Re: The Dialogical
Johan Lundh and Irene Loughlin
Johan Lundh: exploring and examining notions of dialogical and community-based art practices, I would like to start by asking if you have observed a more inclusive approach to such practices within the contemporary arts scene in recent years. Toward the end of your essay, you seem hopeful about the possibility of unusual collaborations bridging established art institutions and community-based practices. Maybe you can shed light over what Grant Kester means by the differences between dialogical and community- based practices?
Irene Loughlin: In general I don’t think that there has been much bridging between art institutions and “community-based practices,” and I seem to have lost my optimism. I could be suffering from what the group Feel Tank Chicago diagnosed as “Depressed? It might be political!” They suggested political activists show up at demonstrations in their bathrobe and slippers, an action at once both funny and slightly alarming to those of us who have experienced the debilitating quality of clinical depression. Nonetheless, University of Texas professor Ann Cvetkovich has commented that the goal is now to “depathologize negative affects so that they can be seen as a possible resource for political action, rather than as its antithesis.”  Perhaps this take on how many of us are experiencing contemporary life is also somewhat liberating, in that it deconstructs some constrictions which have been emphasized in the past that were simply difficult or annoying to internalize. For example, second wave feminism emphasized the importance of demonstrating qualities of self-actualization, many of which were inextricably tied to what became known as “ableism” through the emphasis on verbal articulation, debate, and the exhibition of mental “strength” and resilience.
Lundh: Could you please elaborate more on the relationship between culture and the process of gentrification, maybe using examples from your experiences from one of the most rapidly gentrifying areas of North America, Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside?
Loughlin: The concept of bridging seems to privilege one set of circumstances over another. The bridge may run through parallel geographies (as from a wealthy area of a city to a low-income area), however, the “bridge” often conveniently runs out of the financial resources to satisfactorily complete the project in “undeveloped” zones. Because of these economic and social disparities, collaboration seems forced and contrived, and institutional staff rarely possess the insight to understand the intricacies or even the practical needs of these exchanges. I think great feelings of loss occurred when we saw that the Woodwards development project in Vancouver was not going to provide accessible education in the new university setting for Downtown Eastside residents, nor the social housing that was hoped for in the condo development project. Few answers have been provided in the dialogue surrounding the ethics of “urban development” as it applies to the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, particularly within the arts, which, as we know, always plays an active, early role in gentrification processes. Only those of us who were directly involved in the communities affected had to try to answer to the fallout directly—not hypothetically—as we reached for some kind of accountability during difficult panel discussions such as “Picturing the Downtown Eastside,” at the Belkin Satellite in 2005. Others were noticeably absent and took impressive photos of the infested buildings that some of us lived in while engaging in distant articulations. The ethical questions are simultaneously simple and complex, and I don’t believe they can ever be escaped. I was never interested in the trained response that skirted issues of accountability in order to save face. Certainly as an artist, I feel a painful mixture of accomplishment, regret, and uncertainty when I think back on any of the work that I did in the Downtown Eastside. The worst of these memories stem from the occasions where I inevitably acted out the internalized tropes of “rehabilitation,” “service provision,” and “community-based arts practice.”
Relational aesthetics became some kind of all encompassing term for certain artistic practices which were at once ephemeral and transgressive—such as the public interventions of live art practices. Once named, however, the “genre” turned in upon itself and became an opportunity for the institution to employ an artist to produce an event providing a marketable “experience” for institutional audiences, thus creating the illusion of an “accessible” environment. Artists, particularly those working in a live context, often have less opportunity to present a work that feels authentic to their current practice and may be coerced into producing a “relational” work. Such events are highly attended and generate income for the institution through entrance fees and alcohol revenue, of which participants and artists see little return. Despite their popularity, “bridging events,” or what I might term “the dog and pony show,” are targeted at a vaguely defined, generalized, yet all-encompassing “community,” that is, nonetheless, seen as peripheral to the main programming of the institution.
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About the Authors
Johan Lundh is an artist, curator, and writer who splits his time between Stockholm and Vancouver. His research-based projects explore connections between social interaction and the mechanics of contemporary art. He is currently working on an interview project as well as a series of collaboratively produced posters with Vancouver-based artist-curator Alissa Firth-Eagland.
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.