For 15 years Anthony Luvera has created long-term research-led projects with homeless people in cities and towns across the UK, including London, Colchester, Belfast, and Brighton. Undertaking this work has led to a collection of tens of thousands of photographs, sound recordings, and ephemera related to the participants experiences and the process of the artist’s practice.
Assembly is a recent body of work created in Brighton between 2013 and 2014. As part of Assembly, Luvera volunteered at the Brighton Housing Trust homeless support service, First Base Day Centre, working in the kitchens and in the activity rooms over the course of a year. He then invited individuals to use single-use cameras to create photographs and digital sound recorders to capture their experiences. Luvera met with the participants regularly to discuss their images and sounds, and to record conversations. He also invited participants to learn how to use medium-format digital camera equipment, over repeated sessions, in order to create a self-portrait for the ongoing series Assisted Self-Portraits. Alongside these activities he collaborated with The Cascade Chorus, a choir of people in recovery, through group singing, performance and sound recordings. Assembly consists of over 70 images including Assisted Self-Portraits, documentation, and photographs created by participants, as well as a 45-minute soundscape featuring excerpts from sound recordings created by participants, The Cascade Chorus, and the process of the creation of this work.
Who is being empowered? Whose voice is amplified? Who is being made visible? Through his work, and the relationships upon which it is based, the work of Anthony Luvera explores the tension between authorship (or artistic control) and participation, and the ethics involved in representing other people’s lives.
A selection of imagery from Assembly and excerpts from its accompanying soundscape are presented here, providing the basis of critical discussion with Benedict Burbridge (University of Sussex) that seeks to explore questions focused on agency, authorship, and the ethics of representation in process-led practice as research.
Benedict Burbridge: What is Assembly?
Anthony Luvera Assembly was made in Brighton between 2012 and 2014. It’s a progression of the greater body of work I’ve created with people who have experienced homelessness in towns and cities across the UK over the past fifteen years. Assembly was made in Brighton between 2012 and 2014. This body of work is an extension of the larger work I’ve created with people who have experienced homelessness in towns and cities across the UK over the past fifteen years. As part of Assembly I initiated a partnership with the Brighton Housing Trust, and in the first year or so I spent time getting to know the staff and individuals associated with two of their support services, a hostel called Phase One and the First Base Day Centre. I then invited people to use single-use cameras to create photographs and digital sound recorders to capture their experiences. I met with participants regularly to discuss their images and sounds, and to record conversations about photography, representation and identity. Participants were also invited to learn how to use medium-format digital camera equipment, over repeated sessions, to create a self-portrait for my ongoing series Assisted Self-Portraits. In addition to inviting participants to work with me to photograph and record audio, I struck up a collaboration with The Cascade Chorus – a choir of people in recovery – to sing, create sound recordings, and rehearse for a performance that was part of the exhibition of the work.
When Assembly was exhibited for the first time in the Phoenix Gallery in Brighton over seventy photographs were presented, including images created by participants, images I created, documentation of us working together, and Assisted Self-Portraits. A 50-minute soundscape weaving excerpts from all of the various audio recordings also played in the space. A piano donated by Phase One, and tables and chairs lent by First Base were installed, and the gallery was transformed into a community hub where visitors were invited to spend time contemplating reading research about support services for homeless people in the UK. This research piece is titled Frequently Asked Questions and was created with a participant, Gerald Mclaverty. It invites contemplation consideration of the state of provision of support services for people dealing with urgent housing issues by councils of forty cities and towns across the country.
BB But at the core of what was clearly a complex and multi-faceted piece of work was a participatory photography project, right? Perhaps we should talk a bit more about that. You work as an artist. But art is just one of the fields that has embraced the potential of participatory photography—what some people, generally those outside the arts, sometimes call ‘photo voice’—in recent years. I am thinking about the types of projects initiated or supported by NGOs, and also projects associated with the social sciences. I wondered where you position your work in relation to this array of practices that utilise similar working methods; practices that, like your project, are invested in unsettling, subverting or reversing some of the power dynamics encountered in more traditional documentary projects?
AL I mostly work with groups of people in ways that can be described as participatory, or otherwise invested in strategies of co-production, facilitation, pedagogy and collaboration. Ultimately I am interested in how involving participants as contributors to the processes of representation I bring can inscribe a different, more nuanced, or otherwise complicate commonly held perceptions of their lives. My critical position and the methodologies I use are informed by a wide range of perspectives, including critiques of documentary photography by the likes of Martha Rosler, Allan Sekula and A.D. Coleman; community photography work by individuals such as Jo Spence, Andrew Dewdney and Martin Lister; critical writing by anthropologists and sociologists such as Johannes Fabian and Norbert Elias; and approaches to progressive education put forward by Paulo Friere, Ivan Illich and bell hooks, to name just a few.
It seems to me that the types of projects by NGO’s you refer to are often underpinned by intentions to infer social or personal benefits onto the participants or symbolically position them as representatives of particular political, social or economic issues within marketing and campaigning activities. Although my work is sometimes commissioned or funded by institutions, one of the main ways I see a difference in my work compared with that undertaken by an NGO is in the terms of the invitation issued to participants, and how my role as an artist / author of the work is negotiated. Within this I am concerned with how the process of the creation of the work and its subsequent dissemination may impact upon issues such as agency, representation and authorship.
BB There seem to be two things at play here, both of which we could talk about in a bit more detail. Firstly, there is the question of the art institutions you are commissioned by, which presumably possess some kind of expectation regarding the work you are going to produce, but those expectations are different to those that might accompany a project funded by an NGO. Secondly, there is the question of your process, of how you make your work. In that sense, you seem to be suggesting that you approach collaboration in a way that is both more organic and perhaps also more self-reflexive that the other types of participatory photography project we have been talking about. How did those elements play out in Assembly? And what was the relationship between the two?
AL Negotiating the expectations of commissioners, funders, and other organisations and individuals – not least the participants – each with their various investments in the work, is an important aspect of the practice. The relationships, tensions, conversations, restrictions, and other elements that affect decisions made with and without participants, all need to be carefully navigated. Sustaining a transparent dialogue with participants is an important consideration within this and so too is acknowledging failure. Mitigating ambitions by institutions can sometimes be a more tricky undertaking, particularly in relation to how their agendas ideologically predetermine the subject position of the participants and myself as the artist.
It seems to me that at the core of your query here is an apparent tension between the process and products of the practice. Ultimately the relationships formed throughout the process of carrying out the work are as much the practice as the images, sounds and other materials created and disseminated publicly. Attempting to maintain reflexive self-awareness throughout this process and enabling audiences to perceive something of this is as important to me as providing imagery to look at. When making Assembly, the time spent building relationships with organisations, the staff and the individuals that use their services was just as significant, if not more, than time spent creating images and recording sounds.
BB So do you think your relationships with, and the expectations of, funders are visible in the final project, to the extent that this visibility constitutes another level, or another mode, of self-reflexivity akin to that relating to your engagement with the homeless people you worked with? Of course you are quite right – my interest in this topic is very much a product of the questions that we both seem to be suggesting are implicit within this kind of process-orientated work. I think there is something very interesting about which elements of that process, along with which of the parties it involves, are experienced by viewers as a legitimate part of the work—as part of what that work actually means—and which parts are deemed to be somehow extraneous to the production of meaning. I guess I am interested in where the work ends and something else begins, and vice versa, because there seems to be an interesting and rather complex politics at play here.
AL To varying degrees, certain elements answerable to the expectations of the commissioning organisation are sewn into the work I make. This can take effect through the conditions of funding, the scope of the budget, and specific cultural or creative remits of the organisation. This might determine who the artist works with, over what time frame, and in other ways that will apparently demonstrate what is sometimes referred to as ‘corporate social responsibility’ – or to put this term another way, the efforts by the organisation to accrue funding, cultural capital, and audiences, and to be seen to do so in ways that demonstrate diversity. Navigating the effect of this and representing the ways in which these conversations, tensions, opportunities or compromises unfold – and how participants may or may not be able to assert their agency within this – is one of the challenges faced by the artist, not only in relation to how it impacts on the representation of the participants and produces meaning, but in how the artist fairs within the power differential between the artist and the commissioning organisation. Through experience I have learnt that key to this is being selective about which organisations to work with and, perhaps more importantly, ensuring that the individuals within the organisation are engaged in thinking through the critical dimensions of the work in ways that chime with and challenge my own points of view. This isn’t to say that all this always goes smoothly.
BB Listening to your description of the project—and reading over what has been said and written by others about some of the earlier projects you have worked on—those types of institutional relationship and the ways in which they potentially impact on the work remain largely unaddressed, beyond the usual courtesies most funders require. And I guess I’m suggesting that, given that the meaning of the work derives from the process of making photographs and the relationships this involved, that absence is potentially very telling, particularly if we open ourselves to the liklihood that those aspects of the process that are not made visible probably indicate something about how institutions—and, indeed, whole systems—function. By thinking about those absent processes, systems and relationships and, particularly, the potential reasons for their absence, we begin to appreciate that there are other sets of power relationships at play here. Of course that would also mean the fact they are not disclosed is particularly telling. I’m not suggesting that funders sit down and explicitly forbid the kind of self-reflexivity via which some of these other relationships would become visible; more that there are a set of normalized conventions about what are and are not regarded as legitimate subjects when we think or talk about this kind of work. And the naturalised status of those assumption is a sure sign that there is a powerful and complex politics at play, one that probably has something to do with the precarious position of the artist freelancer; of arts organizations obliged to meet certain, often largely market-based, criteria; and so on.
Parts of what I am saying draw from recent discussions realting to the history and to the future of institutional critique that I have become very interested in lately. Hito Steyerl, for instance, has suggested that the politics of art remains a major blindspot for artists and their audiences – when contemporary artists ‘do politics’, they usually deal with a ‘political elswhere’. Andrea Fraser goes further, suggesting that the economic and political circumstances of art’s production and consumption should be central to what art means. I find the idea that this kind of analysis—this kind of meaning—is implicit or latent within any art work quite compelling. And in a project such as yours, that notion seems to have particular purchase.
AL I think you’re right. To not address the economics and politics of any practice is to disavow an important aspect of the function of the work, not only in terms of its aesthetic or it’s or meaning, but how it may have the effect of perpetuating the labour conditions that gave rise to its production. I am also reminded of Steyerl here, particularly when she stated: ‘Art is not outside politics, but politics resides within its production, its distribution, and its reception’ (2010). This seems to me to be particularly acute in relation to socially-engaged practices, especially when funding bodies and commissioning organisations overstate their role as social agents or even make authorial claims for work made by an artist and the individuals they collaborate with. In my experience, part of the balancing act in addressing or representing this aspect of the process is negotiating how, when and where to open up conversation and assert critique. You don’t want to snap so hard at the hands of commissioners that they won’t continue to support your practice. Part of this challenge is in enabling a discussion to take place in ways that will be productive rather than antagonistic for the position of the freelance career artist within the power dynamic inscribed by the institution. I have found public talks and other discursive or poly-vocal formats a useful way of doing this.
BB Your last point seems to relate to a very interesting shift in contemporary art practice. A number of artists have started to embrace the performative possibility of the artists’ talk. Traditionally, this has been something regarded as ‘other’ to the art work proper. But that neat separation becomes harder to maintain when a work of art deals explicitly with questions of labour or even with social relations. So when artists such as Walead Raad and Andrew Norman-Wilson perform the role of the artist discussing the production of their previous work, and that work is very much concerned with questions of labour in and outside the art world, they knowingly embrace the fact that the talk itself exists as an extension of the work. And that means the audience and the institutional setting in which the talk is taking place also become activated as part of the work. Indeed, the very term ‘art work’ takes on new importance in such a context. This can make for a very uncomfortable, but nevertheless productive experience for audiences, who are denied the reassuring distance from the politics that artists critically frame. When the ‘political elswhere’ becomes inseperable from the political here, then our own relationship to patterns of exploitation and uneven power relations comes into clearer view. I’m not sure that kind of self-reflexivity consituties an adequate goal in itself –no shit, the art world is intimately linked to a global capitalist system!?!. In fact, I think art really needs to do something else as well – engage with the causes and experience of homelessness, for instance. But neither do I think the two need to be mutually exclusive.
The type of extended political context we are talking about—a view of photography as sensitive to its production, circulation and consumption as it is to the visual information contained in any particular image—would encompasses numerous other areas, of course, including the importance we attach to the experiences of different makers and audiences when we think about what the work means. So I wondered what the homeless people involved with the project made of the exhibition and the types of people who were looking at their images? In a well-known essay, Martha Rosler suggested that, however much participatory photography projects disturb certain heirarchies at the level of production, these are often reintroduced at the level of dissemination and consumption. But perhaps we can work against that tendency, viewing the exhibition as a point of contact between various groups of people? In which case, what did the people most closely involved with the project make of its dissemination as part of an arts festival? Is this something you discussed with them?
AL The commission of the work by Brighton Photo Fringe for an exhibition at Phoenix Gallery was central to my invitation to participants and our ongoing discussions. When preparing the show and while it was open to the public, I was keen to find ways to dismantle perceptions of an art exhibition as rarified and exclusionary. To these ends, when the participants and I undertook the editing and selection process we spent a lot of time in the gallery developing plans for the exhibition. The creation of Frequently Asked Questions was a response to the intention to provide research and information about support for homeless people, and the collaboration with Cascade Chorus was focused on the production of performances to take as part of the show. The installation of a piano lent by Phase One, which visitors played a lot, and tables and chairs provided by First Base enabled people to spend time in the gallery in informal ways. Additionally, the gallery was designated as the Participation and Events Hub for the festival, with a number of public events taking place in the exhibition. These included a panel discussion about homelessness in Brighton and issues involved in working collaboratively with community groups; an artist peer feedback event; a book fair; as well as talks for school and college groups. By consciously positioning the exhibition as a social space, its function was much more than a display of objects in a gallery. But with regards to your question about what did the participants make of the types of people looking at their images, this is an interesting question and one I don’t have a ready answer to – we’d have to ask participants.
BB: I think it could add another important dimension to a very interesting project if we did.