Jenny Richards suggests that the work of Art vs. Rehab, and in particular its Critical Spaces project, gives practitioners the much needed opportunity for reflection and critical thinking.
2012 was a leap year. It was also the year I first met artist Hannah Hull who was working on a project called Art vs. Rehab. The project took the form of a series of discursive focus groups involving practitioners with a socially engaged approach to working, and it aimed to generate critical dialogue around the arts’ role in rehabilitation.
Art vs. Rehab has since produced a collection of documents available to arts professionals who might wish to use the strategies and intellectual exercises the project developed. The documents serve to highlight issues as well as the negotiation necessary to work more openly and critically with funding streams. Yet over and above these tangible tools (distributed online), the wider legacy of Art vs. Rehab was the support and space (both physical and conceptual) created for critical discussion. It offered a reflective platform many of the contributors were in need of.
Extending the leap year mentality of 2012, Hannah has since developed this very practical and urgent need for time and space to develop critical thinking through a project called ‘Critical Spaces’. She was mindful of the breadth of practice established across the country while there was a tendency for discursive gatherings to locate themselves within larger cultural centres. This initiative, supported by the ixia public art think tank, aims to foster hyper-local critical support networks for socially engaged artists, formed outside traditional arts infrastructures. The project collects like-minded practitioners and develops critical dialogue in order to cultivate committed and sophisticated practices.
The project has built considerable momentum and sets to support many previously disconnected practitioners as informal groups evolve
At the first pilot in Digbeth, Birmingham, artists who had responded to this call were invited to delve into issues both practical and theoretical and collectively share their knowledge and experience. ‘Art’ that develops connections with lived situations locates itself within contested social, political and ethical terrain. With often blurred boundaries around authorship, outcome, intent and indeed labour, practitioners must find ways of navigating this shifting landscape. Critical reflection can be seen as the tool for steering through this territory, yet this component is often relegated to the evaluation necessary for funding agreements. In cases where the sustainability of longer-term projects relies on positive evaluation, a critical approach can be seen as further prohibited. As Sophie Hope described during Art vs. Rehab, evaluation becomes advocacy rather than reflection1.
In Birmingham, unpacking the identifiable everyday obstacles to socially engaged working, particularly the complexity and exhaustion experienced when working with multiple partners, fed into wider questions around the polarisation of theory and practice, and ways to shift evaluation procedures towards a more critical process. Responses depicted an arts sector with increased expectations on artists (and indeed audiences), in tandem with tighter restrictions on budget, time and space for critical thinking. However, what became clear through the ‘symptoms’ expressed was that many struggles could be addressed through confronting the overarching challenge of how we might rethink the critical process itself, in order for it to become more embedded within our everyday working.
The premise of Critical Spaces, to not only mark dedicated time for reflection but to form strategies that centralise criticality within practice, feels particularly timely. And while this might require attention over a period of time, it is also a collective project that can be effectively mobilised through the act of conversation, which the self-led framework of the project promotes. Hannah has recently held the first meeting in the north east and the nationwide project is currently proliferating its activities across the country. Thus far the project has built considerable momentum and sets to support many previously disconnected practitioners as informal groups evolve.
Knowledge and experience collectivised through Critical Spaces foregrounds the practitioner’s hyper-local knowledge as a shared resource. This is one which can support and develop practice as well as drive for broader compositional change within organisational structures and current arts and social policy. It is this symbiotic goal of critical thinking, working on multiple levels that re-contextualises our everyday challenges as the crucial beginnings for both an embedded criticality and a shared critical space.
Jenny Richards is a freelance writer and curator.
1) Art vs. Rehab, Criticality and Evaluation Focus Group, June 2012