Who asks the questions?

The Indigenous scholar and poet, Dian Million, frames an introduction of oneself as a set of relations and an introduction is an acknowledgement of, who walks with us. Who walks with us is an introduction to the people who have influenced us, guided us, troubled us, nurtured us. Introducing ourselves to others is simultaneously an introduction to those with whom we have shared a common history, land, or family. This set of introductions doesn’t just refer to people but also to places; it includes the waters we live by and consume, the land we walk upon, and the air we breathe. Who we walk with isn’t an abstraction but something deeply personal.

So let me introduce myself to you in relation to the collection of artists featured in this website.

Unbeknownst to myself when I initiated this collection of interviews I was in part uncovering a path of my own practice as a ‘socially’ engaged artist over the course of thirty years. As it turned out I had in some way either worked with, created documentaries on, influenced, or had some relationship through my work as a community engaged theatre and media artist with most of the artists featured in this website.

Thirty years ago, socially engaged art practices, as represented within this series of conversations, were not recognized with any legitimacy within cultural or educational institutions. There was little or no designated arts funding for community engaged arts within the public or private sectors. And for the most part the work produced out of these encounters was viewed with little interest within these same institutions.

Many of the early experiments in this field were activist based and viewed as that. Influenced by the pedagogies emerging out of social liberation movements in Latin America, through the feminist movement, and through the reclaiming of folk craft or vernacular art.1

What was shared through performance, art making, dance, and music was an attempt to re-frame narratives, represent lives and communities excluded from mainstream artistic cultures and audiences. There was an active seeking on the part of the communities and the artists to create new meanings, new forms of expression, new relationships and new narratives through making and creating. And a call for those who came to be witnesses to these events.2

What we experienced was that the people involved in these many of these projects appeared happier and more resilient after completing the hard work of creative practice.3 The groups of people with whom I worked with and with whom we formed ‘community’4 even in its most temporal sense appeared to benefit from this work. Some of the benefits gained from these encounters were, my opinion, not because it was easy and not necessarily because it provided recreational opportunities and social encounters. But because of the creative demands asked of us.

Drama educator, Gavin Bolton, speaks of the “here and now,” “spontaneous,” and “existential” moments, which may be found in dramatic play, which he states, have two components: the descriptive and the existential (Bolton, 1992, 10, 17). According to Bolton, when participants “submit” to the fictitious or imaginary world they are creating, the dramatic play is “here and now”; where, suggests performative inquiry scholar Fels (1998), participants straddle the not yet real and real world(s) of lived experience; and, in the interstices, a possible world becomes momentarily realized.

Primarily, the creating of something from nothing—whether it is an event or an object created along side or in collaboration with others in order to draw meaning in the here and now—is the hidden hand of power within this creative practice. Remembering, just as Million invited us to frame an introduction within the frame of a network of relations, we could chose to introduce ourselves within the social, political, economic conditions of our lives, as well. Who we walk with and where we walk matters. The history of, socially engaged art was in part an innovation and a response to crisis. In my particular experience, it was a call to respond to the AIDS crises as it was being experienced in British Columbia particularly in Vancouver in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s

Hannah Arendt (1954) writes about crises as an opportunity that obliterates prejudices and lays bare “the essence of the matter” (174).  She also asserts that the disappearance of prejudices means ‘that we have lost the answers on which we ordinarily rely. A crisis becomes a disaster only when we respond to it with preformed judgments that with prejudices. (174)

Many artists in this collection of interviews do not believe their work emerges through pre-determined frames.  In this sense, the making of art strikes at the core of pre-formed prejudices. The process of creative practice can only evolve through an inquiry that has no preformed answers and is not seeking any. Creative practice forces us to forfeit preformed and prejudiced narratives. Creative practice asks that we seek out something new and make something of it. Creative practice requires an open-ended inquiry. If we enter into this kind of inquiry with an already formed outcome or pre-ordained sets of understandings all we can do is create replication and duplication, neither of which can offer the potentiality of producing new meaning in the here and now.

My practice and those of many others interviewed here sought encounters and opportunities to work alongside communities and groups of people who were seeking some form of expression in order to, in the most naïve sense, put right that which is wrong. For many of the projects it is difficult to know whether the work we did together has made any lasting difference. There was little follow up research or institutional support to find out what happened in those early years.  As the years passed, a more nuanced understanding of the effects of this work has emerged, and with this understanding the need to create opportunities for sustainability. Yet in the opinion of many, the heart of this work still defies definition and is still evolving outside of institutional settings and frames.

When asked to reflect upon the past in order to talk to the future my journey has been a journey of beautiful failures, questionable success, of exhausting encounters, of contentiousness and unresolvedness. In the early years I found myself more often than not in atmospheres of urgency, marginalization, and crises. This work was being seen and being played out in the arena of activism.  Through the generosity of others, we sought to open windows into the darkest nights and into places inhabited sometimes by the lightest of souls.

Varela (1987) writes, of bringing forth a new possible world through our actions.  “What we do,” Varela says, “is what we know, and ours is but one of many possible worlds. It is not a mirroring of the world, but the laying down of a world.”5 (62)  Creative practices in the company of others, seeking to understand, to resolve, to renew, to re-imagine what now is can open a new world into what is possible. And what is possible in our lives helps us to address the gap that dwells between what was and what could be. With that in mind, I invite you to consider with me the responses of this remarkable collection of artists as I ask them what needs to be preserved as it is re-imagined in the future?

—Patti Fraser

1. Vernacular designates a value on that which was homemade, or homebred, and derived from the commons

2. See Renea Morriseau interview on this website

3. Cohen, 2006) The Creativity and Aging Study; The Impact of Professionally Conducted Cultural Programs on Older Adults

4. Illich forwards the practice of hospitality as ‘recovering threshold, table, patience and listening, these activities generate seedbeds of virtue and friendship and radiate out for the possible rebirth of community. Ivan Illich with Jerry Browne, We the People, KPFA, March 22, 1996

5. Varela, F. (1987). Laying down a path in walking. In W.I. Thompson (ed.), GAIA: a way of knowing — political implications of the new biology (pp. 48-64). Hudson, NY: Lindisfarne.