Making Art With Communities


Stephen Willats worked in relation aesthetics when Nicolas Bourriaud was 15. Willats worked has often involved a collaborative process, where he engages with residents of public housing units for projects that can span years.

I’ve been re-reading Conversation Pieces by Grant H. Kester, spending some considerable time on the section about Willats. Kester frames Willats’ work around the processes embedded in the work, which often attempts to examine the potential for his collaborative partners exercising autonomy from the places in which they’re situated.

The problematic of the artist acting in the position that Willats often occupies, that is, in the position of coming into a socially or politically difficult situation from the outside and working to uncover things for the people who have lived those situations for much longer, is something to consider when working within a community as we do. This practice of course forces questions about the artist as a social worker. However, our interaction with a specific community has been somewhat limited (and on purpose). We’ve been able to maintain a level of activity based on our concerns and our experiences, which is empowering, but also potentially limiting, and yet I’m nervous to think about what it would mean to try to work more directly with other communities in the city.

I believe that there is a lot of room to work with communities in Windsor, but my hesitation to attempt to work in this mode of choosing a group to work with, and then creating a project around their concerns (or worse, our preconceived ideas of their concerns) isn’t necessarily relieved by looking at Willats’ work (and not that it has to be). I think his work is worth noting though, as it certainly made possible what it is we’re doing today.

Pictured above, “Around the Networks” by Stephen Willats from January 2002.