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Q&A: Artist Caitlin Shepherd talks social justice and arts activism, considering what the idea of Utopia can tell us in the current socio-political climate

2016 marks the 500 years since Thomas More seminal book Utopia was published, signifying the richness of the imagination in recognizing the possibility of a better world. In reaction to the anniversary King's College London have curated ‘Paths to Utopia’ – an exhibit of new works from artists, performers, architects, technologists and King's College London academics that includes artist and activist Caitlin Shepherd’s sound installation Discord.

Shepherd’s practice, situated within the framework of participatory and relational art, focuses on community engagement and social justice activism. In doing so she raises questions towards the functions and capabilities of art when positioned out of the ‘white cube’ space. Discord immerses the listener in the viewpoints of a wide range of individuals who respond to interview questions around their idea of ‘the perfect home’, mapping out the similarities and contrasts that raise comment to the state of society, in a social and domestic sense, today.

Discord runs as part of Paths to Utopia at King's College London until 2nd October, 2016. Visit the official website: houseofdiscord.uk

Can you tell us a little about how you chose your participants for Discord?

I’m interested in gathering stories of home and housing from across the class and economic spectrum. I initially looked for people who were from a range of backgrounds, from low income, middle income, to very high income. I also used housing security and ownership as an indicator of socio-economic diversity. I was interested in interviewing people who had been long term tenants in social housing and private rental markets alongside people who own multiple properties. Initially I went to people I knew, and then I went through Bristol and London housing networks to find long term tenants of social housing. I also interviewed economists, housing officers and staff from housing teams at city councils. I have interviewed over 20 people for the content of Discord, and each interview lasted over an hour. Only a small amount of content made the final edit, so I’m interested in using the content I have gathered to make future sound installations / documentaries on home and housing.

The work clearly explores how our ideas of Utopia differ. Have you found many thematic cross-over’s in your participants response to the idea of ‘the perfect home’?

I wasn’t really interested in the idea of the perfect home. My approach was more through the lens of social realism, which is founded in exploring and documenting lived experience, or the day-to-day. I am interested in gathering an ethnographic study of 'home', seen from people from very different economic backgrounds and how home presents itself on a banal and daily basis, as well as how identity, class, politics and education appear through how the home is built and maintained.

When thinking about Discord and Utopia, my idea of Utopia is that it is essentially a place that doesn’t exist, yet an idea worth trying to bring into existence. The etymology of Utopia is a non space, or as Thomas Moore outlined, Utopia is an imaginary island. It is also a visionary system of political and social perfection. With this in mind, my utopian approach is one of starting with what we have right now. In terms of housing and home, we have a strongly divided system, and to start visioning for the future, for a more equal society, I think we need to start with the now. So in terms of perfection, I think we’re not seeking perfection “over there”, but instead I’m interested in starting to understand the inequality that we are facing right now.

With regard to my research participants, there were recurring themes that emerged. Most people described home in terms of comfort, rest, and relaxation. There were beautiful descriptions of favorite places, smells and senses of home, as well as embodied responses to my questions during the interviews. For example, there were lots of pauses, visible relaxing and sighing, when asked to describe home and the feeling of home. The importance of family history and the home as a basis to support hard times and struggle also emerged. There was widespread concern about the housing ownership and rental market. Interestingly, there was a critique of multiple home ownership from across the class spectrum, with multiple property owners also bemoaning the moral and economic inequality currently playing out through the cost of renting and owning a home. What was most apparent to me through the interview process, was how the idea and experience of home is intrinsic to well-being. To having a place to return to, shut the world out and rest within. At the same time as a retreat, the home is a potent political expression of agency, status and aspiration and oppression.

What is your idea of ‘the perfect home’?

My idea of the perfect home is more of an economic and political system change than a home for me per se. I want to see a political economy that prioritises utilitarianism, or decision making for the greater good. In a society that privileges individual gain and security, yet makes it increasingly difficult to achieve this, my perfect home would be a world where equality is privileged instead of economic privilege.

In terms of Utopia, thinking about home and what it signifies seems like a good lens to look through to consider issues of justice, well-being and security. In pursuit of a happier, healthier and fairer world, I hope Discord provokes individual and group reflection into the values of individuals, and what principles we all priortise as we make major decisions through our life. And especially, what sort of home we aspire to own and how we get there.

Using Utopia as a means of projecting what economic and domestic perfection could look like raises comment to the struggles of the present. Considering that, Discord functions as a body of research into common issues of contemporary society. Does this research inform your practice outside of this particular exhibition?

Discord is part of my PhD that I’m currently working with the 3D3 cohort. Funded by the Arts and Humanities Council, my research is entitled Sonorous States. My research aims to explore and understand the social, relational and political affect of docufiction led sound installations situated in public places. Specifically, Sonorous States sets out to examine how public sound art influences public engagement and action on with political issues, and in particular, issues of home and housing security within the UK.

Discord is the first major work, central to my practice as research (PaR) Phd. The interviews that I have conducted with a range of research participants will inform future work that I plan to develop and situate in public spaces. I will also spend time re-listening to my interviews and analysing the content, and extracting themes and ethnographies of home.

I’m also very interested in continuing to interview a wide range of people about their experience of home, affordability, quality of home and identity and home. I am thinking about how best to start developing an audio archive of stories of home, and would be really interested to make contact with anyone thinking along the same lines.

Your practice is quite clearly situated in the framework of participatory and relational art, community engagement seeming a key motive of your work. How do you feel a ‘live-engagement’ with audience functions when used in conjunction of art-practice?

Critic Claire Bishop defines art as social practice as 'a stream of participatory art that tends to display a strong sociological and political bent, often in an effort to draw attention to social ills and conditions'. There are many definitions of art as social practice, but there are some agreements on key features. It is generally agreed, that art as social practice is a medium that focuses on social engagement, inviting collaboration with individuals, communities, and institutions in the creation of participatory art (Miranda, 2014).

My work relates to ideas laid out by Claire Doherty in publications including Participation (2006) and Contemporary Art; from studio to situation (2004). In these publications Doherty discusses site as material, and the idea of site as a space of social, economic and political processes instead of a set geographical place. An important contribution to such discussions, relevant to my research, have been made by curator Miwon Kwon. She suggests that artists and curators have become informed by a growing array of disciplines (including anthropology, sociology, literary criticism, psychology, natural and cultural histories, architecture and urbanism, political theory and philosophy), she argues that our understanding of site has shifted from a fixed, physical location to somewhere or something constituted through a variety of lens including social, economic, cultural and political processes (Kwon, 2002). Subsequently, the term site-specific has been replaced with a range of alternative idioms such as context-specific, site-oriented, site-responsive and socially engaged. I would situate my practice somewhere between relational aesthetics and art as social practice. In a day-to-day sense, this means that it is important to me that my work is directly connected to other people’s experiences, decision making processes and needs. Broadly, I want my work to be politically and personally relevant to wide audiences, and for it to be addressing problems we face at a collective level.

Live engagement is not really a term I would use. Instead I think about engagement in terms of participation. This means that by design of process; whether it’s collecting stories and gathering content, or designing a narrative flow that people are given a chance to decide what to do, and how to do it. For example, the narrative of Discord is pre-written. There are different chapters, and a variety of sequences that these chapters are experienced. However, there is a moment within the experience where people experiening the work get to choose how they end the story. This sort of agency is important to me as an artist; as it broadens the scope for authorship within the work. Although I have constructed the concept, the narrative and the journey; there are moments where members of the public are given the chance to choose an outcome or action. I like to think that this relates to participatory art and relational art, as it invites people interacting with the work to shape their experience through their own volition.

It is clear there is a socio-political stance throughout your practice, how has this form of activism informed your current work?

Historically my work has focussed on social and economic justice through the lens of food justice, and in particular food waste. However, as I have faced more and more news about austerity, the cost of living and temporary and low paid work, I became more and more interested in the issue of housing; like food security a basic need that should be accessible by everyone.

In the 1950s and 1960s, buyers could typically find homes with mortgages of three to four times their income. But as figures show that there is now just one city in the UK that fits that profile: Derry, in Northern Ireland. Meanwhile social housing is axed, and the government incentivises new housing stock to be built to be rented at unaffordable market rents. Deregulation of the housing market means that property becomes an asset for the rich, who simultaneously drive up affordable rents as housing becomes unobtainable for the working classes, precariat and squeezed middle-earners.

I guess I’m interested in fairness, and having a say. Having worked as a professional campaigner in setting up This is Rubbish and during a stint at Oxfam working as an Activist Co-ordinator, I feel that art opens up a more conversational and participatory space to discuss, explore and ideally, act on political issues of our time. Didatic communication that demands people act now, often creates a clicktavist approach, with high levels of engagement but with low levels of long term action and commitment. I’m interested in deeper engagement with housing and social justice, and I'm interested in exploring through my practice and research whether or not art, and sound-art in particular can engender deeper and more sustained engagement and ultimately behavioural change.

Do you feel cultural activism in contemporary arts practice is evolving? If so, how?

Yes, but I think that not enough kudos or recognition is given to political practice in contemporary art. What is exciting is that art collectives like Liberate Tate have used performance and intervention art to effectively call on the Tate to divest in dirty money, otherwise known as sponsorship from BP. Also, socially engaged art collective Assemble, winning the 2015 Turner prize gives a nod to the recognition given to socially engaged practices, as does popularity of work by artists such as Theaster Gates. I think socially and politically engaged art is not a new phenomena, I mean you have to look back to Dada, 1950’s happenings and performance art to see artists engaging with political issues of time; I think now it’s just more compressed. We are closer to reports of injustice through the internet, and global injustice appears to be growing as the gap between the rich and poor widens. Artists respond to the world around us, and as the gap between the rich and the poor becomes more extreme, so to will the work that comments on such unequal terms.

Has the making of Discord been a collaborative process? How?

It has been massively collaborative! Phase one saw the inception of the idea and refining of the concept, working closely with artist Victoria Johnson also Head of Marketing at Sound and Music, and James Wood, PhD Candidate in the Department of European & International Studies at King’s College London. We worked closely to refine the theme of housing and lived experience of home, as well as discussing the why’s and how’s of an embodied sound installation.

Once the concept was refined, the fabrication phase kicked in, where I secured funding from the Arts Council in addition to the commission fee, and engaged Architect Tabitha Pope, Producer Typesun, technologist Tarm, and engineers and set builders Dan Halahan and Ben Dusserre Robinson. Towards the end of the project I also worked closely with lighting company Bailes and Light.

In terms of the limited funding we had, the production and realisation of Discord also relied in the last leg on the toil and sweat of a lot of friends. Without such support the installation would not have been possible. So thank you all the Discord crew!

The project was also sponsored by mini rigs who provided a lot of mini rigs, Sanderson who provided the ostentatious wallpaper, and Naked Flooring Company who provided the carpet. I was also supported by my supervisor Jon Dovey and a range of staff from UWE (University of West of England). Huge thanks to all!

Can you tell us a little about any future projects you have lined up?

Well, I need a rest, but there are some things lined up. I will continue working on my PhD research Sonorous States, exploring the behavioural and relational affect of politically engaged soundworks situated in public spaces.

I have an artist residency lined up at MoMAZoZo in the remote New Mexican desert during Oct - Nov, and will then be developing new sound works exploring lived experience of home for 2017 onwards. I am also really interested in continuing to develop my sound recording practice, and attempt to realise an oral history archive of stories of home, finance, identity and class. We shall see!

Caitlin Shepherd: