Gaylene was asked to speak at the Contemporary Visual Art Network conference as part of their #ArtIsEssential campaign on the day the government's decision to make a 50% cut to HE Arts provision hit the headlines. Using the Listening to Ourselves process, she talked to herself about why artists creating exploratory spaces for decision-makers might be more transformative than political lobbying.
So Gaylene What do you want to talk about?
I’d like to talk about lobbying and why I’m not sure I’m a fan.
You really want to say that now, here? You’re speaking at a conference about the importance of lobbying. Do you not fear that you will be excommunicated?
No I don’t because I trust that the audience, by dint of being artists, are questioning, curious, open-minded and hearted and intrigued by positions that offer new perspectives on old ideas. It’s why I am proud to belong to a community called artists because inherently our desire to get under a question's skin, not to find answers but possibilities, is radical especially in an "algorhythmic" world of absolutist thinking. Artists essentially transform our ways of seeing and perhaps our ways of being in the hope of making us wise.
So art is essential then?
I think so. Who else has that brief as their job description? To make people think through feeling. In an increasingly atomised and disconnected world, I believe this is crucial.
So why not lobby for it then if you so believe in its effect?
Ok let me explore my feelings on this. Lobbying is described as a form of advocacy with the intention of influencing decisions made by the government. The name lobbying came about because such activity would take place in the lobbies or halls of government before or after parliamentary debates. In other words, you have a few moments to pitch your important issue to someone who you don't know but who has the power to make decisions on your behalf.
That simple motivation has turned into an entire industry beset with deeply ethical problems. Firstly, you need to have a personal relationship with the person tasked to make the decisions, or at least know their close friends. This means you might have to start moving in different circles. Next, you need something to trade. The cash-for-questions scandal of a few years ago seems pretty quaint now we have a government dispensing multi-million pound contracts to business associates and ex-PM's whatsapping in their desires.
Lobbying is deemed a core and fair part of the democratic process. The fact that it’s open to such manipulation says a lot about the kind of democracy we currently have. It seems the inherent power imbalance in the exchange – the fact that we have to influence someone we don’t know who has the power to make decisions on our behalf - is, for wont of a better term, uncreative.
But to be an active part of society, we need some way of making ourselves heard don’t we? What do you propose?
Well, I have questions rather than propositions. I’m an artist/curator who brings people together to explore themselves, each other and their relationship to the wider world. I create space to explore possibilities. My exploratory playground, The Space To Come is an environment to prompt new kinds of questioning, to experiment with new ways of exchanging, in order to break the stranglehold of certain tried, tested but flawed approaches.
This project you’re looking at is called Listening to Ourselves and is a collaborative project created by photographer Nina Robinson, sound artist ANNN and myself. With the help of these images and a specially composed soundscape, the project helps us have out-loud conversations with ourselves.
Why would we do that?
Because this is where it all starts. Inside each of us there are wisdoms and knowledge and answers that, if we only gave ourselves time (in this project's case, a mere 20 minutes) we might discover a new idea. We could make peace with ourselves or challenge ourselves. Crucially, we might learn to trust ourselves.
Essentially because we are not taught how to trust ourselves, we hand our power over leading to deep power imbalances in almost every area of society. This creates a governing system that divests each and every one of us of our own agency. The fact that lobbying is based on one group asking for a favour and another waiting to be told what to believe, is disempowering for all concerned.
It sounds like your straying into the realm of the ideal. Do you have an ideal?
Imagine if instead of lobbying, artists created invitations for decision makers and others to meet, not to beg or be told what to do but simply to get to know themselves and each other better. We could have conversations about our lives, the world we currently exist in and the world we might go onto create together. Such crucial conversations shouldn’t happen in closed rooms while the rest of us wait in the lobby. Imagine if artists led those spaces with all we know about creating environments that are inviting and levelling, inspiring and calming, provoking and reflective, with all we know about the deft art of community building. Imagine if we invited everyone in to listen and share and reflect, not from a single interest perspective but from a collective one. Wouldn’t that be more generative for us all?
Sounds great – idealistic – but great.
But isn’t idealism our job? Aren't artists supposed to allow our imagination to fuel our exchanges? What would it be if we were to create the environment of that exchange rather than hanging out in a lobby that we didn’t build? The reason why I think art is essential, is that I honestly believe artists must be architects of the new world not just the decorators. We must expand our process – of inquiry, experimentation, radical remaking, community building, living in the questions – to craft a way of life not just a way to make art. This is what we are exploring at The Space To Come.
Ok I think I get it so instead of lobbying….
Inviting. Opening up invitations for more people to experience how transformative our practices can be, how they can make a difference to the way we organise life.
So how do you think this idea has gone down today?
I don’t know and it’s not my place to guess. I’m just happy to be in a space where I can explore possibilities with other curious and creative minds.
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