Table Discussion Notes : Interactions, Leeds. 8th October 2014

What is the role of expertise in socially engaged performance practice / artworks? (collated discussion and thinking from all the participants in dialogue with and written up by Tim Jeeves).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, in the discussions had around this question, a theme that kept being returned to was around hierarchy and its implications – particularly when working with groups of non-artists – once someone was labelled an ‘expert’.

In part, we negotiated this by observing that there are many different kinds of expertise brought in to any project, and it is important to recognise the value to be found alongside the expertise of the art practitioner; i.e. the expert knowledge of a local area, having a particular identity, understanding a particular issue through lived experience.

We talked about how the different expertises are blended together through the making of the work. Though there may be a very clear hierarchy within a particular field of expertise, in the mix of the different forms, this structural inequality would get problematised and challenged. Words that were used to describe the artists role in this blending included: facilitation, direction, curation and co-creation.

Whilst making this mix is challenging enough to achieve in the context of a project, it is also worth remembering that the societal context – and its systems for attributing cultural capital – are also significant. The artist who facilitates a powerful artwork for social change is likely to be more rewarded in that broader society – both financially and in terms of status and reputation – than the LGBTQ participants that informed the work with their experiences.

Inevitably, with so many artists participating in the discussion, whilst the variety in expertise was constantly returned to, when it came to the specifics of our own experience, we would often talk about artistic expertise.


The link between expertise and confidence was also noted.

Expertise does – to a degree – inspire confidence. If someone walks into a room and baldly states that they don’t know what’s going on, then it is easy for them to lose the trust of the group.

Inversely, if an artist feels ill-equipped to deal with the inevitable mishaps or a shortage of time when there is a very fixed outcome to be working towards, then there is a risk that they may fall back on to a short-hand of expertise to solve things in a less than fulfilled manner. When expertise is utilised successfully, a key element would appear to do this whilst unknowing, albeit with confidence.

We felt that many of the dangers of expertise are related to the ego, but were also careful to remember that there are positives to it as well. In spite of any risks, expertise, and its isolationary aspects, offers positive contributions to socially engaged practice as well.

An (artist) expert is someone that is able to:
– refer to alternative / progressive / radical practice performed elsewhere that perhaps someone else – not an expert in the field of performance / art – wouldn’t be aware of. They have access to a range of knowledge-based tools.
– spend time thinking on relevant issues – they might have ethical expertise, or expertise in articulating and asking difficult questions in new ways.
– break rules: they can make the world go wonky whilst keeping it safe. Artists have greater freedom in some instances (i.e. someone who works within an institution) though it is important to remember that they are still under pressures and the risk of self-censorship is a real one.

Expertise is not a fixed thing that someone ‘has’.
It is fluid; it grows by assimilating previous work and experiences into a practice. It becomes something different from what it currently is through reflection and critique of practices.


Image credits: Sarah Spanton