The new publication from Silent City, ‘Art and Activism’, poses three key questions: Should art be separated from activism? Should art have a political value or function? Should art be radical, critical, resistant or subversive? While Silent City has chosen activism as the focus of its examination, the key question is one that can be applied to any art discussion: What do we want art to say about ourselves?
“The political value of art will always be disputed, [but] it cannot be denied that there is a relationship,” says the Silent City trio. “Modern UK activism is incredibly creative, from the actions of Climate Camp to art collectives such as the Vacuum Cleaner. It may not be always overly political, but it is far from separate.” At all times in history, art has told a story about the politics of its time; just consider the identity of the people in the pictures, or the subtle ways in which the artist undermined the status quo.
Claire Roberts at the Silent City symposium. All photography by Sally Mumby-Croft.
Art and Activism
‘Art and Activism’, which Silent City hopes to publish later this year, was created from submissions following a call-out to several arts websites. The final choice was up to Sally Mumby-Croft, Cara Nahaul and Emily Whitebread, who had partnered with Peter Eramian, editor of Shoppinghour, for the project. Designed by Simon Sherlock, the finished product contains a combination of photojournalism, poems, essays and documentation of actions undertaken by the artists.
Last year Silent City presented a symposium (review) focusing mainly on climate change, but this latest publication shows the trio has a broader mandate.
“The original idea behind Silent City was to produce three separate exhibitions, exploring the three pillars of the UN’s 2005 World Summit outcome document: economic development, social development, and environmental protection,” says Silent City, pointing out how these three elements are interconnected. The symposium included references to social and economic consequences of climate change, meaning ’Art and Activism’ felt like a natural progression.
The big issues
As the issue of climate change moves from being a scientific concept to something that infiltrates everyday life, people increasingly feel like they want to do something. But where do we start with such an overwhelming issue?
“It’s overwhelming because it is a crisis that affects humanity as a whole,” says Silent City, referencing Anthony Giddens’ book ‘The Politics of Climate Change’. “He explains that this is precisely one of the reasons why we cannot face up to the consequences of climate change. Society is always pressed by more ‘immediate’ concerns – a situation which is taken advantage of by politicians and policy makers who continue to distance themselves from making radical and concrete gestures towards combating the issues.”
Having said that, the past year has seen activism come back on the agenda in a big way, with widespread protests against coalition cuts and the rise of activist groups.
“[This shows] activism trying to find alternative dialogues and use inspiring visual methods to find alternative solutions. The work of Art Not Oil and Liberate Tate in the face of the BP oil spill is immensely inspiring,” says Silent City, further listing the emergence of Art Uncut, the occupation of the Slade School of Fine Art and the development of the Free School.
Sally Mumby-Croft has created a short film, ‘Edgeland’, bringing attention to how parts of the Hackney Marshes are being sacrificed for the Olympics – but this is an issue where little can be done.
“I wanted to draw attention to the spaces so often ignored or perceived as desolate. [The East Marsh] is a space shared by many people for many different purposes and yet it has been decided that this land will be temporarily paved over to make way for a car park. A space teaming with football pitches and dog walkers will become a concrete block. I think that’s terribly sad, and I think it’s immensely important that this issue is discussed. [… ] Hopefully it will encourage viewers to question their relationship and use of public space.
Ways of seeing
Cara Nahaul, the founder of Silent City, is currently a painting fellow at Jerwood arts centre. Asked about the place of activism in a typical ‘fine arts’ practice like painting, Cara points out how she sees her practice as discussing her culture and background, and exploring it within a larger political meaning.
“I feel that audiences have moved away from the assumption of expecting ‘nice’ things from contemporary painting,” says Cara. “In attempting to discuss painting with video art, we tend to think of a hierarchical relationship in which the visual language of painting came first and cinema learnt from it. Today cinema has developed a strong and autonomous language whilst painting is often criticised for its inability to reflect on contemporary society. For me, this is where I find the freedom for my own work. Whilst I am unsure about a place for activism within painting, I believe that painting can still challenge our ways of seeing.”
Art is rarely created just to be something pretty to look at, but with each added layer of meaning it gets harder for the layman to ‘get it’. Even so, it may be wise to leave reading the leaflet till last, says Emily Whitebread, who is just finishing her degree in Art Writing.
“My personal response to writing about an exhibition or an artist is not to read too much beforehand. This works particularly well if I am unfamiliar with the artist or exhibition, as I prefer to absorb as much as possible from experiencing the work without external influences. I then incorporate these reflections in my writing and only when I feel satisfied with my initial response do I then look at external sources.”
The New Educators
Shoppinghour-editor Peter Eramian has also had a hand in selecting the works that make up ‘Art and Activism’. He describes Shoppinghour as “a hub from which we spawn other collaborative projects and events”, with an ambition to mobilise and inspire creativity in response to political, cultural and social issues. Still, Shoppinghour is not just a tool for political activism, says Peter, explaining how there is a theoretical foundation to Shoppinghour:
“Both Yasushi [Tanaka Gutiez, co-founding editor] and I are basing our doctoral research on understanding the New Educators of our time: individuals and collectives inspired by a heightened critical awareness of culture and the active employment all mediums, disciplines and practices in their critique of society and ruling ideologies. We’re fascinated by the reconstruction of the activist epistemology and its potential to subvert, and hope that through Shoppinghour others too will be fascinated with us.”
The Shoppinghour magazine is currently in the phase of significant expansion, including a new distribution deal that will see the magazine sold across London. Still, the quality of content will remain the first priority:
“We’re certainly not prepared to compromise the quality of our content. But then, neither are we cynical enough to believe that the ‘larger audience’ is somehow less sophisticated,” says Peter, adding that it may be equally complacent to reject the popular and only focus on the opposite, “that which is uncommunicative in its overabundant self-important ‘sophistication’.” So while Shoppinghour wants to tackle its subjects with “substance and gravity”, we can also expect an edge that is “playful and accessible, alternative and punchy”.
Shoppinghour issue 7 – Rights
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Keep an eye on Silent City’s website for details on ‘Art and Activism’ – here.
Sally Mumby-Croft’s film Edgeland can be viewed here.
Cara Nahaul’s work can be seen at Jerwood Space until 26th June – details here.
Emily Whitebread is part of arts group X Presents – read about their projects here.
Read more about the developments at Shoppinghour on its website here.
activism, Anthony Giddens, art, Art and Activism, Art Not Oil, Art Uncut, BP oil spill, Cara Nahaul, Climate Camp, East Marsh, economy, Edgeland, Emily Whitebread, environment, Free School, Hackney Marshes, jerwood space, Liberate Tate, London Olympics, Peter Eramian, Sally Mumby-Croft, Shoppinghour, Silent City, Simon Sherlock, Slade School Of Fine Art, society, The Politics of Climate Change, UN’s 2005 World Summit, Vacuum Cleaner, X presents, Yasushi Tanaka Gutiez
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