Interview with Yara + Davina

How does social engagement fit in your practice and what event or single opportunity informed that change?

Davina: It’s difficult to define the moment when that change happened, but it was during my degree at Goldsmiths. I was desperately trying to find something which was to do with participation and meaningful dialogue. I really struggled as teachers were saying to me, I should go into art education or art therapy. At that time, almost 20 years ago, nobody pointed me in the direction of social practice. But on day one of my post grad, they said ‘Oh you are a social practice artist’! During my entire degree I was trying to find the right vocabulary, a language to articulate what I was doing. I then worked for a social practice curatorial team called B+B who were quite big in the early 2000s in the UK and they were doing super interesting projects. I did an internship with them at the same time so that really helped my understanding.

Yara: For me it wasn’t a single opportunity that changed my practice. I’ve been always making socially and politically engaged work and I was always using that term. It was about making work that was beyond just a passive viewer. I didn’t want to make a piece of work that’s sat in a gallery space. I found it really problematic and actually it didn’t excite me in terms of who my audience were or what it meant to be making contemporary art practice. I studied Fine Art in Context at University of the West of England in Bristol, and then did my MA at the Slade, and in both of them there was never a time when we talked about social practice. But within the context of site context and audience, there was this idea of: if we’re making it for an audience, how do they engage and who is the public? This led me to understand that I want to do more than just make a painting and put it on a wall, I want to be making for people and with people, where the public becomes embedded within whatever it is I’m doing or making. 

People and contexts are really important in your work. Could you tell me how they informed your projects from the start?  

Davina: Whenever we receive a commission or a brief, we begin to investigate the context around that brief. We literally think about every single element: the site, the history of that site and what’s currently happening socially and politically on that site, what’s happening in terms of people coming in and out of that site, who uses it, who lives in the locality, who actually engages at that site but maybe doesn’t live locally; who lives locally but never engaged. There are so many different dynamics to consider and we will very much weave all those elements into our thinking.

We’re never just coming to a project or brief with an idea and ask how do we embed it within whatever context is given. When we engage with a political context or we’re working with a specific institution, we also need to think about the politics of that institution, where they get their funding from, what is their history and their political angle.

We’re not just making the social practice work presuming we’re going to do three workshops and people will engage. We will actually really research the local audience, particularly those who do not feel engaged in that community.

Yara: We think really deeply about all of those ideas of how people engage with our practice, in a way ‘that’ is our creative practice. Our craft is the thinking process, and the conversation process that goes behind trying to create a work which is rooted in context, but then comes across as a work that everybody can understand. For us, success is about whether the public has engaged and whether there’s been meaningful participation. It’s not about if it’s been nominated to the Turner Prize, of course, that would be nice, but it’s not about that. It’s about how effective it has been in engaging people and also how effective it has been in changing the conversations about what art is and what art can be. 

You are shortly opening the Arrivals and Departures project in Milton Keynes. It’s a project that has travelled, not only in the UK, but also in the US. How will you present it in Milton Keynes, how does the project relate to the local area?

Yara: If you’d asked us this last year, we would have given you a much more vigorous answer. Because of Covid regulations we haven’t been able to fully present our public programme, which is a programme of events that goes alongside and allows the work to be more contextual. We think of this work very much as a triptych: the physical boards; the online engagement that happens, when people input the names and the stories, which includes an archive and a mapping system; and then the public programme, which is an integral part of the work. It doesn’t sit on the side; it is a third of it. That is how we give it context and relation to a place, but also how we engage a wider public.

Davina: What creates the life and soul around the work in Milton Keynes for example, is the way that we’re using the public programme to connect us with the local context. We’re working with Birth and Death Cafés and Kathy who is already based in Milton Keynes to have that dynamic relationship rather than bringing somebody from London; we’re working with the local university to do some creative writing around the work and we’re doing a talk with some local academics.   

Yara: It might be interesting to refer just very briefly back to some past projects, like another Arrivals and Departures installation in New York, where we worked with local immigrants’ rights organisation as New York has a history of being a place where immigrants first turned up to settle in the States. We looked at this idea of arrivals and departures very literally, so we worked with one organisation called Raices and had an online talk about the power of naming, what it means to name people especially people outside of the system, who can’t normally be named. And we used the boards for one takeover to name immigrants that arrived, and had been deported by ICE (US Immigration and Customs Enforcement). The same name was appearing on the Arrivals and Departures board, whit their arrival date into the US and their departure date and then a story that told their narrative, and each story was different, exposing the idea of what arrivals and departures means.

Davina: The work is going to Hull in September. The city has an history of having lost lots of men. There was a big incident in 1968: three trawlers from Hull sank within a few weeks of each other and 58 men lost their lives. There, we’re looking at contemporary times, and people who have lost their lives at sea. We’re working with France based activist Maël Galisson, to name people who are dying crossing the Channel, and tell their stories. When we went to Norwich, it was at the same time that there were heated conflicts between Palestine and Israel. We worked with a peacekeeping organisation to name the victims of that violence during that time. It’s about the location or the large, political global context of time. 

We’ll go to Zurich in August and again we’re thinking about a public programme that relates to the Swiss context, and that’s really interesting.

What do you think are the challenges in this practice?

Yara: I think one of the challenges actually is the lack of recognition or understanding of what social practice is. I don’t think it’s valued the way it will be in another five years. I think that we’re still on the periphery, still not as valued as a Damien Hirst that’s going to sit in a vitrine in the middle of a gallery space. We’re still working towards defining the value of making work that is for people and that can be questioning what art is.

Davina: One practical challenge is that a lot of the commissions often will come from outside of the art world, which is actually positive and we, in many ways, prefer working for non-art organisations because it makes the work much more accessible and reaching a much wider audience. But with that often comes a high level of bureaucratic content. Working for a Council to develop a project brings so many layers of people that have to Okay the idea, and the idea has to be sensitive to not potentially offend anybody, to the point where you might not even be able to use a text because it’s in one specific language, like English that can be seen as being insulting, because it’s not accessible to people who don’t speak English. There is a complexity that can be incredibly challenging to the point where the work has the potential threat of being reduced or compromised so much that it will lose its value and its meaning. So, for me the biggest challenge is working in setting where there’s just too many people involved and too many risks because everybody is so fearful now.

When you say, lack of recognition, do you mean from the art world, or the wider community?

Yara: I’d say both, but I think more from our institutions. They’re still slow in commissioning social practice artists what they’ll think is: Well, we’ve got this great painter and as an educational strand, we’ll bring them in to do some community engagement/ We want curators to be expanding who they curate, so we can widen the spectrum of who walks through gallery doors and who engages with work. We are also trying to further ideas around what art is and can be, and where artwork can reside, so we’re not striving to necessarily be within a gallery space, but in the public realm commissioned by the gallery/museum as an institution. There shouldn’t be a separate curator, who just at the end thinks about bringing people in. It is about how we widen the spectrum of who walks through those doors and who engages with work, or where work can be, because we’re not striving to be within a gallery space, but in the public realm.

Do you think that having the five nominees for the Turner Prize will make a difference for the sector?

Yara: yes social practice is getting recognition, but it feels like this is the token year as it’s all five in one year. Like if they needed to find something else to make the Turner Prize relevant and forward thinking. It would have been good to just keep seeing this happening and building up year after year.

Davina: There has been a shift, which comes from the structures of the museums and galleries. Five years ago, we’d be working with spaces that would have the director of the gallery from an exhibitions background, and then the person in participation would be more junior to them. This is not right and highly problematic. We need to have directors who are placed between participation and exhibition and actually there shouldn’t be a definition between the two. But then of course money. If you make such a practice work, you’re not selling it to galleries in Dubai or to rich collectors. There’s a massive financial implication to making this kind of work. We are given commission fees but they will never reach the fees you could potentially get through selling.

How do you sustain your practice? Is YARA + DAVINA a formalised partnership?

Yara: We both work part time which is one of the great benefits of working as a duo. In this way, we can be parents and sustain our practice. But it would also be very hard to be able to earn enough money for us both to have full time career within social practice.

Davina: We had talks about legalising YARA + DAVINA into a company, but to be honest we’re both awful at admin. we both aim to work 2.5 days each on our combined practice to make a full-time practice.

Yara: We both come to our collaborative relationship from quite different angles, and I think that just brings a breadth and depth of excitement to our projects. Davina has much more of a focus on participation in a way that is so elegant and really thoughtful. I come from   an interest in how to make work that is exploring the political aspects of things, how can we explore contexts in this particular way. Together, we have ideas and think about projects that are absolutely a marriage of the two. We bring our practices together and it becomes something bolder, bigger, better, and more ambitious. The fact there’s two of us, allow us to be more experimental. We can work at a much larger scale because there’s two of us who can take those risks. We also bring together very different networks and have different skills, which can be really helpful.

Davina: There’s also some practicalities. Being an artist is an incredibly lonely work   because most of the time we’re just sending emails, writing applications, making plans and coming up with ideas. Through working together, you have that dialogue and that kind of social element which is really good for your mental health. And then we just come up with better ideas, quicker, because we are challenging each other.

Let’s talk about commissioning. You have reached a point in your career where commissions come to you. But how was it at the beginning and what has changed?

Davina: Open calls have always been an absolute nightmare. We have done some, and sometimes even just to get on the shortlist is useful because you build up the dialogue with that curator and then you can make sure that you have them on your mailing list and you keep in touch. I think that is something that’s really important: to keep in touch. But you need to also try to do it in an authentic way. Generally, open calls are a lot of work and a very low chance. We do participate in shortlists of course, when we are invited and paid. We think it’s fair to pay a certain amount of money to come up with an idea. It’s really important that they have that respect from the beginning.

Yara: But the advice for younger people is that you do have to start with some of those open calls. You need to learn the skills of writing applications and succinctly say what your idea is about and also deal with rejection, which I actually think are really important.

Davina: When I graduated at Goldsmiths, I was putting myself out there as much as possible. I was doing internships and when I was 22 I raised £10 K from a funding organisation called Big Boost that supported young people led art community projects. And by doing it, I learned skills that are helpful in social practice spaces, like working with different communities. 

Yara: Writing applications is an important skill. When I was in London, I was passionate about live art, which for me was really important in terms of engagement. Connections with the Live Art Development Agency and Artsadmin were really important as well. I built a close relationship with both of those organisations just by always being present, by making work that I believe was challenging, applying for their bursaries, being part of that social culture. That really helped me because, I received a couple bursaries from Artsadmin, and then I became an associate artist for five years. I then joined the board of Chelsea Theatre. When you become part of these organisations and embed your time and passion, they become your networks and your support. I’m not saying I got things because of that, but what I’m saying is, you’re in that world. And it opens doors.

Davina: I like active networking. The kind of work we make doesn’t really have private views in the traditional way, so we are mindful to build relationships with people that we’d like to work with. And to keep in touch with people through newsletters.

How has Covid impacted your work? 

Davina: It had impact on two major projects we were working on and it did affect us in a very practical way. Arrivals and Departures for example, was due to open at Somerset House in April last year (2020). We had been working on the public programme for the tour for 18 months, and it was supposed to tour all of the UK. All of it had to be paused, delayed, altered and the public programme had to be radically transformed. There was another project we were working on with the National Trust called Kickoff, where we were supposed to have a major live event last July, which had to be cancelled and reassessed because people couldn’t be in close proximity. So, on a practical level, it really affected two projects that we’ve been working on for years. Those projects are still happening but obviously in a very different way and we’ve had to re think so much, we had to go back to square one and question what can a public programme look like or how can we engage young women.

Yara: It also completely reduced our capacity to work as we both had our kids at home full time and home-schooling. At that time, we were working full time to make these projects happen and we went down to two hours a day, because that was all we could do.

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

Davina: If you want to be an artist and that’s your absolute passion, what you were born to do, then just don’t give up. So many friends and colleagues have not touched their work since graduating in college. You have to find the time.

Yara: Art is much more challenging than a traditional career, where there’s a ladder of success you can climb. That structure isn’t there. We don’t have a pension or the support system to know that you’re in a career and you’re moving up. As Davina said, it is a lonely profession, and it’s just important to be aware of that. Something I wish they talked more about in school is how public facing this role is. If you are an artist, whether you have a social practice or not, you’re putting your work on the line, you’re putting it within the public realm. And there’s a level of vulnerability in doing that. You should be aware that there will be criticism and praise, there will be rejections of proposals. It’s financially challenging too, and both Davina and I are teaching, lecturing, tutoring or we are part of panel discussions.

Davina: It’s become part of your practice because you talk about what it means to be a social practice artist. It’s a moment of reflection for us too. They’re very good opportunities to articulate and to reflect and to and to pass on what you have learned. 

ID 1: Arrivals and Departures at Somerset House, 2020
ID 2: Arrivals and Departure at Freedom Festival, Hull 2021 
ID 3: Kick Off, 2020-2022