A Culture of Possibility Podcast #10: Gary Stewart: Community Arts Values Infiltrate The White Cube World

NOTE: This post is to introduce you to the 10th episode of François Matarasso’s and my monthly podcast, “A Culture of Possibility.” It will be available on 15 October 2021. You can find it and all episodes at iTunes along with miaaw.net’s other podcasts by Owen Kelly, Sophie Hope, and many guests, focusing on cultural democracy and related topics. You can also listen on Soundcloud and find links to accompany the podcasts. Francois is taking a little break but will be back as cohost down the road.

• • •

I met Gary Stewart in the West Midlands of England, near Birmingham, in the mid-80s, a time of really interesting work and really big challenges for community artists in the U.K. The larger political situation was fraught: the miners were on strike, a crisis for a nation then heavily dependent on coal; Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister set about a program based on deregulation, privatization of state-owned services, and breaking unions — not unlike her erstwhile ally, Ronald Reagan. And community-based artists were responding with energy and determination, trying to rescue all they could from the Thatcherites.

I’ve been following Gary’s work from afar all these years, and was so happy to get this opportunity to learn more about someone whose creativity and determination transcend conventional categories in so many ways.

Speaking from his London studio, Gary introduced himself as “first and foremost an artist. I’m also a producer, which means I have to finance and plan and coordinate various aspects of projects as well. And indeed, I’m also a curator carrying out relevant research and project creation. And research is something that plays a really prominent role in a lot of my work.”

Gary was born in the U.K. to parents who emigrated from Jamaica in the late 50s. He grew up in an area of Birmingham called Balsall Heath, home to immigrants from the Caribbean and South Asia. In the podcast, he describes how his love of taking things apart to see how they worked was nurtured by his mother, a nurse, who loved the library as much as he did. His brother’s gift of an electronic construction kit led him to spend Christmas creating gizmos such as radios and transmitters, and from there to a unique school that stressed both art and science. He was passionate about both (and a bit of a nerd), so while enrolled in a science program he spent a lot of his time across the street in the arts department.

Engagement with a group of Black artists led to the Nottingham Art Center, his first exposure to community arts. He was hooked, applied for a job and got it. That led to applying for a Gulbenkian Foundation grant for community artists and working for six years at Jubilee Arts just outside Birmingham, where is where we met. From there it was on to London and Artec, one of the earliest art and technology training programs, and many different groups and projects in the 20 years since. Though it’s not entirely up to date, you’ll find a wealth of project information at his site.

I love community arts origin stories because they are often chockful of happy accidents driven by curious and hungry hearts and minds. A chief reason I wanted to interview Gary is because I know how deeply rooted his work is in community-based arts practices, and how it has taken him to prestige venues like the Tate Modern and documenta, as well as work with young people in Brazilian favelas and other communities under stress around the globe. I wanted to understand how all of this fits together.

One of Gary’s informing values is obsolescence: “If the projects work, I’m not necessarily required by the end of the project.” That seems to be a core community arts value, working to replace yourself with local folks.

“I don’t like the terms,” Gary told me, “but they’re with disenfranchised communities, people who are seriously not part of the big picture” where they live. “They tend to be from African descent who are stateless and homeless. I like to engage with them. Their stories and contributions and their engagement is worthy of an opportunity to tell their story. Each time I do a project, I grow as a person. I work between what you might call the white cube gallery space, the verified space of the Tate galleries, the Serpentine, these prestigious festivals like documenta Kassel, and Nuit Blanche in Toronto, I work between boots-on-the-ground social justice in favelas, and inner city areas of Kampala, Jinja in Uganda, India, Bogota — in some scary places. I like to move between them, almost cross-fertilizing the ideas between them. I like to challenge what’s happening in the white cube space, in terms of making those spaces more permeable. I like to take that into areas where people aren’t normally asked to engage and think about it that way. I like to create spaces, in both places, spaces of ambiguity and complexity.”

In the podcast, Gary describes his process and offers some examples. The sense of emergence is powerful. Nothing is static: “You’re looking at issues, spaces of identity and culture. There are entry points to look at it, different perspectives that shift and change all the time and challenge you to constantly reassess. The boundaries are blurred between issues, spaces of identity and culture.” Many of the projects take the form of installations, but “they are inert if you don’t interact with them. It’s about creating these living environments which react and respond to the participants within them.”

“Every project is different,” Gary said. “It’s all about the specificity of place. I embed myself in a place for a period of time where I can at least get some meaningful insight. I can’t fully understand or appreciate all the nuances and complexities particularly where a different language in play.” Picking an example, in the podcast he describes a project in Providência in Rio de Janeiro, one of the oldest favelas (there’s also an interesting 2010 report on the work available from his partner in the project, People’s Palace Projects).

“What I did was to at first work with a school called Spectaculu, which is an extraordinary space which enables young people who are outside of the formal educational system to be engaged with creative practice. At the point, when I started working with Spectaculu they’d been doing work with theatrical design, music, the known kind of stuff, and I was invited to explore the digital. What I came up with was a project where those young people could be introduced to the archival collection of photographs about Providência, where they could research and oral history with their peers and parents and carers, where they could explore other aspects of Rio, they live in a favela, they’ve never been to Ipanema or Copacabana. So we went and scared people there, took the whole group frequently down into these other areas where the ‘unwashed’ are not normally supposed to go; they’re supposed to be invisible people. They created original soundtracks, they made new stories. They were introduced to this idea of performance installation, this idea of creating projections and sounds directly on the facade of the environment and spaces that they live in, so that they were directly implicated in both its execution and reception.

“They have to improvise it and do it in real time. So what does this mean? I’ll try to describe it. It means there’s a repository of media that they create — images, sounds and text that lives in a program which is actually made for veejaying in clubs. Connected to there are a series of what are called controllers like MIDI keyboards, regular keyboards, or they may be like drum pads, or other sensors and actuators, things which trigger and enable a haptic physical interaction to take place. And I just love this notion that you have this material, which of course they curate, they gather and put together, but it doesn’t come alive yet. It doesn’t come into being until they play. If you just sit there and look at it, nothing will happen. There’s no play button. Its entire being can only happen with the interaction of a significant number of users. I found is that, as usual, something that takes you 10 minutes to describe took 30 seconds for them to get and not only understand but to extend in ways that when I looked over their shoulder, I’d be constantly going, ‘How did you do that? Well, that’s amazing!’”

There’s much more on the podcast, including how this project traveled and multiplied around the world, including “Sao Paolo, then it happened in Salisbury, the UK. And then it happened in Gateshead in another impoverished bit of the UK…the young people were building upon and interpreting and responding to material from other young people around the world.”

Tune in to hear Gary Stewart talk about how this work has organically evolved to engage “white cube” venues and public funding bodies, bringing up critical questions of relationship, impact, and accountability. Speaking of the Tate Exchange, Gary said, “It is an extraordinary opportunity for people to create work in a place that has a footfall — I can’t remember how many numbers go in and out of Tate exchange. So do you do pass up the opportunity to potentially engage with an audience? Even if it’s a slight percentage of that, who you look curious enough to question that the idea of migrant communities or disenfranchised people or enable them to look at disability or race or well-being in an entirely different way? At the moment, I think it’s worth it.”

I agree. Listen and see what you think.

Here’s an experimental sound piece, track one of “The Conversation” by Dubmorphology, Gary Stewart and Trevor Mathison.