For the last few years it has been my great pleasure to work with the Andover based Chapel Arts Studios (CAS), their Director David Dixon, and the various artists of the exciting CAS Associate Artists programme. Since late in 2014, and especially during the spring of 2015, we have engaged in a stimulating and often challenging dialogue about, around, against, and for dissent.
Dissent as an action; a performance; a demand; a relationship; but most provocatively, as a practice, a methodology.
Is it possible to explore dissent as a working method?
Together we considered the ways in which thinkers and academics such as Jacques Rancière and Chantal Mouffe (in Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics and in Agonistics: Thinking the World Politically, respectively) believe we can.
In fact, their theses suggest that within dissent as method lies the route towards creative community, not the debacle of chaos or antagonistic disharmony. We believe that pursuing dissent as method can give rise to a truly productive diversity of perspectives; a space of tension opens up that forces each of us to reflect, review, revise, rethink, redraw, and renew our own positions and productions. In terms of artistic endeavours – the making and presenting of art and exhibitions, for example – such a catalytic methodology (generating new situations, eliciting newly creative responses) has been inspirational. But it has equally excited all of us in terms of the ways in which these ideas and practices reach into our everchanging and often hugely surprising daily lives and political realities.
Our first experimentation with dissent as a working methodology was designed together through workshops and discussions from February to July 2015, and resulted in The Laboratory of Dissent at The Winchester Gallery, August to September 2015. This five week project saw four groupuscules or cells of CAS Associate Artists each undertaking a one-week residency in the gallery, with the fifth week culminating in a group exhibition of artefacts and documentation from each of the week-long residencies and a two-day symposium bringing all the participants and several dozen audience members together to explore the project and its spiky themes and performances.
The project was shot through with surprises, provocations, humour, mourning, curiosity, prognostications, suspicions, and incredulity, occurring as it did at the time of the 2015 European Migrant crisis, and on the cusp of the impending Scottish Referendum, and the as yet unforeseen EU Referendum and its unforeseeable subsequent and continuing Brexiteering, not to mention the utterly unbelievable election in the US of Donald Trump in November 2016. With the rise of far right political parties across Europe and the ever-tightening hold of authoritarian politicians – with their cults of personality and tyrannical and unchecked abuses of executive power – evident across the globe, now, more than ever, it is time to find our voices of dissent and perform meaningful challenges to the threats to democracy and affronts to human decency that roll off the 24-hour news reports and social media feeds and run amok in the public sphere and daily lives of millions.
What began as a chance discovery – that the Chapel Arts Studios is based in a deconsecrated Dissenters chapel in Andover, Hampshire, where many of our fine arts graduates from Winchester School of Art, University of Southampton choose to continue their professional practice after leaving art school (but desiring to stay based locally); that this fact of being based in a space of historic dissent was something CAS wanted to explore; that I wanted to support our graduates in new ways through innovating projects that we might bring to The Winchester Gallery; together with my interest in Rancière’s ideas of the Ignorant Schoolmaster and what this upending of hierarchy and authority and knowledge transmission might mean for how curators commission projects with artists – has developed into a growing collaboration that keeps suggesting new ways forward.
In discussions through 2016 and 2017, as we reflected on The Laboratory of Dissent and felt our way towards new iterations of working with dissent as a methodology of engagement together, the idea was mooted about CAS undertaking an online project that would exploit a social media platform like Instagram to test its limits and claims for connectivity and collectivity and image making and shaping. The ways in which new technological systems shape our daily lives and imaginations and even our bodily engagement (e.g., our haptic understanding of our world of screens) are growing exponentially each day. In response to this suggestion, CAS designed the BlockChain project to once more activate a situation that invites collaboration and response but is open to dissent in many aspects.
It was wonderful to offer CAS artists an opportunity in March 2018 to hold a symposium on the BlockChain project at The Winchester Gallery, where the audience included artists and designers and curators (including students from our MA Contemporary Curation programme), all engaged with understanding how CAS and its artists responded (inconsenting and dissenting ways) to the prompts of the project and its playful connection to the concept of the BlockChain (the controversial online ledger technology that forms the basis of cryptocurrencies like BitCoin, but has the potential for varied applications and could possibly transform a range of businesses and organisations in the coming years).
When I welcomed our audience to that symposium on 8th March 2018, I commented that this project, much like CAS overall, was provocative, diverse, and dynamic. These are just three of the qualities that are foregrounded through CAS’s Dissent project and that constitute the engine of Dissent, driving it forward and delivering its power.
Dissent forces true dialogic and dialectical engagement across ideas and people. It rends narrow consensus apart and forces people to take part, to pick sides, to care enough to get engaged; to take a position, to make a stand.
Yet at the same time, it is dissent as a tool of nuance, as a method that forces you to pay attention and – at its best – that can push you into a new kind of self-awareness, but one that makes you all the better able to relate to your fellow participants: this is what makes dissent a method of tying us together rather than driving us apart. And in this day and age, we need all the ties that bind us productively, creatively, generously to each other to keep us together while we combat all that might otherwise severe our very human connections.
* Dr August Jordan Davis, 31 July 2018
This article was originally published in the Block_Chain project book 2018.
For more information about what actually happened during the 5 weeks of The Laboratory of Dissent listen to this 2019 interview