THOUGHTS| Pathways, art and development

Posted on 28/08/2017

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Several artist colleagues are participating in projects and residencies in developing countries. My conversations with them have triggered some thinking about the ethical and political role they play in charting futures and opportunities to transform poverty and social justice, environmental sustainability and socio-technical processes. At the STEPS Summer School (University of Sussex, UK), which I attended in May, the STEPS Pathways Approach was introduced as an approach that was responsive to development by “weaving systems dynamics, governance and designs” in a research context. Researchers can sometimes work in a consultancy type relationship, not unlike other development work involving an outside agency or person working in a local context to co-create alternative pathways and futures, somehow facilitative. This can involve practices, policy and processes. Artist projects and residencies are also grounded in the dynamic of an outsider or outsiders stepping into a local situation. The residency is a particular kind of program design based on providing an artist with a period of time to produce work in an institutionally or locationally embedded studio context. Sometimes that residency is attached to an event, lab or a project. Some scaffolding and networking are provided to support the resident artist. Their process and work, like those of development agencies and researchers, can be intended to elicit positive outcomes like empowerment, education, capacity-building, well-being and, ultimately, progress. None of these outcomes are necessarily constitutive of sustainability or futuring, and in many cases can seem to be more targeted to ‘less unsustainable’.

Artists are often upheld as a particular kind of actor in a socio-cultural system – social change agents and social innovators – with many developing important social projects such as improving the environments in which the poor live, developing infrastructures serving informal communities, catalysing community-based micro-enterprises, developing niche technologies or technological processes, or enhancing food security for the poor. There are many ways to participate in artist-led projects in development contexts, and the authors of the Pathways Approach stress that “simple blueprints, technological fixes, or the transfer of technologies and regulations developed elsewhere are unlikely to work – and often create further problems”. Localisation and impact are relationally enmeshed in dynamic systems. Yet, as the Pathways Approach acknowledges, in development, there remains a tendency to import ‘solutions’ from one context into another, without considering system boundaries and structures and complex framings. And while there is much diversity in the arts and cultural programs, in a globalised artworld, fundamentally similar types of programs, program designs, institutions, and structures tend to prevail everywhere.

Underlying the Pathways Approach is a normative definition of sustainability that “links it both to overarching goals of poverty reduction and social justice, and to the specific ways that different groups define and refine these goals in particular settings.” That is, there is no Sustainability unless poverty reduction and social justice are central to it, as both a normative and ethical disposition, and understood or practiced in ways that are responsive to the dynamics of particular settings. That is, reflexivity is vital. Terms like “humbling” are used, somewhat unreflexively, to describe the experience of working across marked differences between artists and host communities in developing countries. It may be possible to look to the ‘design for development’ or humanitarian design movements for indications about ethical and transformative practices or legacies in a situated creative or maker practice. It may also be possible to develop a kind of practical care ethics through artistic engagement. In this sense, it would be important to address questions of “how does what we are doing, as artists, address Sustainability and social justice in this setting and into the future?” in any particular project.

When such a Sustainability is at the core of artist engagements in projects and residencies in developing countries and communities, then contestation of sustainable development goals and, ultimately, ‘trading-off’ can be better understood as political actions and choices. Many of the case studies examined and discussed in the STEPS Summer School were grounded in agriculture, health, urban poverty and natural resources. Can the Pathways Approach also be applied to trace pathways for artist practices and residencies as reflexively drawn into relationships with communities, ecologies and places in developing contexts? The stories I hear from my colleagues are mixed – deep immersion to address housing needs, to disconnection from and disinterest in the local community, to resource constraints inhibiting the artist to contribute meaningfully (for them and their host). Other examples filter through my social media streams on a daily basis. Importantly, while there is a need to be mindful of distinctions between concepts like creativity and art, it is fruitless to be paralysed by those distinctions. They are not the same, they are not commensurate. Pathways are about motion and change – part of that is challenging the blockages and the discourses that exert so much influence. The Pathways Approach also discusses the implications of reflexive knowledge indicating that there is a more open ended and transformative approach to knowledge, discourse and meaning of the sort that art can bring through other sensory and material languages and experiences.

I have spent 20+ years of my 30+ year working life in the creative industries, particularly the arts. There were times during the STEPS Summer School when, strangely, ‘art’ was being made in a relational and reflexive way – art like social sculpture, art like storytelling. It was art because it was doing and making the present in a new or different way through the processual aesthetics of relations, not just the politics. Saying this does not detract from the historical and cultural importance of works by artists that are the stock in trade for an exhibitionary industrial complex. The second nature of these times and spaces of co-creation and meaning-making saw them drawn into the academic institution as a tool or a form to be appropriated. Art is not a tool, it is part of human living and culture. It is enmeshed in pathways understood as “the particular directions in which interacting social, technological and environmental systems co-evolve over time”. This also indicates that some creative tensions are evident – through which to cultivate a transformative, ethical and artistic sensibility or method in/through/with the Pathways Approach that can be meaningful for Sustainability.

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