Art from Experience Training: An Artist’s Relationship to Power in Society

Published On: November 19th, 2020|Categories: Knowledge|Tags: , , , , |

Author Kat Singer (they/them) is a multimedia artist, activist, facilitator and mental health professional. They are a first-generation white Jewish settler grateful to be living and working in Toronto, a land that is part of traditional territories of many Indigenous nations: the Huron Wendat, the Haudenosaunee and the Anishinaabe and the Mississaugas of the New Credit.

As I am writing this article in October 2020, Toronto is in the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. Spending most of my time at home, in front of the computer screen instead of seeing clients in person, has become the new normal. The novelty of teleconferencing has worn off and the endless hours of speaking into the void and seeing my own face reflected back at me (I tend to keep my camera on for work), are taking a toll on my productivity and my mental health.

I frequently wonder whether what I’m doing is relevant, whether it makes any difference out in the world. I see others adapting, pursuing new directions and I’m trying to as well. 

Ever since I was little, I loved explaining things to others. Give me an audience, big or small, and an excuse to share my passions; I’ll bring a plethora of facts, contagious enthusiasm, compassion and humour. I will make the topic come alive. I’ll connect the dots with grace and agility. 

Turns out this gift doesn’t get activated in quite the same way without conversation partners. It’s like an electrical circuit, you need to have it wired properly in order for the current to flow. While I’ve managed, somehow, to coax it out during participatory workshops I’ve facilitated on Zoom, where it’s possible to interact with an audience, I haven’t been able to capture the same energy when recording the same material alone in my quarantine bedroom. 

This, by the way, is an extremely long-winded way to explain that the ideas I am about to share with you are usually presented as a live webinar. Or, in pre-COVID times, as a workshop with everyone gathered in the same physical space. While self-education is important, and I encourage it, I find that we learn better with – and when supported by – others. 

Art From Experience was inspired by my work with artists who were applying for grants. A significant portion of my clients struggled to articulate the connection between their art and its larger social context, which has become somewhat of a requirement across many institutions. It didn’t matter whether they were emerging or established, how old they were or what their art was about. At times, I was torn between my job description (supporting my clients’ goals of securing a grant) and my mission (to be actively anti-oppressive in my practice). Sometimes clients did not appreciate my critique of their language and/or concepts, which made it difficult for us to continue working together.

The idea for Art From Experience emerged when I brought up to a client that the way they were describing a character from their screenplay was based on ableist and racist stereotypes. I felt that the language they used was one of the reasons their previous grant proposal was rejected. I was frustrated and hurt as they used a slur that touched upon one of my identities, but I found the space in myself to be curious about their word choice. My client struggled with accepting the feedback at first, but then listened and asked questions (which I was so, so grateful for). The tough conversation we had ultimately resulted in them scrapping that project and starting a new one that did end up receiving grant funding. As I was reflecting later that day on the communication strategies I used to get my points across, I thought:

“What if I carved out a safe and welcoming space where artists could come together to reckon with their role in society? Can we learn, as a community and as individuals, to become more responsible about the work we produce?”

The following passage from social justice essayist Kai Cheng Thom comes to mind:

Part of the problem is that there are not many schools for storytellers in this society where capitalism is everything… […] There are very few places where young creatives are nurtured and trained to take on the role and responsibilities of the storyteller, and to define this role for themselves. Where the storytellers are supported to grapple with questions like: “What is the role of the storyteller, in society and community? What are the responsibility and needs of a storyteller? Who is a storyteller accountable to? What should a storyteller not be expected to do? Why do we tell stories in the first place, and for whom?”

My Art from Experience training thus aims to support artists in deepening their awareness of themselves as members of society, as well as in understanding the responsibility they have towards those they choose to represent in their work. I’ve tried my best to present the information as I would if I were in the same room with you. You will see my slide deck, annotated with explanations and tangents. Some of what I want to say will probably not translate the way I want. This is okay. I’d rather make an honest effort that falls short in some way than allow my perfectionism to hold my voice hostage.

I’ve also included my thoughts as an educator/presenter. I have a feeling that I’m not the only person struggling with adapting to facilitating in the current climate (i.e. remotely, and at a time when so many of us are exhausted, isolated, sick of technology and uncertain about the future).

Click here to begin my Art from Experience training.

Here is a list of resources and some recommended readings:

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About the Author: Claire Leighton

Claire is a content contributor during the development of artsUNITE/UNITE des arts. Claire enjoys hiking with her dogs and attending live/virtual music shows.

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