When artists are put to purpose by Angela Kingston
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When artists are put to purpose by Angela Kingston
Anisa Mayet by Charlotte Ginsborg

Anisa Mayet by Charlotte Ginsborg

The meaning, value and purpose of art cannot consciously be determined: these come as after-effects, and can only be understood once the artwork has been made. We learn all this as a habit of mind at art school, and it’s one aspect of our understanding of the term ‘independent’, as applied to artist-filmmakers. True artists’ films are self-initiated, and free from external demands and expectations, and the artists are answerable only to their individual, creative processes.

I was conscious of this whole etiquette when I co-commissioned Alnoor Dewshi to make a film for a hospital in Birmingham. We asked him to make a piece that would support teenagers undergoing treatment for cancer. His response was Mknki (1999), a surprisingly funny film with monkey characters, and an allegory for the various ways a life-threatening illness might be faced. But in any other context, I don’t think anyone would be conscious that it was made for a purpose. It’s just a great little film.

Cornelia Parker, on the other hand, when asked to contribute to a biennial about ‘art, ecology and the politics of change’, was so struck by the importance of the subject that she ‘decided to take the theme head on, and attempt to make a polemical piece’ (Guardian, 12 February 2008). In the resulting film, Chomskian Abstract (2007), Noam Chomsky answers her questions about the world powers’ slow response and the Bush government’s denial. In a debate at the RSA, Cornelia Parker explained that she’s prepared to risk the accusation that she’s made a piece of propaganda.

When disabled children reach adulthood, they undergo a formal ‘Assessment of Need’. One of the functions of the assessment is to give information to the people who will be involved in their future care. Kate Adams, an artist and the director of Project Art Works, found the assessment of her son extremely limited: ‘There was very little information about who he is and how he engages with, and perceives, the world. Many of these facets of his personality and individuality are enigmatic and subtle but a good understanding of them is vital to his well being.’

As a response to this, Kate Adams commissioned artist-filmmakers to make portraits of twelve young adults with disabilities, to flesh out their bare-bones formal assessments: six artists took part, including Charlotte Ginsborg and Ben Rivers. Given the responsibilities of the task and the direct sense of purpose, how did the artists feel about the whole process?

Ben Rivers, who made a film about Jack Stephenson: ‘It was a really great video to make. I’ve spoken with Charlotte a few times about how it was quite a different experience for us both, from our ‘normal’ practice. I think in many ways I would rather have made a film with less narration because Jack doesn’t communicate in words, but I was always aware that I needed to convey some important information, because of the purpose of the video. It was also a strange and new experience to film a person who wasn’t able to communicate directly and that it was OK for me to film him. On the whole though, it was a really enjoyable experience, mainly because Jack is a very nice person to be around.’

Charlotte Ginsborg, who made films about Anisa Mayet and Husne Tekagac: ‘It necessitated a very different approach to the filming process than when making my own films. Although I do employ documentary techniques in my ‘art’ films, and the people who appear in my films are ‘real’, I have always incorporated an element of fiction or overtly staged performance. With the Project Art Works films I felt that it would have been entirely inappropriate to add any fictional elements to the works. Both Anisa and Husne presented extremely challenging behaviour and I wanted to portray the sophisticated understanding of emotion and behaviour (both from the girls and from their carers) that I discovered in their homes and at their school.’

As a further comment, Charlotte Ginsborg says: the Project Art Works films enabled me to feel less constrained in my making process. I felt relieved of the pressure to make an ‘artwork’ and the pretension that comes with this.’ Going back to the first points I made in this article, I’ve felt a sense of relief, too, in the course of describing each of the works that I’ve mentioned, that the individualism of art practice can be dropped. It can seem an over-rated quality, in this era of the individualist and the artist-as-celebrity.

About the Author: Angela Kingston is a curator and writer. A book about the Personal Profile Project, called Art in Transition, is available as a pdf download from Project Art Works.

Husne Tekagac by Charlotte Ginsborg and Jack Stephenson by Ben Rivers is available to watch on APEngine showcase, The Personal Profile Project: Ben Rivers and Charlotte Ginsborg. There is also an interview with Ben Rivers available here.

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