Text and Images by Ekene Okobi, PG Community Ambassador
studying MSc Applied Psychology in Fashion at London College of Fashion
On 6 March, 2018, The second edition of the 2017/2018 Postgraduate Community Reading Group Series Passagens was held at Chelsea College of Arts. Passagens is a cross-disciplinary postgraduate reading series created to foster dialogue on migration by London College of Fashion Professor and Chair of Art and the Environment Lucy Orta. The presenter for this particular session was Áine O’Brien, co-director of Counterpoint Arts.
O’Brien began by challenging the popular notion of the individualistic artist, working without context or a sense of the larger community. She suggested an alternative: the artist as political agent for whom there is no clear distinction between when their art ends, and their activism begins. She used the term “artivist” to describe those who engage in what is typically described as Social Practice Art, or participatory art forms that engage viewers and communities in dialogue about political issues and/or controversial/current events. O’Brien went on to explain the role that Counterpoint Arts plays in this process, which she described as threefold: 1) Mentoring artists, and smaller collectives working in the field of social practice art, 2) Working with larger, or what O’Brien describes as “flagship” organizations to create programming designed to bring marginalized voices and communities in line with these more established institutions’ mission and outreach, and 3) Facilitating educational experiences that are dynamic, democratic and provoke reflection.
O’Brien admitted that Counterpoint Arts often navigates within a grey area in which attempts to answer questions about appropriate place, participant and producer often reveal more ambiguity than they resolve. For instance: how important are established art institutions in validating Counterpoint Arts’ work? Or, if Counterpoint Arts produces a show for the V&A (for example), is that show reaching their target audience? Who is their target audience? And how important is it for Counterpoint Arts to support and produce projects that promote debate as well as empathetic dialogue? Must everyone who attends an event or show come away with a sense of catharsis? How important is it to make space for, or even encourage dissension in, and about their exhibitions? O’Brien said that her organization continually seeks to strike the right balance by being careful, critical and intentional about where and how the work they support is shown: meaning that they aren’t always looking to partner with flagship cultural institutions, but also seek partnerships and funding to work with community organizations in London and around the UK that will enable them to be accessed by all kinds of people–especially those who may not feel welcome in established cultural institutions, or who may not necessarily share the political views of the artists whom Counterpoint Arts supports. According to O’Brien wrestling with such questions is a necessary and ongoing part of the work.
After showing video clips of projects featured in the 2017 edition of Who Are We?, a week of participatory art that Counterpoint Arts produces in partnership with the Tate Exchange. O’Brien fielded questions and comments from Passagens’ attendees. One person objected to the language used by artist Alketa Xhafa Mripa to describe Refugees Welcome, a piece the latter created for the exhibition; a tail lift van meant to symbolize the many and often illegal crossings and journeys made by migrants and refugees over national borders. Without defending or detracting from Mripa’s work, O’Brien maintained that statements made in the videos she’d shown were the artists’ words, and not necessarily representative of Counterpoint Arts’ stance as an organization. Another attendee offered up a critique about the validity of Counterpoint Arts’ projects that included questions such as: are the flagship institutions with whom the organization partners appropriate venues for the subject matter? Is the money spent on these projects an appropriate use of resources in attempts to address issues of migration and the plight of refugees?, and is participatory art the best way to address the politics of migration and refugees?–sparking further debate that raised further questions such as: Why shouldn’t artists be overtly political in their work?, Why shouldn’t institutions such as the Tate be more responsive to the changing demographics of urbanized UK and Europe?, and how do organizations such as Counterpoint Arts enable artists from marginalized communities to gain access to flagship institutions’ audiences? The evening ended before any of these questions could be neatly resolved, and yet the asking of them, and the discussion they provoked underscored the potency Counterpart Arts’ mission.
View the films shown during the session:
Passagens Reading Group
Led by Professor Lucy Orta, Chair of Art in the Environment at London College of Fashion (LCF) and part of the Centre for Sustainable Fashion, Passagens aims to interrogate dialogues about a cross-disciplinary subject whilst addressing issues surrounding the act of migration. Taking its meaning from the linguistic variables of the Portuguese ‘passagem’, which implies a number of different journeys: from one period in life to another, from one country, language culture and conviction to another, from being home to being a foreigner, from student to professional, child to teenager to adult, but also from one geological epoch to another, and allows for diverse perspectives to interweave.
Postgraduate students (both taught and research), staff and alumni at University of the Arts London as well as researchers and practicioners in the field are invited to join the Passagens series of reading groups, offering a broad historical context and the insight by artists and curators whose work evolve around the themes of migration, social sustainability and the environment.
Passagens was set up in 2016 in response to increased anxiety amongst students at University of the Arts London (UAL) to address the meaning and the issues surrounding the act of migration, triggered in part by the UK vote to leave the EU. A full archive of events that took place in the first year can be accessed here.
UAL Postgraduate Reading Groups
A growing number of cross-disciplinary postgraduate reading groups are active across the university and are open to all UAL postgraduate students to attend.