Anecdotal Cardiff

I had always been suspicious of the notion of the community artist, wary of the evangelical tone of bringing enlightenment to the unenlightened and the wholesome precedents of workshops and murals. I used to wonder who was benefiting whom in the equation and wondered about the discrepancies in the perceptions of the artists/ participants of what the project is really about. But the last decade has seen interesting paths stemming from the initial ideologies of working as a community artist. There has generally been a shift from the artist as an authorial figure appointed by institutions to bring art to the people, to the artist as the spokesperson of the community, through to perceptions of the artist as a co-ordinator and facilitator working from within the community. This positioning of the artist in relation to the community is a pivotal issue when discussing the work of those that engage in this field.

Generally speaking the artist used to be a maker of aesthetic objects: now they are facilitators, educators and bureaucrats. The situation demands a different set of verbs: to negotiate, to co-ordinate, to compromise, to research, to promote, to organise and to interview. This strand of site specific work has led to a further dissolution of art as object and of artist as author in favour of the more transient domain of the community project, actions, performances and group works which seek to bring out the cultural economic and political/ social dimensions of a site. In this form the site specificity was no longer the location or place. It was rather the potentially volatile site of debate and discussion, of community and belonging.

The site of 'Anecdotal Cardiff' is this collaboration with not only the public, but also with the host, the various funders and ultimately with the eventual manifestations of the finished work by the viewer or reader. It has demanded the physical mobilisation of the artist in order to collate the archive. It has involved 6 months recording, transcribing, editing to reach this stage and the artist has had to remain flexible throughout, responding to the form that the project has grown into. The result has been the production of a transcript of a collection of stories from across the city. The success of the project is directly linked with the methods by which the stories are archived and the processes by which Jennie arrives at the finished article, acting as a conduit, a silent manager/ director, rather than as the author of the content.

This is not to underestimate Jennie's choice of content and subject matter: the majority of us live in a world of anecdotes. Relieved of the obligation to think about each word we slip comfortably into the same words, the same rhythms of stories, aware of the end before we begin. Unlike life there are no shocks for the teller. No sudden surprises that haven't already been rehearsed. Its one of the comforts of chatting in pubs, after the first story is told the role of narrator ricochets from person to person, one memory triggered by another. We may not realise we are doing it but that is the way most of us live, its how most of us continue to exist within the minds of those around us. 

Within Historical frameworks primary physical evidence is all but irrefutable, evidence collected from first hand witnesses is trusted, but anecdotal evidence (especially remembered anecdotal evidence) is the third class in establishing what actually happened. However, the historian has a very clear agenda: to establish fact. 

But the establishing of fact is not the exercise here; the archive is presented to us in a unique manner. We are often asked to believe what we see with our own eyes, or through the widely accepted purveyor of truth, the camera; here we are being asked to accept what we hear. At one point a contributor openly wonders whether her story really happened at all, whether a fabricated memory is what has given her comfort through the years. It is these startling touches of humanity that lend Savage's collection of disjointed memories authenticity, the weight of lives-lived that separates these anecdotes from fiction. The method of transcription is Altman-esque1; the stories make leaps between paragraphs and are clearly reproduced in the messy and differentiated way we speak, as opposed to the carefully plotted straight-line-thinking of the written word. We carry encyclopaedic knowledge within the human brain, although encyclopaedias exist as reference systems, and are rendered useless without alphabetic entries or indexed appendices. The brain [if allowed] acts as a random archive; one thought can trigger off a synapse and you're suddenly following another, completely different train of thought. Savage is like this herself, and while she has adopted a system of notation this method of working has informed the shape that this archive has become.

Jennie's approach to archiving is from a different angle and has different goals from the catalogues of archives that exist to establish fact. As artists have adopted managerial functions - curatorial, educational, archival - as an integral part of their creative process it is interesting how those new approaches feed back into the systems and frameworks that they reference. Professionals within these fields often take their cues from artists as authorial figures in their own right. Artists can open unfamiliar routes through familiar territory and initiate new ways of working within these fields. The production of this archive galvanises the impact of the stories that it now holds, serving a dual function as site-specific practice and historical archive. They now exist beyond 'word of mouth' testament and their status is raised as a document of a fast changing city. The stories can be viewed as simply knowledge of the past but it is the knowledge we bring to them which makes them historically significant, 'transforming a more or less chance residue into a precious icon.'2

The stories are evocative in the true sense of the word in that they evoke a period of history, a drift through different times that rest in layers on the existing geography of the city. There is inevitably a nostalgic element to this work, a fondness for the remembered, the rose-tinted specs and sepia soft focus of yesteryear pervades many of the stories. 'Current thought posits that memory is not, as was thought, a drawer in which things are put, but rather a series of pathways that if we tread repeatedly stay open. But if a memory is not visited for a while the pathway that leads to it becomes overgrown and eventually disappears. The memory still exists but we can no longer reach it.'3 This is one of the reasons that tales get retold. These stories often refer to things past or places gone with a desire for those days to return. 'The nostalgic is enamoured of the distance, not of the referent itself. Nostalgia cannot be sustained without loss'.4

The strands of place and time have been woven to form a picture of a fast changing place recorded through the eyes of those that live there. 'Certainly this process can lead to the unearthing of repressed or forgotten histories, helping to provide greater visibility to marginalized groups and issues, and initiate the (re) discovery of minor places and events so far ignored by the dominant culture.'5 'Anecdotal Cardiff' has succeeded in giving a voice to those often repeated but more often forgotten details of a particular place and time.

Anthony Shapland March 2003


1 With ref to Robert Altman's form of disjointed narrative used in the film 'Short Cuts'
2 Raphael Samuel
3 Sara Rees. A Haunted House - Spectres in Art & Theory (2001).
4 Susan Stewart
5 Miwon Kwon. 'One Place After Another' MIT press

Anthony Shapland is an artist and curator