LOW PROFILE are joined Claire Sharpe in the 1st of a series of LONG CONVERSATIONS around engagement and participation, that discuss details of participatory arts projects by those who make work in this area.
Claire Sharpe is a freelance arts producer based in Bristol, Bath and the South West. Claire has worked on a variety of projects from community activated arts events to delivering permanent public artworks since graduating from her degree in Art and Visual Culture from UWE, Bristol in 2011.
Alongside her work for Picture In The Paper, Claire works consistently as Project Manager for WORKS|PROJECTS (a commercial contemporary art gallery based in Bristol who represent a distinctive stable of internationally renowned artists) and at Foreground Projects (who commission contemporary visual art projects that explore the relationship between art and its diverse settings and publics working across Bristol, Bath and the South West).
LOW PROFILE (LP) – You have worked as a producer on a number of projects with different artists making ‘public art’, which as part of that work seeks to / requires a level of active participation / engagement from people. Could you talk a little bit about your role in enabling these works to manifest and your experiences of where, for you, the projects have been successful?
Claire Sharpe (CS) – In other projects I have worked on, there has been a significantly larger portion of time spent on production, then the audience are invited to engage with a team and the artwork. For Picture in the Paper the production element comes later, after a huge amount of engagement, which is different for me.
In previous projects, I have used other events to maximise participation. One of the main focuses of the mission statement of Foreground Projects is to engage with a non-arts audience and enabling them to critically engage with new work. Being involved in pre existing events, such as market days, provides an excellent platform to enable these things to start happening. Having conversations and experiences with people, whether they were ‘prepped’ for them or not, is one of the main challenges but also the best way to be aware of whether you are succeeding I think.
CS – With Picture in the Paper, a huge amount of the engagement will happen at the initial stages and already is. The ‘direct contact’ element of the project happens later, during the photoshoots in November and at the opening of the new Centre for the Arts. How will you know you are receiving a level of interaction that you want from people at this stage of the project?
Rachel Dobbs (from LP) (RD) – It interesting that you say about this situation of bringing people into something that seems kind of finished, that people come in at the end, to view the work. I suppose it is kind of different in PITP, where the ‘product’ of the project (ie the group photographs) can’t actually happen without people getting on board and engaging with our ideas as artists. They will be voting with their feet as to whether they want to be involved (and recorded in their involvement), which could be a risky proposition. It might be interesting how the ‘success’ of PITP could be judged in terms of the numbers of people who end up in the photographs. I think this might run a little counter to how we make our decisions on which groups to photograph – ie we won’t just decide on which groups to photograph based on who we think will make the biggest group (in terms of numbers).
In terms of measuring the levels of engagement with the project at this early stage – I suppose this is quite anecdotal at the moment. I’ve been using the tried and tested method of how many non-art friends / people I know ask me about the project or are aware of it going on. Currently, this has been quite a few people (at least 10) which is pretty good on this personal scale!! Maybe also the number of suggestions we have received for groups? That people are bothering to get in touch is a good sign.
Hannah Jones (from LP) HJ – I think you are right. Face to face interaction with people is really important. There is an aspect to the project which feels a little bit like a ‘campaign’ of sorts – because for the project to function we have to get as many people as possible to know about PITP, we have spent a lot of time thinking about how to do that – so this ‘marketing’ aspect to the project, is essential but can also at times feels a little strange – in terms of us feeling like artists running a marketing campaign! I think for us, it will feel more real, or tangible once we start to meet people, to see what they think, whether or not they are excited by the idea and want to get involved.
RD – Yes, talking to people (next week in Bath) will be more ‘concrete’ than the kind of marketing-type activity we’ve been doing up until this point. Or it will feel that way – because of the live feedback from a conversation like this.
HJ – I’m a little bit nervous about those face-to-face meetings we are doing, where we are meeting strangers and telling them about the project – and I think that’s a good thing. To be nervous, I mean – because it means I want this to mean something, or do something more then just be about how many Facebook followers we have..
RD – Yes, the nervousness is important – like in preparation for a performance / live work. Because you get ‘live’ feedback from people in the space, in the same room as you. You can tell whether they are listening, or if it doesn’t make any sense. They can ask you awkward questions. I’m looking forward to awkward questions.
CS – You can work really hard at making an online presence to become the beginning of something special but it will always be that step removed. Once you begin to work with people face-to-face that’s when something special begins.
HJ – those meetings/interactions I imagine will genuinely feed the project – so it will be interesting to see how people who end up being photographed found out about the project and whether face-to-face wins out over the other communication/marketing elements…
RD – In relation to “special”ness – In projects like ‘Instructions For an Ordinary Utopia’, the artist Ruth Proctor developed a series of works that included / revolved around a motto for Frome. These actions seemed to focus on making ordinary life a bit more special, with hopeful messages – a campaign for the town through small scale, personal actions and the potential differences these might make. Was there a sense of ownership around the motto during and after the project in Frome? What did it take to get this to happen?
[as an aside, I’m interested in this notion of special-ness and face-to-face interaction, is this symptomatic of our use / over-use of online / once-removed forms of communication? There is definitely something really important still about ‘turning up’, being in a place with other people]
CS – The unofficial motto – Something Wonderful Will Happen – was so readily adopted by the town because it was a joyous, positive affirmation that genuinely brightened peoples day. It appeared across the town occupying various spaces like a political campaign, but rather than telling you what to buy, who to vote for, where to go on holiday etc. it was a message of positivity. Through attending markets in the town wearing t-shirts with the motto on, people approached the Foreground Projects team out of curiosity. It had already been warmly received, so to then find out about the rest of the project, the other artists and the involvement of Frome Community College students, just reinforced their desire to retain it. In fact that work is staying in the town until the end of July, two months after the official end of the project.
I think face-to-face interaction is really important. That might be because we communicate virtually more and more so when someone makes the effort to spend time with you and you can see the conviction of their intentions it becomes something precious and out of the ordinary.
There is an element of people having to put in effort, give up their time and commit with Picture in the Paper, but it isn’t a project that solely takes. It also appeals to our desire as humans to be part of a ‘tribe’. When we belong to a group we want to celebrate that, and Picture in the Paper provides that opportunity.
RD – It’s mad, isn’t it, that being ‘with’ other people has become something out of the ordinary, but I agree that it has and from my personal experience, it is something really important and special. Maybe those are things that PITP is really getting at. That being in the same space as other people is something to be celebrated? Providing an opportunity to do/be part of something special is a really nice way to frame that!
HJ – I don’t think PITP is just about being with other people or providing a framework for this – I think the idea of a conviction of intention that Claire talks about is really important – we are not just getting people together to have a party. There is an aspect of celebration and bringing people together, but there is also something about wanting to mark something in a particular moment in time and place – to make something seemingly ordinary, extraordinary.
RD – Yes, definitely not just about being together with others, but that that is part of the specialness, alongside the marking of an occasion, the conviction of a group of people and the historicising of that moment, that group and those strong feelings of being part of something.
CS – I think there is a huge potential for lasting impact as well, but that will come down to the 20 selected groups for the final images. How do you both think you will tackle that? After seeing some suggestions come through how will you choose what will best provide an overview of Bath at this time?
HJ – I think that I am less interested in groups who have been put forward for an ulterior motive – i.e – they just want to promote their group/get new members/sell tickets to a show. I think I want to celebrate and honour groups which are really built on a need to connect with like minded people…
RD – I think our choice will always be idiosyncratic. We can never hope to actually provide an objective / balanced overview of this place. Our snapshots will always partial, driven by our own interests and eccentricities.
CS – There is an element of ulterior motives, but they are surprising easy to spot
HJ – I also think that people have a very particular perspective of Bath as a place and it will be interesting to present a more balanced and honest reflection of the people who make up the wider community of Bath.
RD – Yes, I agree with Hannah here, even though our selection process will have human flaws, in many ways it will provide a weirdly balanced and honest reflection of who inhabits this place. Not a tourist board view, or a stereotypical notion of the city and its inhabitants.
HJ – and it will be our selection and that selection, like Rachel says is always going to be partial. One of our aims for the project is to capture a moment in time of people living and working in a place, in a way that recognises that this ‘record’ or ‘archive’ can, and will only ever be a partial and personal response. The incompleteness celebrates the constantly changing state of a singular place and the intrinsic impossibility of ever making a complete ‘record’ of the people of Bath.
CS – Do you think the groups being suggested so far are changing your view of Bath or the spread of people to be included to provide a balanced view of the city?
RD – There are many suggestions so far for groups that I would never have personally thought of and this makes the suggestion process incredibly important. In conversation with a friend the other day about PITP, he was interested in the ‘challenge’ aspect of the project – ie if he suggested a potential group of people to us that we’d have to track them down and find them. There is the suggestion there that all sorts of people who inhabit our towns and cities, you might just have to go looking to find them. I am excited by the way the project asks questions about notions of homogeneity in this sense.
HJ – I don’t think we can ever make sweeping assumptions about a place – I live somewhere where I think people often do this – so I really had no expectations about who would come forward or how mixed it would be. I guess I expected some of the more active creative clubs/groups to want to be involved – but it’s exciting to be getting some more unusual suggestions too.
CS – An optimistic yet impossible endeavour, willingness to try even though it can’t be completed. These are sentiments that make me think about a lot of your collaborative practice.
RD – Yes!! Always setting ourselves impossible tasks.