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Artist Roundtable (A.RT): Art and Politics

By Todd Lester

It's a new, interesting initiative for the visual arts to have this sort of thing happening, and I'm really excited to take part. It's not very often that as an artist you have the potential to sit down and have a conversation with three people that are experts in their fields like this … where you can have a back and forth, and present your own concerns to them. I'm also excited because it's not just a discussion; it has the potential to affect the direction that my art practice goes in. 

                                                                                                                  – Mark Prier

On the evening of Thursday, September 11, 2014, the Artist Roundtable (A.RT) was born. A.RT is a new model for bridging artistic and scientific methods, and which places artists at the center of that change. The Guelph event, which featured Mississauga-based multimedia artist Mark Prier, is the first in a series of international roundtables where artists can share their ideas and projects with scientists, historians, policymakers, politicians, community organizers, first nation, and social movement leaders. The event is a part of Cities for People, and produced locally by Musagetes, an international organization that strives to make the arts more central and meaningful in peoples’ lives, communities, and societies.

The need to bridge the gap between artists and those who have the power to create change is not new. Over the past decade, I have met many artists with social issues they feel passionate about, and on which they’ve focused their artistic practice. These artists have often been stakeholders of freeDimensional—an organization I founded that helps artists in danger by providing safe haven solutions in artist residencies and other supportive communities—and living in other parts of the world under harsh conditions or fleeing to a new location to avert danger. At the same time, artists in parts of the world away from conflict zones and enduring autocratic regimes grapple with similar issues yet experience different setbacks than safety—e.g. distance, financial resource—that can isolate them from others tackling the same challenges.

The Artist Roundtable and its pre-planning stage both requires and assists the identification of complementary entities, actors, and fields with the artist in the center of the process. In this way, the roundtable process has a value that goes beyond the discreet learning and exchange that occurs in the relatively short timespan of the public event. It helps to narrow the artist’s target audience, which is a step towards finding the most useful entry point for an artist’s project (or longer term interest) to communities, social movements, and policy areas. This technique also identifies non-arts partners who need the innovations that an artist may bring to an intractable social problem.

Taking its cue from the U.N. Climate Summit on Sept. 23 in New York City, the inaugural roundtable discussion focused on aspects of climate change. This roundtable featured Prier, as well as historian John English, entomologist Rosemarie De Clerk-Floate, museum director Gordon Knox, and was moderated by former Dutch diplomat, Jeanne Wikler. Wikler, an expert in the use of narrative and storytelling for relating an artist's work in a compelling way when communicating with policymakers (as well as funders, programmers, activists, etc.), provided preliminary coaching for all the panelists and co-designed the overall event. Prier’s ongoing project, Grey County Pastoral: Proton Township Exclosure, is a living installation that attempts the restoration of a historically-documented forest in southern Ontario on one acre of land. He creates miniature, nearly virtual versions of the history of our natural environment, letting us experience what the region was like before settlers colonized the land. He has a particular interest in forest ecologies and the dynamic between native and invasive species in Ontario.

While Prier’s work is an abstract gesture, it conveys historical and ecological specificity while also being playful, visible, and shareable. Audience members can view documentation online and/or visit the site with the artist. Its simplicity carries nostalgia along with an urgent call to look at the land and watch how it changes in our lifetimes. By working at a micro-scale, Prier can emulate the dramatic changes the land has undergone for even longer periods than we can remember. The panelists concurred that such interventions are useful in capturing the hearts and minds of people, such as city dwellers, who are only related to this change of the natural habitat through their consumption patterns. De Clerk-Floate remarked similarities between her work with The Field Notes Collective, a collective of art professionals and scientists working in the Southern Alberta area who are bound by a shared set of social, environmental, and cultural concerns.

The essence of the Artist Roundtable concept is building and strengthening connections between the work of artists and other professionals. The Artist Roundtable is currently being piloted (or rehearsed given its performance nature) in an effort to establish it as an ‘open source’ approach, intended for borrowing, changing, documenting, and evolving through application in numerous different fields and contexts—and on various themes—from urban to rural, and from one-off conference and festival settings to longer-term community, university, organizational, and institutional processes. The naming of the concept is, therefore, quite strategic. By calling it the Artist Roundtable, we are resisting brand identity so that it does not appear to be ‘owned’ by any one organization, even those that came together to pilot it.

The idea for the roundtable came from an existing body of work, which embedded artists into other sectors and atypical spaces where they were not expressly invited to share their ideas, including Robert Rauschenberg’s Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) and the Artist Placement Group, as well as newer models such as Good Pitch, a system for reviewing and supporting social issue documentary films. Additionally, Artist Roundtables borrow from widely accepted art education practices such as seminars, group critiques and master classes, studio visits, and portfolio reviews, as well as design charrettes (a meeting in which all stakeholders in a project attempt to resolve conflicts and map solutions) from the urban planning and architecture disciplines.

By expanding on these accepted formats, the Artist Roundtable enables artists to confidently articulate their intended impact and creates a channel for ongoing dialogue between artists and thought leaders, who together will answer questions like: What segment of the community is your work intended to serve? What policy questions and solutions does your work raise? How can you amplify your outcomes?

We are developing a flexible and modifiable approach for artists to share their ideas and innovations beyond the art world, and to propose a comfort zone in which artists can talk to policymakers, politicians, community organizers, social movement leaders, and vice versa. The approach consists of a suite of activities, including preparatory coaching, a public roundtable discussion, documentation, and tailored follow-up engagement based on the proceedings of the roundtable, geared to enhance dialogue with representatives from a range of sectors. These sectors need the ideas that artists generate, and yet do not regularly or systematically engage with artists who hold current insights and actionable solutions to many common issues. 

*****

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Todd Lester is an artist and administrator. He founded freeDimensional and more recently Lanchonete.org, a project focused on daily life in the Center of São Paulo, where he currently lives.

[Photos courtesy of Mark Prier]

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