We Are Not An Island is a project by Poly-Technic (Steve Pool and Kate Genever) that convened groups of artists and makers in Sheffield and Venice between 2017 and 2018. At its centre was an intention to speak to people who lived in these places and to address how they perceived their cities and identified as part of the communities there.
Arranging spaces for group discussion is a regular feature within the practice of Poly-Technic, appearing in projects such as There’s No Wealth But Life (2017) and Artist Validate Thyself (2015). These events are informally structured and rely on the participants to naturally develop the framework for discussion to flow. Neither consensus within the group, nor the presence of differing perspectives could be said to be the aim or outcome, instead they created the possibility for both to exist together.
Contention in various forms plays a useful role in Poly-Technic’s work, and in their manifesto they state that ‘Conflict can be generative’. In We Are Not An Island, the ‘we’ is never specified: ‘It could be an organisation, a place, a building or an idea. The “we” attaches itself to something when you read it’. As such, the audience and groups who participate in the work, as well as the artists themselves, constantly negotiate what this ‘we’ is that they belong to.
It would be misleading to see these meetings as the choreographing of a virtual democracy or debate. They do not necessarily identify their work as social practice, even though it does take place between and with people. If a characteristic of socially engaged arts practice is to create a nuanced social arena within a visual arts setting, or to document social interactions using methods sympathetic to display within a gallery or museum, then Poly-Technic’s discussion forums demonstrate neither of these behaviours.
This process of allowing thoughts and discussions to flow works best where there isn’t the necessity to over-document or record all aspects of the project. The groups convened throughout We Are Not An Island were not consistently photographed, live streamed or audio recorded. Poly-Technic describe an aversion to ‘photographs of people in a room’ and rather allow the participants to record what they feel is necessary, often through the production of a hand-made poster. The experience of the project primarily lies within the thoughts and encounters which take place within it, and this is carried beyond it by the individuals involved.
The posters which are made during the discussion groups have the appearance of political placards seen at marches and picket lines, suggesting that the work functions tentatively as activism. The posters which are printed or drawn after discussions, while thoughts are still active and being digested, document a wish or hope for change that they are ill-equipped to deliver. Slogans such as ‘I’m walking the other way’, ‘She puts me in front of the truth’ and ‘It might not get better’ will hopefully clarify some aspect for the individual who coined them, but in terms of activism are seen as ‘inadequate’. The ineffectiveness of the posters as tools for activism does not mean that we don’t, at least at first, read them as attempts. As a collection, the posters become distinguishable from election campaign ephemera through their lack of a uniform message or demand.
A central point of discussion within the project was ‘What is urgent?’, especially relevant within the context of the EU referendum. Through the process of identifying what is urgent rather than deliberating what an urgent situation demands, Poly-Technic avoid an assumption that within the confines of the project and the group that consensus can always be reached with any certainty. Within theorist Chantal Mouffe’s description of agonism, she describes the need for democratic politics which allows for the identification of a ‘we’ without the simultaneous creation of a discriminatory ‘them’.4 The value of this in social terms would be the ability to create spaces that allow a range of opinions without the necessity for consensus or exclusion.
The community or group the ‘we’ is applied to will intrinsically demonstrate some form of conflict, and that rather than undermining or obstructing democratic principles, instead forms the very formation of democracy. The challenge addressed in the work of Poly-Technic is to create a practice which allows for participation and inclusion of many voices, while resisting the pressure to achieve harmony.
The artists further illustrate the difficult notion of agreement or alignment in a short film produced over the course of the project. During the 8-minute film, shots of Venice and Sheffield are played simultaneously on either side of a split screen, fading in and out and accompanied only by the ambient noise of the clips. Filmed on mobile phone cameras in 20-second clips, they are vignettes of domestic scenes in both cities, which often but not always relate to one another: food preparation, architecture, pathways. It shows life being carried out in the cities, not premeditatated or deliberately narrativised beyond recognising their existence and natural parallels.
In We Are Not An Island the geographical space between the two cities is a provocation to assess their real similarities. The re-synchronisation of the images within the film, and the shared live experiences of participants through the discussion groups begin to collapse the binaries created by physical distance or artificial reputations, and allows for the possibility for a bridge between the two islands.
We Are Not An Island is a process of bringing things closer, closing the gaps created between assumptions and agendas. It is not reliant on the creation of demands or decisions, but rather allows and validates the deliberation of alternative approaches and methods. These actions are not enacted purely within physical spaces but are embodied by the participants and artists themselves, across physical distance and over unspecified lengths of time.
Poly-Technic were resident in Access Space Labs (14-16 Fitzalan Square, Sheffield S1 2AZ), 29 April – 4 May 2018, with projections of work from both Sheffield and Venice appearing in Sheffield city centre on Friday 4 May. We Are Not An Island forms part of Making Ways, a programme supported by Sheffield Culture Consortium through Arts Council England to showcase, celebrate and develop the exceptional contemporary visual art produced in the city.
Simon Boase is an artist and writer based in Leeds.
4 Mouffe, Chantal. Agonistic Democracy and Radical Politics, Pavilion Journal for Politics and Culture, 2006