Interview with Anthony Schrag

How does social engagement fit in your practice, and is there one event, one single opportunity, that made your practice shift?

For me, socially engaged practice is a contested term. I prefer to call myself a participatory artist. I think that’s because socially engaged art feels like it’s owned and has specific politics related to it. I’m interested in how to problematise that term. I got involved with participation because I quite like ‘working with people who are not me’. That phrase actually comes from artist Anne-Marie Copestake, and the embedded nature of that ‘anyone who is not me’ implies that there’s a diverse and plural society that you work with, and in that diverse and plural contexts and communities, there will be different ideologies, politics and peoples. Many times, socially engaged practice is about orienting towards some sort of social change or some sort of shift in thinking. My entire practice is without exception, engaged. I don’t make objects; I don’t make exhibitions. It all comes from the engagement with people, whether that’s in a research context, a process context or in a development context; very rarely will it be just me. When I was in my master degree in Glasgow, I was making a video where I was using my feet to hook into underneath of a stairs to make me look as though I’m walking downstairs but the video is upside down. I was working on this performance and I’d forgotten to lock the doors in a very busy place. At one point a lady just came down the stairs, and I suddenly looked at this work, thinking that she had ruined it. But actually, this person coming down the stairs had made it even more interesting and better. It was a point in my practice where I realised, I’m interested in how other people can impact art and that an artistic practice could be conversational and dialogic. From that point onwards I moved to a way of working, that is how do I create a context, by which other people could intervene or interfere

How would you define success and what project do you think was successful for your standard of success?

For me, the standard of success lies in my PhD and most of my work talks about what I would refer to as productive conflict or pro-social conflict and this idea that there are multiple perspectives, multiple diversities and multiple spaces. Transgressive space is not one where the transgressive nature is the purpose; the transgressive artistic space is one that gives space for unheard voices. Participatory practice that is successful, has some new insight or perspective being revealed or presented or has, for example, a different way of thinking, being put into conversation with a more standard and acceptable way of thinking. I have often called projects failures in regards to art, but successes in regards to engagement. I’ve done projects, people have been involved, there have been workshops, things have happened, but I haven’t hit the art because there isn’t been a space for people to disagree, to present new ideas for the voices to be comfortable enough to challenge another group of people or to be comfortable enough to stand aside. So, for me success is really about how you create some forms of either psychosocial, conceptual or physical space for multiplicity to be presented and reflected upon.

On your website you present a concept of conflict in communities, can you explain what you mean with that?

It goes back to that notion of when we, artists or other people choose to develop practices which try to make the world ‘better’. ‘Better’ is a complicated term because there are power implications on who gets to decide what the ‘right’ kind of ‘better’ is?  This goes back to that point about the ‘success’ of these practices requires conflict, but I don’t mean wars and fighting. If we define art the thing that challenges habits, that complicates the world, the thing that maybe presents a new way of seeing the existence, then ‘conflict’ is the ability to have an alternative perspective being presented, which is complicated. I did a project which was about a particular sociohistorical experience in a Highland village where it was really massive issue, and sort of had infused the entire cultural perspective of this entire area for 200 years. The project I ended up doing uncovered the fact that the children of the village decided that they did not want to focus on this issue. For them to present an idea that was contrary to what the adults thought was the right way of doing things, and this problematized the narrative of what was ‘right’ and what was ‘wrong’. It actually revealed that the adults and the art centre was invested in speaking about this particular historical moment, and this was an economic argument not a creative one. The art was really about how do I present different contexts for these children to present multiple different perspectives and to think about the future so the art was a way of expression and language, it was almost like a forum.

What do you think are the challenges of doing these kinds of work with communities?

My challenge is the relationship with the institution: an art gallery or museum, a local authority or someone with the money. They often frame those projects – either through the funding or through their experience – and want specific things out of those projects. The hardest thing for individual artists to work with is how they negotiate not only theirs but those institutions’ desires (what I would call institutional intent) and also the community’s desires. Obviously, also, a challenge will be how they understand the community because the community is going to be multiple and plural and it’s going to be many different communities, not just a single group identity. I think the biggest challenge is how you’re able to negotiate and navigate productively, the institution, the community, and the art, and keep those in tension, and that is something very difficult.

And how do you manage to do it?

It’s fundamentally relationships. People come in with the assumption that the institutions are bad. Parachuting someone into a community is not necessarily a bad idea. If the community, if the institution has a good relationship, if they understand you are being positioned as an outsider, if they have clear perspectives and understandings of the brief and what’s coming out of it. But all of that comes with relationships with both the communities and the people, and so it’s a longer process, but it’s about communication of what the assumptions are. I often use my grandmother in my lecturing as a way to talk about some of these issues. She would have thrown herself in front of a bus to protect me, she loved me fiercely. But she was also a racist Tory. She’s not a bad person because she holds those beliefs: rather she imagines a specific type of world where I might be safe – and that doesn’t make her a bad person. Sometimes institutions develop projects where they basically say: Go and tell people that racism is bad and fix them. I can’t fix my grandmother because she comes from a very long context so what I have to do is to understand her. First of all, I have to communicate to an institution about what those problems are, but then I have to communicate to a community about what those are and then I have to find a way by which I can value and validate people within those engagements, as well as the institution and my own artistic premise that I’m not just kind of trying to create a simplistic world order, where everything is flattened and the world is a place where everyone believes the same thing.

Do you normally look for opportunities in the art world or outside?

I would say probably the vast majority now is all outside. But when I was starting out, right after I graduated, my roommate accused me of having an “application-based practice.” because I just applied for everything, all the time. I spent the two years just applying and I’m much more discerning now that I’m a little bit older. There’s an organisation called Deveron Projects up in Aberdeen. I had a really good project with them, and because of that, I was able to continue conversations and chase up another project and sort of say: hey, we worked really well together. Do you think we could work on an application for something else? For emerging artists, when you find a relationship that works, keep up those relationship because finding people that feel like you, have a synergy, is a really helpful way to move forward.

How do you sustain your practice?

A lot of my PhD looked at cultural management in the arts. When it was completed, I had developed a lot of arts management understandings and this full-time job came up at a University (Queen Margarets in Edinburgh). It’s a platform to research elements and it changed my practice quite significantly. Instead of doing sort of intensive residency based social practices, I have longer, stretched out relationships, one day a week over a year or so. But that’s kind of how I sustained most of my practice and that is working out quite well because the teaching and the work that I’m doing inside the institution just feels like a natural extension of my practice.

One of the reasons why I was hired was because I said: I’m only useful as an artist. I have skills in terms of cultural management and I can teach it and I have an interest in pedagogy. But my contribution to this institution is only effective if I continue to practice as an artist. I feel people understand me as an artist, I feel like even the senior management and the Dean, they fully welcome me doing crazy projects.

It seems like creativity is your way to do everything. Your website looks like an artwork in itself, for example.

I use it like a board, where you pin your thoughts and ideas. Thomas Hirschorn comments that whenever he makes his monumental projects, he uses “materials that do not intimidate” and I think this goes back to the fact that I don’t make objects and I’m not very good at making objects, and that even in the in the manifestation of a website I didn’t want it to look like a website. I do everything on cardboard, so let’s make a website with cardboard and monochrome because if you’re working with others, with people who aren’t as confident or visually literate in some ways, websites they can be too slick, they can be exclusive, exclusionary.  

You are part of the academic world, but are you part of any other networks that you think are useful to feel less operating in a bubble of your own, that connects you to other artists?

Because Scotland is small, there’s quite an informal social network, that I think helps people support each other. I come across, for example a commission that I don’t have time for or it doesn’t suit me, I will instantly forward it to other people. I get the same back and I think it feels very supportive in that way.  There’s a couple of networks that I’ve personally initiated so I’m part of an Arts and Health Network, which is kind of looking at arts and healthcare contexts but kind of challenging the assumptions.

Are there any producers or commissioners that you think are particularly important for emerging artists?

I would always say to an emerging artist, look for the organisations that are doing what you think is interesting. We’ve already talked about Deveron Projects, which is very place-based, and really interesting. The director Claudia was instrumental in a lot of my practice. It’s about finding synergies, it’s about relationships and building those relationships. I recognise that as an emerging artist that might be really daunting but the vast majority of people in social engaged practices are quite open to someone else just reaching out. I think most people are really interested in new and emerging art talent. But these skills aren’t really taught in university so I get that artists are scared.

 How was COVID for you these last 18 months?

The Royal Scottish Academy’s COVID commission had a call for artists’ responses to the pandemic and I proposed to do a socially engaged response and digital social engage response which ended up as a series of zines which are quite good, I think!. As for the Master, it was the first times we were running this new master programme. It’s so hard to run socially engaged masters when you can’t socially engage, it’s sort of defies territory totally so that was a very complicated thing but we have graduating students who are doing great work, so it must have worked.

Do you think that the digital will remain part of your work or you will just go back to how it was before?

Suzanne Lacy said that technology is a tool, a tool that we are learning to use in the same way that we learned how to use video. Nicolas Bourriaud suggests that we don’t go to the theatre or go and see art because we like to go to theatre. We go because we like to gather together with people looking at these things and so the thing itself is almost slightly not important to the act of us coming together. I’m believer of that: that might be because I’m of a certain age and generation you know I certainly see my nieces and nephews who are younger who don’t see that distinction, but for me I still don’t see how I could operate purely in the digital.

Is there anything you wish you knew when you started your career?

I think there’s something about the recognition of how practices can change. There’s an assumption that you are set stepping into this practice and this will be for the rest of your life. I wish it had been explained to me that practice is like any form of art, that changes, morphs, adapts and that’s natural, and that’s okay. I see a lot of people who are getting trapped into ways of working, even particularly socially engaged practice where they don’t like people anymore, but they’re going down this path, because they think they should. And you’re not having a good time and neither of the people you’re working with, maybe it’s time to move away from that. So, it’s something about how your practice can change and adapt and how to keep it fresh.

I think there’s also something about cultural management tools that I wish I was taught, things like how to write an application, how to present yourself, how to get practical skills, which I think some art schools are doing better but most aren’t doing at all. But management is an anathema, in cultural terms. There is an assumption that if you know how to be logical and rational and use an Excel sheet, somehow, you’re not as good as an artist. Those are skills in the same way that is a skill to learn how to use the camera or a website. These are skills that are useful, you’re not going to use them all the time, but unless you have them, you’re going to be disadvantaged.

ID 1: “Art Cannot Help You” (2014) Public Performance with 9 Urban Biotopes. Johannesburg, South Africa. Copyright Anthony Schrag. (Image Credit: Anthony Schrag)
ID 2: “History On Trial” (Video Still) (2013) Public Event with Timespan Museum and Archive. Sutherlandshire, Scotland. Copyright: Anthony Schrag (Image Credit: Anthony Schrag) 
ID 3: “A Perfect Father Day?” (2011) Day long event with Deveron Projects. Aberdeenshire, Scotland. Copyright: Anthony Schrag and Deveron Projects. (Image Credit: Jan Holm)