Daniel Matthews explores the intrinsic connection between art and communication through the lens of his Ohwell? exhibition.


Exploring Art and Communication. 

At the beginning of 2018, a friend and I put on an exhibition in South London, titled Ohwell? Featuring the work of five young artists – and marking the launch of our quarterly publication and production company (DAMFCY) – this exhibition was conceived as an attempt to highlight and explore the communicative abilities of art. The desire to do this stemmed from our perception that, despite having the events of recent years to draw upon, the emergent wave of contemporary creativity lacked a genuine and meaningful engagement with the real world of politics and society. These artists were being educated as Donald Trump rose to office; as the refugee crisis entered (and quickly exited) the public spotlight; as the UK’s domestic socio-political state regressed along increasingly ridiculous lines. These artists, despite the vastness of their surroundings, appeared confined to the bounds of aestheticism and conceptual purity.

This is not to say that there was absolutely no political attachment in any of the shows we saw, or that all art has an obligation to speak out. Rather, it is to say that the current state of affairs deserves a thoughtful response at the very least and, to go a step further, maybe even some form of challenge. What we did see when the outside world was brought into focus was often heavy-handed or clunky in its negotiation of its chosen issue. It was statement art – and whatever shock value it possessed was easily brushed off.

Maximillian Hartley
Maximillian Hartley

As subjective as it may have been, this perception pushed us to try to find and demonstrate art’s ability to perform as a tool of communication by which the issues that surround and affect us every day are kept in the individual and collective consciousness, where they can be seen, considered and acted upon, rather than being allowed to slip into obscurity. With Ohwell? we wanted to showcase art’s capacity to peak interest and stimulate discussion, as well as its unique ability to cultivate personal and communal involvement.

In reaction to the heavy-handed material mentioned above, the rationale behind Ohwell? became centred on the discrepancy between questions and statements, and the idea that questions go further than statements. When you are asked something you are made to think, you involve yourself in some way in the subject. Perhaps you look at your own experience in relation to the topic’s wider field, you consider yourself more deeply within the context or narrative posed and, through this reflexive process, you are pulled into the subject of the question. By contrast, being told something tends to allow for a more passive reception of whatever it may be. You are not required to do all that much and, importantly, you are not (always) invited to include yourself in the subject or the discussion it brings to hand.

When this idea is applied to art and the wider bounds of creativity, its potential is carried further by the fact that art is often an interpretive and highly personal experience. Furthermore, it is often an expression of emotion. Where stories and statistics inspire concern in the viewer, art garners empathy and offers perspective. When a piece of art asks questions, it has the potential to pull the viewer, as an individual, closer to the area of shared importance it addresses. By inviting the viewer to include themselves immediately – and critically – within a narrative, a piece of art can attach an individualistic relevance to a collective matter, creating a commonality that is perhaps missed by other modes of communication.

Reconnecting this rather airy idea (and hopefully this essay) back to its real world concerns are the artists, whose various works engaged with a range of very immediate societal issues. Be it the shifting dynamics of our socio-economic composition, the functionality of race in the art industry, or the influence of technology on various levels of psychology, the immediacy of these topics is owed largely to their existence as everyday phenomena. Rather than being occurrences in our lives, these issues are permanences; they operate at a low, but constant level that arguably allows us, or encourages us, to sideline them – perhaps we just get used to them and can eventually stop noticing the noise they generate.

Viviana Troya
Viviana Troya

In certain areas, this concern over the everyday may seem trivial. Some things just aren’t all that important in the grand scheme of things and we can’t be expected to mentally balance everything all of the time. But then, triviality has its limits. And what isn’t an everyday issue? The deepest and most far-reaching levels of political corruption (or ‘collusion’) happen every day. As does man-made human displacement on a vast (surely unmissable?) scale. And while these problems do receive attention and condemnation, it is often short-lived, and when the next big thing is illuminated, they continue to operate in its shadow.

In some ways, this suggests a certain level of disengagement exists. It suggests that people don’t feel personally invested or directly involved enough in these issues to push a lasting and meaningful project of corrective action. It suggests – if our theory is to be trusted – that people are being told, rather than asked, about these problems. They are being disconnected (or allowed to disconnect themselves), pushed out of the fold, their feeling of involvement decreased.

Nathan Caldecott
Nathan Caldecott

Coming back round to our aim with Ohwell? as an exhibition, and with DAMFCY as a continuing publication, our plan centres on the enlargement of the platform from which alternative modes of communication can be seen and heard. As our established channels of insight (traditional news outlets and oft-misdirected social media) seemingly lose their efficacy by falling behind or adapting poorly to an increasingly isolationist modernity, self-generated networks like Fathom and DAMFCY are becoming more important in replacing them as the tools used to share information. The hope is, that by exploring and developing the channels provided by creativity (both its products, and the sociability that it cultivates) we can heighten our understanding of – and our connection to – the questions that surround us.

Contributors / Daniel Matthews / Website

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