I was super encouraged by seeing a lovely piece of public art today that said ‘You are great problem solver’. Hurray for public art as ‘streetwisdom’ and much gratitude to artist, Julian Wood @artofkindness for that friendly reminder.  In fact, I had just been walking around feeling like a bit of a nuisance, but in that moment, I suddenly realised that troublemaking and problem solving were essential shadows of one another, and that in fact, both had been present within the socially engaged arts projects I’d been thinking about, my own and other people’s. So I came home and made a paper cut to help me think…

I’ve been talking recently with colleagues about the tensions that can arise from community engagement within regeneration projects, in which those who are tasked with gaining the trust of, and consulting or working with the local community, and who sometimes bring in artists to support this process, are paid by the Local Authority and/or from pots of money provided by the developers. The facilitation of genuine, transformative, creative, change-making processes within a community encourages people to speak up, call out systemic obstacles, give expression to discontent, take risks and so on.  It can be an unruly, time consuming process and rarely appears as a unified voice or tidy solution. It is troublemaking, but ideally yields ‘good trouble’ and can be supported by an artist or community worker to express something meaningful and true, be it a manifesto, asset map or other creative project.  Meanwhile, the folks who may well be paying the artist’s fee, have deadlines, limited resources and capacity, and may well have an agenda that involves delivering aims that may be at odds with concerns and needs arising from the community.  These folks need solutions, not more problems, and these pressures will likely impact both the processes and outcomes of any work with the community.

As a servant of two masters (and in most cases, a third, which is the artist’s own creative curiosity and unfolding desires) do artists in these contexts have a responsibility to be problem solvers or trouble makers, or both?  Or neither?!— I’m aware that the duality I’m evoking is no doubt an overly simplistic expression of complex factors.  And that this adventure in autonomy and heteronomy is an essential part of trying to maintain integrity (and radicality) within a socially engaged arts practice— after all, ‘social’ refers not just to individual citizens but to business owners, organisations, developers, local authorities and so on…  

But I would be curious to hear from others— what are your experiences with this tension? Focussing on positive examples, I am encouraged by the partnership that Social Art Network (SAN) undertook with Kickstarter to support 10 social practice artists that speaks to some of this.  Equally, I am impressed by the fast-turnaround funding model developed by Artcry to support urgent, creative work in the public realm. The people of Efford in Plymouth have named themselves capital of culture and trialled exciting, innovative models of collaboration with Take A Part in which artist-facilitated activities have been essential in re-configuring power within regeneration processes.   Meanwhile, in Gloucester, Strike a Light are trialling Let Artists Be Artists, a model of funding that provides artists a year’s salary that enables them to set their own creative agenda, some of which might be within their wider community contexts.  All reasons to feel hopeful! 

If any of you reading this have found satisfying and/or effective ways to play along a spectrum of practice that is at once troublemaking and problem solving— as artists or other kinds of workers in regeneration and community initiatives, I’d love to hear more! What conditions support the possibility for this tension to be genuinely fruitful and enable growth and understanding for all involved?  What alternative economic models enable artists to work autonomously and/or in alliance with the (non-commercial?) community within regeneration projects?  So many questions… hopefully leading more to problem-solving than to trouble-making… or not?!  Please email me, or join in the conversation on instagram @amyroseprojects. Thanks!