VAN May/June 2011: Unabashedly Instrumental

Artut Zmjewski 'Two Monuments' (2009) Video Still
Artut Zmjewski 'Two Monuments' (2009) Video Still

JASON OAKLEY REPORTS ON – The ethics of collaboration within socially engaged arts practice – A SEMINAR DEVISED BY THE FIRE STATION ARTISTS’ STUDIOS, DUBLIN AND HOSTER BY THE NATIONAL COLLEGE OF ART AND DESIGN (11 MARCH 2011)

Aesthetics, ethics, participation, collaboration, authorship and power dynamics – whenever art with political aims or some kind of social or community remit is being discussed, this heady brew of concepts is brought to the boil. The most frequent outcome is a simmering divergence of opinions around these ideas; along with anxious hand-wringing about what should, could and can be done, to address the ‘problem’ of highly educated professional artists trying to speak for the disenfranchised and underprivileged groups who are usually the subjects of such projects. What can also percolate is a sense of shame and guilt about how the supposedly ‘empowered’ art world is inconsequential in the face of actual social problems. And so, despite frequently claiming the contrary, contemporary art often has to resign itself to its autonomy – cut off from, ignored and often derided by society at large.

This messy and curdled situation was addressed by a seminar on the work of the Polish artist Artur Zmijewski entitled The ethics of collaboration within socially engaged arts practice. The event took place on Friday 11 March and was devised by The Fire Station Artists’ Studios, Dublin and was hosted by NCAD. In 2008 The Fire Station Artists’ Studios commissioned Zmijewski to develop a project in Dublin; and the result was a video work entitled Two Monuments (2009). At the end of last year, this work and another Zmijewski piece, the 20 screen video work Democracies (2009) were shown at the RHA (19 Nov – 22 Dec 2010).

Artur Zmijewski’s work stages and records what are often ethically troubling scenarios. He describes his model of working as a ‘social studio’ process, whereby social situations supply the materials and content for the fabrication of his works. The results often make for uncomfortable viewing. His video work 80064 (2004) documented the artist persuading an elderly Auschwitz survivor to have their now faded concentration camp tattoo restored. While the sardonically titled Democracies (2008) presents footage of a head spinning variety of demonstrations, counter demonstrations and other forms of political activism, representing every ideological hue – including a protest against the Israeli occupation in the West bank, a Loyalist parade in Belfast, a re-enactment of the Warsaw Uprising, the funeral of an extreme right wing leader in Austria, and a crowd of German and Turkish football fans.

The event at NCAD took the form of a panel discussion and a screening of Two Monuments. The panellists were Dave Beech (UK writer / artist), Dr Aine O’Brien (Director of the Forum on Migration & Communications FOMACS) and Jesse Jones (artist). The chair was Liz Burns (Development Manager, Fire Station Artists’ Studios) who set the basic co-ordinates of the discussion, citing Claire Bishop’s 2006 Artforum article The Social Turn: Collaboration and its Discontents as identifying how contemporary art practices, were increasingly being judged by the ethical quality of their participatory processes; rather than aesthetic values of the quality of the production of the finished work.

Liz Burns explained how Zmijewski’s practice sought to side step a lot of the conventional baggage associated with ethics and notions of participation in socially engaged practice. Burns pointed to the influence of Professor Grzegorz Kowalski, under whom the artist had studied at Warsaw Art Academy (1990 – 1995). Kowalski’s classes stressed a non-judgemental curiosity, akin to the impartial scientific detachment of anthropology, rather than working from a position of having a supposedly ‘ethical’ agenda, based on attempting to right wrongs and so on.

Burns drew particular attention to Zmijewski’s essay/manifesto The Applied Social Arts (1), in which the artist calls on art to abandon its self-depreciating acceptance of its ‘autonomous’ position; and instead actively pursue a role alongside other reality shapers such as science, politics and even organised religion. Zmijewski outlines in the text, that in order to achieve this goal, art practices should be re-configured as types of algorithms. That is, rationally planned procedures devised and carried out  – just as they are in mathematics, computing and other related scientific disciplines – in order to achieve specific goals.

This might provoke a sharp intake of breath in some readers. Yes, indeed, Zmijewski’s work suggests that art should become more instrumentalised; and endeavour to be very clear about its modes of operation. It’s only by doing so, Zmijewski argues, that society’s categorisation of the artist – as he puts it as “… an idiot savant of sorts; someone with interesting and important things to say, but no idea how these things came to them or what use to put them to” – can be resisted and countered (2).

Artur Zmjewski 'Two Monuments' (2009) Video Still
Artur Zmjewski 'Two Monuments' (2009) Video Still

Unabashed instrumentalism is very apparent in Two Monuments. Zmijewski’s starting point for this work was a specific invitation in 2008 from the Fire Station to address the changing nature of Polish-Irish relations and the labour market. At this time the previously booming Irish economy was beginning its decline; and immigrant workforces, from Poland and other Eastern European countries, were feeling the impact. Zmijewski set about contriving a ‘social studio’ situation, whereby these issues – and indeed tensions – could be encouraged to arise. Over a series of visits to Dublin in 2008 – 2009 Zmijewski invited Polish and Irish unemployed men and women to take part in a series of workshops, where they were given the perhaps slightly cynical brief to working together to construct their own workers’ monuments. Two Monuments comprises edited documentation of this fraught process; and shows unemployed Irish and Polish men making one sculpture, while unemployed Irish and Polish women make another. As Liz Burns wrote of the project “while both groups complete their tasks, and make sculpture promoting equality and co-operation between their respective countries, the meta-language within the film suggests a certain inability to communicate and articulate” (3).

As a filmmaker herself, Dr Aine O’Brien declared an interest in exploring the complexities and contradictions of social documentary methods, but expressed doubts about how affective Zmijewski’s works were in this regard. O’Brien’s presentation posed some pointed questions. What was to be gained by the separation of aesthetics and ethics in this discussion? Why the defensiveness about the authorship and crafting of these works by the artist?

O’Brien saw Two Monuments as a missed opportunity for both unpacking the power relationships between Zmijewski and the Irish and Polish workers; as well as an exploration of the artist’s methodology and motives. In her view, the levels of participation in the work were low; and O’Brien wondered if the participants had any involvement in the editing of the film. In her view the work lacked a real sense of anthropological engagement. However, speculating that the artist would no doubt enjoy and appreciate the seminar as a ‘social studio’ situation in itself, O’Brien did acknowledge the provocative nature of this work, along with Zmijewski’s eloquence about his practice in his writings.

Of course, participation and collaboration shouldn’t necessarily be regarded as somehow virtuous or desirable in themselves, they represented a wide spectrum of possible levels of coercion. David Beech typified the art world’s current obsession with socially engaged work; as an unthinking entreaty for “better, deeper, stronger and more”; seemingly ignorant of the fact that monstrous events require participation and collaboration as much as virtuous ones. Beech wryly noted that totalitarian states are far more ‘participatory’, than liberal democracies. Echoing Zmijewski’s concern about ethics clouding objectivity, Beech argued for a shift from a concern about the rights of the individual; to a more collective ethics of emancipation. As he put it, the liberal notion of the sovereignty of the individual, often did so at the expense of the first person plural.

Jesse Jones saw the emphasis placed on the viewer as co-author of meanings in Zmijewski’s work as crucial. Jones saw both the artist and viewer as complicit as both producers and transgressors of ethics. Jones stressed how his work deliberately undercuts any expectations of arriving at a catharsis or resolution. For Jones, Zmijewski’s frustration of this process raised productive problems for the spectator, making us consider and account to our ethical understanding about what might be the fairness or truth of what was being represented.

As the commissioner of Two Monuments Liz Burns was able to provide further background information on the project. She explained that the participants were paid for their time; and encouraged to treat their role in the project as a job. As well as this it was made clear to the participants that they would have no role in editing the final work. O’Brien found it problematic that the participants were paid – and wondered exactly what their job description was? Jones and Beech were in agreement that at the very least this offered a critique to the prevailing ethos of ‘soft-capitalism’ whereby so much labour goes unrecognised and un-rewarded, in a culture of increasing volunteerism.

Beech conceded that it was possible to look at Two Monuments, and say that Zmijewski had failed to address huge social inequalities. However, his view was that ultimately the power imbalances and ethical dilemmas in the film should be seen as simply reflecting those that exist in the world. Jones likewise argued that Two Monuments was a fiction, a construction; and whatever was lacking in the ethics of the film could only be fixed in lived experience.

This seminar offered a thorough exploration of the ethics of Zmijewski’s processes. But what of the aesthetics? Zmijewski’s videos have a deliberately ‘anti-aesthetic’ look – they employ pretty standard, journalistic, utilitarian TV news camera work and editing techniques; attention is focused on content, not form. This stance in itself might have been interesting to explore, particularly with two filmmakers on the panel – Jesse Jones and Dr Aine O’Brien. For example, Jones’ work, while equally as ideologically engaged as Zmijewski’s, utilises a well crafted cinematic approach, employing professional production crews, soundtracks, costumes, locations, casts of actors and other performers etc. It might have been fascinating to compare such a differing – yet nonetheless political – approach with Zmijewski’s work.

However, a strong conclusion to the discussion could be drawn from David Beech’s declaration that ultimately, the issue of authorship in Zmijewski’s social studio model of practice, was something of a ‘red herring’. As Beech put it “culling authors changes nothing, saying everyone is an author changes everything”.

In his essay Uncompensated Trauma: On Art, Technique and Division in the publication produced by the Fire Station to accompany Two Monuments, Beech observed that “… there is a rift in the social relations of the work. And it is not a failing. What is clear in Artur Zmijewski’s work is that the universality of the spectator has dissolved, its hegemony dissipated in a world – and an art world – characterised by dissensus, conflict, antagonism and trauma.” (4) In short, any of the issues we might have as viewers with Zmijewski’s practice – be they aesthetic or ethical – can ultimately be read as an urgent call for an end to passive spectatorship, and a shift to real action and engagement in the complexities of the world.

Jason Oakley

Notes

1. This text first published in 2007 in the left-wing Polish journal Kyytka Polityczna, is reproduced in an English translation the publication of the same name, produced by the Fire Station Artists’ Studios to accompany Zmijewski’s Two Monuments project.

2 From The Applied Social Arts, re-published in English in The Applied Social Arts: Artur Zmijewski. Fire Station Artists’ Studios 2010. The publication can be purchased through www.firestation.ie/projects/publications

3. Liz Burns Introduction. The Applied Social Arts: Artur Zmijewski. Fire Station Artists’ Studios 2010.

4. Dave Beech Uncompensated Trauma: On Art, Technique and Division. The Applied Social Arts: Artur Zmijewski. Fire Station Artists’ Studios 2010.

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