Relations of Value in the Floating Warren Pavilion
Social Practice on the water builds collaborative networks between communities and non-human elements
By Zachary Gough
March 10, 2019
Relationships are the dynamic material of a social art practice. We have relationships with places, with cities and towns, with nation states, with nature and specific ecological environments and more. Relationships become hosts for experiences of trust, respect, love, support, justice, and their opposites. A big part of who we are as individuals is made up of the relations we hold with others, as dads, sisters, co-workers, or settlers. A social practice artist builds and mobilizes relationships to create projects.
A social artwork comes alive in the contributions of the audience/participant/collaborator, and so the crux of meaning of the work is in the contributions and the participatory structure created by the artist. The context of participation is the participant’s relationship to the artist. Part of the nature and magic of social practice is that the artist is only one part of the relationship, and so does not have full control over the work. When the artist shares their platform with the audience, they allow a diversity of perspectives and creativities to bring depth and complexity to it. Some projects involve a large set of loose community ties, while others are built on just one or two deep and lasting relationships. In any case, some amount of trust exists in the relationship between audience/participant/collaborator and the artist. Generally speaking, the deeper the relationship, the more trust there is between them. Very deep relationships that are formed or developed through the creation of an artwork can sometimes become life-long bonds.
Perhaps predictably, socially engaged art/social practice as a movement in contemporary art emerges concurrently with the dominance of austerity politics and neo-liberalism. As social programs and community structures are eroded by the ever-expanding tendrils of capitalism, artists seek to make projects that rekindle the failing bonds of our social fabric. This might explain why the art movement has had a more pronounced development in the US where social programs have been under extreme attack, as compared to other western contexts like Canada, where there are still social projects but they are less-identifiable as a united movement. In creating works that hinge on the participation of others, artists highlight relationships and locate value and meaning in the webs of relations that make up communities. But social works aren’t just about community, they are born of it.
When a social art project catalyzes new deep bonds or is developed from preexisting deep bonds, it is embedded in the social structure of community. In this way, when projects are built upon a foundation of deep and trusting relations, they have the potential to be highly transformative. Our ideas, values, opinions can be shifted and altered when we meet each other creatively in these relational projects. By being not just site-specific, but specific to particular communities also, these works position their meaning amidst the social, historical, economic, and political realities of their context. And in doing so, these projects make space to eke out new ways of relating to one another. This prefigurative action is only possible in social works when our community context and our trusting relationships are in play.
Beyond being a large collaborative project, a conference venue, and a group exhibition, the Floating Warren Pavilion itself was a web of relationships: Josh Collins and I as lead organizers, the core team of seven artists, the class of architecture students, the crew at the floating dock company, the production and volunteer crews, our guest presenters, the Flotilla event delegates, and the general public. Andrew Maize worked with a community of students at Colonel Grey High School to make kites that metaphorically raised big questions like What keeps you grounded? into the sky. Ardath Whynacht brought together peer-support groups Starfish and the Gatehouse to create a poetic dialogue that presented the transformative power of deep relationships. Gary Markle collaborated with the architecture team to make a floating pod that jettisoned from the pavilion transforming itself into a shadow puppet theatre for an improvised collaborative show about escape and proximity, with poetry by Ardath Whynacht. The core Flotilla event organizers and their relationships with other arts groups and city hall contributed substantially to the project and its development. These are some of the relationships at play in the Floating Warren Pavilion.
The pavilion and its projects also offered opportunities to shift our relationships to nature, the harbour and to water specifically. They did this in part by facilitating access—just getting people out over the rocks and onto (and in some cases in) the water—but also through multiple moments of directed listening and reflection. Wes Johnston brought the ocean floor to the audience on the pavilion by snorkeling, collecting and presenting found detritus—both living and non-living, human-made and organic—in salt water touch tanks. Lindsay Dobbin presented a device for us to listen to the water directly and understand it as a living entity. This work is particularly important in reflecting on relationships, and understanding water not as an object or material, but as a collaborator and participant. The value of a multi-tiered social project like the Floating Warren Pavilion is in the transformative potential of the web of creative relationships out of which it is made.