Originally published on VASW, July 2018
Josie Cockram sends us a postcard from Jamboree, a bespoke artist-led professional development event, which brought together 150 visual artists, curators and programmers in a relaxed outdoor setting, on the Dartington Estate near Totnes, Devon, from 28 June – 1 July.
The sun was blazing outside and Friday began with some hot questions. Is art a political weapon? Are we doing good? Being useful? Do we want to be? Should we abandon exhibitions? How are we going to live with each other in the future?
I joined Jamboree for the first day of three – talks, walks and free range conversation amidst the pastures of Devon’s Dartington estate. Artists, curators and writers camped for the weekend on the invitation of Plymouth-based LOW PROFILE.
Image: Participants on a ‘walk and talk’ in the grounds of Dartington estate during Jamboree 2018. Photo: Andy Ford.
I chose to join PEER director Ingrid Swenson for a seminar that got to the heart of her approach to the politics of making. She described a poster campaign that PEER developed in 2010 – a provocation in response to New Labour’s reframing of Arts Council England’s agenda. In the years since, the question of whether art can/should reach the parts that politicians fail to reach has only got more urgent. So we started by asking what it is we’re all responsible for, and whether a sense of responsibility is always sincere.
Ingrid’s position was nuanced but she explained that PEER starts from the position that the exquisite, the exceptional, should be ordinary. Housed on a high street, for residents of Shoreditch her gallery is on the way to work and on the way home. And it is all window.
As Ingrid answered questions about that window, the vitrine it creates and how people find it, the conversation veered further towards the slippery issue of transparency. Does the spending of public money necessitate a shared agenda? Do we create conditions whereby projects just appear to subscribe? If you can’t find the art, if a gallery has a discrete entrance, with a hidden doorbell, is it for everyone? Does it need to be for everyone? And if you aren’t aware that you’re encountering art, does it matter? What was it Matt said? Something like: ‘If there’s a picnic in a park that everyone enjoys but no-one knows it’s art, I have a problem with that’. Should art be a frame that can shrink and expand indefinitely? Does it have to be embraced?
Ingrid steered us back to generosity. She showed us an image of Catherine Story’s installation at PEER. I had a tutorial with Catherine when I was at art school. We railed together against all the art we never wanted to make, the artists we never wanted to be. She was cantankerous and biting. And then she said that it all comes back to what we love, to the generosity of our attention. That tutorial was one of the places that my work began, with the recognition that politics is inescapably implicit in the sensibility of a practice, the context of a work.
Ingrid talks about the roots of value, how it is shaped and shared, in her essay ‘The Best Is Not Too Good for You (1). She writes about pottery and treasures and I am reminded that Dartington is the perfect setting for these discussions. The estate was born of a radical rethinking of the place that art, architecture, education and sustainable agriculture had in rural community. Visitors from the Bauhaus and modernist potters Marianne de Trey and Lucie Rie were enlivened working in these buildings, walking these pathways.
We looked out on that vista over lunch. Whilst I had been thinking about window frames and Catherine Story, other Jamboree participants had joined other seminars. Alistair Hudson had been asking my lunch companions, ‘If we truly want to democratise art, should we abandon exhibitions for good?’. Sonia Dyer had asked if Franco Beradi was right and late capitalism has stolen the imaginative space we need to find the future – do we need to steal it back? Simon Morrissey and Lucy Day had also been raising questions, proposing thievery and abandoning themselves to the peripheries.
So I heard reports, hearsay and stories of mechanical institutes whilst I ripped my way through a wood-fired pizza. I started the afternoon satiated, but with more questions:
Do we want to democratise art? Had that been agreed whilst I was at another seminar? And if art needs to be ‘useful’, what do those edifices that we explicitly built to be useful need to do? Is there a vote on what’s useful? A referendum? Or does the man at the top decide? Because there is always someone pulling some strings, making an argument that doesn’t feel right but is tricky to counter, whether they’ve declared themselves or not.
Naomi said, ‘There was a little group of us, a little group of dissent…’
I said, ‘I wish we could have all got in a room together. I would have liked to see what Ingrid or Sonia would have said to Alistair’. I would have liked to see what I would have said to Alistair. I wanted a ruck – this seemed like a good time and the place for it.
ruck 1 |rək|
noun: a tightly packed crowd of people: ‘Harry squeezed through the ruck to order another beer’. Or: the mass of ordinary people or things: ‘is education a way out of the ruck?’
ruck 2 |rək|
verb [ with obj. ]: compress or move (cloth or clothing) so that it forms a number of untidy folds or creases: ‘her dress was rucked up to her armpits’
ruck 3 |rək|
noun informal: a rucksack: ‘I barely had time to repack my ruck’.
ruck 4 |rʌk|
Brit. Informal: noun: a quarrel or fight, especially a brawl involving several people. verb [ no obj. ]: ‘with no money and nothing to do, they started rucking’
We were civilised though; pecha kucha presentations were pulled from carefully packed rucksacks and we listened to each other. Later in the afternoon, before the first beer, I joined a walk to discuss power. What is it? Where is it? If we can locate it, can we share it? I talked to Eva, a young writer. She said that she works somewhere with a ‘flat’ power structure. She said that everyone got to do their thing but that it could be confusing – ‘I don’t really know who’s doing what, or who to go to when I have a problem’.
I was invited to another conference for artists and arts producers recently – designed to be useful, attendees would learn how to solve their own problems and be resilient. The problem is I think that one of the possibilities for art is to ask whether we should be resilient and masterful, whether we want to be and whether we should have to be. More contentiously, I wonder if art is the place where we ask whether there could in fact be value in fallibility, in helplessness, in useless, flapping free fall.
So I don’t think art, or artists, should necessarily be on the hunt for power. On the other hand, I can’t see what’s not to like about power, unless it goes undercover. I like things out in the open. In the wild. Although it’s obvious we need to equip poachers everywhere to take a shot – education should keep us all in the ruck.
When I went to Jamboree I loved the long grass, the wandering, the gathering, the provocations, the possibilities, but I did hunger for more heat, even in the sunshine.
– Josie Cockram, July 2018
Jamboree 2018 brought together 150 visual artists, curators & programmers from around the UK. It took place on the Dartington estate from 28 June to 1 July. Jamboree was devised & curated by LOW PROFILE and supported by Arts Council England. The project was developed in partnership with a-n, The Artists Information Company, and Plymouth College of Art, with additional support from VASW and other SW organisations.
(1) Ingrid Swenson, ‘The Best Is Not Too Good For You’ in The Best Is Not Too Good For You: New Approaches to Public Collections in England, 2014, 59-77. London: Contemporary Art Society and Whitechapel Gallery.