Reclamation?

I’m trying to make sense of our creek-walking, particularly in terms of its relationship to more clearly environmental restoration based activities. We have tended not to intervene in creek environments. We have walked through them. We have engaged in conversations, we have made observations, we have drawn maps, we have occasionally collected stuff, but we have not attempted anything useful, reconstructive or site-specific (no sculptural diggings, no small mounds, no arrangements of twigs or trash, no bridges, benches, no clean-ups, etc.). But is that to say that none of these things are possible – that practical, imaginative, worthwhile interventions are forbidden?

The recent history of Socially Engaged Art (SEA) practice includes many examples of just such practically geared, social-environmentally restorative action – so there is nothing actually preventing us from doing this kind of thing, and recently we have had walk participants who have expressed an interest in renovating and reactivating creek areas. If we were to pursue these ideas then would we doing anything different than many other community groups do? Where would the art portion of the project sit precisely?

My sense is that what we are doing – as art – only makes sense within the context of debates within contemporary art. There is actually nothing about the practical action – whether it is walking, cleaning up, building stuff or whatever that plainly marks its distinction from any form of socially-geared community action. In some ways what we do becomes art via negativa – through all the things that we don’t do: we don’t make objects, we don’t produce work that exists comfortably in a gallery, we don’t produce work that resembles conventional art. More positively our work, in line with SEA generally, struggles to find new contexts and a new social relevance for art. It experiments with new modes of activism that have a holistic social dimension and that resist being tagged exclusively as art. They are art and non-art at once. In this manner they insist upon the uotopian promise of art versus its cultural and institutional confinement into a special sphere. Our aim is not so much to drag a bunch of impertinent stuff within art as to decolonise art itself – to question its sense of itself, of its proper modalities and sphere of being.

But still we hang on to the notion of art. Why is this? Is this only because of our involvement in contemporary debates about the nature and possibility of art? Is this only because we want to draw art into relation with activism? I’m wondering whether there is still not some other residual sense of art that we are determined to hold on to, but can no longer precisely envisage or name – that remains like some legacy appendage that we no longer make adequate use of, but can still not altogether abandon. Just to guess at what this might be, or at least a portion of what this might be – could it be poetry? Not written poetry, but more a non-prosaic relation to any kind of activity, whether it be catching a bus, cleaning the house, or getting involved in some small scale community activism. Of course this also entails shifting the sense of poetry, which now also paradoxically discovers a relation to the practical and prosaic.

But poetry is not quite right. In any case that is just a deflection from one impenetrable term (art) to another (poetry), but ‘the holistic’ might be more useful. Art perhaps represents an adherence to interests that won’t permit themselves to be ordinarily restricted, that spread outwards.

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