The Cornwall Workshop

The Falmouth Convention in Retrospect

Six months on from The Falmouth Convention, Axis, the online resource for contemporary art, commissioned Lucy Lippard to reflect on the event. Lippard’s text is published here by kind permission of Axis.

In retrospect, the Falmouth Convention was a model of organisation and content.

The field trips, everyone has agreed, gave it a grounded, local flavour that suffered only from the fact that we couldn’t go on every one of them.

I came out of the Convention dubious about the necessity or perhaps even the possibility of taking part in an already formed, controlled, and conceptualized international Manifesta, and wildly enthusiastic about an independent, long-term project that would have time to learn from its own successes and failures.

Cornwall is already ahead of the game, given the large number of vital, often young artists involved in the issues put before us. At least that’s my impression from the talks and the information I received afterwards.

The RANE (Research in Art, Nature and Environment) program at the University College, alternative energy projects, artists taking on the role of independent tour guide, quirky takes on cultural geography, and so forth. (I am intentionally not mentioning names for fear I’ll forget someone.) These are all impressive, and usually collaborative, models for rural communities everywhere.

Similar projects are also flourishing in Devon (although Falmouth has just inherited Dartington, which was a lively centre for such ideas). An independent project could be extended into a south-western collaboration, though I don’t know the extent to which provincial nationalism would prove an obstacle.

Such an undertaking would obviously take extremely inventive long-term planning and community involvement. And of course fundraising in these hard times will be challenging to say the least.

Maybe BP would be interested? I couldn’t resist that, as a joke, given the Tate’s crucial support for Falmouth and the protests around the Gulf of Mexico oil spill from the art community (myself included) about BP funding.

But it’s probably no joke for the Tate, which has been so important in supporting innovative programs like this one. In any case, a project that lasted over years would be preferable to the one-shot, over-the-top hit of an Olympics or Biennial.

If funding is really scarce, it might be a good idea to begin by supporting and promoting existing projects, and allowing them to propagate.

I was not on the ground long enough to be able to analyse the amount of non-art community support that the local collectives could count on. The voices of the visited need to be heard by the visitors.

Some art events could grow from the grass roots rather than being forced to fit into outside organisers’ preconceptions.

Local politics, awareness of local problems and local sensitivities as well as local privacy are clearly as important as encouraging local talents and initiatives. (For instance, if events take place over time, traffic problems would be allayed: One of that weekend’s memorable experiences for me was the incredible skill of the coach drivers manoeuvring those narrow lanes.)

One of the Convention’s subtexts was change, lack of change, recording change over time, the relationship between tradition and innovation.

Right after Falmouth, I was in Totnes, Devon, and visited its Image Bank and Rural Archive. It reminded me that newspapers are good partners in community projects, as are the County, Municipal, and National representatives already involved by the Convention. But I suspect art events and artists’ photographs are not often documented in local archives, and the fact that some of them might generate historical and scientific material is rarely recognised.

A ‘multi-centred’ biennial or project must think long and hard about how to differentiate itself from the crassest kinds of conventional tourism, and ally itself with the best the tourism industry has to offer, crossing the boundaries as often as possible so that participants/audience/visitors are confused into seeing afresh the places they may take for granted.

The difficulty is always how to accommodate international participation or audiences, and at the same time keep the benefits at home, creating jobs for local people (and artists) who are enthusiastic about revealing deep maps of their places, providing contexts for the artworks.

A by-product could be encouragement for people willing to represent their farming practices or alternative energy plans or local history and artisanal groups, or to begin new cottage industries.

The artists are already seeking out ‘social energies not yet recognised as art’ and incorporating (not appropriating) them as new kinds of ‘ready-mades.’

I see collaboration as the social extension of collage – juxtaposing very different realities to form a new reality. Along these lines, I’d like to explore the notion of a ‘Community Biennale’ that I mentioned in my talk.

Another issue is what stays in Cornwall when the event is over? (I mean ideas or initiatives rather than objects or architecture, unless it’s something on a scale that would be truly useful to the area.)

I think of the lessons learned by ‘social sculptor’ Suzanne Lacy over decades of collaborative work with communities.

It’s difficult enough to make real human contact over a short period as a ‘visiting artist,’ but Lacy has often raised the issue of what happens when the artist leaves. How can a fragile young collaborative relationship be prolonged and maintained so that the project doesn’t fizzle as soon as the external energy departs? This happens only when the internal energy is its solid base.

For all my own obsession with the familiar, I keep in mind Tacita Dean’s contention that ‘ignorance is helpful and knowledge is destructive.’ It works for her. I wouldn’t go that far, but since I tend to didacticism, it reminds me how necessary it is to allow artists the full scope of their ideas and their own obsessions.

The Convention was exemplary in the span of work and experience represented and referenced, and for its international participation, which extended the concept of the ‘local’ into so many different corners of the world.

For once the abyss between community arts and ‘high arts’ (which is not as marked in the UK as it is in the US) was, if not invisible, easily traversed.

Finally, from the field trips I retained some metaphors offered by the ancient mining industry in Cornwall (digging deeper) and the ‘first transatlantic broadcast’ transmitted from Poldhu – metaphors that give the imagined upcoming events a historical reservoir and a precedent for contemporary ‘broadcasts’ into the winds of global change.

© Lucy R. Lippard October 2010, commissioned by Axis.