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Report: Community Art in Public Space

On the 6th of November, 2017, Co.Laborations, HKU and Maanzaad.nl organized a debate about community art in public space. The central question this afternoon was as follows: How can community art contribute to the creation of an inclusive city (Utrecht in this case)? Those who visited came from different backgrounds – artists, policy makers, and academics – and together they tried to answer this question. Below you can find a report.

The event started off with an introduction round so that the invitees could get to know each other. A rather playful activity was organized to do this. First, you were paired up with someone who you got to know in a short time span by asking questions like: What does (s)he hope to get out of this meeting? And: What does (s)he think (s)he can contribute to this discussion (i.e. from which perspective are they approaching the topic)? Then, later on, you had to introduce your partner to the rest of the group by trying to repeat the answers (s)he gave in the personal conversation you just had.

After this introduction round, Eugene van Erven (Head of the department of Media and Culture Studies) gave a short lecture on community art. By giving a few examples of community art that contributed to the creation of an inclusive city – and by giving a few examples which resulted in the exact opposite – he made it clear that community art, and especially participating in the creation of community art, does not come into being as easy as it may seem. Van Erven emphasized that “community” is the (almost) most important part of creating community art. Without the support of the community the art is created for – or, more preferably, with – you can barely give the label “community art” to it. Because: for who are you creating the art otherwise?

When Van Erven’s finished his short lecture you were again paired up with your introduction-round partner to brainstorm about how an inclusive city can be accomplished. Each pair was asked to come up with ten ideas from which one had to be elaborated on in a general presentation to the rest of the group. During this presentation, the other participants could react to these ideas by discussing if they agreed with the statements that were being made. This was, again, done in a playful manner by applying the method of “deep democracy”: the participants had to move through the room to make visible if they opposed, or supported a statement by moving away (in the case they didn’t agree), or moving closer (in the case they agreed), to the person expressing the statement. The discussion was lead by Nelly van der Geest and Mirjana Smolic, who would sometimes ask a participant to elaborate on the spot (s)he chose. From thereon, new discussions often arose.

This way of discussing community art and the role it could play in creating an inclusive city ensured a dynamic discussion in which everybody could give an opinion without explicitly having to say anything. Noteworthy, the most important points made were no conclusions; rather, they were questions. What is the role of the artist? Who do we include while talking about “the neighborhood”? Who should you consult during the process of making? What purpose does art in public space have? And so forth.

There were some points all participants – more or less – agreed on. Firstly, people should put more energy in stimulating new artists to make art for the (or their) community. Secondly, there should be more consideration for the diversity of artists who create community art regarding, for example, gender, ethnicity, and age. This diversity should also be brought to the attention of policy makers: everyone should feel represented.

To end this report on the Community Art event, organized by Co.Laborations, HKU and Maanzaad.nl, I would shortly like to reflect on it. Strikingly, the lack of the “community” Van Erven talked about in his short lecture was reflected by the composition of the participants during this event. There were no “ordinary” inhabitants of Utrecht present at this meeting. Although they were invited, they did not attend. I found this a bit unfortunate, exactly because of what Van Erven pointed out earlier on. Nevertheless, the afternoon proved to be very fruitful and full of interesting debates and dynamic discussions in which important questions were raised, and in which agreements were reached.

For a video of the event, see: https://vimeo.com/245215483/