By Christine Mehta
We sat in an empty, whitewashed room under harsh floodlights, but the atmosphere was anything but spartan.
We (meaning the Global Villages team of Alex, Arne, the British photographer, Fabrice, and myself) were in the new building of the Guwahati Artists’ Guild, currently under construction, but still teeming with signs of creativity underneath the rubble, like paintings leaned against building blocks and half-finished sculptures resting between pieces of lumber.
The Guild members, mostly consisting of young to middle-aged Guwahati men, listened to Alex and Arne present Artefacting with expressions ranging from mild confusion to avid interest. Alex spoke of Dharavi, Detroit, and Queens, art as social practice and community engagement, art as not just expression but engagement, and of Artefacting’s various successes in their previous projects. One young man, a local Guwahatian, leaned forward and raised his hand when Alex had finished speaking.
“I’m sorry, I really want to, but I just don’t understand what you want to do. Is it so hard to explain every time you start a project?” he said apologetically with a slight smile.
The answer is both yes and no. The theory behind what Artefacting does is abstract, but that’s because what Artefacting produces is only partially tangible. What we traditionally understand as “art” can be seen, felt and touched in the form of a painting, sculpture, or photograph. What is less tangible, and less easily understood, is what the art is supposed to create. Isn’t art the end product? This is an art project, after all. In this case, and at the root of the young man’s question was, “What is the art supposed to do?”
That was the same question I had when I began this project. As a journalist, I don’t usually identify as an artist or an abstract thinker. On the contrary, I document reality and life as it happens around me, rather than create or interpret it. But with a journalist’s innate curiosity, I’ve found myself drawn to the theory behind the project, and indeed answering the question, “What is art supposed to do?”
In the minds of a growing number of artists, designers, filmmakers, urban planners and creatives of all backgrounds, art can be more than the end product, but the canvas for social change, and even tangible impact outside the creative sphere. They call it “art as a social practice,” or “socially-conscious art.” Groups like the Social Practice Artists’ Network (SPAN), Broken City Lab in Windsor, and of course Artefacting, have sprung up as participants and creators of this dynamic, yet incredibly nebulous, concept.
“Social practice is a lifelong learning,” according to a university presentation on social practice out of Barcelona, Spain. While difficult to define universally, I feel that this definition most accurately encompasses what Artefacting attempts to stimulate with its projects. The impact, in its ideal form, is to spark a thirst and a means for lifelong learning and discussion.
The caveat is applying “social practice” to the developing world. Even in the West, let alone countries that struggle with poverty and starvation, the measurable impact of art, beyond mere appreciation, is still under debate. And in a country such as India, the measure of impact and “added value” of a product is a bar set high for most nonprofit projects.
The concept of art creating an impact, rather than just being a static object of appreciation is still rather new, and frankly, subject to skepticism. How can one measure the impact of a painting, a photograph, or a film? Certainly not in the same way one can evaluate the impact of a healthcare or financial model. So, does that mean that art has less value in the developing world? In countries where simply surviving is top priority, is recognizing the value of cultural and social identity a priority at all?
Frankly speaking, most likely not.
So, art has to adapt. Art must take on new forms to exist and create value for itself in a world where existence is raw, and life and death are closely aligned with one another. In theory, this is a difficult concept to reconcile, how can expressions of art possibly contribute to the livelihood of a community the way a highly effective food subsidies program can? Of course, the two are incomparable. But still, art can be seen as having a long-term impact, one that has to do with the identity of the community and investing in recognizing their humanity, beyond meeting their bodily needs. In the end, we are all more than our material needs, we are communities with social issues and needs that get de-prioritized in the face of hunger and thirst, but nonetheless degrade the identity of a society and what it means to be human, no matter the difficulties of the circumstances one lives in, or the degree of aid one needs to survive.
Later on in the discussion, after he understood Artefacting’s mission, the same young man at the Guwahati Artists’ Guild asked, “I am not an artist, but I believe in what you are trying to do. Can I still be a part of it?”
Art is not anymore about exclusivity, but inclusivity. Besides, who can really qualify as an artist? Does one have to be a “creative?” Does one have to be trained in the fine arts to create art or express beauty? Of course, every work of art may not be exhibited in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, but that does not mean it is not art. Art as a social practice or movement is about taking art outside of the vacuum of a museum or exhibit, and bringing it to unconventional venues and manifesting it in untraditional ways to have radically unexpected impacts in real time on real-life communities.
In fact, as a journalist, I would not qualify myself as an artist under traditional circumstances, and rightly so. No one would even consider buying any paintings I decided to paint. However, I am here to tell a story, to spark discussion, and discover new modes of expression. So in this context, I am an artist.