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February 27, 2006 | by  | in Visual Arts |
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Summer at Enjoy

Eve Armstrong
SLIPs: Small Local Improvement Projects

You know when you read a review of a exhibition or a play, and you think to yourself ‘Golly, that sounds good, I’ll go and check that out’ but then it turns out that it actually finished a couple of weeks ago and you can’t and you have a little cry. Well, this is one of those times because Eve Armstrong’s show was the summer residency at Enjoy and finished on February 10th. Mwahahahaha. All is not lost however, because given the nature of Armstrong’s practice, its effects continue to be felt around Wellington, and it remains relevant to write about the operation even after it has finished.

The title of the project, SLIPs, stands for Small Local Improvement Projects. Eve Armstrong, an Auckland based artist, sent out flyers and emails asking for submissions from local residents for ways in which their community could be improved. Armstrong also actively went out to institutions which she thought might be interested, community centers, volunteer groups, and youth services, in order to investigate potential projects. The physical space of Enjoy gallery was used as a project headquarters from which Armstrong facilitated the operation. When you went into the gallery you found a lounge set up, with an old couch, chairs, reading material which was considered relevant and documentation of Armstrong’s previous (but often ongoing) projects. Fastened to the gallery walls were massive pin boards where the artist and interested people could put up community notices, submit a SLIPs idea, or take on one of the projects themselves. The artist advertised for people to come in, have a cup of tea and chat about ways in which their community could be enhanced. After the initial idea was put forward, the artist proposed to help as much as she could to implement the project, putting together mobile action or activity kits, contacting the relevant people, or just generally facilitating the proposed project.

This was an ambitious operation given that the summer residency at Enjoy runs for only six weeks. Armstrong received numerous submissions, and she was required to respond to them in various ways. For example, Armstrong has worked intimately with Evolve, and the Wellington Youth Service, in helping them to promote their organization and the services they have to offer. As with many of the submissions, the project became more complicated as it developed. At first, Armstrong sought to get Evolve a lot of media coverage and promotion, but it soon became clear that the numerous confidentiality issues surrounding their service and their clients made this problematic. Instead, Armstrong put together a media start up pack with useful tools, tips, contacts and ways they could promote themselves. Armstrong also managed to connect them with a web designer she got talking with one day when he came into Enjoy. He will be able to help Evolve put together a website in order to advertise and explain their organization.

It was often a matter of the artist setting people up with the right contacts. One submission suggested setting up a support group for siblings of schizophrenics. After some research, Armstrong discovered that there was one already and sorted out contact details for those interested. Armstrong soon found that one of the most interesting things about the SLIPs project was the unexpected relationships which sprung up between the artist and those who contacted her. A woman who had recently moved to New Zealand contacted Armstrong expressing her concern about the lack of recycling going on where she worked and querying the status of recycling in corporations in general. After meeting up, Armstrong got in touch with another woman who worked for the Wellington City Council and was connected to recycling projects, they got talking and it turned out that this woman was also new to the country and interested in many of the same issues. In the end (or maybe in the beginning?) all three ended up meeting up for a discussion. So, even if SLIPs appears as a relatively straight forward process on paper, it was actually the start of an intricate series of relationships, meetings, emails, and discussions. “The projects evolve in a very different way from what you started with,” says Armstrong, “and often it’s not until you’re actually engaged with it that the real project comes out.”

The SLIPs project, and many of Armstrong’s previous ventures, is particularly concerned with the interaction between individuals, often people who haven’t met before and know nothing of each other. The works find their interest in the nuances of human interaction.
One of the biggest SLIPs projects was the Arts Social Soccer Tournament, an improvement idea submitted by Enjoy, where several arts organizations from around Wellington were invited to enter a team for a day of soccer. Armstrong saw this as an opportunity to bring together people working in the arts in a casual environment but also an extremely different environment to where they normally engage with each other. And I might just add here that Team Enjoy were the victors of the whole tournament, and the author may or may not have scored an integral goal in the final.

This project was particularly focused on interaction, on the participants and especially on the individual’s level of engagement. These issues have long fascinated Armstrong and are prevalent in much of her previous work. She first facilitated the Trading Table project in 2003, and her complementary instructive guide How to hold a trading table: A manual for beginners was published in November of the same year. In this project Armstrong would set up a trading table with odds and ends, old typewriters, crockery, and books. People were invited to bring not only their own material possessions to trade, but also their skills, knowledge or services. The table brought out different responses in people. One woman came with a few really nice things she had had in her home, eyed up the trading table, didn’t seem to like the look of anything, and didn’t trade. These instances, where the expected action or relationship was not formed interests Armstrong as much as when things unfold as expected, “I think as an artist you get quite used to things not going smoothly, like your materials are not quite doing what you expect them to do, and with people that’s sort of ten fold. Or more than ten fold. I’m just really interested in negotiating ways to work with people that do work or seeing why they don’t work, or how they don’t work.”

This kind of adaptability, flux and change is at the centre of Armstrong’s practice. SLIPs in particular is concerned with testing ideas, exploring relationships and finding unexpected solutions which may not be the ‘right’ way of doing things. Armstrong calls these solutions ‘adaptable support structures’ and sees her background as an artist, not a community worker, as integral to her flexibility and different approach to these predominantly social problems. “I am an artist, and that is where my thinking comes from. I think in doing projects like this, as an arts project, I might have some things in common with a community worker, but that’s not my background, so I think in a different way, and I might offer different ideas or solutions.”

In this way, Armstrong’s work explores the contrast between the amateur and the expert, and the different outcomes which these positions may produce. Armstrong soon realized that she had to work in the way that suited her, working not by assuming other guises but rather as an artist with a particular set of intentions and interests. And in a way, SLIPs is an exploration of these intentions. Is it enough to want to benefit this abstract concept of ‘community’? How far can art realistically engage with a public who is largely uninterested in contemporary art practice? These are not easily answered questions, and ones which Armstrong grappled with during her residency at Enjoy. The focus for her has been on building personal relationships with people who have approached her. Instead of trying to reach a large number of people Armstrong instead concentrates on really affecting change for a small group, and even then is interested in how far her projects can realistically be useful or meaningful.

So for those who harp on: Where’s the art? SLIPs is a project which will challenge you and is ultimately most rewarding for those who were directly involved. However, the operation continues to be fascinating even for outsiders and hopefully it has caused some people to look more closely at their relationships, their personal environments, and the ever elusive concept of ‘use value’ in artistic practice.

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