Fillip 3 — Summer 2006

Conversationally Arresting: Ethics, Empathy, and Identification
Irene Loughlin

Yet again there have been deficiencies in the discourse addressing issues surrounding art production and the representation of inner city neighbourhoods afflicted with a high degree of economic and social hardship, a fact made painfully aware to me during my participation in a recent panel discussion on art and Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Several months after these events, I picked up a copy of Grant Kester’s Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art (2004), in which the author claims to offer some viable solutions to thinking through these difficult issues. As I made my way through the book, I became intrigued by Kester’s unusual and considered approach to contemporary notions of the dialogical in art, and the implications of his analysis in resolving a general dismissal of “community-based art practices” within the contemporary arts milieu.

Kester defines modes of dialogical art production as contextually grounded “connected knowledge” rooted within a “discourse of ethics.” The dialogical is more frequently associated with strategies gathered under the rubric of relational aesthetics and is often further conflated as “community art” practice. By emphasizing the dialogical nature of community art, Kester reframes the work as a form of practice “worthy” of critical analysis. His evaluations also validate my ambivalent association to the word “community” as well as the accompanying feelings of guilt related to this discomfort. I’ve observed that “community” is often invoked by dominant cultural institutions in order to infantilize, neutralize, and exclude radical activist and art practices that are developed intellectual strategic responses. Simultaneously, “community” is cited “inside” as the loci of resistance, and is still the only word available to me to describe the respect I feel towards resistant practices amongst my mentors and peers. And so even before I begin this dialogical investigation, I find myself caught in the fulcrum that constitutes “community” dialogical art practice.

Kester delineates facets of several relational practices, outlining how such works have been produced and citing several methodologies used by artists involved in dialogical approaches. He describes counter-hegemonic projects, which are premised on the production of critical community consciousness, and are created through an extended process of collaborative exchange not necessarily focused on a concrete outcome. “Concrete interventions” are problem-solving activities artists have engaged in as a means of facilitating or producing locally relevant change. For example, the WochenKlausur collective of Zurich’s Intervention to Aid Drug-Addicted Women (1994–95) “gathered together members of Zurich’s political, journalistic and activist communities in order to facilitate a series of floating boat discussions.” This strategy, Kester argues, allows the dialogical approach of problem solving to occur in a ritualized atmosphere that diffuses the nature of communication in the public realm normatively immersed in methodologies of attack and counterattack. The members of WochenKlausur did not have their sense of humour nor their dialogical curiosity diffused given the seriousness of the issues they confronted. For example, they employed Dadaesque methods in order to secure the participation of politicians by fabricating a political opponent’s conditional participation in their project. Kester describes “the modest and concrete outcome” to this dialogical intervention as evident in the establishment of a home where addicted local women could have access to housing and services. The decision to build this home was arrived at during the discussions that took place on the boat, and the home remains in existence eight years after the initial intervention by WochenKlausur.

Kester deploys a provocative reappropriation in his legitimization of dialogical works. He cites canonical conceptual and formalist works of the contemporary art milieu as antecedent to dialogical, community-based art, such as Richard Serra’s monumental public work Tilted Arc (1981), along with the influential text-based installations of Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, and Adrian Piper. These works situated the viewer as “always/already guilty” while simultaneously challenging the viewer to examine “their avoidance, denial, dismissal, and withdrawal into ideology” when confronted with the artists’ transformative interventions. The problem here, according to Kester, exists in that the artist is always positioned as the knowing subject, and the viewer is always constituted as the social/cultural dupe. Kester refers to critic Ken Johnson’s suggestion that binary divisions such as these place the artist in a didactic relationship with the viewer, which is not quite the result that the dialogical process is aiming at. Conversely, one cannot deny the resonant impact of works by Serra, Kruger, and Piper, artists willing to take confrontational, positional stances that effect such an impact.

The current urgency of the global situation could be seen to counter Kester’s problematic positioning of these historical confrontational works and his questioned value of avant-garde techniques of shock as antithetical to the dialogical. Santiago Sierra’s utilization of workers’ bodies as a means by which to realize the conceptual work of art is perhaps a far more realistic method in making visible the global market of exploitation within contemporaneous practices than the dialogical model. Kester acknowledges that not all conflicted situations arise from a lack of communication. Still, the role of art in the realization of imagined situations of the counter-hegemonic cannot be denied, particularly when considering the influence of community-based art practice in areas such as Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, which have often assumed a form of hybrid activism affecting housing and health care. And yet, a situation where self is linked to others ethically and epistemologically seems far-reaching (albeit necessary) in a contemporary climate of environmental degradation, local gentrification, and globalization.

The contemporary situation poses a particular problem for the dialogical artist who, while seeking to be free from hegemonic constraints, is particularly bound by ethical dilemmas. Dialogical work is fraught with problems of accountability. Kester cites examples of public funding bodies pressuring artists to collapse their strategies into social projects steeped in a history of evangelism. “Woman artist as social worker” is a particularly gendered problem meant to denigrate the work that women may accomplish in what they consider to be their communities. Other circumstances Kester outlines include situations in which the artist uses a community as the subject of his or her work in order to receive funding earmarked for that community, institutional pressures towards template reproductions of dialogical works lacking the contingency of community specificity, financial pressures that disallow an artist to make a sustained commitment to a particular community, and the global nature of the international art market where artists are taken out of their communities of origin and dropped into local communities in countries of which they have little knowledge.

On the micro level of artist/collaborator/viewer relations, the difficulties are no less succinct. Kester cites Piper, who delineates the tendency towards an abstraction of the viewer by the artist, which can occur through a projected ideation of self-empowerment. The failure of dialogically necessary “active listening” and “empathic identification” may result in an artist lost and treading in the irritating and murky waters of “pity.” Paradoxically, an artist may perform the diametric opposite by assuming a position characterized by the cool indifference of the modernist project. For example, although not a dialogical work, public reaction to Rachel Whiteread’s House (1994) illustrates how a conceptual work of art is not beyond the realm of “community dialogue.” House has been both criticized and lauded as referent to a memorial or mausoleum “commemorating” the interior of typically disappearing social housing in the low-income Bow neigbourhood in London. On a local level, House seems to be reminiscent of a kind of structure Vancouver photoconceptualists love to photograph, in a kind of drive-by shooting of iconographic neighbourhood tourism that remains neglectful of the separation between the public and private. I can acknowledge the useful silent quality of Whiteread’s unemotive gesture towards gentrifying forces and the theoretical discussion and implications of photoconceptual work in Vancouver. But as we can see, and as Kester suggests, a coolly distanced perspective does not necessarily separate an artist from the messiness of discursive interaction. Kester asserts that with a carefully considered position on the part of the artist towards the viewer and the creation of the work, perhaps the “ontic payoff (can be) a collectively realized event.”

The particular situatedness of community-focused artist-run centres is peripheral to Kester’s argument. Kester concedes that some artists receive more support from the “community” than the art world, but notes that there always exists a layer of privilege between an artist and the community. He also notes a resistance and skepticism that I have often encountered by community-based artists at spaces such as Vancouver’s Gallery Gachet towards the relevance of conventional art history or criticism in regard to their work. This is hardly surprising, given that in the treadmill of late capitalism, what was initially resistant is often eventually consumed as reified style. Of course, Gachet’s attitudinal preference towards the internal dialogical is depoliticized and reconstituted as a “pastoral” differentiation within the general arts milieu, disregarding the important contextual information the centre could offer in the local/global context, while it is residually blamed for its own “isolationist” tendencies. Meanwhile, Kester suggests that more alternative and mainstream cultural spaces become victims and accomplices of gentrification, and the dialogical is ignored as a particular strategy that might be used to diffuse the effects of gentrification.

Conversation Pieces offers a broad spectrum of problematic issues and positive outcomes related to the practice of the dialogical. In considering the efficacy of dialogical practices, it is unfortunate that, as Kester states, there is a “relative dearth of critics and historians willing to engage with this work in an active manner.” It is obvious that productive opportunities exist towards intellectual expansion into the areas of dialogical aesthetics as a tool of curatorial prowess and independent thought, and as a means by which to activate interesting non-traditional collaborations spanning the great divide that separates art institutions from less reified, dialogical, community-based practices.

Image: Wochenklausur, Intervention to Aid Drug-Addicted Women (1994–95). Documentation of public intervention

About the Author

Irene Loughlin is a performance artist who works with text, video, and installation and has exhibited in various national and international contexts. She has recently received a Lynch-Staunton Award, Canada Council for the Arts.

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