bilateral kellerberrin

July 3, 2005

Code of ethics? (a question from Donna & an answer from Lucas)

Filed under: analysis? — Lucas @ 12:44 pm

The challenging questions are trickling in…

I received the following email from Donna, from Notre Dame Uni, who brought out the medical students to Kellerberrin during my visit. Donna was an avid blog reader, often chiming in with sage advice and fact-checking, for instance during the great water-potability debate
Here’s her question:

Hi Lucas

Great idea to reflect back on your experience and write about it in a
public forum – very brave too!

My questions/comments:

What does an artist in residence, like yourself, contribute to the local community?

Is there a “code-of-ethics’ or expectation that an artist will contribute something to the local community, eg like the work you did at Cunderdin school, in addition to creating their art?

The blog exchange got a trifle heated towards the end with people debating whether you should have written some of the things you did.
How did you know what was OK or not OK to publish? Is this something that you decided on, in consultation with IASKA and the town, before starting your residence or did you just make it up as you go along? If the blog exchanges didn’t settle down spontaneously, could it result in negative repercussions for future artists?


hi Donna, thanks for your questions. I’ll try to tackle them one by one. First up, your very open question about “contribution to the local community” by the artist in residence.

IASKA deliberately puts no clause in its contracts with artists that they must have a “community focus” in their artworks. I think this is an important, and gutsy thing to do. The artist is not intended to be brought in to do a kind of community service otherwise lacking in the town. The artist is not a social worker. Thus, it would be entirely within the scope of a residency for an artist to “not engage” at all with the people of the town.

However, I find it hard to envisage an art practice which would be able to succeed in this disengagement. Simply by being in the town, getting groceries, wandering around, something has happened. Something has been exchanged.

On the other hand, it’s clear from talking with members of the Kellerberrin community, that they perceive one artist or another to have contributed “more”, or to have engaged “better”. Often, the artists who are celebrated in Keller memory are those who were gregarious (but not ostentatious), open to questions, not too demanding, down-to-earth, and whose artwork produced in the town somehow overtly “included” the townsfolk.

While I respect these views, they cannot be taken as the full story. Even an artist who spends his or her entire time being surly, withdrawn, or demanding and primadonnesque has “engaged”. The grumbling and complaining of locals about such artists is just as valid a part of the exchange as the difficult-to-handle behaviour of the artist. These “failures” to get along are probably very revealing. Possibly they are small scale performances of the gulf between urban and rural cultures, or the insurmountable question of language (in the case of the international artists). The question remains, however: is anybody paying attention to these as interesting interactions, or are they simply dismissed as failures?

Your second question was about a code of ethics vis-a-vis doing something extra to contribute to the community. Indeed, those workshops I did at Cunderdin were a part of my contract – the particular funding which IASKA obtained for my residency stipulated a “new-media” artist who should do some sort of workshops with kids. The government funding paid for this, so that the Cunderdin High School got the workshops for free. I haven’t heard from them for a while, I’d be interested to know how they’re getting on, what they think about those classes now…

Your final question was about what was ok or not ok to publish… This was never worked out in advance. Day by day, I would make choices, conscious or unconscious, about the degree of disclosure I could allow myself. Often, a conversation was of a “public” nature, and thus completely fine for publication (eg the ins and outs of particular farming techniques). Conversations I felt pretty good about making public also often involved a person talking openly about themselves and their own beliefs. On the other hand, I tended to hold back on repeating discussions which were quite private, especially conversations which involved talking about a third party – would these come across as a kind of gossip?

There were a few cases towards the end of my stay, where what I’d written seemed to overstep the boundary between private and public. Fortunately, in one of those cases the person in question spoke to me directly about it, and in another, it was brought to my attention by some concerned locals. I was pleased to see that they felt that these things were negotiable – that the damage (whether real or perceived) done by the text was not irrevocable.

Of course, I wonder (and worry about) how many such grumbles went un-reported…and whether some of the people of Kellerberrin felt that I had exploited their lives in order to produce a piece of art. But I hoped that the open structure of the project (the blog to which you can post comments, the availability of my email address for private complaints etc) would at least provide the possibility for negotiation.

Your final question is very pertinent – whether the potential for fallout from my project might jeopardise the situation for future artists. In a residency project I once did in Singapore, this was perceived to be the case: an artist, Zunzi Wong, from Hong Kong made a political cartoon lampooning the then Prime Minister (1998). It caused an uproar, and his artwork was removed from the museum and destroyed. The artist himself was fairly philosophical about the whole thing, he didn’t seem too upset. One theory was that he considered the whole thing to be a kind of social experiment to see how the museum would react to an artwork he could have predicted would be controversial. Some local Singaporean artists were furious that Zunzi would use their local art scene to conduct social experiments. They were worried that the event would cause a government backlash, further reducing freedom of speech. On the other hand, what use is freedom of speech if it is never tested and exercised?

2 Responses to “Code of ethics? (a question from Donna & an answer from Lucas)”

  1. Donna Mak Says:

    Thanks for your answers Lucas.

    I agree with your thoughts on the importance of freedom of thought and expression which remind me of Voltaire’s famous quote
    “Monsieur l’abbé, I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.” Voltaire, letter to M. le Riche, February 6, 1770

    What shines through in your work is your inquiring mind, your appreciation of the wonder of life and the respect that you have for people and places … and perhaps its those things that make you a “good” artist and person.


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