Marcelo says: – I often call myself a creative practitioner, partially to avoid the marketplace implications of the artist label but also because potentially my work can blur the boundaries of what art is, or thought of. At the same time I do think its important to own the artist role or identify in order to redefine what it means to society.
As an artist with a dedicated focus on socially engaged work, the moments that I find more rewarding are when working collaboratively with people to create a really unique work of art that everyone is proud of. I champion the criticality and aesthetic importance of community driven initiatives as the true place of the avant-garde today. I genuinely think artists who work in cooperative practices are redefining what culture is and how its created, while taking incredible risks. To be true to the field, to all the incredible people I have worked with and to the ethics of engagement itself I could never pick a single project over others. But I will say I feel incredibly lucky to have found my creative fulfilment in this sector of practice.
The biggest challenge any artist may face, especially a socially engaged practitioner is potentially the same any human being faces at various points in their lifetime: overcoming ego.
The arts, especially visual arts, in the era of late capitalism are punctuated by a business driven commodity market that promotes a cult of personality that is the antithesis to social practice. To work collaboratively is to let your creative ego go and be rewarded by the critiques and inputs of others. This can be a lot of tussling and you learn to navigate the elements instead of fighting them to successfully reach your goals.
What does your process look like?
This depends on the project. I’m lucky to have worked as an Artistic Director and Production Manager for years so I have a useful mix of creativity with logistics which helps bring big ideas to fruition. One of my key first entries to any project is to listen. Active listening is such an important tool to find out what drives and motivates the people I am working with, the funders who are investing into a project and other artists who may be joining the work. Generally I have a seed idea I share and see how it germinates with the various interests that may be at work in a location. Then once I feel I have collected enough information to develop a more concrete project plan that fulfils the needs & wants of everyone I tend to tuck away to have some creative time to process and develop. It’s at this point that I really try to create something that is both magical yet grounded and that will inspire. I’m always a bit nervous when I present this back to stakeholders because you never know the response but luckily it has always been positive. But again I genuinely think that’s because my step one is always to listen first.
What has worked best for you when it comes to sharing and promoting your work?
One of the best things has been to reduce my scope. By this I mean I am much more interested in having a smaller audience of dedicated people attend my work and receive my newsletters than a massive list or group that is disinterested. There is real power to developing a strong solid following. I also am really dedicated to working locally. So my projects often are about activating an area and getting local people out, involved and interested. Alongside this I have always been interested in social interventions. This means inserting the work in public and social settings where it may work as a provocation or instigation. The conversations and feedback that ensues are better than any publicity I could drive myself.
How has your practice evolved over time?
What has evolved the most over time is the critical engagement and theory that drives the work. In essence my interests in outdoor arts, site-specific performance and site-responsive installations have remained similar to what I was practicing as a student. But my knowledge base has increased so much, through the books I have read, through the research and publishing I have done, and through the incredible network of people I have met.
What are you working on at the moment?
At the moment I am pretty busy! The Print Shop: Rise Up! is on tour, a pop-up art space that works with people to bring their community concerns into slogan forms and through a DIY process print them on to t-shirts. Currently we’re at Kelburn Garden Party where I am focusing on climate change anxiety and how to give a voice to the fears we’re feeling.
I’m also in the midst of a film project called London Stories: Seeing Through The Eyes of Time, based on an estate in South London working with older people telling their stories of living in the city. A very hard hitting and political piece of work is coming out of what they’re saying!
Finally I am launching my first published artist-book entitled Elan Calls: A Creative Companion Guide. It’s a journey into the protected area of Elan Valley in mid-wales that explores specific sites through illustrations and text. This is the result of a rural artist residency living off-grid for a month in the valleys and chatting with rangers, farmers, radical archeologists, conservationists and residents of the area.
What decisions, activities or support have made the biggest impact on your professional practice?
My practice shifted dramatically after the financial crash of 2008. I dissolved the company I had called Lotos Collective and began work as a self-employed sole trader. From this point forward instead of developing ideas and then fundraising them I moved to applying for commissions and grants. This process has helped me make sure all my projects are funded and that I and other professionals are paid to work on them. For a few years I was part of Community Geeks, a meet-up or civic minded people who were leaders in their field from medicine, to technology to engineering. I was the only artist and often wondered if I could develop something like this for artists. In 2017 I was invited to join a Collaborative Arts Peer Forum that Eelyn Lee had put together. She had seen a talk of mine on collaborative arts at Artangel for a commission I had recently done. From there we worked together to merge these ideas into one and created Social Art Network. We worked tirelessly to develop the Social Art Summit in 2018, as a national review of social practice. This event was like an energy bomb that I am still reeling from. So much has come from it that I have a hard time keeping up!
What have you learned from your career as an artist that you would most like to pass on to other practicing artists?
Often as an artist you can feel disillusioned. This is one of the careers where you take huge personal risks, and confront constant rejection. The best advice I would give other practicing artists was given to me once by another artist who seemed quite successful to me. What he said was simple: “Never give up”. This may not sound like much but it’s everything. How many times as an artist have you questioned your work, yourself, your whole purpose and thought about giving up? I don’t know any artists who haven’t suffered these existential crisis. But I can say this advice has helped drive me past those moments when things seem against me and helped me come out to those moments when things seem in my favour. So whatever you do, don’t ever give up.
What is the Social Art Network and how can people get involved?
The Social Art Network (SAN) was born out of a need to break the isolation that artists dedicated to social engagement often face, and remind us that we are many and that our work is meaningful. Not only meaningful but the antidote to a world in a perpetual state of deep anxiety and crises at the moment. SAN exists in 10 cities across the country and is a volunteer-led group that helps promote, safeguard and champion artists working in social practice. There are all kinds of artists from filmmakers, to dancers, to community-driven initiatives, that all are dedicated to socially engaged work. SAN is always artist-led and has been called a movement by many. Being part of SAN is an invitation to support yourself and others by holding hands across the country and reminding each other we are not alone, we have incredible power in numbers, and we are the knowledge holders of working within community contexts. Social Practice has its finger on the pulse of society and is creating in my opinion the most important work of our times.
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