Art makes a space for us to respond to things that are outside everyday conventi-ons. The play of children exists in a similar parallel territory, as observed by Tim Gill 1, a leading thinker on childhood:
‘When children are playing freely, rules, conventions, structures, codes of behaviour are all up for grabs in the pursuit of novelty and stimulation. It is not that these pro-cesses are ignored, abandoned or destroyed – that would be true chaos. Rather, there needs to be a degree of uncertainty and unpredictability about their application in order for play to flourish .’
Art Camp operated from derelict post-industrial and other spaces. At the time that we inhabited them, these were all spaces that had wholly or partially lost their mean-ing through the loss of their original use. The value of a place that has lost its mean-ing is that it is incomplete and open to in-terpretation, there is room for speculation and uncertainty. This loss of meaning, as much as the collapse of the fabric of a building, is what makes a ruin, and a ruin exists between a now that will cease to exist
and the future which will be different.
These kinds of spaces are open to interpretation and appropriation, places of uncertainty that make us come to our own, often-precarious relation to place, places where meanings are made rather than received.
The naming of Art Camp was initially ironic, a kind of boot camp for art that would be uncompromising and ‘correctional’, a place to consciously examine the relationship between child and artist, between art, play and creativity as the conditions where propositions can emerge. It was to be a place to resist the indulgence that art, like play is only always fun, rather than complex, exposing and hard to do; a place to resist a child’s (and an artist’s) relationship to art as an unreflective product that comes from a brief and a set task.
Open Air Art School was conceived as an alternative to the typical scenario of ‘artist delivers workshop to child’. Instead, the aim was for the artist to create the conditions to instil a habit of appropriation, and to encourage in the children a capacity to identify and make the most of scarce and overlooked resources.
For Art Camp to be a site of genuine,
speculative exploration for the child and the artist, it has to be an open-ended situation without the constraints of ‘doing art’ on either the artist’s terms or to meet the expectations of the children (or client). The artist outside the art gallery operates as the specialist in a non-specialist environment and has to address the pull of autonomy (their ambition to make an ‘art work’) and the give and take of engagement.
The child operates as a child.
In play children describe and negotiate the rules of a game to and with one another, the artist must decide how much and how to describe their intentions, while perhaps not knowing – at that point – what their intentions will be. For the child play has no outcome, but for the artist, practice has an outcome. This is not so much explaining, ‘what I am doing’, but rather ‘how I am going to post rationalise this as an art work.’
During the life of Art Camp, this issue of disclosure – the social sculpting of the situation and the inherent imbalance of conscious authorship, remained in flux and was addressed through an on-going dialogue with the children to share as
freely as possible the outcomes for the artist. This relationship between the artist and the child, between art and play, was described as co-authoring where, with degrees of give and take, each was the material for the other.
The first ‘give’ was that of the artist making an initial ‘event scenario’ as the open-ended introduction to the site. The aim of the ‘event scenario’ was to avoid a prescriptive task and instead make an invitation. The ‘event scenarios’ took different forms, for example one form was to dress the site with ‘loose parts’: props, materials, tools and skills, in a way where the parts could be re-assembled and the skills (as adults) brought into play.
The event scenario as a concept emerged in the second year of Art Camp as a way to describe a non-task orientated situation, if there is no ‘making task’ there is still a need to ‘begin’. This ‘how to begin’ started to gel as the process of taking the children to a place rich in possibilities and standing back, coming forward, standing back, constructing a context and then reflecting on that context, this process was not a delivery model but an iterative relationship and shared occupation and investigation of a fragile social,
cultural and typological niche.
For example, a decision was made to programme Art Camp 2012 with the on-site experiences being interspaced with conversations back at the youth club and concluding with opportunities for consolidating and exhibiting the process. In addition to this extended relationship with the children, we also formalised a relationship with undergraduate youth workers who shadowed the project as work placements, organised through local resident and university lecturer, Tracie Trimmer 2.
The iterative process can be seen in the timeline for Splatter House where the children’s reaction to the first scenario either was either observed or discussed with them and this then shaped the next invitation. Here, the children were given a map to find the route from the youth club to the warehouse Art Camp site and lead the way. Along the route were placed piles of discarded furniture, some of the children remember the previous year and begin to collect the furniture.
Andreas Lang draws up in Wick on Wheels, his converted milk float and offers the children a lift, this enables them to collect more ‘rubbish’.
This open-ended process means that the artist has to accept unexpected outcomes, including things being destroyed and ignored, as well as things being made. The outcome of this open-ended process was not necessarily artifacts, but was the intangible but seminal and lasting impact of the experience, the memento mori.
However the funding client, though supportive, wanted Art Camp to be a model that could be scaled up and replicated (or monetised). The client wanted muf to deliver a service model, through commissioned artists, rather than to operate ourselves as artists. This tension between Art Camp as a product and Art Camp as critical practice led to a series of mistakes. These failures, though time consuming, were clarifying.
Our first failure was our collective inability to articulate and then to adequately defend the experimental process as the driver of the artist-authored outcome. Although much lip service is paid to the value of open-ended artists’ briefs, both clients and artists collude in premature outcomes driven by the limits of fee, time and the security of an artwork product. If the pre-development sites were
spaces of uncertainty, where meaning was made rather than received then the process had to also engage with this degree of uncertainty. The client and the youth workers’ response to uncertainty, however, was to push towards simplification, which was an approach that arrived too early at an Art Camp formula. Their tendency was to advise the child what was and what was not art, and to celebrate and value the child’s creativity in the form of technical skills above critical decision-making. They downplayed the shifting relationship between the artist and the child, where each is the ‘material’ for the other.
As part of the inaugural process the client suggested the children should participate in the selection process of the artists, and that the children demonstrate their commitment by bringing an artwork of their own making to the initial meeting. Although asked to do so, none complied by bringing an artwork. However, this engendered an expectation that Art Camp would be an environment where things recognisable as art would be made and consequently activities that fell outside the conventions of drawing or painting or sculpture were initially viewed with suspicion.
In terms of the selection this proved a terrible decision. Children like what they know, it is only in rarefied moments of play that children experiment with new ways of doing things and take the familiar and change it in some way – this was the point of the project, to make space for those rarefied moments, but somehow we forgot, and our responsibility to provide an experimental environment was turned into a gimmick.
Art Camp was always conceived as action research, a process-generated outcome that shares many similarities to that of loose parts play environments. Art Camp diverges from a play environment in that the artist is also in a position to post-rationalise and reflect back to the children, not just on the creative process, but on also how this becomes art through critical framing. For that reflection to be effective an extended dialogue with the children over a sustained period is necessary.
by Katherine Clarke