Somewhere between Art and Non-Art

Updated: May 13, 2020

As part of my Professional Practice module on the BA FA course at Blackburn University; I am required to review a range of artworks and museum/gallery exhibitions. As part of my submission for this module I have written this blog post – ‘Somewhere between Art and Non-Art’; a review of ‘The Reno’, an exhibition at The Whitworth, Manchester by artist Linda Brogan and a group of local residents. Throughout my critique of this work, its comparison with another piece of participatory work and its influence on the direction of my own practice, I propose a discussion around the aesthetics of socially engaged art.

Somewhere between Art and Non-Art

Over the past 12 months I have been developing my practice through the interrogation of socially engaged and place-based research and the application of interventionist artwork. Socially engaged and participatory arts often take forms which could be described as non-art (gatherings, happenings, actions, conversation). I am interested in how these processes can translate into contemporary artforms. How an exhibition space can be used to not just document performative work, or the level of engagement in a participatory work; but to use the opportunity of new space to make new work which illuminates both process and artwork.

The Reno, Linda Brogan and the Reno Regulars

The Reno was a cultural and social space for the young mixed-race Mancunian community in Moss Side, Manchester for over 30 years from its opening in 1962 until its closure in 1986. During its time, The Reno played an integral role in the progression of West Indian culture in Manchester.

After the Reno’s closure in 1986, the building was demolished and the site in which it stood was filled in.

In 2017 during Linda Brogan’s residency with The Whitworth, Brogan, the Reno’s old attendees and Salford University Applied Archaeological Unit conducted an archaeological excavation of the site. Brogan who attended the Reno herself, recorded interviews with the Reno’s regulars from 1971 to 1981 who were asked questions about their memories and experiences of the place; and over the course of one year, Brogan and a community of locals who went to the Reno, occupied a space in the Whitworth, exhibiting recorded interviews, music, sourced artefacts, donated photos and documented processes of the site excavation and the residency as a whole.

Through work areas within the gallery, the exhibition was a transformative and evolving space open to further development and contribution from Brogan, visitors and locals including the Reno Regulars.

Through the collection of artefacts, documentation and shared stories within the exhibition, Brogan tells the story of The Reno; a story based around working-class mixed-race youth.

The centre of the room involved an installation of sorts which appeared to resemble a living room. Visitors sat on sofas around a television screen which played on loop the recorded interviews which Brogan conducted with the Reno’s regulars. These were extremely telling of the brutality which faced the mixed-race community born into 1960’s Britain and the often rejection they experienced from their extended family. The interviews also describe to us the close and nurturing everlasting bonds formed between friends who enjoyed nights together at the Reno, and the coming together of different races over the love of dance and rave culture. Overall, we here about a night scene which integrated and formed relations between mixed-race youths who had only previously known persecution and abandonment. We hear these stories on individual personal levels.

The exhibition also included pin boards covered in donated photos taken by Reno Regulars; glass cabinets displaying artefacts from before, during and after the Reno days such as afro combs, empty beer bottles and perfume bottles and aged I.D cards, wallets, purses and record shop carrier bags. Visitors were captivated by these artefactual objects which had been excavated from the Reno.

Through timelines displayed on the wall, artefactual, photographic and video evidence, Brogan and the Reno Regulars document the past and present of the Mancunian mixed-race communities; using workshop areas within the exhibition space to propose possible futures. The exhibition presents an essence of the spirit of Reno by making it a hang-out space where people can engage in the work and with one another. We are encouraged by Brogan and the Reno Regulars to safely talk about and explore the past, present and future of mixed-race communities. The potentiality of this, however, is hindered by an air of nostalgia.

The Aesthetics of Socially Engaged Art

The collaborative and participatory nature of this work, through the sharing of memories and evidently extensive engagement, is displayed throughout the exhibition as documentation of process. Like much socially engaged and participatory arts, here we see social interaction as the fabrication of the work, which is ultimately a series of documentation. These methods and activities usually place socially engaged and participatory arts somewhere between art and non-art.

The Reno exhibition of artefactual and documentational evidence could provoke the question of whether Brogans methods belong within the field of art at all. Or more within the fields of ethnography, anthropology or sociology. Perhaps it is a concoction of all these fields. A multi-disciplinary approach. This multi-disciplinary approach used by many socially engaged artists can often result in meaningful and enriching dialogues between artist and participants. This is true of Brogan and the Reno Regulars. We know this because there was evidence of this. The whole exhibition was documentation of this. Evidence and documentation of process.

Personally, I struggle with some of these forms represented in the Reno exhibition, where the exhibit is wholly about documenting the process and making the engagement visible. Where do we draw the line between documentation and artwork?

When you look at the origins of ethnography (which as a practice is often adopted through socially engaged art). Ethnographers go into places and explore communities and cultures, collecting and documenting raw data through observation and private journals. This is then translated for public consumption into an ethnography. This is achieved through a creative process as it is required to communicate to an audience.

For Brogan, perhaps the creative process lies within the curatorial decisions made when installing her documentation in a way which best communicates the stories of the Reno and best evidences the level of engagement throughout the project. But for me something is still missing. The scaffolds of a piece of work, the process, the engagement, the language and theory are all important processes. Processes which the Reno exhibition evidence. However, for me there was an absence of artistic output.

As a practicing artist and student, I’m interested in work which involves the processes of all of the robust engagement of socially engaged art but also includes the production of a representational output which can be recognised as professionally and aesthetically artistic work of a high level. This includes a range of different art forms exhibited in a range of contexts from white cube galleries to public domains.

Take the Brierfield based art organisation Super Slow Ways project ‘Shapes of Water, Sounds of Hope’, 2017. Through a commission with artist collective In-Situ, internationally known American artist Suzanne Lacy collaborated with community residents through a series of community workshops exploring the history of the area and the derelict Smith and Nephew Mill in Brierfield. Through the exploration of vocal forms such as shape note and sufi chanting, and the coming together of diverse people and cultures sharing food and sharing stories, Lacy and community residents formed a mass community celebration in the Smith and Nephew Mill. The project required a high degree of sensitivity and engagement by those involved, making not just for a progressive and enriching experience for the community, but also an artistic output. Lacy and her collaborators produced a series of performances and a film installation which was premiered in the mill in 2017 and was shown at Sydney Biennial a year later.

Suzanne Lacy, The Circle and the Square, 2017

Over-all I enjoyed my visit to the Reno exhibition. Through the amalgamation of curation, content and installation practice, Brogan delivers an insightful exhibition taking the viewer through time, making visible the real stories of working-class and mixed-race struggles told through the intimacy of the personal. However, what becomes confirmed when comparing Brogan’s work with Lacy’s is that not everything needs to be made visible. Lacy authentically engaged with community’s while being ruthlessly selective in exhibiting her processes in response to a space. This resulted in an output of high artistic excellence; and demonstrates the aesthetical potential of socially engaged art.

The Reno by Linda Brogan and the Reno Regulars prompted me to reflect on the nature of my own practice and the impact of the aesthetic, or lack of the aesthetic in socially engaged and participatory work.

My work often involves a collaborative approach, adopting strategies of socially engaged and participatory art. When making and working in these ways the line between art and life often blurs. I am okay with this and like many others I extensively explore this throughout my practice and research. Nevertheless, it was apparent that the defining difference between Brogans work and Lacy’s work, was the lucidity of Lacy to confirm the artwork; and this is something I have begun taking forward with me in the further development of my practice.

With the application of ethical frameworks, I am currently exploring ways of re-contextualising my research and documentation of previous socially engaged and participatory works into advanced artforms.

Images: Suzanne Lacy, The Circle and the Square, 2017

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