un Projects is based on the unceded sovereign land and waters of the Wurundjeri and Boon Wurrung people of the Kulin Nation; we pay our respects to their Elders, past, present and emerging.
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Artist-led Public Pedagogies: resistance and ‘caretaking’ in Concentric Curriculum


What if we made the skilled labour of listening, building relationships, and ongoing maintenance more visible in public pedagogy and socially negotiated art?1 What if we understood such work as forms of caretaking while actively resisting the enabling of broken systems?

Community engaged arts work has come under scrutiny for its often misguided ‘good intentions’ and its inbuilt precarity resulting from unpaid labour. This work has increasingly been instrumentalised by institutions and governments to create what critics have referred to as forms of social engineering. In response to these forms of ‘gatekeeping’ — an over-bureaucratised neoliberal style of community management — we identify a different approach through the articulation of labour in art and education work that focus on supporting self-determination and independent expression. Moving beyond benevolent understandings of care, we draw on the work of Concentric Curriculum, first developed in 2016 by Nina Mulhall at Bus Projects, an artist-run initiative on Wurundjeri Country, to make this undervalued labour visible. We share Nina’s experience to assist our reframing of artist-led approaches as a practice of ongoing maintenance and caretaking:

Wanting to make space for others to lead means my role becomes messy and intentionally intertwined with the roles of the people I work with. The language of project management doesn’t capture the relational and complex human intricacies of what I do. I am not a manager… I am not a facilitator… I am not an administrator…

Concentric Curriculum is an expansive pedagogic program for alternative and artist-led collective learning that offers alternative spaces for artists to connect ‘with’ community and gather ‘as’ a community; to study together and reimagine ways of learning together. It centres artists’ practices as expanded forms of knowledge creation beyond exhibition making and formal modes of knowledge dissemination. Projects have been developed with artists connected to exhibitions or as standalone projects proposed through ‘open calls.’ These practices offer creative sites of resistance where relationships and shared learning are privileged over outcomes.

When I first started Concentric Curriculum, the primary school students we were working with brought their parents to openings at the gallery. They navigated the space like it was their own and excitedly told me that they had seen the artist who was working with them walking down the street on the weekend. The gallery became a comfortable space for them, and working contemporary artists could be recognised as members of their local community.

While there is a notable push within art institutions to broaden audiences through public-facing education programs focused on community engagement, the skills and time required to do this relational work are not built into workloads and programs are rarely underpinned by critical frameworks. Cultural economies which largely privilege commercial or instrumentalised community outcomes make socially negotiated art practices that move beyond participatory rhetoric largely unviable. Yet these spaces offer important opportunities for artists to contribute their skills, concerns and knowledges beyond exhibition practice in ways that resist the value systems that gatekeep creativity. Frameworks such as Concentric Curriculum can create informal learning spaces that support artists to share knowledge and study together in ways that privilege relationality.

Resisting the pre-existing expectations of what project management and delivery must look like, the scope of my work extends beyond the domain of project delivery into the interpersonal. This includes making food and eating together, supporting artists in other projects they are working on, and a reciprocal sharing of knowledge through a sharing of resources, connections and skills.

Independent learning outside of typical institutional demands can enable the ethics and values which inform these practices to become centred, including concerns like taking time to develop relationships, negotiating ways of working, respecting the labour and time of arts workers and working towards shifting hegemonic power in the arts. Concentric Curriculum has collaborated with partners including schools, neighbourhood houses and artist communities, both in person and online. Projects have spanned activities like drawing together, bodily movement, reading groups about walking, experimenting with rule making and breaking, banner making and more.2 Instead of replicating mainstream learning models, Concentric Curriculum uses public pedagogy to nurture new and existing communities and supports non-institutional knowledge production and sharing. Many projects have led to ongoing collaborations. One project saw participants collaborate for a year on the creation of a publication and others have resulted in group exhibitions, road trips and further research.

Following Stefano Harney and Fred Moten’s framing of ‘study’ as a form of learning that is relational, experimental, open-ended and informal, we want to practise vocabularies that move beyond terms like ‘facilitation,’ ‘mediation’ and ‘logistics’ to place value on the acts of caretaking that happen within these socially negotiated practices. Concentric Curriculum can be read within the intersection of long political histories of radical education alternatives and community based art. It contributes to a larger project of reimagining education in the arts as something more than career mobility or amplifying existing aesthetic hierarchies. It exists in the interstices, holding spaces for shared learning and knowledge production that actively work against competitive logics and gatekeeping practices. Concentric Curriculum supports artists to choose what they want to learn, how they want to learn and who they want to learn with.

Listening and responding is paramount in my practice. My labour largely focuses on holding space for shared decision making and relationship building, remaining flexible to the different lived experiences of those involved and encouraging decisions to be led by artists’ needs.

In These are the Projects we do Together Millie Cattlin and Joseph Norstrem also frame their approach to arts work as a form of ‘caretaking.’ With a nod to seminal feminist social practice artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ Manifesto for Maintenance (1969), Cattlin and Norstrem ask: ‘How do we open a door without getting in the way?’ Nina responds:

we take time to listen,
we hold space for others,
we support artists and follow their lead and ways of working,
we connect artists with new peers and communities,
we aim to share power and knowledge,
we actively engage but know when to step back,
we value plurality, creativity and lived experience,
we question our own motivations and aim to unlearn our own assumptions,
we support artists and communities to find language and articulate meaning,
we advocate with communities on issues that are important to them,
we recognise we need to create boundaries around our own labour and the labour of our collaborators,
we resist through expanding and bending institutional processes and protocols to better serve the projects and collaborations,
and we care for the process of learning together.

Socially negotiated practices are typically aligned with critiques of the imperial impulses of education and the art world.

They expand traditional notions of the artist as a solitary genius focused on material outcomes and instead draw attention to process, durational relationships, collaborative learning and shared outcomes.

I pay careful attention throughout the duration of a project to recognise when something isn’t working. Artists, participants and communities all need to want to be there, and for their participation and labour to not be exploited. I hold space for careful emotional negotiations, questioning assumptions and changing our ways of working when needed. In one case, I spent six months developing a project with an artist before we decided to not deliver it. There was a lack of funding and the community we were working with — while enthusiastic — were over committed with other projects at that time.

We embrace ‘caretaker’ as a term that begins to recognise and value all the skills involved in relationship maintenance, but also the material importance of work: project management, paying people on time, cleaning, providing food, caring, and mitigating potential social and physical hazards. We see parallels to the role (albeit a romantic and nostalgic memory) of the primary school caretaker whose labour is framed by long duration alongside a broad skill set. The challenge for making this labour visible is that when a caretaker is doing their job well, their work is invisible.

When artists are supported to share their work and lead learning, we see power shifting from art and education institutions to the independent arts sector and communities. This is an act of resistance. By shifting the means of production and discourse of value to artists and the communities who create culture, we can make the labour of ‘caretaking’ within arts ecologies visible. Caretakers do more than simply patch or enable broken systems; through listening, investment in relationships, and maintenance over time they can allow other forms of expression and learning to emerge and, as such, constitute an essential part of art ecologies.

Nina Mulhall is an artist and arts worker. She has been delivering Concentric Curriculum since 2016 and works in forms of collective knowledge creation and dissemination. She is former Co-Director at Bus Projects.

Kelly Hussey-Smith is an artist, researcher and educator focused on photography as a social practice, the politics of representation, and community-oriented art education. She is Senior Lecturer in the School of Art, RMIT University in Naarm/Melbourne.

Marnie Badham has a 25-year history of art and justice practice in both Canada and Australia. Her research sits at the intersection of social art practice, participatory methodologies, and the politics of cultural measurement. Marnie is Associate Professor at the
School of Art, RMIT University in Naarm/Melbourne.

1. We use Yet Chor Sunshine Wong’s term ‘socially-negotiated’ rather than ‘socially-engaged’ because ‘engagement’ infers very little about the process of collaboration, while ‘negotiation’ recognises a dialogic and relational practice. Yet Chor Sunshine Wong, Beside Engagement: A Queer and Feminist Reading of Socially Negotiated Art through Dialogue, Love and Praxis, PhD Thesis, 2019.

2. For a more detailed listing of projects please see the Concentric Curriculum website: https://www.concentriccurriculum.com/archive

Harney, S. and Moten, F., 2013. The undercommons: Fugitive planning and black study: Minor Compositions.

Cattlin, M. and Norster, J. 2019. A Caretakers Maintenance
Manifesto. Accessed at https://www.theprojects.com.au/ maintenance-manifesto.

Wong, Yet Chor Sunshine, 2019. Beside Engagement: A Queer and Feminist Reading of Socially Negotiated Art through Dialogue, Love and Praxis, PhD Thesis.