Gavin McClafferty responds to Kate Ogley’s project, May 2013Posted: May 28, 2013
The realm of what is already meaningful
Socially engaged practice was originally intended to operate outside of the boundaries of the art establishment and of established art practice. It was an attempt to democratise arts practice (which was/is seen as elitist) and in many cases to restore and reinvigorate communities that were ravaged by the after effects of the Second World War and economic decline. Socially engaged projects generally contain an activist edge and are motivated to address a particular issue or achieve a particular end. It seems however that artists have painted themselves into a corner with current attempts by government to achieve measurable benefit-outcomes for the arts. The arts have been adopted as a method by which to drive urban regeneration, to build communities and offset bad planning. With this co-option of what was formally a kind of counter-cultural critique of the establishment, artists are now adopting the anti-aesthetic language of socially engaged practice as a funding tool to pursue an internalised and personal agenda.
In my view where this approach is most successful is when the newly formed community/entity can engage with that agenda, but do so armed with tools and mechanisms provided by the artist to interpret the project from a position of empowerment.
“The artist directs the audience’s attention towards a given view, and provides the means to examine it in a particular way, but does not prescribe specific meaning that should be bought to bear on it. Instead the audience experiences the work and searches for new meanings from within the realm of what is already meaningful.” Stephen Willats in his introduction to Art and Social Function (2000)
I would suggest that Kate Ogley’s practice sits in this developing area. Kate Ogley is involved in data gathering similar in some way to the Mass Observation Project – the songs of migrant or itinerant workers, the lost (or found) spaces of a town centre, the view from a train window. This data could be used by her to define a territory, but this territory need not be geographical but personal.
The process of documentation could be understood as an expression of a subjective intent to map a personal terrain of dislocation, to locate a place in the world. Purpose defines the map, geography becomes incidental. Environments are mapped according to need. The local council could provide you with a street map with all the sewers marked or a town map with housing stock or social grouping, water or electricity mains. Ecologists could provide a map of the distribution of the flora and fauna of the same area.
Artists can provide you with a map with all this information but change the street names to those of a Scandinavian city. At some level all maps are the same/all maps are different.
Within the realm of the socially engaged art project I feel artists have a moral obligation towards the participants: those people who are active in the development of the project. Jordan Baseman, in a recent Q&A, talked about this in relation to the subjects of his films. In his case the works are “creative non-fictions” but there is still a demand to maintain the friendships that arise. People lay themselves on the line and, to greater or lesser degrees, are making themselves vulnerable in so much as they feed truths and commitment into an entity determined by the artist. This in itself is not problematic but it does induce an anxiety within me that their openness must be reciprocated by the artist. An appreciation that through the investment of the people, a new community is manifested, and the artist places themselves as pivotal to this community. This role comes with responsibilities: not merely to behave ethically and in the best interests of that community, but also as a figure head in whom that community have invested their faith.
Kate Ogley is reaching out towards our unacknowledged other selves, a society of talent we are yet to fully embrace and understand. What is important here is the directness of the communication – human to human. The voice, the sound, the timbre, the acoustics, the setting, the occasion, the volume, the meaning, the bond. This is one moment, when it’s taken a lifetime to get here. Then what? How to preserve this moment and capture some small segment or facsimile of the shared experience? That poignant fragment that sat unknowing, unrecognised until it was captured (tamed), later to be referenced as a truth? But it is only a rendering – a half-truth devoid of the air that was breathed at the time, the news of that day, the birds, the time, the place and where you, we went after. What Walter Benjamin termed the optical unconscious, a new realm of experience made accessible by the camera – one sees the other for the first time. The camera presents us with a second, virtual world that contains more (too much) information. As viewers of this rendering are we compelled to learn its new language, to become translators of the visual? A search for signs or signifier?
Are the lens, the aperture, the view finder in fact distancing elements to separate Kate from the reality (pain) as it really exists. Is this removal enough? Although only half a step back it remains just that – distancing. It is not a safe distance like at a firework display. The artist makes her presence felt as a marginal and passing influence, but distant as distinct from dispassionate, far enough back not to be able to project or feel any body warmth.
Kate described how Iranian refugees would stay at the family home en route to permanent housing, relocation, and how one young man became like a brother. In the case of her father Kate described a childhood in the shadow of an eminent male academic involved with Amnesty International; to him his work was not simply an academic research project but a way of life.
In this way Kate’s personal story is inextricably tied to her film works, and the focus on migrant populations, the unrooted. My concern is that within the poignancy of her actions is a grief, and unless this is allowed to express itself the work will be incomplete, missing an entire chapter of detail, complexity and motivation. That it should be present is not a flippant, sensationalist, macabre request. It is because it is a core truth that unites us all, loss is something that we all will face one way or another.
By holding a single unmoving shot for five or more minutes the image tells us little but asks the viewer to focus in, beyond the frame of the screen to imagine the thoughts of the worker or dining car attendant. Kate asks us to join her in this place for a moment and see it how she saw it, hear it how she heard it. This is not the everyday elevated to stardom, this is just the everyday “Offering back to us different perceptions and connections with what is familiar” as Kate says. Kate’s subjects know that the camera is on them but they do not perform. They cut the scallops from their shells. They wash the floor, they close the door.
In her newer film works Kate Ogley focuses on the voice as if we might bear witness to these individuals. Exploring the tonality, expression and breadth of sung images and imagination from other cultures.The songs come from other lives that were lived before and elsewhere. Their presence here and now is to do with a dislocation, a kind of fracture in a continuum for those individuals. Sonic depth is to experience the unmediated sound as it resonates through the performer’s body to yours. An unreproducible sensation and human bond that extends from the performer directly to you as, simultaneously, an individual and as part of an audience – the work becomes a tool for communication between our ordinary lives and those that accompany us unnoticed, unknown and unheard.
Gavin McClafferty, May 2013