Liverpool Biennial’s ‘Community Arts?’ conference was held on November 1st − that is, on the Day of the Dead. It’s tempting to believe this was no coincidence, given the Biennial’s recent preoccupation with meaningful dates; perhaps the conference was destined to excavate the field of community arts and recall apparitions of the 70s and 80s, these now buried under layers of neo-liberal rot (it’s been piled on in recent years).
Indeed, Sophie Hope, a researcher and speaker at the conference, imagined interfacing with this ‘community arts legacy’ as a kind of séance. A haunting, she contended, offers a useful analogy for how we consult, confront and contextualise past community arts projects. We re-value their successes and failures with hindsight while measuring the extent to which we should feel proud, indebted and remorseful about our efforts to continue producing meaningful work in society today.
With the conference in full swing, this kind of creative, almost literary extension of ghost imagery was quite difficult to assimilate and respond to practically, let alone draw conclusions from. Likewise, Alan Read’s incantation-cum-presentation was breathtakingly lyrical and witty but was largely bypassed in open floor discussion. Read at one point suggested that community arts are ‘immune to theory’ because they’re somehow ‘too worthy’, too pure − perhaps revealing something also about the limits of a conference on this subject that retains/pretends a strongly academic tone and format.
If Sophie Hope imagined the legacy of community arts as existing in another dimension, for other panelists, community arts relied on a physical presence, and on its accessibility, for validity. Nina Edge, for example, argued that ‘the community isn’t another country’, and that her work was only socially and communally relevant because she was ‘neither disembodied’ nor ‘dis-integrated’, but had been chosen by the people with whom she worked as ‘their’ artist, co-habiting and (quite obviously and materially) co-existing with them.
Despite the aim of achieving a consensus of radical opinion and the attempts to weaponise this solidarity to combat the banalisation of community arts, it became increasingly apparent as the conference proceeded that many practitioners and participants were as proudly nuanced in their opinions as ever. Convenor Andrea Phillips had stated that a major intention behind the conference was to produce a succinct, angry defence and appraisal of community arts; and moreover send a clear positive message to funding bodies. Taking on that mammoth task and bashing out a solution was an immediately attractive and popular prospect, but perhaps the combative rhetoric misled some of the more excitable among us. What could actually be achieved conclusively, that day − and not merely set in motion, real slow like? For much of the discussion, a vague, brooding outrage just sort of floated around the room ineffectually, in clouds of knitted brows fulminating in one or two livid outbursts. Collective solidarity was at best considered a rainbow just out of reach amid all this miserable precipitation.
Watching Sonia Boyce’s ‘Gather: Justicia’ and experiencing Wendy and Bill Harpe’s whistle-stop tour of projects at the Black-E, including the wonderful Dotto, produced something closer to satisfaction. Overall, though, the imperative need for speakers, institutions, community groups to be seen to be wary, to cope, to compromise − to organise and to strategise − eclipsed more informational presentations. These latter showcases could have been allotted more time as they provided a much-needed change of pace and attitude in a programme otherwise brimming with (justifiably) fierce and compact calls-to-arms.
Jake Thorne is a writer based in Liverpool.