Community Practices Facing Practical Communities


Approaching COMMUNITY [disambiguation]
(this text is part of my documentation made for the Skills, Issues, Planning in Community Practices module at Dartington College of Arts)

Understanding the concept of community appears to be a more difficult task than operating through and managing it. Its definitions are, whatsoever, unlikely to be precise and they tend to remain stuck in an open process of tracing frames across a social system. What I wish to underline in this documentation is not the idea of community as a structural entity, but the community as a medium for an art practice.

Contextualizing the study of community practices through institutional frameworks seems questionable and unstable. This can be described in the terms of a common issue that endangers the taxonomy of current academic studies. There is an ongoing process of cultural dazzling within the naming of courses and departments, and most frequently, this happens a lot inside the universities of art, as a primary effect of a so-called strategical freedom of curricula.

Due to this habitual creativity in naming spectacular fields of study, the choice of learning something that is called Skills, Issues and Planning in Community Practices utters the actual existence of any clear path for the student and involves an additional and unofficial task of knowing in advance some information about the course that is supposed to be provided by default.

Assuming that 'community' constitutes the object of this module, what I find curious and at the same time susceptible is the narrowing of tangible possibilities, as a consequence to the premature revealing of the actual translation of 'community practice', where 'community' equals 'group of people' and 'practice' means 'workshop'. Everything else is left outside, or maybe just mentioned as an introductory detail. That is why, despite the initial collective attempt of finding a satisfactory definition for 'community', the purpose of this course massively gravitates around importing skills from a workshop leader and recycling them through a process of theatrical reproduction.

Before I start speaking about the way I see communities and their status as an object of study, I must first make clear my position towards the type of practice that this module encourages: the workshop. I am not personally interested in working with children, with disabled people or with prisoners. I do not care about the safety of the group. I do not care about other practitioners and I am not interested in leading workshops.

A primary reference that I would like to make regards the notion of collectiveness, in the same ideological frame as 'community', and draws from Marshall McLuhan's term of 'global village', which he finds as “the new age when human kind moves from individualism and fragmentation to a collective identity, with a 'tribal base'.”Collectiveness translated as an everyday life structure would apply to any form of social gathering, be it online or offline, physical or virtual. Collective identity thus, is obviously reflected on phenomena like YouTube, MySpace, Hi5, Flickr or World of Warcraft, where sharing and associating are basic behaviors. These structures are not randomly organized, as they emerge from a complex genealogy. Yet, this is one way of looking at a community, by describing it through the internal patterns of relations that develop inside of it.

On the other hand, taking it as an homogeneous assemblage, a community can constitute a medium for the work of an artist. And when I say 'the work of an artist' I do not refer to workshops at all. The disambiguation which I have mentioned in the title and which seems to alter the status of any community related activity traces its routes in a wider opacity, which is the one that makes totally unclear the frames and conditions of 'art'. Not planning to get too deep into this, I only wish to make a clear distinction between the different meanings of the attributes “artistic” and “of art”, which, from my perspective, have been either misused or misinterpreted along the entire module of Community Practices. This is mostly because of a certain lack of language clarity and indetermination in approaching the notion of 'art' itself. I have tried to integrate terms like “professional artist”, “community arts”, “arts worker”, “community based practitioner”or “performing artist” into what I may call a general vocabulary of art activity, and yet, I must maintain my reticent and skeptical position towards accepting these keywords. So I classify them as being part of the “artistic”producers that have full functionality across the field of popular/low/mass culture: they manifest themselves through the production of an “artistic” object or event for the purpose of a social benefit of cultural growth and creative development of groups. This analysis clearly configures the outline of a community practice.

Going further from the community practice to the practical community, a first remark would be a major shift in how this medium (the community) is being handled. The way community practice is actually facing practical community is by changing the destination and the roles of the people involved. The equation is quite simple: when you are doing something for a community (involving yourself in a collective activity within that community) and the outcome of your intervention is a result or a product in its benefit, then this is community practice. When you are doing something with a community, in the purpose of exemplifying or displaying an idea, you are collaborating with the community as with your working material, and the community becomes your medium of work. Then the community does something practical for you and that is why it is a practical community.

One good example of this kind of collaborative practical community is the work of Spencer Tunick, which involves himself traveling around the world and taking photographs of nude individuals or groups. The process of doing this is a brilliant example of handling collaboration between him, as an artist and the communities in which he enters. Every place is new for him, the time of convincing people to pose for his photos is quite limited, the same strategies of photo shooting are applied each time, the same issues arise from the local authorities. He collects thousands of individual signatures from people who voluntarily agree to get naked just to participate in a famous artist’s work. This, I think, makes a very clear distinction between the two kinds of community related practices that I have tried to underline.

Even if the community still remains a physical group of people that are unified at least geographically, the purpose of an art work that recalls collaboration from a community is way too different than the goals of a workshop. The input is collective, in both cases, but while the output is practically individual in a workshop situation, in a practical community there is always this curious stability of the collective act, materialized in a collective experience and ended through a collective response.

Issues of language may often blur the meaning of things, but for the case of ‘community’ I am hoping that dissociating the two aspects is to be a solution for disambiguation.


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