Critical analysis of Keg de Souza’s community based artworks.
Throughout this paper I’m going to discuss Keg de Souza’s work and how it fits into the community-based art framework that Claire Bishop’s critiques in her essay “The Social Turn: Collaboration and its Discontents” from Artforum International in 2006. De Souza is an artist who breaks down the binaries of art. By disrupting the form and structure of ‘public art’ through her artwork de Souza allows for the focus to regenerate into conversations and events that she creates. Claire Bishop discusses how community art often comes with limitations and can become problematic for a number of reasons. These reasons manifest into issues surrounding ownership, aesthetics, value, and how the quality of art can be effected by morals. The dilemma, that surrounds community art and its morals, doesn’t exempt de Souza. From an outsider perspective, questions arise around her intentions for creating these artworks. For example, is her work created with the community in mind? Or does she abuse her power as an artist to create these works?
Within the analysis of de Souza’s artworks, I’ll talk about how the limitations can manifest when the artist takes a step by from their work. The key element of de Souza’s work is that it lends itself to the community in a literal hand over of direction. De Souza uses her privilege and position as an artist to create food kitchens; tent embassies; fresh food gardens etc. However, beyond the physicality of the work, de Souza invites the community to use her templates of art gatherings to discuss important topics such as displacement and homelessness in Redfern or economics in Gary, Indiana. De Souza evokes Bishop’s warning of disturbing the aesthetics in her artworks and unapologetically engages in the political commentary. As Melanie Oliver writes in “You are here and somewhere else” for Column, de Souza’s collaborative methods of generating art pieces continues “to embrace the radical potential of working in the world, regardless of the warnings and hesitations of certain critics.”
The first example of de Souza’s work that will be analysed in this paper is the dialogical space created for the 20th Sydney Biennale: Redfern School of Displacement, 2016. De Souza reawakened the concepts from an earlier collaborative engagement with Squatspace: the Tour of Beauty whereby “participants attending the school are requested to acknowledge their personal privileges and actively make space for “other” voices.” De Souza brings this conversation into the literal manifestation of creating a structure made of tents that the audience enters. This structure lived in a building independent from an art gallery and pulled the audience down a side street in the heart of Redfern. In this example, you can see de Souza’s architectural background at play as she creates a dialogical structure to explore the politics of space. Her investigations of social and spatial environments are informed by radical spaces of squatting as you are invited to contemplate the physicality of being in a tent, an experience shared by many of the displaced population in Redfern. Claire Bishop examines this relationship that community art has with its structures and how the departure from “heavy metal” is the beginning of setting up the formal or phenomenological framework. However, the critique of the materiality extends to the “intersubjective space created through these projects and becomes the focus and medium of artistic investigation.”
Thus, within the framework of de Souza’s School of Displacement, the intersubjective space lends its self to a collaboration. De Souza steps back and allows invited members of the community to discuss homelessness and displacement. She controls the basic aesthetics of the artwork, yet its outcome is depended on the audience and the speakers. Bishop discusses the breaking down of form and structure to examine what is left behind and discusses Jacques Rancière’s “denigration of aesthetics.” This applies to de Souza of what is “predicated precisely on a confusion between art's autonomy (its position at one remove from instrumental rationality) and heteronomy (its blurring of art and life).” The blurring of art and life is manifested throughout the goal of the school, “to create dialogue and debate around issues relating to social justice and equality from a local perspective.”
As previously mentioned, Keg de Souza worked with her collaborative team Squatspace on this project, as well as the local Redfern community. The Redfern/Waterloo:Tour of Beauty allowed for the audience to learn more about what was happening in Waterloo and Redfern, whilst actually being on the site. The school excursions became a key route of knowledge as audience members listened to lived experiences from local stakeholders about the displacement that results from gentrification in key sites across the neighbouring suburbs. The tour becomes an example of the “emphasis on process over product” and means-ends rationality. De Souza’s work, by sharing the ownership of the art between not just a group of people she chose (the speakers and tour guides) but also a large group of people that she couldn’t (the audience); which plays into Maria Lind’s ideas of successful artists using art for “creating and recreating new relations between people.”
However, whilst de Souza may be successful in creating a diplomatic space that breaks down hierarchies through an art premise, Bishop is critical of the idea that we can all share this democratic space. De Souza asks her audience to acknowledge their privilege, yet how would the artwork exist without it? De Souza’s work lends itself to a utopian model of communal interaction where equal participation of all harmonious togetherness is a collective action. Yet, de Souza acknowledges the limitations of working collaboratively in an interview with NAVA and says collaboration can be difficult when “both, or all parties are stuck on a particular issue, it’s important not to collaborate just for collaboration sake... it’s important to understand the other party’s ideas and understand how they work.” This adds a useful model for understanding the premise of relational aesthetics when the goal of the artwork isn’t forced into what the artist wanted. By letting go of authority and control, the artwork can take a much different direction. De Souza accepts that collaboration can’t create ‘micro-topias’ or ‘micro-communities’ just by trying to, thus, realises Bishop’s premise that healthy democratic communities are not reached on an unrealisable ideal of harmonious togetherness. Rather, those that allow space for dissent or disagreement. Yet again, whilst de Souza’s work may allow for disagreement we don’t actually see this in her artworks. This highlights a limitation of socially engaged art, where the works are judged on their moral ground and how much does the artist give authority over. Thus, aesthetics value, features, or impact of works can be ignored.
An artwork that plays into this social and moral dilemma faced by artists who engage with community-based art is the dual artworks ReMake Estate (You Are Here) and Emeraldtown: Gary, Indiana, both 2010. The former is a site-specific artwork in Gary, Indiana where the artist worked in collaboration with local initiatives Central District Organizing Project and the Higher Art Creative Learning Centre. These community-based groups were already seeking avenues of self-empowerment and community control, which allowed for You Are Here to become adapted to suggestions from the community. This resulted in a project that came together to “make a freely accessible edible garden and to focus their project upon the exterior of one of the houses.” Bishop is critical of this kind of artwork that simply attempts to “strengthening the social bond” and calls for a deeper examination of aesthetics in which value of community-building becomes the determining result in the artwork. However, Maria Lind argues against this and questions if “we have reached a point where culture and art are not only used as instruments in the political, but they also produce a potent force, something that is palpable.” The continued argument around relational aesthetics and it’s superficial experiences and unwanted services have manifested into community-engaged practice that encourages a “necessity for self-reflective and responsible community collaboration, participation and collective action.”
The duality of this work and the pulling of “you” into the “here” manifests into the gallery space in the latter part of this artwork Emeraldtown: Gary, Indiana. The project transforms the results from their community-based artwork and reinvents its self into an exhibition for Artspace, Sydney. The exhibition was made up of sculptural elements consisting of a large gold, safe-style door which served as the entrance to a private screening room of a three-part documentary. The documentary was made up of three parts: “Turning Green, with its focus on Gary and its African American population; Into the Red, which elaborated upon the context of the US steel industry and discussed the impact of the company moving to regions with non-union employment options; and Gold Standards, which elaborated upon some of the industries that remain in Gary.” These documentaries, rather than just offering information about Gary and its issues “functioned as an entertaining and thoughtful introduction to the work, identifying some of the political issues they sought to negotiate within the series of interviews.” De Souza and her collaborators, thus created an artwork that does apply the capitalist notions of creating a product over process. Within Emeraldtown: Gary, Indiana the rationality comes from a means over ends artwork, yet the message sits in the lines of a gallery space and results in an exhibition that isn’t site-specific. However, as Maria Lind wants us to remember “when politics in principle are completely steered by economics and the economy follows a capitalist logic, then culture tends to become an arena for ideological debate.” By drawing the integrated motif of the 1978’s The Wiz which presents the familiar tale of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in the context of African American culture, de Souza borrows a culture that isn’t hers and thus creates a problematic result. This artwork recycles the relational aesthetic framework but allows space for dissent or disagreement. The hierarchy is built up again with the spectator as the viewer for the artwork and becomes an exhibition where the process is simply a ‘walk-through’ affair.
Keg de Souza is an artist who draws on the social engagement as a medium for her art. As shown in this paper the framework for relational aesthetic art has been manipulated into artworks that engage the social and the participatory elements. Yet, rather finish these works in a gallery; their ambition for the artwork is left at the site it was created. The examples displayed throughout, show how community-based art can both exist independently in its community and then be displayed in an art context and importantly how the meaning changes depended on who sees the art and where they saw it. Claire Bishop’s “The Social Turn: Collaboration and its Discontents” provided a template on how often the artwork is expected to serve both the community and the art gallery. However, the means-ends rationality of contemporary art can’t provide this duality as once in an art gallery, the artwork lends its self into the capitalistic predilection that space commands. This works both ways as socially engaged art practices in the community are often judged by the task of strengthening the social bond, rather than its success, resolve, and interest gathered. As displayed Bishop is highly critical of this, and the multi-layered experience that de Souza creates allows for a successful critic in this framework. Her breakdown of hierarchies provides a fun and informative experience for the audience with multiple elements to intrigue the spectator into a participatory stance.
Bishop, Claire. “The Social Turn: Collaboration and its Discontents.” Artforum International. 2006. Vol.44(6), pp.178-183
De Souza, Keg. “Info” Keg de Souza Website. 2015
De Souza, Keg. “Redfern School of Displacement.” Keg de Souza’s Website. http://www.kegdesouza.com/portfolio/redfernschoolofdisplacement/
De Souza, Keg. “Event 2 : Feeding the Hand That Feeds You.” Keg de Souza Blog. November, 2012 http://kegdesouza.blogspot.com.au/2012/11/event-2-feeding-hand-that-feeds-you.html
De Souza, Keg. “ReMake Estate” Keg de Souza Website.http://www.kegdesouza.com/port...
Fenner, Felicity. “Home Ground Advantage.” Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art, 02 January 2015, Vol.15(1), p.2-19
Masters, H G. “20th Biennale Of Sydney.” Art and AsiaPacific. Issue 98. May/Jun 2016. pp.116-117.
Munting, Brianna. “Keg De Souza: Vodcast” NAVA. June 2014.
Oliver, Melanie. “You are here and somewhere else.” Column. 2011
Priest, Gail. “In Profile: Keg de Souza” Real Time Arts, September 2013
Tubbs, Marian. “You are Here (Keg de Souza & Zanny Begg) Emeraldtown. Gary, Indiana.” Eyeline. 2010.
Visual Arts Features. “Fellow Focus: Keg De Souza.” Australia Council for the Arts. January 2014.
“Keg de Souza: Changing Courses” The National: New Australian Art Website. 2017
“Keg de Souza.” Biennale of Sydney Website. 2016 https://www.biennaleofsydney.com.au/20bos/artists/keg-de-souza/
“Off-site: Keg de Souza – Appetite for Construction.” Contemporary Art Gallery. 2016 http://www.contemporaryartgallery.ca/exhibitions/keg-de-souza/
 Melanie Oliver, “You are here and somewhere else.” Column, 2011
 Claire Bishop, “The Social Turn: Collaboration and its Discontents.” Artforum International, 2006. Vol.44(6), page 2.
 De Souza, “Redfern School of Displacement.”
 Bishop, “The Social Turn: Collaboration and its Discontents,” page 7.
 De Souza, “Redfern School of Displacement.”
 Bishop, “The Social Turn: Collaboration and its Discontents,” page 3.
 ibid, page 2.
 Brianna Munting, “Keg De Souza: Vodcast,” NAVA, June 2014.
 Keg De Souza, “ReMake Estate” Keg de Souza Website.http://www.kegdesouza.com/portfolio/remake-estate/
 Bishop, “The Social Turn: Collaboration and its Discontents,”
 Oliver, “You are here and somewhere else.”