The ethics of art-making is a vast field – we have selected a few areas most relevant for digital media art projects with communities and documentary practise.
A lot of arts and cultural funding goes towards projects with a social justice focus, which often means that you will be working with participants and communities with a ‘marginalised or disadvantaged’ tag, or organisations who support and represent vulnerable people and communities.
The first issue that you need to address is Power. And not just in development or before you start a project – you will need to constantly return to the question:
Who benefits from the work, from the process and its outcomes, its products?
We have developed a method to get this discussion flowing as part of our Get Off My Back structure.
The words we use stem from our cultural understandings, the paradigms we believe in, create and live. So your practice can be damaging… For instance, a project that is funded to support a marginalized group doesn’t need to be labelled as such, marginalized people don’t see themselves as marginalized, their life is their centre of influence and experience, so who benefits from this label? ‘They’ – like all of us – deserve the best. Be the best, and then improve some more.
CACD work must aim to constantly devolve power and support communities to maintain control of their stories. Decisions need to be made with your participants, not for them. Yes, you are more skilled in a few areas, but so are they. What do you really know about their lives, skills and challenges?
Even during one-off projects, think about long-term sustainability: develop methods that support social business models and employment educational pathways, according to expressed needs.
Support your participants to locate and voice their unique needs and utilise what they already have. This is where your area of expertise sits. Use it.
Most community art project funding needs proof the community will build capacity. So if you are supporting a community project, train yourself out of a job – you should be obsolete after the project is over. Build local skills to a level so the community can do it themselves. This is what you promised in your funding submission… And yes, this needs more time, but even on short programs, you can start the process and plant a seed for future initiatives.
Offer mentoring in art/craft and producing [management, structure, legals, etc.]. These are potentially the boring bits, the invisible stuff – but this is where the ability to ‘do it again’ hides. Bring it forward; explain how it works. Let your participants take over and have them teach each other as soon as possible.
And while you are training and creating, record the process, make tailored peer-produced resources to leave behind. These tools are invaluable when you are gone. And no, they don’t necessary travel well, so keep it regional and peer-produced. There is no market for cookie-cutter empowerment tools, sorry.
What is your creative input? How do you appear in the work? Why? Why not? How is your liberation bound up with that of your participants, community and project partners? Build co-creative explorations as mutually engaging relationships.
Most CACD projects are cross-cultural collaborations: Be aware of context and the power struggles that fuel injustices: place of origin, ethnicity, gender, social background, age, ability.
Ensure the skills you bring are clearly acknowledged. We have found that when our mentor input is not credited in the final outcome it results in the community being heralded as ‘the unusually talented few, the special ones, others, not me’. This contradicts the reality that other communities can tell their own stories if they have access and appropriate support.
This one is tricky: expose yourself, self-embarrass. When you build in evaluation of the project from Day 1, you might see different results in your community’s engagement, as you will need to share your thoughts, processes and finding in a way that is truly useful for your partners and participants.
Make your process visible in the final product. Often we feel afraid to lay open the structures of our success and failures – why? Perhaps we’re afraid we’ll lose funding or be found out as spin doctors for embellishing our stories and outcomes, so what? Nobody can really steal our means of engagement; if you are that good people will copy you anyway – and it is incredibly hard work to actually empower communities. So why worry about competition? There should be more of us, and better. Let’s develop better evaluation tools that are actually relevant to our work now AND to our funders later. And remember, yes, it is a risky business – you are potentially benefiting from other people’s misery.
Offer and push for transparency from Day 1 on copyright and legal processes. Outline your chosen legal set up in the rights & responsibilities of your Community Partnership agreement. Don’t start work without it, as it always leads to misunderstandings or worse.
And while you are at it: All of this is negotiable. Always. Why not??? A broadcaster may think differently, but hey, so can you. Make sure the ownership reflects the nature of the project and its partner’s investment, be that money, in kind, ideas, traditions, power of influence. And keep this process open.
A crucial part of an equitable agreement is that all partners and participants benefit. So think creative commons, moral rights, new ways to manage and share IP and copyright. This space is evolving, but most people are scared of legalese and so the old structures of control and ownership survive unchallenged. Keep it simple and build real trust. We see too many ‘15 minutes of fame’ promises being made that don’t change a thing. Broken promises just reinforce feelings of disempowerment, however low the budget. Deliver what you agreed on, based on an open process and transparent negotiations. Over-delivery is even better.
Build evaluation into your project from Day 1, record your process, record feedback from your partners, participants during all stages, it will change the work.
Think of your project as a cyclic model: From Development, to Hands-on project practice to Post-production, to Distribution …to the Next pitch/ funding submission to Development. Then think backwards from delivery – what do we need to pull this off? Why are we doing this?
And film and review how you pitch /present your next project. Push yourself to raise the bar of your sector and the expectations of your partners. We all deserve it.
We believe all the above is applicable to documentary and drama production as well.
You will always work within a social and cultural context, this is a given, so be aware what the specific expectations of your context are?
Do you have the cultural awareness to make the best work? Can you get advise from someone or an organisation that could offer support?
Media art can have an enormous influence – from oppressive propaganda to examples of liberation and critical watchdog videos, it is up to you where you position yourself and your work.
There is no middle ground, no absence of power and politics. People who claim that assert power by default – aiming to not take sides is taking a side. You can’t avoid it. The moment you make art, you are projecting your voice into the world. Have your say, but please be clear what you are saying and why. ’