My work revolves around the question ‘What is the role of the artist in a time of crisis?’.
We live in a polycrisis, encompassing social, economic, political and environmental facets. In this scenario, the artist’s role becomes crucial in envisioning transformation, especially when the prevailing model of colonial exploitation and extraction proves unsustainable. How can artists adapt their practices to acknowledge and take responsibility for our actions as both creators and citizens? These considerations are closely tied to the influence of place and medium on our roles, encompassing the methods, materials, and processes we employ in connecting with others, both human and more-than-human, and how these choices might shape how we inhabit the world.
How can artists adapt their practices to acknowledge and take responsibility for our actions as both creators and citizens?
These thoughts were on my mind as I was commissioned by In-Situ for a Research and Development residency back in September 2022 (which led to a larger commission for the British Textile Biennial), to be showcased at the Technology Centre in Nelson in October 2023.
I am a socially engaged art practitioner and a Senior Lecturer at University of the Arts London. My work deals with colonisation of space and resource driven by gentrification, poverty, human trafficking, and climate change. I use collaborative methodologies with the aim of transitioning people from passive spectatorship towards active social agency.
It brings me joy to make work in collaboration with others through all the stages of my projects, and this led me to contemplate potential collaborators from the project’s inception.
I use collaborative methodologies with the aim of transitioning people from passive spectatorship towards active social agency.
The project, centered in Lancashire – the birthplace of the industrial revolution, empire, and capitalism – prompted me to reflect on the cottage industries that were displaced. This way of life encouraged resilience and self-reliance among people who were intimately connected with their work, materials, knowledge, relationships, and the natural environment in which they operated.
This reminds me of M.K. Gandhi’s approach; in his autobiography he recounted how during his struggle for Indian independence, he advocated for khadi, hand-spun, hand-woven cotton cloth as a form of self-sufficiency and resistance. As a time when colonial rule and industrialization threatened local textile production he sought out women who still possessed the knowledge and skills of spinning and weaving to teach others.
I wanted to highlight this concept of ‘knowledge resilience’ in light of how consumerism thrives on our ignorance about the origins, materials, and makers of the products we use. The invisibility of the environmental and human costs associated with these products can desensitize us to the harsh conditions behind their production, especially in the realm of fast fashion, leading to carelessness and wastefulness.
Considering the vital roles women played in cottage industries, contributing to the local economy through their textile creations while caring for their families, I decided to work with an intergenerational and intercultural group of women to share textile skills. This group included Mums2Mums, a community group who have worked with In-Situ on many artistic projects and developed confidence and a shared language around art and meaning over time, and other local women.
Our monthly gatherings during the R&D phase of the project were open-ended and democratic, focused on skill exchange and learning tied to our respective practices, heritage and history. We shared skills such as spinning, embroidery, crocheting, felting, weaving, stitch work, punch needle, knitting, and plant-based dying. These sessions created a space for dialogue and the building of trust.
Moving into the main production phase starting in April, our attention shifted primarily to what would be featured in the exhibition installation. We developed a game where words describing emotions were written down in response to prompts related to climate change, empire and community. These words were then translated into different languages of the participants, participants including Urdu, English, French, German, knitted, and will be incorporated into the exhibition installation. This activity will continue throughout the exhibition, allowing visitors to contribute by knitting their own words in response to the exhibition themes, using the hacked knitting machine present in the space and like the one that was used to knit the rest of the installation with.
Through this action the visitor (as well the artist and the collaborators who were involved in the making of the work) interacts with the exhibition’s themes in a physical rather than purely intellectual way. Their body becomes an imprint within the artwork, a counterpoint to the world of manufactured goods that prioritizes efficiency through the ‘refinement of techniques, the streamlining of movement and the standardization of production’ processes (as noted by Arabindan – Kesson, 2021)
In this context, labour’s value is calculated on the profits it generates, contributing to a sense of alienation that erases the human bodies and their tangible influence on the end product.
Touching these large-scale ‘knitted photographs’will activate sound, symbolising the decolonisation and transformation of male-dominated, phallic empire symbols into something softer, more inclusive, feminine and less hierarchical.
With the women and other local participants, we also began collecting sounds from the local area, focusing on the project’s themes. In collaboration with musician and composer Nicola Privato, these recordings will be used to train several AI models and integrate them into the knitted pieces exhibited – Doric pillars sourced from the British Museum website (subject to ongoing ownership disputes with Greece). Touching these large-scale ‘knitted photographs’will activate sound, symbolising the decolonisation and transformation of male-dominated, phallic empire symbols into something softer, more inclusive, feminine and less hierarchical.
This brings me back to contemplate the role of the artist amidst a complex network of crises. In my perspective, this role begins with several facets.
The artist’s journey begins with the envisioning of transformation needed to break free from the sense of powerlessness that afflicts us all. This powerlessness is perpetuated by those in authority who send us conflicting messages, such as urging us to ‘keep consuming for the sake of economic growth and simultaneously to consider our carbon footprint. It is a refrain, compelling us to believe that issues will resolve themselves, that we would act similarly if we held the reins, and that our sole responsibility is to insulate our homes, change our lightbulbs, and continue purchasing cars to support growth (Stengers, 2016).
The artist’s journey begins with the envisioning of transformation needed to break free from the sense of powerlessness that afflicts us all.
There is value in learning from the past, allowing us to integrate ancient knowledge and tools with contemporary ones. My grandmother, with whom I grew up, always found secondary uses for items, minimizing waste. She embodied a lifestyle that today might be described as ‘circular economy’. Part of this was driven by necessity, as resources were scarce in communist Yugoslavia. However, it was also rooted in respect for both material possessions and the environment, recognizing their finite nature. Lavishness and recklessness were considered unattractive vices. I absorbed these principles from her and was taken aback when I first arrived in the UK over two decades ago, a place where abundance was the norm and one could purchase pre-cooked and seasoned potatoes in a convenient bag. This presented a paradox to me: how could such an extravagant product (which, I didn’t think existed in ‘backward’ Eastern Europe) be simultaneously impoverished, possibly lacking in nutritional value?
It is our duty to hold those in positions of power accountable and press for systemic changes in priorities. How can we effectively do so? As Donna Haraway poignantly asks, ‘How to matter and not just want to matter?’ (Haraway, 2016)
Brad Werner, a complex systems engineer has suggested that ‘the only scientific thing to do is to revolt!’ He elaborated on this by noting that global capitalism has accelerated the depletion of resources to such an extent that is has become rapid, convenient, and devoid of barriers. This has in turn pushed “earth-human systems” alarmingly close to instability (Werner, B. in Haraway, 2016, p. 47). There is no time to lose.
One approach involves redefining the nature of artwork. Is it a departure from individual ownership towards a collective one?
Artists can use their platforms to create spaces where people can unite, empowering one another to defy the rhetoric that insists the current system is the only viable one. It is about collectively imagining future scenarios that ignite excitement. Drawing from my experience of living in Yugoslavia, a federation that disintegrated in 1991, I have learned that when an empire crumbles, there are no miracles to rescue us. Instead, it is resilient communities and cooperation that offer the strength needed to persevere.
How can an artist contribute to this process?
One approach involves redefining the nature of artwork. Is it a departure from individual ownership towards a collective one?
This for me in one way connects to how we define what an artwork is. Is it going against individual ownership and towards the collective? This is more confusing when as part of the process art objects are created. If the artwork is seen as the ‘space’ created through a collaborative endeavour, owned collectively rather than through individual objects, it gains the capacity to resist capitalist commodification, which tends to transform everything into a resource, accentuating separation and individualism. I encountered this challenge while seeking ethical clearance for my project at the university where I am employed. The form’s design and the feedback from reviewers cantered on evaluation individual contributions, leaving no room for the collective aspect.
Image: Concentric circles diagram, Suzanne Lacy in Mapping the Terrain (1995)
One potential framework for evaluation comes from Suzanne Lacy’s concept of concentric circles. It becomes evident that all participants in a project can fluidly navigate non-hierarchical roles and share varying degrees of responsibility for the work (Lacy, 1995, p. 178), thus excluding exclusive ownership. In the case of the #end_of_empire project, although I initiated and directed it, various individuals and groups were involved at different stages of its development, without whom the project could not exist. This is illustrated by the inner concentric circles, which encompass collaborators, co-developers, and stakeholders, to name just a few, musician Nicola Privato, curator Kerenza McClarnan, the organisations In-Situ and BTB, who commissioned the work. Additionally, there are the volunteers and performers, individuals and groups for whom the work was specifically designed. Finally, there is the audience, who will experience the work in various ways, whether in its physical setting, online or through diverse forms of documentation, including podcasts, articles, films, and publication. Some of this audience, represented by the outermost circle, may elevate the work to the status of myth and memory.
Therefore, the artist’s role in working in an embedded, durational manner holds importance. In socially engaged art practice this often entails drawing inspiration from place, context, collaboration, and a sense of belonging to the community with whom you are working. If we define community as a group of people who share a ‘common matter of concern’ as argued by Bruno Latour (Latour and Weibel, 2005) can an artist work in an embedded way even when operating in a place that is not their home environment?
Can an artist work in an embedded way even when operating in a place that is not their home environment?
In the #end_of_empire project I commuted on a monthly basis. Regular contact afforded me the opportunity to become familiar with the context and the place. With many of the women I collaborated with, a shared aspect of the ‘common’ was our shared experience of being migrants. The question of belonging emerged: What factors contribute to a sense of belonging? Does being part of a community in this way contribute to making the artist ‘embedded’?
What factors contribute to a sense of belonging? Does being part of a community in this way contribute to making the artist ‘embedded’?
I hope that the #end_of_empire project reflects some of the ideals discussed above, embracing the context of working in a specific location and making decisions in response to the people encountered. But overall, my aspiration is that it provides a space where these crucial questions can be posed, even if only in modest ways.
Arabindan-Kesson, A (2021) Black Bodies, White Gold, Duke: Duke University Press
Gandhi, M (2023) Gandhi: An Autobiography, Bibliotech Press
Haraway, D (2016) Staying with the Trouble, Duke: Duke University Press
Lacy, S (1995) Mapping The Terrain, Washington: Bay Press
Latour B. and Weibel, P. (2005) Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy. Cambridge: MIT Press
Stengers, I (2015) In Catastrophic Times: Resisting the Coming Barbarism, Meson Press
Eva Sajovic is a socially engaged practitioner. Her works deals with colonisation of space. Since 2016 Sajovic has focused on projects that confront the climate emergency, using participatory and collaborative methodologies to move people beyond passive spectatorship towards active social agency. Examples: All Rise For The Planet: 2030 Show Trial; Picturing Climate; Photographic (Communities of) Displacement; film Hanging By A Thread and exhibition installation Plantscapes. She is a Senior Lecturer at Camberwell college of Art, University of the Arts London.
#end_of_empire is shown at The Technology Centre in Nelson, as part of the British Textile Biennial, 29 Sept - 29 October 2023
Opening times: Thursday to Sunday, 10 am – 4pm
Knitting workshops: Saturdays and Sundays 10 am – 4pm