What Is It To Take a Risk in an Artwork (public or otherwise)? Adam J B Walker

What is it to take a risk in an artwork (public or otherwise)?

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Workshop location, the Folkestone Fringe Hub. Image copyright John Daly

My personal view as an artist, and why I was interested to attend this workshop, is that risk is inherent to an interesting work of art. If there’s no risk, the ‘end-point’, whatever that might be, is known, and with this certainty I would question whether there is any remaining artistic purpose or benefit in creating the artwork. The ‘risk’ is the core of the work.

With the Triennial coming to its end and the sun beaming down, the group of 30 or so of us gathered in a courtyard formed between shipping containers in the middle of an otherwise empty car-park beside the harbour in Folkestone. We were there to discuss risk: when it might be worthwhile and when it might result in ‘failure’ [the two not being mutually exclusive]. With this theme, it was especially apt to have Vigil (Alex Hartley’s contribution to the Triennial – a tent suspended from the summit of the Grand Burstin hotel, occupied for the duration of it’s exhibition) looking down upon us.

When Alex spoke later that morning, he casually noted that one of the volunteers had indeed fallen off (thankfully while attached to the safety line). The majority of his talk dealt with less literal ‘life-and-death’ situations but about the risks to artistic vision, integrity and reputation that accompany the many negotiations that come with creating an artwork as complex as NowhereIsland – which along with its pop-up embassy toured the South-West as part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad. Situations produced this work, and Claire Doherty (Situations’ Director) recalled the messages given to the media, who were giving Nowhereisland significant attention. Was it best to stir the pot further for maximum coverage, or allow it to die down?


Alex Hartley’s Nowhereisland, commissioned by Situations for the 2012 Cultural Olympiad.

In Folkestone, this question has also been pertinent for Michael Sailstorfer’s Folkestone Digs, a recent project produced by Situations for the 2014 Folkestone Triennial. It’s no surprise that £10,000 of gold buried in the beach has attracted column inches. Claire Doherty shared her experience by noting that in this very unique case what was important when engaging with the media was to wait until the work was underway and present before talking about it.


Michael Sailstorfer’s Folkestone Digs, produced by Situations for the 2014 Folkestone Triennial. Image copyright Steve Tanner

The afternoon took the form of a role-play. We split into three groups: the curator-producers of a fictional public-realm art exhibition, an artist selected to take part, and the district council funding the exhibition. The hypothetical situation was that the artist had modified his proposed artwork, a collaboratively built community centre, to now include burning it down. Considering risk, it was revealing to witness the way the perceptions differed as a result of adopted position between the three breakaway groups.

For the artist, the risk was in losing their authorial vision for the work in having to make compromises, or alternatively in changing the direction of their work to garner greater publicity. For the producer/commissioners, the risk was their reputation – both critically and artistically, but also in terms of successful project delivery. And for the council, the risk was primarily that they would be responsible if the exhibition, which would include this artwork, didn’t ‘deliver’, and thus the funds spent on it could be considered not best used. The resulting negative press was also a key risk and could be damaging.

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The ‘commissioners’ gather in the afternoon breakaway session to prepare for their meeting with the council. Image copyright John Daly

The exercise may on the surface have seemed obvious, yet the careful consideration of these three different positions in terms of their exposure to risk first hand I believe (if put in a real life similar situation,) would allow for a more empathetic, astute and realistic negotiation. It was noted that ‘the public’ was absent from this role-play, and one about public-realm art at that. However the purpose of the exercise was to explore the reality of these kinds of decision-making processes, when the voice of ‘the public’ (questionable as it is that it could be represented in a single voice) is unfortunately not typically present in the room.

The element of the day which most resonated with me was the opening talk given by Mary Jane Jacob. She focussed on her experience curating site-specific work in Charleston, South Carolina since 1991, pointing out that this in itself was a significant risk – a white person from an entirely different part of the country, in a city with an enormous black heritage, commissioning work about the place’s past.

Rather than trying to summarise the extensive ground she covered, I want to reflect on some particularly memorable statements:

‘It’s all a risk and better not to think about it [otherwise you won’t do it]’

‘Just start, see where it goes’

In these two quotations Mary Jane set out her attitude to undertaking a project such as that in Charleston. As she spoke, she was evidently proud to have grappled with the city authorities on issues that mattered to her (or as was often the case, mattered to others, but that she was in a position to be able to influence). Whether it be a road dividing a community, or houses labelled for demolition, the projects she facilitated around these issues didn’t always create tangible physical change, but they frequently altered the terms of the debate and raised considerable awareness.

‘What is it to be a curator? You have to care about something, have an internal value system’

‘What if an artist really worked with a community?’

‘Do we need to make more stuff?’

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Image copyright John Daly

It was clear Mary Jane wanted to facilitate public artwork, socially-engaged and otherwise, that brought real benefit to the communities and individuals she worked with in Charleston. At times, the benefit might be an aesthetic experience (such as her recounting the 45 minutes that a group of locals spent in complete silence on a chartered boat experiencing a work involving a historic lighthouse illuminated with changing colours out in the bay), and at other times might be a social or practical one. For example during the five-year long project with the Phillips Community, 30 miles from the city centre, the desired community centre was never built, nor the road layout changed of the dual carriageway that was cutting through the neighbourhood. Undoubtedly there may well have been significant benefits for the local community had those things happened, but that doesn’t detract from the less measurable benefits that a five-year long engagement with the project brought. The process, rather than the result, was the benefit.

Part of me is aware that it could be interpreted that some of this work in Charleston could be viewed as ‘patronising’ and/or ‘charitable’. I haven’t ever been to Charleston, or seen any of the work first-hand so I cannot really judge; undoubtedly this was always a risk with coming in as an outsider. However I am pleased that Mary Jane opened herself up to that risk when it would undoubtedly have been easier to remain safely within her gallery based curatorial practice at The Art Institute of Chicago and MOCA.

Ultimately, for all of us, the risk is the unknown. As an artist, this is the core of my practice. I walked away from the day with a greater understanding of risk as it applies to other parties within the creation and facilitating of public art. I was encouraged by the desire there was to take more risks, and hope that this is put into practice by the galleries, art centres, councillors, producers and the many other institutions represented at the workshop.

Adam J B Walker

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