In October 2014 we hosted part of the In Dialogue symposium at Primary in Nottingham. This four-day, multi-venue event brought together multidisciplinary artists and researchers who work with dialogue as part of their practice. One of the recurring themes throughout In Dialogue 2014 was that of 'publicness' – how and when artwork is taken out into the world, and what the encounter is. Figure Ground provided a space for artists to reflect on this – inviting them into the intimate space of a caravan to talk, make and think together. For some, the process of making work is itself public – projects evolve through participatory research and are fully co-created. For others there's a clear moment of making artwork public, which could happen through a commission – contextualising the project in a wider framework such as an arts festival – or as a more spontaneous, unannounced intervention.
For me, both as an artist and in the role of Engagement Curator at Primary, a recurring set of questions come up about the politics of working in public. In Dialogue was an opportunity to explore some of these issues in depth – thinking through the power relations around participatory and public art practices. Through a conversation with Janna Graham and Lorena Rivero de Beer, we discussed creative work as a genuinely powerful tool for change – but asked who holds this power and influences change? Not all artists working in the public realm are interested in social change. But we all interact with the socio-political context we work in, and are drawn for various reasons to work beyond the safe walls of art institutions. In so doing issues of power arise – are you part of a community, co-generating culture? Are you bringing transformative tools into a place? Are you creating an unexpected moment of beauty or humour? Are you collaborating with city planners to strategically change a place? Who's included and excluded from these processes?
Nottingham is a good place to be an artist. It's relatively affordable, and there's a healthy and supportive artist-led scene, with many graduates remaining in the city to start new projects. It's changed over the last decade – with an increase of building-based institutions – that has opened up many opportunities for artists, but possibly closed down others. Historically, Nottingham had a strong Live Art scene, with an annual festival that no longer exists. The City is welcoming to artists, and knits us into its narrative (the recently established 'Creative Quarter' capitalising on this) but can lack imagination and ambition when it comes to art in the public realm. I'm hopeful that all the brilliant, disobedient, creative people who live and work here will continue to experiment, take risks and find ways to re-imagine the places we inhabit.