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No Boundaries 2017 – A Symposium on the Role of Arts and Culture

Counterpoints Arts Co-directors, Áine O’Brien and Almir Koldzic, participated at this year’s No Boundaries conference (28-29 March), addressing the transformative potential of art as a catalyst for social change. During this presentation they reflected on the power of lived experience, the need for creative alliances, cross-collaboration, and the role of art as a tool of social critique, working from within the ‘cracks of political conjuncture’.

Almir Koldzic: We are going to start with our belief, which is really simple. We think that art has a hugely important role to play in generating social change; in questioning and imagining new ways of how we can live together. We act upon that belief by running an organisation called Counterpoints Arts, which is all about engaging with refugee and migrant experiences through arts and cultural programmes.

From the start of the organisation, we have looked at migration, plus histories of displacement and diversity – as a new norm and as a given. And this has shaped the ways in which we commission artists, to support them, and to address the lived legacies of a post-colonial UK.

Our work has many different elements but broadly speaking it is about developing international infrastructures and support networks for artists who are developing their work in this field. It is also about running a national festival  celebrating refugee contributions, producing spaces for learning and producing exhibitions, events, residencies, commissions – and we often work in collaboration with mainstream institutions.

In fact, every aspect of our work is done collaboratively.  We are invested in this idea of creating alliances to the extent that everything we do is in partnership with people working in the arts, education, in advocacy, NGO and community sectors.

Áine O’Brien: But the truth is we haven’t made our own luck. We’ve thrived through the support of others; working in solidarity with other organisations across a range of sectors – many of whom are not necessarily working within the arts; many of whom might not fully share our value system, but we are very challenged to be working alongside them. It’s the richness of this collective struggle to improve things in the arts landscape where things can begin to change.

We want to give you a few examples of work that we are commissioning at the minute, which we’re going to take on tour to different localities. These commissions were launched at Tate Exchange, a flagship institution that allowed us to bring together a rich layering of collaborations between artists, activists, architects, academics, designers and audiences to begin to ask that question “Who Are We?” – a loaded, timely question and not easily answered.

The programme invited us all to explore what it means to live between and across borders; in a time of global movement, connections and disconnections, what does it mean to say ‘Who Are We?” – and who gets to decide?

But we want to clarify that we don’t see the arts as a magical salve for change. ‘Arts as a vehicle for social change’ when loosely bandied about remains simply an empty signifier; an empty slogan. But it is true to say that many of the artists we are working with have stepped very bravely and boldly into the space or vacuum where politics appears to have failed.

What is interesting, what is exciting about their work is it’s almost impossible to pin them down using the usual arts formulas and language.

Almir Koldzic: So one good example is Refugees Welcome by Alketa Xhafa Mripa, who will travel in her Luton van to engage people in everyday conversations around welcoming. Alketa performs her memories of being warmly welcomed as a refugee, coming from Kosovo in the 90’s and uses these memories as a prompt for conversations she wants to have with people who come into her van to have tea with her. There’s a deceptive simplicity to her work but it’s about engagement, it’s about listening and it’s about performing. Whenever we try to define what she does we would try with words like ‘activism’, with ‘performance’, with ‘moving installation’, etc.,  yet Alketa embraces all those labels and adds a few more.

Alketa1

Lots of work that we do is fuelled by what Eve Ensler calls ‘artivism’ which is when: “edges are pushed, imagination is freed, and new language emerges altogether.”

Another artist is Richard Dedomenici. Our collaboration with him goes back to his now relatively famous attempt to change perceptions of refugees in the UK by setting up a refugee boy band. The process was filmed by Channel 4 and was turned into a documentary called Fame Asylum, still available online.

Richard’s latest piece called Shed Your Fears is a non-denominational, non-hierarchical booth, into which two strangers are invited to come and share their innermost fears and confess them to each other. Richard designed this booth as a response to the recent social political upheavals and the prominent role that fear has played. So he is inviting audiences to come into this space, share their fears in order to hopefully transcend and come to the point where they can also share their dreams and aspirations.Richard Dedomenici: Shed Your Fears Richard is another artist who is difficult to slot in because he produces work that is often street-based, subversive, very funny and accessible to the extent that many people don’t even see it as art, which in turn works really well with his artistic approach, as he puts it, to create “the kind of uncertainty that leads to possibility”.

Áine O’Brien: Likewise, Gil-Mualem Doron and his New Union Flag project, has all the hallmarks of “artivism”. Gil is  a visual participatory artist, positioning his “New Union Flag” in a context of conversations beyond the gallery and across different community settings, such as public rallies, DIY school workshops, and also virtual communities.

The New Union Flag by Gil Mualem Doron

It is an interesting project because Gil is not afraid of entering into the political space of lobbying as a way to engender public conversations about cultural identity – with memories of Paul Gilroy’s 1984 There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack. Gil has taken social engagement on to the next level, and did so at the Tate Exchange when he launched a petition to start conversations about the constitution of the official Union Jack flag. It was a brave move and an interesting one, since it promises to open up conversations right across the country.

But with this work comes new challenges, new ways of contesting outdated language, some of which we think is reflected in the notion of “excellence”. What do we mean by excellence? What do we mean by excellent art?

We think that there is a way to embrace the current political situation and to think, do and talk about the arts differently. We think we need to re-frame our understanding of excellent art so that it becomes more reflective of some of the methodologies that many of these artists are putting forward; but also more reflective of the diverse communities which we are living in, many of whom are made up of migrants.

Also linked to this is the notion of “quality”. What do we mean by quality when we use it as a metric?

For Counterpoints Arts the quality of a piece of work can be measured in numerous ways. But specifically, it can be measured through the collaborative process between an artist and participants, and very pressingly through the depth of public engagement, including the lived effect and legacy of  work in places and in neighbourhoods and localities.

Almir Koldzic: Another term that we would like to reframe is “activism”. We often talk at Counterpoints Arts about being committed to producing work that’s of great quality and relevance and yet unashamedly activist in its intention. For us this idea of activism promises to signify a whole range of things – it could be about producing work that is connecting communities; generating compassion; or support for NGO’s, or addressing blind sports in mainstream art institutions, or the ways in which we address our past and present.

Áine O’Brien: We also want to introduce the notion of a “cooperative commission” and to reimagine the architecture of the commissioning process, so that different local stakeholders can play a vital and equal part in the development of public engagement and a piece of work.

Let’s also push the notions of boundaries and borders; it is the current moment we are living through that makes this question quite urgent: to rethink the very ownership of commissions. The reality is we are increasingly collaborating with partners across the UK and Europe – despite Brexit. This cross-border, Pan-European approach needs to be sustained and secured and we need to underpin this way of working as we move forward, regardless of what’s happening politically across the UK.

Almir Koldzic: We think that artists shouldn’t and cannot act alone to resolve deep-seated social problems or public challenges  – be it inclusion, integration or racism. But what we think art can do is provide a non-threatening framework where people are invited to come and learn more about others; participate in shared activities and hopefully as a result of this process deepen their sympathy or find new ways of connecting to what might seem different or distant from them.

Many of the artists we work with are well trained in negotiating multiple cultural perspectives and can provide us with unique perspectives on how to imagine and create a more inclusive society.

We are committed to see that these voices do become part of our institutional thinking but in a way that does not become simply ‘one-off ventures’ or box ticking.

Áine O’Brien: As some of the previous presenters have said, this work cannot be separated from the corridors of power. Let’s really make change by bringing these voices, these methodologies, this risk-taking and way of working, right across institutional spaces through artistic programming; to senior governance level on boards and not just at service delivery and simply “outreach”. This has to change very quickly.

We want to conclude with the words of a political and creative thinker – somebody whose voice is missing from the current debate, and that’s the late Stuart Hall.

When Hall spoke about “political conjuncture”, we can remind ourselves of what he said back then and how it might allow us to move forward and make sense of the immediate present.

In Hall’s words: What are the circumstances in which we find ourselves, how do they arise, what forces are sustaining them and what forces are available to change them?

We think the arts can play a pivotal role in working within the cracks of this political conjuncture – perhaps even more than ever before.

What we would like to end with is an example from Gil-Mualem Doron doing his art work engaging in this political conjuncture with a re-imagining of the Union Jack through his “New Union Flag” project.

Who Are We 2017: The New Union Flag Project (2015 – ) / The Stall (2017), by Gil Mualem-Doron (subtitled) from Counterpoints Arts on Vimeo.before.