore alternate models of criticality and artistic responsibility. Recent projects include Nahnou-Together Now, an exhibition of socially engaged art at Tate Britain. She is Co-Director of the critical writing initiative Open Dialogues and writes a regular column for Dance Theatre Journal entitled 'Inside Performance'.

Ashkan Sepahvand is a writer, translator and curator based in Berlin. His practice includes curating/performing texts/documents, writing/fictionalizing history/identity, marginal social/religious/cultural formations in the Middle East and art market/institutional analysis. He is currently working with the open art network Reloading Images. He has written for various publications including Bidoun, Muhtelif: Magazine for Contemporary Art Istanbul, and RES:World Art/Art World. He is working on his first novel - 'To Whom Life', set to be published in May 2009 by Book Works as part of their Semina series, edited by Stewart Home.

David Berridge is a writer, with a background in Human Ecology. He writes and edits the blogzine 'More Milk Yvette: A Journal of the Broken Screen' focussing on artists films and videos. He is currently curating a conference/screening programme on contemporary relationships to Warhol's film work.

Pippa Koszerek creates organisations as artworks/curatorial projects such as the Independent Art School (1999-) and The Unasked-for Public Art Agency (2006 -). These often have activist or critical origins and often seek out alternative models of practice. She is interested in blurring the boundaries between art and non-art environments and borrows materials or ways of working from other vocations. The Unasked-for Public Art Agency delivers an unasked-for consultancy package to a host organisation within which Pippa has nominated herself as ‘artist in residence.

Matthew MacKisack is an artist and writer. His practice currently consists of video and drawing. He is currently undertaking a PhD at Goldsmiths, looking at models of ideological and experiential contestation.

Sophie Mellor an artist/curator based in Bristol, UK. She is also co-founder and co-director of Plan 9, an artist-led visual arts organisation established in 2005. Her practice focuses on creating discussion through action and provocation, setting up systems and constructs that examine preconceived notions of self and society. Current projects include Girl Gang, which sanctions the exploration of different modes of behaviour via a slight change in individual perception. With Karen Di Franco, she has initiated Trade Union and the associated Free Press, which sets out to explore the current econmonic and environmental reality, seeking to effect change through collaborative working; the free flow of ideas; testing out possibilities; taking action to find workable alternatives to present conditions; and centralising the process within the everyday of the participants.

Karen Di Franco is an artist and archivist based in Bristol, UK. Co-Director of Plan 9 since 2007 her practice is divided between explorations of an artistic economy with projects such as Trade Union, initiated with Sophie Mellor as a strategy to combine their artistic practice with their roles as directors of Plan 9, and a studio based practice that explores narrative and archival research.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Arts Writing Symposia

Arts Writing Symposia Day 1: Who is this who is coming?
18 June, 12-5pm, free, but booking essential

The first in a two-day series of events exploring the possibilities of contemporary arts writing. Inscribing, reasoning and prospecting around the shore of M.R.James' 1904 supernatural short story Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad, this event observes inscription as a methodology for art writing through a range of critical and creative presentations; examining where meaning might take place, and reasoning backwards. Featuring a rare screening of Jonathan Miller's 1968 film version of the story. Speakers include Beatrice Gibson, artist, Craig Martin, cultural geographer and Alexandre Singh, artist. Organised and chaired by Maria Fusco, Director of Art Writing, Goldsmiths College and Writer-in-Residence, Whitechapel Gallery.

Arts Writing Symposia Day 2: Performing/Knowing
19 June, 12-5pm, free, but booking essential
This day highlights the creative potential of performance in the space of knowledge production across the areas of art practice, traditional scholarship, and everyday life. It raises issues about the efficacy of performance as 'convincing' scholarly argument; the ethics and politics of performance presentation; and the relationship of performance to the written text of criticism.

Speakers include Oreet Ashery, performance artist, Adrian Heathfield, writer, Kate Love, writer, and Aaron Williamson, performance artist.Organised and chaired by Gavin Butt, Department of Visual Cultures,Goldsmiths College.

This two-day event is part of a series of symposia organised by Birmingham City University , Chelsea College of Art and Design, Goldsmiths College and Reading University to develop an Art-Writing Research network. Presentations and papers produced for the symposia will be published by Article Press, Birmingham City University.

For more details please visit:


Friday, 1 May 2009

What's in a name?

Mary Paterson considers the meaning of 'Rooted in the Earth' by Joshua Sofaer.

This article originally appeared on the Rooted in the Earth website.

In Victorian England, public parks were festooned with blocks of riotous colour. Carpet bedding – the practice of planting brightly coloured flowers into patterns – was a popular way of creating floral displays. The designs could also spell out an explicit message, and, where the practice continues today, carpet bedding is often used to represent flags, community emblems (like the logos of football clubs) and civic shields.

This summer, the artist Joshua Sofaer is going to create five new carpet bed displays, with the help of residents in the London boroughs of Greenwich, Hackney, Stratford, Tower Hamlets and Waltham Forest. Rooted in the Earth is one of two projects supported by the first Bank of America CREATE Art Award, designed to engage with people who live in the five boroughs that will host the London Olympics and Paralympics in 2012. Sofaer is inviting people who live in these areas to nominate someone whose name they’d like to see spelt out in a carpet bedding display. The five winning names will be planted up and unveiled in the summer as part of CREATE 09, the annual arts festival taking place across the region.

But what will the names actually mean? Any name could be nominated – your friend, a member of your family, someone who is already well known. But can an individual be contained within a name? Famous names (like Mahatma Ghandi, say, or Princess Diana) resonate with the residue of the person who owned them, but only because they link up with fragments of information from elsewhere. In fact, the resonance comes from the person who recognizes the name and can link Mahatma Ghandi to the country he was born in, for example, or the words that he said. This means that a name is just one part of a network of ideas, which becomes meaningful in connection with the rest of the world. And this poses a problem for Rooted in the Earth because, for the majority of people, the planted names will not link up with any other information – they could be the names of private individuals, strangers that you don’t know. Each nomination may be submitted with an explanation of up to 250 words, but even this will only tell a small part of the story.

In fact (and fittingly), the answer to this question lies in the name of the project itself. Rooted in the Earth is not only embedded in the literal earth of public parks, but it is also rooted in the metaphorical earth of the local community. Nominations for the competition will be encouraged from people who live in the boroughs where each name is to be displayed; the flower beds will be planted by a team of volunteers from local gardening clubs and allotment organisations; and, planted in public parks, the names will be maintained by local councils for public use. In this way, the final displays will not simply stand for individual members of the community, but will also represent the joint effort of nominating names, of building beds, and the communal act of viewing. While on one hand the names shown in Rooted in the Earth will be plucked from the local communities of Greenwich, Hackney, Stratford, Tower Hamlets and Waltham Forest, on the other hand, the process of Rooted in the Earth will highlight the workings of the communities as a whole. You might even say that the communal acts encouraged by the project will help build communities in the first place.

This focus on collaboration and community is particularly relevant given the role these five boroughs will play as ‘hosts’ to the London Olympics and Paralympics in 2012. Preparations for the Games are well underway, and obvious in, for example, the massive building projects taking place across the region. Already part of the landscape of east London, the Olympics will be absorbed into the lives of its residents in ways that are impossible to predict. Creating a platform for local residents to choose their own representatives, as well as a process through which the community itself comes into view, Rooted in the Earth offers a gentle counterbalance to this period of rapid change driven from the outside (driven by the planning decisions of the Olympic committee, for example). Waxing and waning over time, the floral displays act as a metaphor for the ways that groups of people change and grow: like plants, communities absorb the nutrients of their environment and adapt accordingly.

Rooted in the Earth also confronts the Olympics in a more direct way, as an alternative model of rewards and prize giving. In 2012, east London will be occupied by hundreds of elite athletes, specialists who travel the world in order to dedicate themselves to competition. There are big prizes at stake: medal winners at the Olympics do not only win bronze, silver or gold, but can also expect a lifetime of lucrative sponsorship deals, media appearances and celebrity. It has not always been like this. In the early Olympics, winners were rewarded with a single laurel wreath, and until 2004, Olympic athletes were required to be amateurs – individuals who did not earn money from their sport. In this Olympic context of concentrated, individual achievement Rooted in the Earth presents alternative role-models, manifest through the values of shared co-operation and understanding. Perhaps Rooted in the Earth is a platform for a different kind of heroics: one that is tied not to the individual but to the community, not to elite achievement but to shared goals, and not to competition but to collaboration.

And yet the individual focus of elite sports and, more precisely, of the advertising that grows up around it, is not a true representation of reality. Like the names displayed in Rooted in the Earth, great sportsmen and women are also the product of a community – a community of trainers, supporters, fans and sponsors – which blooms inside a system of competitions like the Olympics themselves. In fact, Olympic athletes, when they stand on the podium to receive a medal, occupy the same conceptual space as the names displayed in Rooted in the Earth: they do not just stand for an individual, but also attest to a whole body of support (a community) that acknowledges the individual’s special importance, at the same time as it allows him or her to thrive.

This is not to say that Rooted in the Earth is a straightforward emblem of all kinds of ‘community.’ For one thing, not all of the connotations of flowers and gardens are easy to understand. In Victorian times, for example, flower arrangements were used to send messages between people in secret. Inside this precise and detailed system, a red carnation means, ‘my heart aches for you’, and a striped carnation means ‘no’. Will the displays in Rooted in the Earth respect the language of flowers, and, if so, how many people will read them? In fact, the project’s double allusion to Victorian negotiations of private and public space (through the symbolic use of flowers and, specifically, carpet bedding) has its own problems. The Victorians held some beliefs about public duty that don’t seem reasonable any more – beliefs governed by strict rules about class and gender, for example.

There are also more contemporary confusions involved in Rooted in the Earth. The project is structured around a competition, and it is not clear what criteria the judges will apply. In this respect, Rooted in the Earth alludes to the talent shows and phone-in programmes on prime time TV – formats where the public is invited to submit to a judging panel, who represent a kind of expert common sense. But those formats are often cruel or deliberately misleading about the people that take part; they work on the assumption that the process of the competition is more important than the individual involved. Is this the other, darker side of community? A system that can suppress one person in the name of an unchallenged, collective authority?

As well as an act of community building and a representation of community heroes, Rooted in the Earth could be a system of coded messages, a reference to unnamed authority or a conquest over the agency of the individual. But the point of Rooted in the Earth is that none of these ideas replaces the others. Oscillating between the duties and codes of the Victorian era, the international event of the future Olympics, and the local interests of east London residents, Rooted in the Earth does not dictate its terms of engagement, but suggests a number of ways that an audience can take part. In fact, by presenting a wide collection of references and allusions, Rooted in the Earth comes closest to mimicking the productive life of an actual community. It is not the meeting point (for instance, a visual display, or a club house) that creates a network of individuals, but the individuals who continue to build and cherish the network itself. Rooted in the Earth is not a fixed set of rules, but a continuous process of negotiation. In this way, perhaps it is a model for civic life itself: negotiation that grows and reaches out to the future, fed on its ties to the past.

Anyone from anywhere in the world can suggest a name. After the competition closes on 22 May 2009, a panel of judges will choose five winners from the names and reasons submitted, one for each of the participating boroughs. 

The winning nominations will be displayed as decorative flowerbeds in parks and green spaces across Greenwich, Hackney, Newham, Tower Hamlets and Waltham Forest, the five host boroughs of the 2012 London Olympic and Paralympic Games.  

Rooted in the Earth is a Bank of America 2009 CREATE Art Award commission to artist Joshua Sofaer, who devised the concept for the competition and installation. It is part of CREATE, an annual arts festival across East and South East London.

Art Writing at Spike Island

Spike Island in Bristol are the lastest in UK production agencies, studios and galleries to be looking at the artistic practice of art writing. Others are the Whitechapel, the ICA and Resonance FM. An interesting trend; one Open Dialogues is very excited about!


Art + Writing Panel Discussion: Maria Fusco, Matt Price, Michael Dean, David Trigg
Sat 02 May, 1-4pm Associates Space

Panel: Maria Fusco, Matt Price, Michael Dean

Chair: David Trigg

This event has been programmed by Sovay Berriman (Associate Artist) and Megan Wakefield (Researcher: PhD Spike Island/UWE) and takes place as part of Spike Open Studios 2009. This panel discussion is the first in a series of seminars exploring the spectrum of 'art writing', a term that no longer simply describes criticism, catalogue essay or document. This first debate will seek to investigate the changing trajectories of written texts as they orbit and intersect contemporary art.

Free event but booking essential. Please contact or call 0117 929 2266.


13:00 Informal buffet lunch and social with reading material and other related resources available.

13:45 Panel response to a pre-set question

14:45 Break

15:05 Audience questions posed to the panel.

16:00 Event ends.

The event is funded by the Spike Associates programme and will take place in the Associates’ Space on the Upper level. Please sign in at Reception.