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Art and the Policy Sphere


Curating critical art interventions in new agricultural contexts

Aims

The project aims to map the coordinates for development of a potential new art genre and role for artist/curators in the context of mainstream public policy discourse about agriculture. It proposes to demonstrate for art practitioners and other researchers how this might be achieved, by initially curating a series of critical art interventions dealing with current agricultural issues and the problems that have arisen following CAP (EU Common Agricultural Policy) reform. The curated interventions would seek to develop a range of practical, creative and aesthetic solutions to particular problems identified in the agricultural sector that would be of interest to policy makers at DEFRA, and other rural NGOs. The second aim is to develop a sequence of experimental dialogical art strategies to complement the curated interventions that would enable policy makers and stakeholders from the agricultural, arts and cultural policy sectors to meet together at regular intervals to monitor and evaluate the outcomes of the curated art projects. They will also be invited to comment on the efficacy and relevance of the projects in terms of their potential for influencing new thinking in the context of current agriculture policy. The third aim, which it is hoped will unfold over the proposed five year trajectory of the project, is to document how this combination of curatorial and dialogical art strategies might help to create the conditions by which policy makers in both the agriculture and arts and cultural sectors could then go forward to collectively frame a new cultural strand in the context of future discourse on agricultural policy.

The background to the proposal is informed by over thirty years of work as an independent artist/curator, and a commitment to advancing new theoretical and pedagogical research into issues relating to practitioner-led critical art practice and art in the public sphere. The research project is also informed by research undertaken recently for Arts Council England and the Rural Cultural Forum aimed at developing a cultural strategy for rural communities in England.


Research questions or problems

1. Since there are no precedents or documented examples available from which to begin to identify or test the efficacy of the proposed new practice genre (art in the policy sphere), it is necessary to find some practical and convincing means by which to demonstrate its introduction and application in real life public policy contexts, so that other interested art practitioners could later access, critique and improve upon it. More needs to known about the key practice characteristics involved in structuring a fully developed art and the policy sphere project. In particular, how the proposed practice genre shifts gear critically, from being the project-based intervention of an artist/curator, to becoming a process-based and critically self-sustaining practice instrument capable of operating independently of the artist, and ultimately of effecting change within mainstream policy discourse and research.

2. The public policy sphere is the complex, sophisticated and highly regulated preserve of professional practitioners and researchers, and artists presuming to make this arena the subject of critical art interventions (no matter how well intentioned) will need to prepare their work with great care and also be capable of working at the higher levels of policy research and discourse. Another constraint is that the agricultural sector and DEFRA policy officials currently have little or no contact with the art world or for that matter any inclination for or experience of developing formal interactions or dialogue with professional colleagues in the arts and cultural sector. Consequently the artist/curator will need to develop appropriate and credible means of gaining entry to and of maintaining participation in mainstream public policy discourse in both the cultural and agriculture sectors.

3. There also appears to be a gap in policy discourse currently operating between the lead statutory agencies for agriculture (DEFRA) and cultural policy (DCMS), which is culturally as well as institutionally ingrained. This is potentially a major obstacle for the proposed research. To begin to address this problem it would be helpful if policy makers from the agricultural and cultural spheres could find a common ground, or an informal forum that would enable them to speak with each other openly, and also allow them to monitor the aims and practical outcomes of the proposed research projects. Closing the perceived culture-agriculture policy gap would also be one way of assessing the efficacy of art and the policy sphere as viable new art practice genre.

Research context
The theoretical context for the project is informed partly by the critical impasse that appears to have emerged recently in socially engaged art and art in the public sphere practices. The concern is that the originating critical impulses for public art, relational art and socially engaged art practice have now stalled (Claire Bishop, Art Forum Feb. 2006), partly, it is argued, through their gradual institutionalisation and complicity with the ideologies of corporate-led regeneration initiatives and the art market. New aesthetic, theoretical, and intellectual challenges need to be found capable of catalyzing new critical thinking within the practitioner community. Critic, Grant Kester (Variant 9, 1999/2000) for example is proposing a new dialogical aesthetic as one possible solution. Given that new practice traditions sometimes emerge where artists move beyond the confines of the art world, a critical engagement with issues in agriculture policy contexts may provide some interesting new creative challenges and opportunities.

Although agriculture and CAP policy reform might seem an unusual context in which to attempt to test an emergent artistic genre they could prove to have distinct advantages. There are, for example, some interesting creative, aesthetic, ethical and cultural dimensions to agriculture policy which have not yet been fully articulated. That the agriculture sector has no history of engagement or dialogue with the arts and cultural sector could also prove to have positive advantages for the research in the longer term. As a public policy arena agriculture it is still relatively open (in some areas at least) to input from other stakeholders, researchers and lobby groups from outside the discipline. As evidenced recently in DEFRA’s response to public concerns about animal welfare, i.e. deferment of the proposed badger cull as a solution to Bovine TB.


Research methods
The project proposes to deploy four curated exhibitions and related dialogical art strategies in agricultural contexts as case studies to demonstrate how art and the policy sphere projects might operate in real life contexts. The role of artist/curator in practice-based research has been demonstrated previously in an AHRC funded Fellowship led by artist Richard Grayson, and hosted by Newcastle University. Artist/curators Liam Gillick, Rikrit Tiravanija and Jeremey Deller (ArtReview 19, Feb. 2008, p 54) have further demonstrated how by ceding authorial/curatorial control at critical points in an exhibition or art project can become a useful tactic when dealing with institutional discourses or in engaging non-art communities. The research is also based on the pioneering methodologies developed by artists Stephen Willats (Control Magazine), Suzanne Lacy (New Genre Public Art) , and John Latham and Barbara Stevini; ‘Context is half the work’, at APG/O+I. The dialogic art methodologies are based on Grant Kester’s dialogic aesthetic (1999)

Other research methodologies promoting interventions into public policy arenas developed by NGOs involved in agriculture, public health and culture have also been scrutinised. However, they acknowledge that statutory agencies like DEFRA, DCMS and DH have in some instances become adept at developing counter tactics to cope with these. The proposed art and the policy sphere research methodology thus aims to surface some possible creative alternatives.


Public policy entry strategies:
Each exhibition case study will present the practitioner with a different policy/problem context in which to test out various means of gaining entry to the relevant agricultural policy discourses and stakeholder communities. These ‘entry strategies’ will therefore need to: (i) be intellectually robust, credible and acceptable to the stakeholder communities involved (i.e. non-threatening); (ii) allow the artist/curator to learn about the work of the main policy actors and NGO lobbies involved in agriculture; (iii) be capable of tackling aspects of perceived failures in current agriculture policy, including the possibility of structuring creative solutions to some of these; (iv) permit new insights about how current policy initiatives are impacting on some of the more vulnerable grassroots and marginal agricultural communities.


Addressing the culture/agriculture policy gap:
The exhibitions also aim to surface new dialogical or catalytic strategies, including formal conferences and seminars, capable of; stimulating wider public debate about issues in agriculture, sustaining the practitioner’s participation within the relevant policy discourses, and also engaging policy makers and stakeholders as participants and advisors in the development of the curated projects. Leading on to a point where the latter may themselves wish to take over the ownership and direction of the programme, or some key parts of it, which in turn could introduce a new dialogic dynamic capable of linking up future cultural and agriculture policy discourse.


Project management
Officials from the agriculture and culture policy sectors, DEFRA, DCMS, ACE, would be invited to join an advisory panel to oversee the management and development of the exhibitions and research programme overall. Individual exhibitions would also involve local or regional advisory groups. Exhibitions would each be about 4 - 6 weeks duration, sited in different geographical regions, and carefully coordinated to work within the budget constraints and requirements of the host venues. Some of the exhibition proposals listed under have previously been discussed in broad outline with leaders in the farming community (NFU, RASE, Soil Association), and relevant Arts Council England Arts Lottery Fund officials. Funding should be forthcoming from these and other sources to fund the main exhibitions programme. Failing this, the projects could be reduced in number and scale, and/or developed as a dialogical art strategies (conference based) study only. Staged annually over a five year period the documented outcomes from the exhibitions projects would be presented at a concluding colloquium for invited policy stakeholders (DEFRA, DCMS, ACE, NFU) to be held in London in late 2014.

1. Grains of Truth: the New Rural Documentary Photography
July/August 2010
International conference and exhibition surveying key historical and contemporary developments in rural documentary photography, proposed for the National Agriculture Centre, Stoneleigh, Warwickshire. Taking the FSA, US Federal Government’s Farm Security Administrations pioneering rural documentary photography project from the 1930s (Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn, etc.) as a critical reference point, the exhibition would present a survey of recent contemporary rural documentary photography and publications from throughout the UK and internationally, which address agricultural issues and rural policy in intellectually challenging and visually exciting new ways. The exhibition would also provide an introduction to the aims of the proposed five year research project, by presenting for discussion historical and contemporary precedents for curated projects as cultural interventions into agricultural policy. Proposed partners: Royal Agricultural Society England, Arts Council England, and the Rural Cultural Forum.


2. ArtBarns II: Hill Farming Symposium; new public art projects on farms

July/October 2011
ArtBarns I was an A4E Arts Council Lottery funded public art exhibition based in remote hill farm barns which I curated in July-Oct. 1999 in partnership with the hill farming community in East Lancashire. The Arts Council continue to cite the project as one of the most successful lottery-funded new audiences and arts and social inclusion initiatives. Ten years later the hill farming community still remain among the most economically vulnerable and socially marginalised group within the agricultural community. Focused on achieving hard economic and environment outcomes, CAP/RDPE seems less concerned with addressing the social, health and cultural consequences of farm support restructuring post 2013. The UK Hill Farming Initiative is therefore planning to mobilise public support nationally and internationally to address some of these problems, and they have expressed interest in organising a second ArtBarns project as part of the international Hill Farming Cultures symposium, planned for the Pennine Uplands of Cumbria and Northumberland in October 2011. ArtBarns II aims to inform and engage policy makers in a new public debate about potential loss of cultural identity, and the social, health, and economic implications of post-CAP agriculture policy for the uplands. Proposed partners: ACE, Rural Health Forum, NFU, Carnegie UK Trust/Rural Programme.


3. After FMD; imaging animal epidemiology and farm animal welfare issues.

May/June 2012
At the start of the FMD (Foot and Mouth) crisis in 2001, Arts Council England generously responded to my request to set up an emergency FMD arts fund, to enable artists, writers, film makers and photographers to document the social, cultural, health and environmental impact of FMD in Britain. Eventually over 2,000 individual artworks, photography exhibitions, DVDs, publications, and plays were produced and catalogued. FMD had an estimated cost to the national economy of over £4 billion, and is regarded as a significant policy failure on the part of government and DEFRA (then MAFF). Meanwhile, BSE/vCJD, Bovine TB, Blue Tongue disease, and the possibility of a major Avian Flu/H5N1 outbreak in the poultry industry, continue to be a serious concern for the farming industry, and are also an ongoing threat to public health. It is alleged that industrial-scale farming, widespread use of agro-chemicals, global warming, and genetic engineering of livestock are partly to blame for these diseases, and are contributing to growing public concerns about food safety and animal welfare. In this context, After FMD is proposed as a public exhibition and conference aimed at addressing some of the wider social, cultural and ethical implications of animal epidemiology, to be held at the Science Museum in London in 2012. Based on the successful Vache Folle (Mad Cow) public symposia and exhibitions project about BSE in France, organised by the Cité des Sciences Museum in Paris in 2001, the FMD exhibition would similarly aim to involve veterinary scientists, public health officials, agricultural policy-makers, farming leaders, artists and politicians in a new public debate about the likely future impact of animal pandemics, and what measures have been put in place to deal with these. It would also function as a dialogical art intervention opening new cultural, aesthetic and ethical insights into current farm animal welfare and veterinary research policy. Proposed partners; the Science Museum London, the Welcome Trust, Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, and Arts Council England.

4. New Fields; pilot for a rural biennale of art and sustainble agriculture
July/September 2014
CAP reform comes to an end in 2013. From then on land-based agri-businesses and farming communities will no longer have access to public subsidies for most agricultural activities. As a result some sectors of the farming community may have to cease activity completely, which will undoubtedly have a radical social, economic, and environmental impact in rural areas. There is consequently now an interest in developing alternatives to farming and new rural economic initiatives, including creative uses for surplus farm land, production of non-food fibres and energy (biomass) crops, rural tourism, countryside heritage, and more environmentally sustainable farming practices. These changes will provide interesting new aesthetic, intellectual and creative challenges for artists too. Artists such as Robert Smithson, Agnes Denes, Helen and Newton Harrison, Alan Sonfist, Ian Hamilton Findlay and others have for example all previously experimented with farming and field cultivation projects as part of their ongoing land art and ecological art experiments. The NEW FIELDS public art project proposes to use these pioneering examples as the basis for a combined new land art and creative rural economy exhibition and conference to be staged on arable farms throughout Yorkshire. Up to 12 artists would be commissioned to work on a range of new field-based arts works and art-as-cultivation projects, and documenting the main cultivation and seasonal farming cycles. Developed over a two year period (2012 – 2014) artists would be encouraged to collaborate with the host farmers, who are themselves experimenting with new fibres, energy, and pharmaceutical crops, to explore other creative applications for farm crops in architectural, crafts, fashion design, culinary, and bio-engineering contexts.  The project would also be proposed as a pilot for a possible future EU/international rural biennale aimed at showcasing post-CAP era creative rural economy projects, and related sustainable cultures and art and agriculture interfaces.  Proposed partners; RASE, ACE, DEFRA, DCMS.

Dissemination
In addition to the public conferences and exhibitions catalogue publications, research outcomes would be disseminated through articles and reports in art journals including Art Monthly, Artists Newsletter, Arts Professional, ArtReview, and via the project’s website/BLOG. There is also potentially scope for two publications following on after the end of the proposed AHRC study period: i) Art and the Policy Sphere, a critical anthology documenting examples of similar art practices and projects developing internationally; ii) Art and Agriculture, documenting the expanding range of art projects now developing around issues in agriculture, and using fields, farming, food production, animal breeding/biotechnology and cultivation as new sites or subjects for experimental art practice.



Contribution to career development

The opportunity to work within an established academic research environment again would greatly aid the project and improve my research skills. It would also enhance my future career and employment prospects as an independent practitioner/consultant advising art schools and younger art practitioners interested in working in this new field of contemporary art practice. My employers, the LITTORAL Trust trustees are supportive of this application and, if successful, have agreed to find a suitable p/t staff replacement.



Contribution to the host institution’s research environment and culture

Through discussions with Professor Franco Bianchini, the proposed research programme based with the Centre for Tourism and Cultural Change inside the Faculty of Arts and Society at Leeds Metropolitan University should have a good fit with some of the general research aims and culture of the Faculty. In particular, Professor Bianchini’s planned future research work aimed at the development of a new EU rural cultural policy planning strand within post-CAP (2013) agriculture and rural development policy. In addition, the research could also make useful contribution to the School of Contemporary Art and Graphic Design’s research environment, including the ‘New Modes of Curating Contemporary Art’ research module within the MA in Curating Contemporary Art programme.



LITTORAL is a non-profit arts trust which promotes new
creative partnerships, critical art practices and cultural
strategies in response to issues about social, environmental
and economic change.
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Cultural Documents of Foot and Mouth conference and exhibition,  2006

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