On Public Agency

For some time now I have been engaged in a process of transforming my way of life and ways of working. In doing so I have continued to muse on the problem of communicating to others what it is that I do. I have never felt entirely comfortable describing myself as an artist, nor as a designer, nor as a researcher nor any other one thing (they never quite seem enough). And it is such a mouthful to always have to say that I am an “Artist, Designer and Researcher” (my long time favourite personal soubriquet, “maker of mischief”, is also not always suitable for attracting potential sponsors, funders and clients when trying to earn a living). I have been pondering on the nature of who and what I am as much as what it is that I do, and in doing so I’ve begun to think of a description that encapsulates my aspirations as much as the way I work across a variety of fields and disciplines.

What drives me is my fiercely independent desire to enact and enable conditions for change : to co-create and co-design processes that help other people to feel empowered to assume agency for themselves. As a counterpoint to the many kinds of agent who are empowered by the state (and increasingly by private interests and corporations) to act on their behalf, I feel that our society also needs people to act as self-determined public agents for the public good. Citizenship could well be conceived as how far we are actually able to be autonomous beings, empowered and acting with agency not just acted upon by those we continually devolve power and agency to (politicians, agents of the state as well as the often faceless machinations of bureaucracies and big business).

Such a role would combine the capacity for visionary thinking with the ability to observe, analyse and interpret the conditions we inhabit and with the ability to design tools, processes and solutions for action. It would be animated by a conscious ethos clearly set out and shared, not straitjacketed by moralistic codes of conduct. It would have to be fluid, flowing around obstacles and changing with the landscape without altering its essential nature.

I’m not enough of a writer or speaker to consider myself a public intellectual and I have never been an activist nor attracted to activism per se, so I don’t see this role as being quite the same as those, despite being founded on a clear ethos of working for the public good and sharing many commonalities. I’m more of a pioneer than an entrepreneur and, whilst I’ve always been attracted to analysing problems and devising solutions, I’m not enough of a scientist or a detective to be a consulting …, well, what exactly?

In my practice over the past two decades I have often framed the bigger picture, devising the overarching strategies that bring together all the elements (people, resources, organisations etc), whilst leaving some of the tactical decisions to those better able to make them at the point of need. I’ve blended this with designing and making tools and techniques; creating ways to express and share ideas, insights, observations and discoveries; creating spaces and facilitating collaborations between unusual or unlikely partners; and creating opportunities for others. In the role of transdisciplinary and disruptive innovator I have sought to introduce artistic practice into unfamiliar and unorthodox situations as a means to achieve uncommon insights. This kind of delicate interplay between people coming from all kinds of backgrounds leads me to think think that the role of the public agent might be contrapuntal to those sanctioned for itself by the state (or other institutions) – neither in opposition nor antagonistic, but interwoven as a separate melody within the whole musical structure of state, private interests and the public.

Some aims a public agent may have could include,

  • to seek intelligence on the forces that act upon the public and make transparent that which is obscured;
  • to analyse and interpret the conditions of society and culture to enable reflection and realisation;
  • to act for change that empowers people to assume agency for themselves by helping to design tools, processes and situations that enable this;
  • to act consistently within the frame of a stated ethos, but not to be above employing subversion and subterfuge in achieving their goals;
  • to remain fiercely independent whilst constantly collaborating with others… alert to attempts at co-option and resilient enough to engage constructively with people and entities that may not be working for the public good themselves;
  • to never be afraid to change yourself, or to go into unfamiliar or uncomfortable places and situations, or to simply be when action is not needed or possible.

This concept of the public agent is very much a work in progress, indicative of my current thinking rather than a definitive statement of intent. In fact the modest contribution I have made to the public good is probably not enough to have earn’t me the right to style myself as a public agent but it remains what I aspire to achieve. There are, indeed, many other people who have a far better claim to being a public agent than myself, people whose examples shine through as beacons of inspiration and hope.

Over the past few days I’ve had an opportunity to discuss some of these ideas with other participants at Blast Theory’s Act Otherwise seminar which has reinforced my sense that artists and artistic practice have a special place in our society for working in this way. It is not so much an obligation or responsibility as a really exciting challenge to live up to. That so many others, in their own ways, share that excitement and commitment to making positive change makes all the difference, reinforcing the feeling that it is an effect of community not just individuality.