Being at a university is a jump back into an academic environment from recent time and work at a community drop-in. And I’ve realize that I have a habit, well actually a few, that don’t quite fit in to academia very well. The one I was thinking of though is that in any sort of discussion after expressing my thought or opinion on something I follow it up with this mumbled sentence “but, I don’t know, it might be something else”. And it really is this habit – in the same way that I picked up the word “like” as conversation filler years ago when working in high schools. And I have gotten comments related to this that all tell me not to doubt myself and that I have to speak with more authority. The commentators are wrong when they think that I am doubting myself, but they are right when they mention authority. It’s a habit I started when I was working with people who had all sorts of experts in their lives telling them the facts about their own lives and I don’t try to get rid of the habit because I know that showing my authority is not the most helpful thing in many situations I have found myself in so far.
I got a degree in social work stuff about 13 or 14 years ago now and have done that a lot longer than the time I’ve considered myself an artist. Almost all that time was spent working and living with people who experience fairly extreme poverty, I recently read the term “deep poverty” to discuss this multi-generational poverty that most of the people I know are living with the causes and effects of. One of the things I’ve learnt in this work, after I got over myself and worry about doing a good job and past my hang ups about how I was making the world a better place, was that power dynamics need to be addressed with so much more than the skills of empathetic listening and body language that I learnt in school. And I know that power dynamics are specific to who we are and who we are interacting with – and just like I am not an expert on someone’s life in poverty I am not an expert on situations others might be engaging in so I’m going to talk about some of the things I’ve learnt and reflect on my own experiences in doing so.
As I’ve spent time in art, and looking into the writing, listening and getting inspired by the conversations about art addressing power I realize a few things. The first is that we, as artists, have a lot of power. The fact that I can talk today and also on multiple occasions during the year just because I’m an artist – I sometimes still feel shocked by that. And for whatever reason, even in the midst of comments about how art really isn’t work, their child could do it, or whatever, artists still have this social power and are offered platforms to expand on it. So part of addressing power in art work involves an acknowledgement of this.
Another thing I’ve realized is that my power is demonstrated by the fact that when I enter a community it is by choice, and it is all about my choice: I choose how much of myself to share and how much to be guarded about, I choose when something is too much and I want to walk away, or when I’m just too tired or dealing with too much to engage on a particular day. And in projects I always am working with varying degrees of how much I control and how much I let go. And if it is someone else making the choices and I don’t like them I can choose to walk away.
There are ways I try to diminish some of the power that I come with, ways beyond this habit of speech I’ve developed. One of those is that I look for what I don’t know. There are so many things in place to minimize the idea that those on the margins have knowledge worth sharing: the constant need to deal with beaurocracy to get their basic needs met, the large scale societal stereotypes that dictate how the majority of society looks at them, the social policies that assume these stereotypes as well as create them, and the system that requires that people must find charitable organizations on a regular basis just to provide the most basic needs to their families and/or themselves. So when I am hanging out with people I don’t just look for what I don’t know, I admit what I don’t know and ask to learn. Hopefully by doing this I am acknowledging a truth outside of the systems people have to deal with everyday and I am in a tiny gesture being truthful about who I really am and who the person I may be lucky enough to learn from really is too. And what better way to learn about something than from someone who knows about it.
Another choice I make is my choice of language. This isn’t too hard for me as I’ve always been good at skipping the big words and inferring meaning when they do come up. It has become more and more clear to me lately that language is this tool of power. And I think that as strong beliefs about education being the key to liberation, etc. are talked about we forget that it can also be trapping. And that maybe education being liberating doesn’t mean in the form it totally exists now. But going into these details would be an aside….
It’s true – sometimes it is just exciting to discover a word that exactly describes what you had been wanting to say. But, when I use that word I am deciding who is on the in group and who is out. And I don’t want you to think that I am assuming when I spend time with friends who live in pretty extreme poverty that they automatically have a smaller vocabulary than me, but rather than looking at what they know or don’t I can look at what using a word is about for me. For example – the work ephemera – great word with doesn’t have any thesaurus entries –but I know that in many crowds using this word in will leave people out. And while there may not be one word to describe it what stops me from saying “the stuff that was only used for a short time and then left.” No one has to feel uncomfortable and my story can carry on including everyone. And I can speak for my own experience where I find myself somewhere that I can’t infer what all the words mean and as I sit on the outside I begin to increasingly doubt myself and the chance of me speaking in that situation gets smaller and smaller.
One of the choices that I have been working harder and harder to make is the choice to learn. Beyond admitting what I don’t know this involves a reorienting of myself and how I’ve been told to approach situations. This may not be the same for all of us but I feel that a genuine desire to learn from an individual involves a minimizing of myself. And in situations where the power is slanted in favour of myself it means that I have to work harder at examining my own stereotypes, prejudices and conditioning as a product of this society and also the places I have found myself in my life. I am interested in socially engaged art as a way to look at issues of where power is in society and as a tool to bring that to the attention of someone else who might want to do something about it too.
So, true learning involves a willingness for me to examine myself on an ongoing basis. This also means I have to reevaluate the ways I have thought I was learning before – for example, I do most of my learning through talking about things. Sometimes it takes me a bit longer to realize that by just sitting and watching for an hour I have been offered the greatest opportunity to learn what it is like to not be so in control all the time and stressed about what I cannot change. But this involves stopping myself, letting others take the lead and being willing to wait. I mentioned empathetic listening earlier and while I do think this is an invaluable skill and one of the first things you should be able to do before going into a situation with large power indifferences, it also can assume this idea that discourse is where change takes place. This is an assumption that I would say comes from power – if I can’t make the change right away talking about it will for sure make it happen. And it still assumes where change needs to be made and how it happens.
When I am in communities looking to learn – the true learning that is about transforming myself, not looking for the change someone else needs to make – then hopefully I also learn more about issues of power and then apply this to my art practice.
One thing I have been working with, and I know for me transforms how I have looked at these things, is bringing what I have learnt back into situations where the power is more equal. And I’m hoping maybe this will have something to offer to the conversations about how art deals with power.
It has been teaching me even more about my own biases and barriers, because sometimes I can recognize the things that I think I have a right to when I see others reflecting the same behaviour. I have a lot of interest in making sure people are included when I am in communities where power has strategically been removed from individuals and groups of people. I don’t have quite the same concerns everywhere. Just to have a bit of an example, and not to shame the person involved because I recognize myself within it. I mentioned that I don’t like to feel on the outside of things because of words being used that I don’t understand. It makes me feel small. The other day I was hanging out at a drop in centre just drinking coffee with someone, and we realized that we both had marginal French skills and so decided to try to practice. A weekly volunteer came and joined our table and within 30 seconds of not understanding what we were saying suggested that we should switch to English so she could be included in the conversation as well. I saw myself and how impatient I can become in situations where I’m on the outside of something and with a small change that I can see, I know it could be different. I also saw how different this expectation was from the majority of people there. In a room full of over 100 people who come for a cooked meal that they have to stand in line for, get no advance notice of what the food will be so they can decide if it is something they want to eat, and where they are at the mercy of someone deciding to serve a bit late because they need to answer their phone, or a volunteer deciding to serve seconds early because they want to get the dishes done and go home leaving the late arriver without food – the place is almost always free of conflict and full of thankfulness. At that moment of wanting to be on in on the conversation I can’t help but think of a room full of 100 people regularly having more agency being presented the same circumstances.
How can this lack of power be something I can translate into my art; how could art provide an experience that could evoke greater understanding on the part of those that might be in a position to influence some of the societal stereotypes that remove power?
Being in spaces, being in helping positions – I have learnt how much I throw around the word vulnerability and how much of a choice it is for me. I have a place to escape to when I am feeling too vulnerable, I have people close to me that I can reach out to that will let me express whatever I need. Spending time in space and with people accessing free meals, food banks, etc. I have learnt a lot about vulnerability and what it really is: something you don’t have a choice about it. And even when you are ignored, shot down or dismissed you still have to keep putting yourself out there because your need is that great. and so one of the questions I’ve began to explore in my practice is what it means to bring this into places with more equal power, and specifically the art world. What is the reaction when people used to making choices about vulnerability are confronted with it when they are not expecting it? What happens when a curator coming for a studio visit steps into a project that puts them in the centre of this? I can say from experience that it seems to unbalance people a bit, and they reach to hang on to what they are sure about and reinforce that. I’m sure we can all think of situations when we are confronted with someone else’s need – and I wonder what continuing to look for what I can learn about the true meaning of these words from people I have gotten to know and bring this learning back into the art world can mean for power? Could it throw off the safety we surround ourselves with – the safety that keeps us from acting on unjust power structures?
The other side of vulnerability is trust, and hope. And while I have learnt what vulnerability looks like I have also learnt what it means to trust. As I have seen people told no again and again I still see them asking, often not for themselves but for the person beside them who is in need. And I see the person who has lost all their trust in a system having that restored – not by the person who manages to say yes – but by the person who has less than them who is willing to step up and fight for that other person’s needs. I know this picture of trust has taught me that until I learn to express vulnerability I am also not learning a lot about what it means to trust. It has also helped to transform some of those stereotypes that have been in my head about what people have to offer and what sort of contribution people are making. And so, how can this be brought back into the art world?
I’ve tried just telling these stories and I think that it maybe makes people give change the next time they are asked for it on the street, or maybe they become a volunteer for a few months – but how can these learnings truly impact communities on both sides of the power dynamics? I keep being hopeful that art, in the power it has been given to offer unique ways of looking at the world, has an answer. Hopeful that if we look at marginalized communities as places that might have something to offer us about what change needs to take place in ourselves and in society, and that if we bring this into the art world both will have the possibility of being transformed. I know it is a process that is starting to do so for me.
2013•open engagement conference•portland