Interview with Patricio Forrester

How does social engagement fit in your practice and what informed that change?

I think there are many layers to this decision, mainly the personal and the professional. From a personal perspective, when I started thinking about what other people might want and put myself in the position to give it to them, I became stronger, healthier and more viable as an individual.

Professionally, I had a strong desire to do something in the public space, locally, but I couldn’t really sustain it if I was having all the fun and asking people to just look on.  I felt I had to ask what other people wanted. There is a social aspect also in making work in the street without any participation because there is a benefit in creating an environment that people feel better in. Other street artists repeat their work in various places, but I set myself a geographical area where I wanted to grow and develop my processes. So I was forced into considering what other people wanted, what was better for the place. A very organic long process, not a single event. I was doing an indulgent kind of art making, doing what I liked but in that process, it is easy to alienate everybody else. Doing what you want is not always going to result in the best public artwork. I was surrounding myself with my own art. Instead involving others in the process of thinking about art and making it, seemed much better suited to the public area.

When I started thinking about what other people wanted, I became more of a public artist – desirable, offering something of real benefit and available to others. The process took 20 years. The first step was to understand the needs of specific places and groups, then engage them in the process of thinking about what might work best in such conditions.

I still am the artistic director. In the participatory process I now go in with no ideas and see what happens. Soon, what is just a theme becomes an angle and this is the beginning of a new artwork. In a recent project at Charing Cross Hospital staff told us they would like something about the diversity of the working force. Our angle was to paint a collection of individual treasured memories where the staff had grown up in, the villages and local neighbourhoods. They gave us the theme, we found the angle and then engaged them in the process of visualising the new piece.

But that’s shifting too. In the community garden near the bridge in Telegraph Hill, the whole project took a direction of his own, I can see myself stepping back from it and the community taking full ownership of where it will go.

Which project would you consider your most successful one and why?

You tend to think your latest project is the most successful. But His and Hers is probably the most successful one. The success is the space that it occupies in the community, and how it’s become associated with Deptford.

In terms of social engagement, I’m divided. The work in the refugee camps is definitely one the most successful, and the hospital project was successful in terms of improving the lives of people the work was made for. Success is when a work delivers a change in the perception of the space and in the way that participants think of themselves in relation to art, the artwork and the art experience.

Fabric of Society was also successful as it precipitated a change of perception. It invited emotional contributions from our community and that later created the conditions for a successful community cafe. There are moments of innovation that make a work successful. The work in Pepys Estate we ended up asking people to vote for what they wanted to see on the wall and that worked really well for young people at risk.

The experience at Euston Station on the other hand is quite tragic. The people don’t look at the work. The mural is not engaging the public because it’s in a place where people are too busy trying to get somewhere else. That makes you think: what space does the work occupy in people’s eye and minds? It made me think that the way of working in local communities, slow working, makes the meaning of the artwork more tangible.

What do you think are the biggest challenges in the practice of a socially engaged artist?

One of the biggest challenges is to end up doing artworks that are not cliques, feeding people what they want. The challenge is to find something that people didn’t know they wanted but they do want when they see it being created. As a practitioner, cliques are a dead end. You need to find the common ground, which includes what you are interested in as an artist, then build a fire with it, create new energy and a new common good. Most people are not trained to think in images, they are not used to building images, so they want to control what they might mean and that feels contrived to the viewer. Another challenge is to detect what people can and cannot do and fill all the gaps and make people think they did it themselves.

The other challenge is to detect what are your challenges in each individual project because challenges shift. More and more I feel I don’t have to have all the answers at the beginning. I am fine with that. I can absorb the pressure of leading an uncertain process. You are leading a process in a dark room and you have to trust that the process is going to work and end up with something both everyone else and yourself can feel surprise, love and excitement for. As an artist you have to engage your aspirations in the socially engaged process.

The objective is to elevate what people can do and what I can do… then do something amazing together. What can really surprise us? Make us feel alive. And finding this at the end of a project is the ultimate objective of a participatory artwork.

How much of your work is commissioned as opposed to self-initiated?

At the beginning, Artmongers created two companies or vehicles, one that could respond to what was offered to us and one that was in a position to direct and create our own project.

You need to both create and find opportunities. You can’t wait, you need 2 legs to walk. You create them and after that project is done, it may help you find other opportunities or opportunities to find you. Sometimes you find the opportunity in a need and you need to make all the work to make it into an opportunity and that’s an interesting process, like  understanding who will pay for it, who benefits, who will want it to happen and who will oppose it and why.

How do you sustain your practice?

For me it was important not to have another job, although it became difficult for people around me when I didn’t have any money. It’s a difficult career and you have to expect to give something up. My motto is: Is better to have a good problem than a bad solution. How to make a living with your art is a good problem that can get you creative, having a side job is most likely to become a bad solution in the long run as it may be taking away your passion. It disconnects you. It’s a solution but not what you wanted.

How do you document, record and archive your work?

My website documents in simple ways the way the work that happened and how we thought about it. It’s a register of time and conditions in which the work emerged.

Social media is the dynamiser. There was a moment when the documentation became the work of art and I think there is a potential there to explore. The pictures of what happened when the artwork was made have an energy about them, they are alive in the same way the artworks are alive.

Do you deal with your website or someone else does?

After two home made websites, for the first time I’ve hired somebody to create a new website. We have a brand new website and haven´t done any updates yet. I need to learn how to use the new programme but I like doing it as I am very particular about the Artmongers voice.

Are you part of any formal or informal network that makes a difference in your work? 

Not really. Although now that I created the School of Muralism, that has benefitted us a lot. I took part in DeptfordX and that worked well. His and Hers came out of it. 

Are there any producers or commissioners that you think are particularly important in the SE practice?

I took the strategic decision to move away from the gate keepers of the art world. And I moved to local government, public organisations like NHS, Care and NGOs. If you develop an angle as an artist, the work will come to you.

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

I’m going to change the question around. In a way there was something I’m glad I didn’t know, which is how hard it was going to be. Don’t calculate how hard it’s going to be, it will be very hard. But don’t let that put you off. It’s also wonderful.

The precariousness is hard, not knowing how to pay the rent. You don’t know whether you are going to succeed or not and you have to dig into yourself and build your resilience, your thick skin. In the long run, I think patience is more important than talent.

What’s hard is that you see things in a certain way, you see the potential and the excitement of possibilities but the world doesn’t see it in this way. Success comes when others cannot help but see the world how you proposed in the first place. Once they cannot deny it to you anymore, not a second before.

List of advise for young people: it’s going to be hard so don’t sabotage yourselves. Try to cooperate with yourself in the process of advancing. Drink and drugs won’t help in the long run.

And don’t be in a hurry, the best things are slow.

Find team players, don’t do it on your own. 

I set up a company not as Patricio Forrester because people would have no place in it. My name is occupied. I was thinking of a tent, a space that people could come in or under and have an experience they didn’t have before. You need to create something others will value.

What impact has Covid-19 had on your work?

Brilliant. We found a way to be part of the solution. If you are part of the problem you are not going to make a living.

How is technology part of your work?

Before Instagram I thought if I can make people photograph my work on the streets, that would help infiltrate their networks and become a freebie. I had the idea or placing artworks in front of people so they would take their camera out and do shots of it and then share them with their family and friends.  This involves people using their own technology to access their network and I did this before social media. I’ve done some teaching and online participation. Technology is giving me the opportunity to work remotely, from another country. 

ID 1:  Empathy by the Bucket 
ID 2:  Artmongering in Lebanon 
ID 3:  Deptford Arena