As an outsider witnessing the environmental community battle that is now being fought by art activists and environmentalists to save the health and homes of the residents in Brooklyn, it is appear that the need for a critical arts language to define this art discipline along with art activist models that have been used in the past, would be of enormous value. Access All Areas: Conversations on Engaged Arts brings artists steps closer to accomplishing this task and providing the seeds of future models.
The discipline of community arts grew out of artists recognizing the needs of their own community. Choosing to step forward, with the purpose of bringing attention to the issues that plague their home communities and motivating the changes necessary through the use of art, is a risky business and takes courage and commitment on the part of the artists. Sacrifice is the word that is at the heart of how hard life becomes for artists when they walk this path. How can this journey be made easier for those artists? And what language and models can be left behind for the next generation?
The essays in this book examine multiple Canadian communities and how the arts have played an important role in addressing the issues of their hometowns. Throughout the book multiple terms are used to describe these “art interactions – community-engaged artistic practice, community cultural development, publicly engaged art, littoral arts, cultural democracy,”( 9) community public art, new genre public art, and the naming lists continues. Even as an artist, the difference in these terms can be somewhat confusing. And to compound the difficulty, these term are not included in the general art definitions and art term books and websites. Even locating working models to implement these art interventions is near to impossible. The first concrete step is to create a unified language accepted by the entire art community.
Throughout Access All Areas I read thoughtful words and sentences that gave me hope that at least efforts are being made to acknowledge and question the need for a unified language. The term Engaged Arts is a comfortable fit for the art interventions in this book; engagement as the umbrella with the spokes composing each of the individual terms. This one word can be the foundation to build this unified language to classify the different roles of art activism. But the words are coming too slow for this fast paced technological world.
Essayist Irwin Oostindie expresses impatience over and over again about the progress being made in his field of the community cultural arts. His words are an example of the frustration expressed by artists participating in the engaged arts. He writes, “Clearly good intentions are not enough”. Oostindie does not stop here with his criticism and suggestions. “Can community-engaged artist practioners learn critical perspective and empower their peers with constructive criticism? Can we integrate knowledge gained from decades of cultural resistance? Do we know the names of our cultural heroes?” (68) This is the information that is needed to energize and educate the discipline of art activism.
The lack of documenting and making available the knowledge gained from art interventions is what weakens the progress of art engagement, and leads to exhaustion and burnout of both artists and community members, and dissuades funding sources from giving. Art Activists templates / models based on this knowledge could shorten the learning curve of how to implement art interventions that can create an impact that educates residents and can reach political powers that control the decisions being made over how communities function. Each community artist/s could utilize the information as a guide to inspire the creative steps they take in implementing their own art interventions.
Right now, this moment, artists in Brooklyn, New York are working and implementing art interventions, as they have been for the past two years. They are creating their own words to describe what they are doing; yet they too have a need for a unified language and knowledge they could look to for inspiration. These artists understand that they and the environmentalists are at the forefront of this battle to save their community of 2.5 million residents from massive exposure to highly carcinogenic airborne contaminants. Brooklyn artists have been the residents educating their fellow residents through the use of their art. This is engaged art in action.
The role of artworks is no longer to form imaginary and utopian realities, but to actually be ways of living and models of action within the existing real, whatever scale chosen by the artist. Nicholas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics (2002)