As part of Create’s Conversations for Change series with leading practitioners, thinkers and activists, we are delighted to host a conversation between Irish artist, writer and educator Fiona Whelan and Australian based academic Gretchen Coombs. The question of writing about socially engaged art is of tremendous importance, however creating a trace of the work is often the aspect of collaborative projects that gets overlooked, due to lack of time and resources. This conversation explores writing both as a form of practice and encounter in collaborative work and writing as a form of advancing the analysis of practice and its critical coordinates in the diverse contexts in which socially engaged art occurs.
Writing has multiple roles in Fiona’s work. Her collaborative practice has a strong narrative focus, typically involving personal testimonies and group conversations transcribed and collated to form written scripts for group workshops, dialogical events, performances and most recently poetry. In addition, akin to an ethnographer, Fiona is a committed note taker, recording experiences, observations and reflections throughout a project. These notes then inform a further body of critically reflective writing, adopting a range of forms, which brings her durational practice into dialogue with contemporary conditions and discourses in the field of socially engaged practice.
Like Fiona, Gretchen is an avid scribe and documenter, particularly evidenced in the number of notebooks she filled during her attendance at socially engaged conferences doing fieldwork for her book. In her writing she has experimented with literary techniques to help her navigate a spectrum where at one end she works closely with artists as part of her research, and on the other she tries to find a critical distance to write about their art. The results of this journey have resulted in an intimate and academic; personal and public creative approach to ethnographic writing.
This In Conversation is part of a series of online conversations which Create feels are particularly relevant and timely in the current situation as we consider what socially engaged arts practice looks like in a time of physical distancing and a need for ever greater social solidarity. Following the screening of this conversation, Fiona Whelan will host a Q&A session. Links to this conversation and the Q&A will be added to this page on the 28th May.
Dr Fiona Whelan is a Dublin based artist, writer and lecturer at NCAD, Dublin. Her collaborative practice is committed to exploring, exposing and reconfiguring systemic power relations through durational engagements with people and place. Since 2004, she has worked in collaboration with Rialto Youth Project leading a series of long-term projects exploring equality issues related to class, gender and policing. Fiona is co-editor of the TransActions publication series (NCAD & Stockyard Institute) and in 2016, along with Sociologist Kevin Ryan (NIUG), Fiona developed the collaborative writing platform ‘Two Fuse’. Her published writing includes Freedom? (Two Fuse, Cork University Press, 2018), Beating the Bounds of Socially- Engaged Art? (with Kevin Ryan, Field Journal, 2016) and her critical memoir TEN: Territory, Encounter & Negotiation (2014). In 2019, Fiona received her PhD at TU Dublin.
Dr Gretchen Coombs is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Design and Creative Practice Enabling Capability Platform at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT). She researches socially engaged art practices in the US, the UK and Australia, with a particular focus on how they are practiced in urban contexts. Gretchen has a PhD in social and cultural anthropology and a MA in visual criticism: her writing uses a combination of ethnographic methods and visual analysis. She is a co-author of Creative Practice Ethnographies (Rowan & Littlefield 2019) and her monograph will be published later this year. The Lure of the Social: Encounters with Contemporary Artists (Intellect) is an experimental ethnography about contemporary artists working at the intersection of art, aesthetics, and politics.