I’ve recently developed an aversion to the ubiquitous phrase ‘Public Engagement’ in Art. Why? In my notes I’ve scribbled – forced….contrived….condescending. Is it only me or does the actual phrase sound ugly and formal? Am I being contrary, since I’ve spent a lifetime trying to develop art processes and productions which invite people to participate as part of the work….mmmm….I think what concerns me is the potential for tokenism in the tick box world we live in. I don’t think I’ve ever met an artist who doesn’t want people to engage with their work. I would like to think that my work succeeds when participation comes with agency. Making art gives me agency. It feels good, and I want to share that if I can.
It’s interesting that the words ‘agency’ and ‘agenda’ have the same Latin root – agere: to do. Who’s agenda is being served? Explicitness is a key to this I think.
Is Public Engagement the artist’s job as well as making art (which may involve people)? It’s not currently the Olympians job to engage the public. It’s their job to be as good as they can be at their sport. For every Olympian there are probably 10 ‘engagement technicians’ who’s job it is to build bridges and connections with the multi faceted public. Sometimes I fantasise that Art and the Arts get a 10th of the radio and television coverage that football and sport gets – treated with the same conviction and passion and level of critical analysis…that would be Public Engagement.
Maybe it’s useful to separate Public Engagement from the individual artist trying to make as good work as they can which includes a consideration of how and when to involve people. This takes time and skill. Thinking back to the Artist Placement Group for example the resident artist and the host organisation spent six months getting to know one another before proceeding to ‘doing’.