Can You Afford Not to Take a Risk? Niamh O’Connor

A Professional Development Workshop, led by Situations for Public Art (Now) at the Folkestone Fringe Hub, Friday 31st October, 2014

Delegates gather at the Folkestone Fringe hub. Image copyright: John Daly

Risk taking is a relative activity. Alex Hartley duly informed us that standing before an audience to present his art practice, feels far riskier than perching on a portaledge some 180 feet in the air above a bed of concrete (see Hartley’s ‘Vigil’, commissioned as part of Lookout / Folkestone Triennial 2014

And what about anticipating the implications of risk taking? Producer Mary Jane Jacobs reckons that it’s “better not to think about it”. Her bold approach to risk in socially engaged art, is deeply connected to her value system where she describes an alignment of the right conditions – a generous invitation (money isn’t a prerequisite), ‘working speculatively’, sustaining complex relationships – and the freedom to walk away from a project that doesn’t match her motivations.

Both Alex and Mary Jane were guest speakers to the workshop, On the Edge: Taking Risks in Public Art, that took place at the (welcoming) Folkestone Fringe hub in a car park at Folkestone Harbour; just as the Folkestone Triennial (FT) was in its last few days, on an unseasonally warm Hallowe’en. The setting could not have been more ‘on the edge’, unless it had been set on the chalk cliffs nearby.

The early presentations introduced different forms of risk – financial, health and wellbeing, physical loss or injury, quality of experience, social status and reputational. A territory accompanied by loss, ambition, anxiety, change, paralysis, reward. There was also a sense of the intentional play with uncertainty as a process of discovery. Later we were to experience some of these risk contexts from different perspectives.


Alex Hartley’s occupied ‘Vigil’, Folkestone Triennial 2014. Image copyright John Daly.

Hartley gave us the background to the realisation of ‘Vigil’, whose precursor (the original proposal) stumbled from one potential site to another, only to risk a loss of meaning through compromise to different sites, before eventually The Grand Burstin Hotel gave permission and an outlook over Folkestone Harbour and the English Channel. Let me briefly explain – jutting out from the 13th floor of the hotel façade is a series of portable ledges attended day and night by a succession of 13 vigilants who kept watch for 9 weeks, committing their personal thoughts and observations to a blog as well as communicating to the public below (via flags, waving, tweeting etc.). In its planning, Alex spoke about the rightness of the location and how, once they knocked on The Grand Burstin’s door, all the barriers surprisingly fell away. Aside from the risk to physical safety that the intervention poses, for Hartley it was a gamble to give away some of the authorship to the various occupants, who so poetically recorded the impressions from their lofty perspective – John Baston’s were some of my favourites. Alex spoke to the question of the risk of aligning arts practice with regeneration (very pertinent in the context of the FT) in that the making of temporary work can sometimes circumvent funder expectations or perhaps create freedoms to do more than fulfill them.

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Mary Jane Jacob with Lewis Biggs, curator of 2014 Folkestone Triennial. Image copyright John Daly

Jacobs imparted, at least to these ears, a defiant liberty when she stated that the risk of an artist truly working in the community is that “we might not make art at all”. Hardly words of comfort to funders, but she was sure to point out that lack of public funding of the arts in the US is the conventional experience and issues a certain kind of freedom. This begs the question: does access to money really preclude risktaking? Surely there are other forces that create aversion to risk. Is personality a significant factor? And why are more participatory public art projects not given seed funding to scope out interest, develop ideas and collaborative methodologies before a large scale project gets underway? Mary Jane’s approach to working with the community in Phillips, Charleston SC was one of, lets-start-and-see-what-happens. Set against commercial redevelopment and sections of the community feeling pushed out, she and a team of 3-4 artists maintained a relationship of “coming and going” with the community (who she calls “stakeholders of their own lives”) over a 5 year period. Mary Jane attests to the power of this transgression of boundaries – the coming and going of the outsider other, to see what is being eroded or undervalued and who can create a space that validates community interests, that might be less possible from within.

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Claire Doherty introduces the afternoon break away session to the delegates. Image copyright John Daly

The day long workshop was facilitated by Situations Director Claire Doherty and was attended by a vocal bunch of artists, producers, a planner, public arts officers, arts coordinators, a number of events and project managers, curators and this student of creative and cultural entrepreneurship, glad to win a travel bursary to the event. In advance of the workshop participants were posed the question: “What is the risk that you have not yet taken in your work but wish you could?” and then invited to anonymously post their concern to noticeboards at the fringe hub, by way of sharing and receiving guidance, advice or valuable encouragement from the assembled group. This led into a curious scenario – a set up, for an imagined public art commission immediately concerning three entities – an artist (the up and coming Zack Busner), an arts organisation (The Agency) and the commissioner/funder (Tendering District Council). The situation: is that the project is in jeopardy due to a late 180° change to plan brought about by a proposal of the artist to burn the commissioned art work – a temporary community meeting house. An urgent meeting is scheduled to resolve the matter and decide upon funding withdrawal. So splitting into three groups, the entities dealt with the exegencies of the project’s current status, shuttling paper ‘emails’ back and forth to state anxieties, request further information or to defer a response. An additional secret piece of information was then given to each group to further complicate the scene. The meeting was conducted with most severity by the ‘council chairperson’ and eventually concluded with a hung vote, after a thorough hearing from all parties.


‘Email’ sent from the artist to the council during meeting.

During the course of the exchanges a number of tactics were recorded by Claire and more fully teased out. What was fascinating was the positions that were adopted and the ensuing discussion around communication, partnership, power, the symbolism of burning a building (as distinct from an effigy), use of language, the pressures of reputation building (of the artist especially) and damage limitation (of the funder) etc.

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‘The Council’ deliberating on their position. Image copyright: John Daly

Here are our Tactics to Support Risky Business
(This list was drawn throughout the workshop)

Don’t name the threat, if it hasn’t already been identified
Acknowledge and Reassure (draw on track record/previous experience/relationships)
Reaffirm the partnership and distinct roles
Revert to agreement and underlying rationale
Reassert our values
Tell the story and/or challenge the funder in their language
Name drop as necessary
Appeal to the imaginative self
Believe it will happen
Badger them
Take on risk assessment perspectives
Accept that risk is inherent
Communication keeps partners on the journey with you
Negotiate with significant people (e.g. permissions), or find others to do so
Use health and safety protocols
Continue to respond to the public for the duration of the work
Be contrary V take non-confrontational ways
Buy Time. “Time to consider, is radical” – Mary Jane Jacobs
Enable a space where others take risks too
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Image copyright: John Daly


The day long workshop tantalisingly touched upon the appetite for ‘edgy’ art and calculated pretensions of risk (showing soon in a gallery/public place near you!). I was reminded of Dan Fox’s 13 Confusions (Frieze, Issue 136 2011) and his assertion/warning that artists, curators and critics have been complicit when dealing in boundary breaking rhetoric, with “stripping the terminology of opposition of its force and repurposing it as PR”. A conversation for another day?

Acknowledging and tolerating uncertainty, as an inherent element of producing art was echoed during the day, as was the necessary capacity to persuade others to take that journey, particularly those who customarily work with more easily measureable objectives. Appreciating that risk is relative and is felt more acutely by some more than others raised other questions – do we lose the ability to take risks the higher up the professional tree we climb? Are we not hard wired to be risk averse? And can you afford not to take a risk when compromise puts at stake the integrity of the work?

Niamh O’Connor.
Artist / Arts Organiser
MPhil Student of Creative and Cultural Entrepreneurship
Trinity College Dublin and Goldsmiths University of London

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