Photo Courtesy Control Room
My collaborator Emily Anne Kuriyama and I have been speaking with artist-run spaces in Los Angeles, most of which have started in the past three or four years, and posting the interviews on KCET Artbound. Near the end of this Hubs & Hybrids survey of seven spaces, we have been both awed by what these fairly young spaces have been able to accomplish in a few short years, but also painfully aware that their precarity is the greatest threat to the work they are trying to do. At stake in this balance is the unique ecology of Los Angeles as an arts capital and a center for experimental work to flourish. Sustainability is a problem for all of these spaces, especially those that lean towards more experimental programming, because they are doing work that does not conform to a neoliberal capitalist model of economic success. In some ways our focus this week, Concord, a two-year-old collectively-run space in an old warehouse in Cypress Park that recently closed its doors, took to an extreme the underlying themes of live-work space, networks of makers, and an interdisciplinary and a multi-faceted approach that we found so attractive about the other spaces. By living where they worked, creating artwork individually or together and investigating their own relationships as the raw material in their art practices, the members of Concord had so much at stake; they existed within the space and it existed because of them. It was tied to their livelihood, their values, and their friendships. One can argue this is true of many other artist-run spaces to lesser extremes; they thrive in the hidden corners of our society not yet consumed by ambitions tied to the accrual of capital.
Please check out all of the interviews so far on the KCET Artbound site: links below. An interview with Control Room is coming along on Friday.
Elephant Art Space
The Museum of Public Fiction
Concord Art Space
“The Sixth Borough” Lunch at Judson Memorial Church, by Stefani Bardin and Mihir Desai.
Lunch was interesting. Called “The Sixth Borough” it was an art/food project, or perhaps an aesthetic food experience curated and designed and made by artist Stefani Bardin and chef Mihir Desai. The conceit was that each borough in New York City was represented, and those of us who signed up for the lunch could select or were assigned an area and a cuisine. “Brooklyn” focused on rooftop gardening, “Staten Island” was seated on the ground in the manner of a Sri Lankan wedding feast, and I got Queens, which served food out of a cardboard cut-out “food truck,” drinks out of metal buckets, and we all sat on a scattered simulacrum of park benches and stoops. I was initially a bit bummed that I didn’t get to sit at a beautifully made table, but my bahn mi sandwich was really substantial, and I was very hungry. I’m glad I got that one and not one of the more “experimental” meals (one table had what looked like a pillar of air and coal dust). After lunch was an incredible and very intense set of experiences at the Summit, and I have just a few highlights described here. There is always a tension between providing a wide range of projects and not nearly having enough time to go deeply into them. But these are some of the ideas I was glad to know about.
In session 2, which was all about Brooklyn, Risë Wilson, founder of the Laundromat Project, opened the discussion with a provocation to think and talk differently about race. She noted that one of the problems with gentrification is that we don’t unpack the language, and that is also the problem with a conversation about race. This is an opportunity to think not about skin-tone, but about power and wealth. Who historically has the ability to acquire and leverage assets? The only way to change the conversation is to trust one another, and the only way to trust one another is to tell the truth. To help us do that, Risë then had us do a yoga-inspired exercise where we sat up on the edge of our seats, put our shoulders back, and put a hand on our heart and the other on our belly. She asked us to deeply consider our own bodies and our own relationship to privilege as we listened to what we heard. As we took deep breaths with eyes closed, she asked, “In the context of your own relationship to privilege, what would you be willing to give up in the pursuit of equity?”
This was a perfect segue into director and documentarian Kelly Anderson’s short presentation, which focused on the social and physical changes in Fulton Hall, a small historical shopping district in Brooklyn that is the protagonist in the film My Brooklyn. Told through individual stories and the emotional and social fabric of the neighborhood, it became clear that the redevelopment of downtown Brooklyn was not natural and not inevitable. There was a close collaboration between government and corporations to significantly change the character of the city, with very little opportunity for the public to intervene. Over 100 re-zonings occurred under Bloomberg that increased inquality and racial segregation throughout the city. Once people saw the film, they wanted to do something, and have begun to self-organize screenings as a part of “My Brooklyn, Our City.” Perhaps this interest is a glimmer of hope in a landscape of such sweeping injustice.
Artist Michael Premo used the example of superstorm Sandy as an opportunity for communities to come together and help one another. He said, “Communities have solutions. What we need to expand are the platforms for participation, and the resources to execute these solutions.” For me, this really gets to the core of what I was trying to talk about with my co-production posts. The role of a socially-engaged artist has evolved to encompass both the infrastructural platform and leveraging resources to invest in communities.
This is not to say that the socially-engaged artist or cultural producer is the only or even the best person to be in this role. In the panel afterwards, Rise urged the speakers to give strategies for the average person to be empowered to shift the structures of power that determine how change occurs.
Some final thoughts from the panelists:
There was general agreement that we need both the grassroots change and the ability to push policy (what Michael Premo called a “dual-power strategy”). We need more participatory economic and democratic processes, like participatory budgeting. We want to live in a place where when we get good things (like a park) it doesn’t feel like its the beginning of the end for that neighborhood as it currently exists. We want to have more of these conversations with the people who we are talking about, who are not in the room.
The focus on people, empathy, and agency has been a refreshing theme in these discussions, and a quite sophisticated shift in the tenor and language of conversations around social practice. No hand-wringing over the boundaries of art and the definition of social practice, or setting up oppositions between politics and aesthetics. This conversation has been rooted in the stories of people, the displaced, the activists, acknowledging how the rate of change outpaced human reactions to it, and how empathy, platforms for self-determination, and the radical democratization of civic processes can arise from personal relationships.
SESSION THREE: Building from the Ground Up
Kenneth Bailey, urban designer and founder of Design Studio for Social Intervention (DS4SI) spoke about social tragedy, and how some events, actions, and episodes serve to make places more brittle, more fragile, and more likely to break. He referred to this as “placebreaking.” Social tragedies are unevenly layered, and affect different people differently. If you don’t have the means and assets to withstand a social tragedy, it affects you so much more profoundly. There is also the third aspect, which is that the media reflects and reports upon that tragedy back to the people within it. Some tragedies are reported upon with warmth, while others demonize the victims of that tragedy at the same time that they are trying to get through it. Kenneth ended with a call for conversation with a small group of people about placebreaking–if people have endured a social tragedy, what remains?
Artist Christoph Schäfer spoke about Park Fiction, a project set in the red light district of Hamburg Germany called St. Pauli, which is directly adjacent to the harbor. The harbor had recently been rezoned, and was slated to be developed into a series of warehouses blocking the harbor view from the tenements across the street. Rather than protest, they decided to start an unauthorized planning process based on the production of desires from the people in the neighborhood. This culminated in an “Archive of Desires” that were leveraged, through exposure, to convince the city to buy into the idea of the park. The park itself is not enough, the park is merely a platform to “spatialize desire,” which is where true power lies. Schafer reiterated the Lefebvre idea of “the right to the city” which he said is also the right to centrality, and the right to re-imagine and re-define space. This became a movement of localized struggles in Germany, and the park played a part in that movement. Resistance continues. Recently, the park renamed itself Gezi Park Fiction in cross-city solidarity for the protests in Turkey, and Schafer ended with a call for more inter-city Gezification.
Chido Govera, an amazing woman from Zimbabwe who grew up as an orphan in Africa, connected place-making to passion. She focuses that passion around building communities around orphan children that empower them to provide for themselves, as she herself had done. She found the tools to do that in studying the process of cultivating mushrooms. Mushrooms grow on waste, do not require many resources, and getting men and women to work together empowers cooperation. Her work goes so much beyond that notion, she has expanded this to seeding entrepeneurship in many countries, to help people rise up beyond their situation and not have to accept victimhood.
Section 4: FLANEURS
Vito Acconci began by repositioning the flaneur not as an idler, a dawdler, a drifter who is passively acted upon by the city, but as an activist, an agitator who shakes up the geography of the city and disrupts it.
He sees his work since the 80s not as art, but as architecture and design. The difference, is that in design, you are inside of something. In art, you are on the outside looking in. He mentioned Acconci Studio as an important factor in his design work, because he believed that work in the public should come from at least three people. One is solo, two is a couple, and the third thickens the plot. Even the Catholic Church knows this, he quipped, because they brought in the Holy Ghost. The future of architecture, he mentioned as a preface to his project “Mobile-Linear City” is that it moves. Architecture that is immovable acts upon people – only when people can act upon architecture can they gain some measure of power.
Again in these panels, we return to the question of empowerment. How to invert agency, create ways to include the voices of people who live in these contested places? Who knows what might happen then? This day of the summit didn’t provide concrete answers, but that was never the point. What was powerful were the individual stories, relationships, and the grounding of theoretical principles or concerns in the real. Mary Jane Jacob, moderating the discussion for the final panel, probed for individual stories and experiences from her presenters, appropriately underscored that theme, and justified the very work of the Summit itself. It is only by the ambitious and proactive formation of platforms for relationships (bolstered by the honesty, self-knowledge, and awareness of context that is so necessary for trust and understanding) through which change can be born. It is difficult and cumulative work, but the Summit provides a tempo to the conversation that allows it to be built upon.
Unfortunately I must return to LA, so this will be the final dispatch; and a return to the Hubs & Hybrids interview series of LA artist-run spaces.
Paul Ramirez Jonas project during the kick-off party at Judson Memorial Church.
Today I am in New York City attending the Creative Time Summit on art and urbanism, and decided to try my hand at a live-blogging. Or at least quick-turn-around blogging, which is not usual for me. Whenever I come here, I am a little culture-shocked by such a very different quality of urbanity than Los Angeles, which is characterized to me by bubbles of isolated experience, existing simultaneously in a sprawling series of metropoli that rub up against one another. In New York, everything overlays everything else and the urban environment is constantly reproduced, very used and traveled and expediated (rather than disused and overlooked), and that state brings its own challenges. So as to the question of the role of cultural production in urbanity, this bicoastal perspective is an interesting context from which to begin.
Settling into a red seat in a packed NYU Skirball center auditorium, I watched Creative Time president Anne Pasternak and chief curator Nato Thompson introduce the summit, and attempt to frame the conversation as a way to bring fresh, honest ideas to an old conversation – one of artists in the city, placemaking, and all of the sociological and political complexities that come with that. Like gentrification, race, equity, and justice in urban development. How do artists embed within and rewrite the city?
As if to respond to my own dual experiences, Los Angeles-based artist Mario Ybarra Jr. gave another framework, meant to give what he called an “insider” view from an artist’s perspective, trying to make work in the city. In his typical manner, he made things very accessible. Urbanist Neil Brenner then spoke eloquently about the very real questions of co-optation and a neoliberal agenda in gentrification, and Nato Thompson and Rick Lowe had a very provocative discussion about race. These were the highlights before lunch, and below follow my notes and summaries.
MARIO YBARRA JR.’S FRAMEWORK FOR CULTURAL PRODUCTION
#1 Intent – You want to bake your mom a cake for her birthday.
#2 Content – Your mom likes chocolate, strawberries, and whipped cream. That will be the content of your cake.
#3 Context – Your sister made a great cake last year that everyone will be talking about. That is the context in which your cake is being made.
#4 Production – What are you going to need to produce this cake? Money, Tools, and Help (and I would say, Time).
#5 Distribution – How are you going to invite people to your party? How are you going to serve the cake? Where are you going to serve this thing?
#6 Documentation – Proof to your sister that your cake existed, and was better than hers. But who is going to take the pictures and put up the Flickr feed? It also gives you leverage to make your next cake.
NEIL BRENNER: KEYNOTE ADDRESS
Neil Brenner from the Harvard Graduate School of Design, who is a professor of urbanism, gave a quick but rousing keynote presentation. He gave a very hard-hitting lecture about urban revanchism under conditions of neoliberal capitalism. Revanchism (based on the word “revenge” and applied to territorial losses) is a local growth and development mechanism that actively leads to disempowerment, exclusion and gentrification in the space of the city, and he believes that Guiliani’s NYC is a paradigm of this. Brenner focused on the way cultural production is leveraged in service of this profiteering development and growth scheme of current neoliberal urban ideology. Brenner asks, is place-making a weapon for social justice in this context, or is it a trap? Place is instrumentalized by capital for profit-making, which is continually reinvested into the marketplace for more and more surplus. But in order to work, capital must be invested in place in a moment of fixity to combine with labor power. It imprints itself on the places that we live in. But places are not only the realm of capital. People live, work, and struggle within places, and articulate different ideas (beyond the economic) of what places can be.
Brenner rooted these ideas in urban philosopher Henri Lefebvre’s notion of “The Right to the City” – which he sees as a potential counterpolitics of place that advocates for the democratization of places. Lefebvre descrived this as a double-edged democratization. First, you radically open the city for all, but that is not enough. Most importantly, you also democratize the POWER to produce place (beyond the owners of properties and production), and by doing that you open up the possibility of producing a radically different world. There is a long history of radical social movements dedicated to this kind of openness; Lefebvre himself was inspired by the Paris Commune and May 1968 general strikes, where as the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle and the recent Occupy movements also were about different ways to produce the world, by democratizing access to the urban spaces of the world as well as the means to produce. There is a battle going on, and it continues, in the Arab world, in Brazil, and elsewhere.
Brenner than identified these risks that come with creative place-making:
1) Place can become an enclave (if it is confined to a building or housing or commune). It can be very inspiring, but in this form it cannot disrupt the forces of gentrification that flow unmitigated around it.
2) If place is too disrupted and radical movements intervene in the structures of power too much, then they are repressed by the full force of those in power (police actions, annihilation of the place)
3) Radical placemaking is co-opted by forces of power. These powers connect with radical ideas of cultural production, but instrumentalize them for the local growth economy and development machine, as described in Richard Florida’s work on creative economies. This actually makes conditions more favorable to the neoliberal project.
The radical politics of place must avoid these traps…but how? How to appropriate and mobilize place for social justice and radical democracy? But we must be aware of these vulnerabilities to be best positioned to do that.
Neil offered these strategies:
1) Stay dialectical. We must continue to be aware of the dual nature of space.
2) Assert core political values. Be clear about our radical values and state them clearly.
3) Expand our spatial imagination. We must think not just about places, but interconnected networks and larger-scale spatial politics.
IN CONVERSATION: RICK LOWE & NATO THOMPSON
Rick Lowe and Nato Thompson opened up a really interesting conversation about race, place, and class in art practice in the city. Rick made the point that community art practice has been going on forever, from people embedded in communities who organically generate projects out of the community organizing they are already doing. As someone who came from a community arts background now crossing over into social practice, Rick commented that graduates from these new credentialed social practice MFA programs now want to go into neighborhoods of black and brown people and “help them.” He wondered, “Is social practice a gentrified version of community arts?”
They attempted to hit the question of race head on, but ended up identifying and exploring some of the barriers to honest conversation about race. Oftentimes, getting the right people at the table when embarking on socially-engaged projects is the most challenging part. Nato made the point that in Suzanne Lacy’s recent project that Creative Time helped produce, “Between the Door and the Street”, she taught him that it’s important not to just start with the project idea, but with who is sitting at the table that help get to the idea.
Rick agreed about the importance of people, and that his methodology always places people as the starting point. He said, “If this work is about anything for me, this is about empowering people to produce their own places. We can’t do it for people, we need to figure out how to start with the people and give them agency.” His warning to young artists interested in social practice and placemaking is that “It is easier to get to the physical place, and much harder to get to the people. Many artists hide behind that, and don’t want to acknowledge that. Everyone should write on their mirror ‘What is my race question today?’ People of color think about race on a daily basis, and white people don’t, it is like shadow-boxing to talk about race with white people. If you are a young artist doing a project in a neighborhood where there are black and brown people, race should always be on your mind, all the time.”
Rick and Nato also tackled the question of aesthetics in concert with impact in socially-engaged work. Rick remembered that artist Tania Bruguera once said, “I want to make art that doesn’t point at a thing, it is the thing.” Rick proposed that these typologies are not diametrically opposed, but can exist in concert. The art project can be “the thing,” but the aesthetics of the work can also point at the thing (that is the project itself). In other words, the work is both a structure (as in it builds an infrastructure), but it is also a gesture. It need not be a solution, but can retain its poetic nature. It can be both the thing and can point at the thing. Rick insists that as art practitioners and cultural producers, we must guard the poetic capacity of the artwork, and that this is in fact necessary. The pull of capitalism is so strong that it leverages everything in service of a profit mentality, and artists can become co-opted by these insatiable growth mechanisms and subsumed by problems of scale. For example, if you just do housing (as Project Row Houses does), you get criticized for only having 80 units when the housing problem in your city encompasses tens of thousands. But an art project doesn’t need to be at that scale, it can very much be a non-profitable, poetic gesture. I like that Rick used the work poetics rather than aesthetics, because poetics allows for context to a much larger degree (Boris Groys goes deeply into this discussion in his book Going Public), and the “sovereignty of context” as Roberto Bedoya put it, is absolutely key to this work.
Hubs & Hybrids is an ongoing series of interviews with those at the helm of some of L.A.’s most compelling artist-run and experimental visual and performing arts spaces. My collaborator Emily Anne Kuriyama and I have been interviewing the founders and directors of just some of the proliferation of new spaces in this city, and the interviews are published throughout fall 2013 on KCET Artbound and this blog.
Actual Size, outside at night. Photo Courtesy Corrie Seigel
Angelenos love to reinvent the city’s history — we often find value (or necessity) in reproducing movements with variation. Nowhere is this more evident than in the sphere of fine visual and performing arts, especially in a city that churns out MFAs like a factory for chronically underemployed creatives. In a field where supply (artists and their work) vastly outpaces demand (venues, exhibition spaces, and any kind of real compensation), artists and creative professionals quickly realize that they must create their own opportunities for exposure. School friends and recent grads band together, start their own spaces, make work, and thus enter a community of art makers, venues, ideas, conversations, and scenes. Although the term “alternative art space” recalls a particular time and space, specifically New York City in the 1980s, the rise of artist-run, not very commercial, experimental art spaces can be linked to several urban conditions, which art historian Julie Ault identifies in her seminal text Alternative Art New York, 1965 – 1985.Though she writes specifically about the New York movement of alternative art spaces, locating that phenomenon in a particular time and place, the catalytic factors resonate deeply with present-day Los Angeles. These factors include a young, resilient, diverse, and creative population (check, there are at least five world-class graduate art programs in the immediate area); affordable former industrial or rehabbed space (still available in many areas of the city); overarching economic hardship (i.e. lack of other job opportunities–check–see California unemployment numbers); and the opportunity for global art world exposure (perhaps not always true, but certainly Los Angeles’s current status as an art center is undisputable). This combination of urban conditions is not new; in fact, many art spaces have arisen, lived, and gone defunct in this city over the years, from purposefully ephemeral venues like Deep River (founded by Glenn Kaino, Daniel Joseph Martinez, and Tracy Schiffman) and in existence from 1997-2002, overseeing the millennial turn), to the rise of several experimental non-profits in the mid 2000s (LAXART, Machine Project,Workspace, Les Figues Press, Mountain School of Arts). What began to interest my collaborator Emily Anne Kuriyama and I when conceptualizing this interview series was the rise of what we are terming “hybrid” art spaces. Unlike the defined non-profits, commercial galleries, and artist-run spaces of the past, this new crop is difficult to categorize. Sometimes run by artists, sometimes by creative collectives, sometimes by rotating groups, these spaces not only host more traditional exhibitions and performances, but also function as community centers, studios or living spaces for emerging artists, traveling educational initiatives, shops, event venues, publication houses, incubators, and artist service centers. Many have no defined tax status–they might have a fiscal receivership set up, or an LLC, but very few function as either purely commercial enterprises or as non-profits. Most are very small and nimble in their experimental programming and overhead, and many started in 2010. We selected just a few of these spaces to profile in depth for this series, probing why the spaces were started, what their programming ethos is, what the space’s lineage might be, and what the organizers consider success.
Actual Size is a small storefront gallery in L.A.’s Chinatown, just off the main drag of Broadway. Only 250 square feet, the tiny white cube used to be a convenience store called the New High Mart, and is surrounded by hair salons and souvenir shops. Chinatown itself is a bit of a cipher — though home to a Chinese community of business owners and residents, it has a long history of being a location on the cutting-edge of culture; once the center of L.A.’s punk scene and now a hub for small, experimental artist-run spaces.
On our way to visit Actual Size, Emi and I ran into each other wandering around a dark Chinatown block. We moved towards our obvious destination, illuminated by a beacon of light on the sidewalk, a tiny storefront door thrown open, and Corrie Siegel, in a stylish skirt, heels, and long braids, moving chairs and a sound piece in a white pedestal out front. Inside was a pristine white cube that was adorably small, maybe 8′x10′(I think they said it’s 250sq, but it felt a lot smaller), with a concrete floor and the skeletal outline of a drop ceiling overhead. Despite its dazzling white interior and sparse installation of films, drawings, and a sound piece (part of the show Borderlands), the gallery’s diminutive size and storefront location made it feel immediately intimate, cozy, and accessible. The place itself felt like a border, a porous membrane between the street and a community of contemporary artists and cultural producers, and embracing that precarity is reflective in its name. As we sat around a bucket of water and beer on mismatched chairs, at least three random people shouted in as they walked by. “Actual Size” began to feel like the perfect name, as comments ranged from “Is this an actual business?” to “What do you actually do here?” Corrie and Justin John Greene (two of the three directors of the space, sans Lee Foley) had clearly fielded such questions many, many times before.
Read the full interview on KCET Artbound here.
Asian Arts Initiative Youth Arts Workshop planning the Art & Energy Project with artist Ben Volta.
Recently, I have had a few experiences that have encouraged my thinking on how a socially-engaged art project, or any experiential artwork that actively facilitates and engenders interactions among its participants or with the work itself, aligns with theoretical educational models. As the definitions of social practice continue to expand, even as the term itself shifts (or perhaps becomes dilute and impractical), many projects that I may have considered “art education” a few years ago have fallen under that umbrella and I find myself interrogating why. This month, as I have been training student educators in constructivist educational techniques as preparation for their giving tours in the museum, I have simultaneously been documenting the conclusions of seven social practice art projects wrapping up in Philadelphia as part of the Asian Arts Initiative’s inaugural Social Practice Lab. Though I don’t have room here to go into all of the details of the many disparate and complex projects, artists, organizational roles and neighborhood contexts (an essay and case studies are forthcoming), sufficed to say it has been a uniquely comparative experience to trace such different projects from conception to completion over the past two years.
I have learned on the ground, as George Hein tells us in his chapter on educational theory in his book Learning in the Museum, that not all experience is educational; nor is every artistic experience transformative or enlightening. But often, experiences that are novel and rich with ideas have an educational “potential” and therefore a position on how we acquire knowledge and what that body of knowledge is. Therefore it is common sense and many participants intuitively understand that experiential artworks “follow some pattern, adhere to some theory, and reflect the beliefs of the people involved and the larger culture in which they are embedded.” (Hein, 15)
Social practice works fall into the category of projects with educational potential, whether their embedded positions on the acquisition of knowledge are actively considered and reproduced in the making of the works–or not. Hein urges us to be deliberate about our positions on a theory of knowledge (what an epistemology is, and what is the nature of knowing) as well as a theory of learning (how people acquire knowledge) in any situation with an educational potential, and especially one tied to a desire for positive change.
Then, Hein explains, practitioners must begin to enact a theory of pedagogy, or how to actively facilitate for others the acquisition of knowledge that will contribute to that change. Artists must be incredibly aware of their context, and specifically, how that very unique context colors their reactions to, treatment of, and decisions made about their participants.
Even the artist that professes no expectation at all, that resists aiding participants in decisions, that desires no certain outcome (i.e. I’m going to throw all of this conceptually-laden, experiential stuff at you and see what happens, and there is no wrong answer) is taking a stance, in that case one that falls to a more constructivist pole, rather than the opposite position of didacticism. It is problematic that so often personal expectation, and how that effects embedded theories of knowledge and learning, is not adequately considered in art.
On the side of institutions, particularly museums, art spaces, and funding entities, we run into conflict when we consider the impact of social practice. We ask questions like “what were the goals, what was the artist’s intent, how do we measure impact?” without acknowledging our own assumptions about epistemology and learning evident in that approach. So we struggle over the unattainability of defining and then quantifying these slippery metrics. I never knew what bothered me about this kind of evaluation process, and I realize that it is the embedded assumption of a realist theory of knowledge within the art world infrastructure as a whole. Hein describes realist theories that “claim that the ‘real’ world [essential truth] exists out there, independent of any ideas about it that humans may have,” with Plato as a paragon of the classic realist position. Though many cultural producers I know (myself included) would consider ourselves on an opposite pole from Plato (as the critical and contextual thinkers that we like to be) artists are not immune from clinging to essential truths. We cloak this tendency in terms of intentionality (whether or not the reactions measured up to the artist’s goals for what would happen) and then rationalize the value of what did happen according to an acceptable moral or conceptual benchmark.
But in this process, you end up with a lot of “I learned a lot” and “we had unexpected success” and “this was a blessing in disguise” and the one I love the most; “we learned by embracing failure.” Even this language of failure and success and must be interrogated – it reveals our deeply engrained assumption of knowledge as external truth. It underscores the notion that there is some right answer, or at least some expected conclusion, and that we strive towards breaking down into specific steps the essential principles of success. Like a recipe, we expect scalability and replication by others and on a larger scale. Perhaps this resonates with the Fordist model of mass production, and the factory model of education (see Sir Ken Robinson‘s Changing Education Paradigms talk). This realist position is opposed by the other end of the continuum, the idealist end, which states that all notion of truth is constructed in the mind of the learner, as a result of the learner’s cognitive schema, or unique set of contexts and experiences.
When Popular Science recently got rid of its comments section after articles (saying it was “bad for science”), it stirred up a lot of mixed reactions, and serves as another demonstration of how engrained realist theories of knowledge are. More modern theories of realist epistemology as described by Osborne (1996) are softer than Plato’s, acknowledging the malleability of human ideas, but maintain a belief in objective fact. As explained by Hein: “Osborne argues that it makes no sense to consider scientific knowledge as only constructed by individual minds, since scientific knowledge must correspond to the behavior of “real” objects in the world.” This distinguishes a “stable body of objects of scientific investigation” (or objective, fact-based knowledge) as distinct from constantly shifting theoretical constructs (which might be considered subjective knowledge, or the realm of human ideation).
The idealist view according to Hein, states that “knowledge exists only in the minds of people and does not necessarily correspond to anything ‘out there’ in nature. There can be no ideas, no generalizations, no ‘laws of nature’ except in the minds of people who invent and hold these views.” (17) Conceptually, this is what most artists I know and respect regard as their epistemology. Artists are trained in school to question context, to critique what they think they know, to investigate and experiment. But they struggle against an infrastructure that values a realist construction of knowledge, whether that truth be the artist’s intention, or a moral vision of what is right. These are both arenas that critics of social practice buck against, and then begin insisting that the art be judged on its aesthetics rather than its intention to do good (for if art is all judged by its capacity for social amelioration, then there can be no bad art. Meanwhile, art must be categorized as good or bad according to its existential aesthetic qualities, despite the opacity of what that means to individual critics, curators, or collectors).
In the art world, we are at war between these epistemological poles.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen curators baffled when asked to explain to a non-art viewing member of the public why some artwork is considered more valuable (culturally or financially) over some other artwork, because often, they can’t. Yet the curator will insist that there is a shared history, DNA, lineage and background that informs them of an essential value (or lack of value) attributed to an artwork. This is realist at heart, no matter how it is rationalized, and no matter how open cultural professionals are to different interpretations; it suggests that there is an appropriate set of interpretations, and less appropriate ones.
As experiential art trends to the active, the interactive, the participatory we may confuse an active approach with an idealist epistemology. Constructivism as an educational model, which combines active learning methodologies with the notion that knowledge is constructed by the learner, seems aligned with artistic praxis. But though we may think that socially-engaged art projects are constructivist by their very nature, many are not. In fact, I feel that the majority conform to what Hein dubs the “discovery learning” model, which is experiential and active in nature, but with a specific (stated or unstated) outcome in mind. Hein points out its major flaw; that despite its “hands-on” nature, it can barely be distinguished from didacticism. If there is a certain outcome in mind, then the activity is constructed to support that outcome. Hein asks “can an ‘experiment’ be an experiment if there is no chance of getting any but the correct results? … we cannot claim that someone has discovered something when there was no chance for error. Being able NOT to discover the appropriate conclusion would seem to be a necessary minimum condition to make discovery learning different from didactic, expository education in any subject.” I suppose I like artworks that have purpose and structure, but are very, very open-ended as to their direction; that are actively co-produced. Most works that are called “social practice” simply are not so radically open — they aim to produce certain results.
Ultimately, the best argument for embracing constructivism is that constructivism is inevitable. In art especially, we know that exposure to any set of phenomena leads people to completely different conclusions.
So why even consider educational models in art (or teach at all, for that matter)?
Perhaps change occurs in the way that knowledge is approached, and in the self-awareness of the learner and how she acquires knowledge. Perhaps a well-considered and tactical pedagogy can facilitate the construction of strategies for specific groups and contexts that can help them effectively solve problems in groups, to overcome challenges, to innovate. This active process leads to movements, and catalyzes action. This shifts rather than reproduces culture. I have written previously about this as co-production, enacting these strategies to determine, understand, and address the challenges facing different sectors of society.
Social practice projects are an active part of that endeavor, and therefore have high stakes for human relationships. They cannot be divorced from their educational position in society, and in social action.
**Thanks to Zoe Silverman for conversation about constructivism and for pointing me towards Hein.
Panel from “Art School Confidential” by Daniel Clowes
Many artists I know do not make any money, or very little, and this is often in spite of critical success. The industry is a complicated one, with market prices built on an obscure combination of speculation, connoisseurship, personality, networks and trends. There are few to no stated standards for acceptable labor practices for artists, no guild or union for creative freelancers like the WGA (Writers’ Guild of America) or SAG (Screen Actors’ Guild) in the film industry, for example, or set payment standards like those that exist in Canada and some other countries. Neither are artists provided with benefits as a part of their professional status, and fellowships, residencies, and grants available to these artists do not often approach providing a living wage. Those working with non-object-based practices are particularly hard off as they don’t fit well within an existing gallery system. For all kinds of artists though (even very successful ones), precarity is a primary issue – instability, lack of a steady paycheck, lack of healthcare, very little ability to take time off, or to provide or afford regular childcare. This is exacerbated by the constant pressure to collect real capital while accruing creative capital (a body of work, making art world contacts, keeping up with current trends, creating one’s own exhibition and lecture opportunities, marketing one’s skill set, applying to grants, and documenting one’s work). In short, the need to constantly be working, networking, and connecting within the art world while holding other temporary and low-paying jobs. Many people do this at some point in their lives, especially entrepreneurs, but the poor support infrastructure, level of school debt, and lack of any eventual payoff for most people seems to create an especially oppressive situation for artists.
This got me to thinking about the thousands of people that graduate with MFAs each year. With government and universities assessing the economic prospects of their graduates in the face of overwhelming student loan debt, I wonder how MFA programs measure up? I often counsel many students and young artists thinking of getting graduate degrees, and I am reminded constantly of these questions:
What are the economic prospects for today’s MFA graduates in fine/visual arts?
What is the outlook for MFAs in professional, creative careers in their field?
In an effort to answer these questions for myself beyond anecdotal impressions or suspicions, I sent around a seven-question survey to my immediate network of art world professionals and students. I received 16 responses over the course of several weeks, from around the country. Though this is obviously an extremely small sample size, some revealing patterns emerged that are, at the very least, concerning. Further study is required before drawing significant conclusions, but the responses underscore the necessity of continued investigation.
1] What are you doing now? (for a living or otherwise)
38% (6/16) teaching (currently or in the recent past – all adjunct or part-time)
38% (6/16) mentioned “making work/art, developing practice”
31% (5/16) freelance jobs (babysitting, design, freelance, delivery, contract work)
31% (5/16) trying to find a job
19% (3/16) full time arts coordination jobs (Gallery Director/Curator, Events Coordinator, Full-time museum jobs)
13% (2/16) mentioned making work “when I can” or “when possible”
6% (1/16) going back to school for arts administration
6% (1/16) working as an artist assistant
Responses to this question had quite a few overlapping responses, but it was clear that very few MFA grads had full-time work. Many were cobbling things together from teaching jobs and contract work, and trying to make art or develop their practice at the same time. It struck me that none of the MFA grads that I surveyed had full-time teaching jobs (all were adjunct or part-time).
2] Are you economically stable or economically precarious? Why?
56% (9/16) economically stable
25% (4/16) are stable because they are being supported by a partner
44% (7/16) economically precarious
88% (14/16) are not making a stable living off their artwork (2/16 did not say one way or another)
More than half of respondents reported being economically stable (i.e. not in danger of defaulting on their bills), but almost half of those said that this was only the case because they were being supported by a partner. Of the “economically stable” responses, some qualified this by saying that they still worked long hours or couldn’t take family vacations, but at least could pay their bills. 44% were economically precarious, which accounts for more than just the very recent graduates, and did not correlate directly to recent graduation. Nearly all report not making a stable living off of their artwork alone. This is not a surprise (to me), but when considering how we evaluate MFA programs and the prospects of their graduates, it is a striking result.
3] Do you make money off your artwork?
69% (11/16) No
13% (2/16) Sometimes
13% (2/16) Unqualified yes
6% (1/16) Yes, as a part of design work
The majority of respondents make no money off of their artwork. To me, this question has enormous implications for how we value artistic labor in this country, and the art world’s post-industrial capitalist attitude toward artists of paying them with “cultural capital” that will hopefully lead to real capital once an artist is trendy enough. Clearly that system doesn’t work for most artists. How do we answer the question “How do we pay artists?”
4] Do you make money off of skills you learned in grad school? If yes, please give examples.
56% (9/16) Yes, Somewhat, or indirectly (fabrication/construction 2, 3D modeling work 1, gallery 1, teaching 3, curating 1, making art 2, networking 1)
38% (6/16) No
6% (1/16) “I think this is a trick question”
Artists were fairly split here, with slightly more learning some skills in graduate school that they were able to leverage into paying jobs. I found it interesting that some of the skills cited are not directly taught in MFA programs, but are rather part of an art world ecosystem (i.e. curating, teaching). The fact that 38% baldly stated “no,” however, is concerning.
5] How do you make it work?
38% (6/16) Mentioned working other precarious jobs (babysitting, retail, adjunct teaching) and fitting in art on the side
19% (3/16) working long hours
19% (3/16) depend on family or government for financial assistance
19% (3/16) Mentioned they love what they do, but that it was hard.
13% (2/16) mentioned other “art activities” than making art, like openings, lectures, panels, and discussions.
6% (1/16) mentioned poverty
6% (1/16) Feel that it is not working
From these overlapping responses, it was clear to me that many respondents felt extremely discouraged. Fourteen of the sixteen responses, or about 88%, mentioned some hardship – depending on family or government assistance, working long hours, feeling impoverished or working precarious jobs. Perhaps this is indicative of our economic situation in general these days – it is difficult to know what is endemic to being an artist and what is more a general condition.
6] Do you like what you are doing? Why or why not?
25% (4/16) unqualified yes
38% (6/16) yes, but not sure how much longer it is financially feasible/actively looking for a better job/it’s scary and complicated
19% (3/16) No
13% (2/16) No, feeling anxious, stressed, and discouraged.
Respondents could have interpreted this question in multiple ways, thinking that it referred to their precarious contract work, or making art, or teaching, etc. The majority reported liking what they did, but a majority of that group qualified their response by saying that they were not sure about the financial feasibility of their situation.
7] How is your degree relevant/contributing to what you are doing now?
31% (5/16) No
25% (4/16) Confidence in being a professional artist
19% (3/16) Necessity for teaching
13% (2/16) Contributes to the art field generally (gallery, as a manager)
6% (1/16) Meeting people
Though concerning that 31% reported that their degree was not relevant at all, I thought the reasons for why artists thought their degree WAS relevant were interesting. That it gave them either internal confidence or external credibility seemed the central two reasons for getting an MFA.
8] When did you graduate, what MFA did you get, and where did you go to school?
Graduated from 1993-2013, with the mode year of graduation being 2013
3 Design Media Arts
3 new forms/genre
3 doesn’t specify
CalArts – 2
Pratt – 2
Maryland Institute College of Art – 1
Cornell – 1
CCA – 1
University of Iowa – 1
Southern Methodist – 1
UCLA – 5
Claremont – 2
From this question, I gathered that MFA grads from CalArts and UCLA were doing better than their counterparts, so that external cred factor seemed to hold some water. This was not true for everyone, especially the most recent grads, but they overall fell more into the economically stable camps, and more importantly, seemed to be stable while functioning as artists. Other than those schools, it was all over the map – some stable, some not, some actively working artists, some not, some in art careers, some not.
It is difficult to conclude from this data whether these conditions of anxiety, overwork, and precarity are more general post-industrial, post-crash, advanced capitalist conditions, or if they are specific to artists (I suspect that they are more general, and are exacerbated for artists). Others have done more in-depth work on the subject than I. But as we consider our MFA programs, and as we counsel students in the necessity of gaining this degree for any measure of credibility as artists, what is our responsibility to describe the true conditions, and the true strategies for surviving while doing what you love? What is our responsibility to teach those skills that can be leveraged to fruitful careers that are perhaps (that are PROBABLY) not careers as professional artists, ultimately?
I have no choice but to leave those questions hanging for the moment.
The survey is still open.
The region of Southern California produces hundreds of MFA graduates each year, yet the traditional (and even non-traditional) art markets barely support a fraction of that number, and teaching jobs that actually pay a living wage are extraordinarily few and far between. So what do MFAs do after they graduate? I really want to know, because I’ve had the fortune to meet so many of these brilliant, creative people. Sometimes they flare up as bright art market stars, or find themselves on trend with certain arts non-profits, or embed themselves as part of activist or pedagogical or experimental communities in this city. Sometimes they just disappear. I am interested in learning more about what happens to them, so have set up an informal survey here: https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/5QHCS25. Please forward to MFAs everywhere in the US, though I am particularly interested in people who attended art schools in and around Los Angeles.
One such dynamic group of MFAs from Otis’s Public Practice Program (founded and directed by iconic artist Suzanne Lacy) I was able to get to know over the course of their thesis year. As a visiting critic and then essayist for their final show, I watched their work slowly develop into cohesive ideas (some more sound than others) that were expressed in a final show. The space of that exhibition, in the context of For Your Art’s hybrid programming/events/discursive/marketing-saavy storefront space, confronted the students and their audience with this question about the future — about their future relevance. How to leverage their communicative, creative, critical skills in a cultural economy where everyone is a producer and innovative connective systems become the currency at play?
Below is the essay I wrote for their final exhibition, attempting to get at some of these questions. If you are a recent MFA graduate and find yourself engaged in a hybrid, multivalent, non-traditional career (or even if you have a fairly traditional career), I would love to hear from you. Tell me what you are up to. I plan to publish the results of a little informal survey next month, if it’s interesting.
This article was originally published in April of 2013, for A Mess and a Pleasure: Practicing in Public, the thesis exhibition of the 2013 Otis Graduate Public Practice MFA cohort. The artists included were Raul Paulino Baltazar, Alexandra Cantle, Teresa Flores, Silvia Juliana Mantilla Ortiz, Tamarind Rossetti, Susan Slade, Rory Sloan and Xiaotong Zhuang.
There is inherent tension in the prospect of translation. Though we normally imagine an act of translation as rendering one language into another, what we are really talking about is how to communicate what is in our heads to other people – how to make idea into language and then back into idea. These attempts to communicate the essential nature of a concept are often achieved through imperfect methods of representation. Sometimes, the ideas we try to represent are altogether incommunicable, so we circle around their core in an effort to build common understanding. We run up against differing definitions, semantic distinctions, conflicting values and cultural processes only partially described, but deeply embedded. The desire to overcome these frustrations is emotional and physical, the result of centuries of evolution. In the human brain, the language production center is linked indelibly to the language processing center, making each of us hardwired for two-way communication, for dialogue and collaboration. So we continue to try to understand one another.
Multiple levels of translation are evident in the 2013 Otis College of Art and Design’s Graduate Public Practice program’s degree exhibition at the ForYourArt space. So many individual projects cite translation indirectly or directly as the content of the work – from an exploration of the psycho-social effects of dyslexia to the generation of a new myth (itself the translation of a set of cultural and contextual values), to funneling the fading memories of a complex life into an autobiography. Others embrace a translational methodology: the subtle destruction of idioms as they pass uneasily from one language to another in conversations around assimilation, or the translation of a right that is heavily in debate (the right for lgbtq couples to marry) into mainstream visibility. These projects are about liminalities; they are about the conceptual and physical space between one culture and another (whether divided by an ocean or by a mountain range), and about the alleyways that belong to everyone and no one in a city. These works have many parts to them and some have many makers; they are dispersed and sprawling practices that are located in geographies quite distant from the ForYourArt space. Suzanne Lacy, chair of the Otis Graduate Public Practice program, acknowledges that “the center of gravity of Public Practice work is in community or public space and its artistic concerns cover local and global issues.” The re-iterations of the projects that exist in this exhibition context must navigate one another, just as they must contend with their own status as partial representations, imperfect translations of work created for another place and with other people. The work presented, under the truly enormous umbrella of public practice, is already a false construct.
However, by situating this presentation of work in the ForYourArt space—which is relatively new, small, event-driven, dedicated to supporting temporary projects and to incubating experimental artistic innovation—rather than a more traditional exhibition venue, the Public Practice program as well as ForYourArt betray a much larger collective project. This drive to focus not only on the work, but to cast practitioners as entrepreneurs and define their value not only as artists but as producers of cultural innovation, stems from ForYourArt’s self-identification as an incubator. Inspired by the recent Silicon Beach crop of Los Angeles tech incubators like Launchpad LA, Amplify LA, and Muckerlab, ForYourArt is positioning itself as a space that supports arts experimentation and creates a viable, sustainable model beyond a traditional arts market. It recognizes the great importance of contemporary art to a vital and healthy creative economy, but acknowledges the challenges it poses to traditional investment models. Venture capitalists take on risk in order to get a piece of something that is eminently scalable, that has an inclusive, necessary, cool, and useful product or service. Almost by definition art resists categorization, utility, or scalabity. At an extreme, it can be “imprisoned by its own self-reference,” as ForYourArt founder Bettina Korek wrote in a recent LA Currents article, and is therefore rendered irrelevant to vast swathes of the public.1
But works like those nurtured by the Otis Public Practice program are connected to larger societal dynamics, and arguably function as research and development for cultural inquiry more broadly. These artists already see themselves as mediums, facilitators, conversationalists, and researchers. The aggregate power of their work, their questions, and their methodologies are bold and experimental forays into the territories of emergent imagination, co-production, and networked cognition.2 These are ways of organizing, of working with others that reflect the most cutting edge think tanks and horizontal organizational structures. These methods have the potential to slice across disciplines, they hold lessons for the relevancy of cultural community development, and they push boundaries and question assumptions. Layered atop ForYourArt and Otis’s belief in contemporary public artistic practice as a hotbed for creative entrepreneurship, is the sobering reality of perennial precarity that artists experience today. Risky work must be enabled by risk capital, and that does not exist in the current art market. Through a new market paradigm, neo-liberal agendas can be rewritten to recognize the market value of social justice and compose alternatives to the nonprofit model, a spectacular failure in so many ways. There is sustainability at play here, the sustainability of an art career, of labor, of social and economic stability. We are fighting a rele-vancy war on all fronts, and only through a market system that supports experimental projects in the public realm (despite their immediate lack of scalability, utility, or easy categorization) can we begin to value the creative, agitating, critical skills that make artists such natural innovators. This critical capacity must be valued for its own sake, made achievable and embedded in society, so as to avoid that more nefarious leveraging of creative economy that co-opts the stimulatory effects of artists to create luxury loft districts out of their economic precarity.
This exhibition is indeed an uneasy marriage of goals, one that vacillates between individual achievement and aesthetic presentation, and a collective drive to valorize political consciousness and address issues that affect the creative class by re-imagining the art market status quo.
The collective project of this exhibition might very well require a translation in how we package, talk about, and understand these artworks. How does one reach an audience of social entrepreneurs, investors, policy makers and technology innovators, who have very different questions than the traditional art audience? What products or processes can be monetized? How do we begin to think about scalability in these projects? Or if this is a thought experiment on a macro scale, to somehow shift the ecosystem of artistic support and encourage entrepreneurship, doesn’t that pose an inherent threat to the status quo? There remains, through this all, the careers of these artists, and the need for them to find validation in the only models that currently exist. How much is ForYourArt building bridges with an audience that would create a tipping point of investment, or does its incubatory value still lie in its considerable art world cache?
The true impact of this endeavor lies in the conversation that will emerge. This must mark a paradigm shift in thinking about art, artists, and how they are relevant to the world. Public practice offers an argument for this relevancy, and by understanding its practitioners as researchers that are pushing the boundaries of cultural understanding, we craft a new way of valuing artistic innovation. Organizations such as ForYourArt are positioned to envision a new market and new methods of support for these artists, whereas schools like Otis must foster the flexible new skills as well as new expectations that will be required in this untested landscape.
 Korek, Bettina. “The Tides of Culture: Who Cares about MOCA?” LA Currents, March 11, 2013. Accessed April 15, 2013. http://lacurrents.com/articles/the-tides-of-culture-who-cares-about-moca/
 The terms emergent imagination, co-production, and networked cognition all describe the methods and outcomes of working horizontally with a group, without a prescriptive vision or authoritative figure determining the group’s collective concerns or actions. These are derived from theories of popular education, the science of emergence, and human cognition.
Rachel baffled a group of teenage boys in the Air Force cadet program by turning the tables on military procedure and facilitating a discussion about their concerns, including a serious discussion about video game addiction. Cherise explored why her childhood friends were drifting apart in college. Jacob organized his fellow baseball players and successfully lobbied their coach for more reasonable practice hours. Aydi organized and facilitated weekly discussions and a journaling initiative with her family to shore up their wounded and strained relationships with one another precipitated by the stress of dealing with her troubled brother.
The students in my special topics class were asked to facilitate a co-productive process with a group of their choosing over the course of the quarter, to meet in person with a group of people bound by a community or concern in which students themselves were already deeply engaged and embedded (so as to speed up the long and necessary process of building trust). They could not plan ahead – they could not have a determining vision or expectation for what concern the group would identify and what social action they might want to take. They had to be open to what they did not know. They had to understand that they understood very little, that they communities they were working with were the determinants and owners of their own collective concerns, and that the students were part of that effort but did not rise above it.
In a way, this was teaching students to trust people — to trust the people. These students have been held up as elite their whole lives, despite their varied socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds, having achieved within a system of prescriptive values. They begin to see themselves as having a special ability to give back, to lift up those who struggle to achieve within our society. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Friere warns against this “false generosity,” for to extend a hand to the poor and less than necessitates that the injustice of that relationship is perpetuated systemically. We are all of us “adapted to the structures of domination,” and we cannot change an unjust system through collective social actions without critically recognizing its causes. Although these students were not all engaged with issues of social justice or oppressed groups, their struggles to understand real situations in the world were authentic. Their immersion in the real, in wiping away pre-conceived notions (what Friere might call sectarianism, or suffering from “an absence of doubt,” stuck in a false certainty of their own making), was a paradigm shift of the highest magnitude. This struggle lays the ground for critical thought around “contradictions” in social and economic realities, and makes possible future efforts to create new situations.
The students were, for the most part, not easily or comfortably able to efface their own expectations and plans for their projects, at least not at first. I found it interesting that so many of them were art or design students, and perhaps the popular education process was so difficult as a result of their typical schooling. They are expert in manipulating situations to realize their own visions, and rewarded for their individual, original ideas and achievements. They are expected to weather critique from experts and peers, to strive for a more perfect realization of their ideas. The kind of popular education Friere espouses, on the other hand, is about trusting that the group holds the knowledge within themselves. It’s about empowering a group as the holders of both vision and its implementation. This represented such a big leap that after that first workshop with Ultra-red, Dont Rhine was worried about them. He was concerned that they didn’t get it, that they earnestly wanted to help their communities but had no idea what it meant to be in true communion with a people. This is a big problem, he said, and the reason Ultra-red began their project School of Echoes.
In many ways, Dont was right. The process proved to be quite frustrating for some students, and they bucked against it. They had trouble reaching their identified communities, they resorted to texting in an effort to communicate, they learned lessons about the difficulty of connection. It became clear how distant their communities were from one another. They were anxious about the twists and turns the projects took, by what they could not predict or expect. But in the process of opening up to the unknown, of experimenting with how to facilitate trust and a co-productive atmosphere, they all glimpsed a little of the emancipatory power of emergent organizing. They experienced small victories – a realization of the divides that exist between people, an understanding of the deep frustrations perpetuated by unfair systems, even some small shifts in behavior or newly instituted processes designed to forge deeper connections. It is a traumatic process, this rise of conscientização, as both Friere and bell hooks recognize sympathetically. One can never go back — one must always continue to see the world critically. This is an important boundary every great artist, educator, and revolutionary must cross.
I’ve taught classes organized around the idea of “social practice,” but to me this has become an increasingly limited and abstract way to package a university course. “Social practice” is revealing itself, at least to me, to be a term with decreasing utility, as it encompasses as broad a mass of ways of working and self-defined practitioners as there are artists, or musicians, or teachers. This is not a bad or good thing, but has forced me to re-imagine the concepts embedded in this practice that compel me — concepts that span many disciplines and are perhaps indicative of broader shifts in society rather than limited to art practice. I don’t have any resolution to these hunches just yet, but began to experiment with different methods of investigating such concepts, specifically a strategy I will call co-production, in a class context.
- Ultra-red with Year 9 students at the St Marylebone C. E. School RE:ASSEMBLY: Civis Sum 2009 Photography: Mark Blower
Co-production is a term that arises from public service, coined in the 1970s by a University of Indiana professor who used it to explain why crime rates went up when beat police officers started using patrol cars; in a nutshell, the police needed the community just as much as the community needed the police to fight crime. [See New Economics Foundation] I extend the term beyond such a pat example to describe mutual dependence, and a group process of self-education that leads to a co-produced social action. The mutual need of each fellow in a group to the other in the pursuit of social practice (or more precisely, social action via an art process), including the catalytic artist, is a quality in some projects that interests me, especially because of the way it reflects strategies of radical pedagogy.
In part to explore this epistemological relationship, I co-conceptualized and co-taught a tactics and strategies class in winter quarter that explored two sides of the same coin — pedagogical techniques in artwork (conversational, facilitative, inquiry-based), and artistic techniques in educational settings (creative thinking processes, critique, problem-solving) that are like opposing sides of the same structure.
I am a believer in theory, and critical thought, but for this class that allegiance had to be balanced in a context of doing. I became interested in a class that focused on processes, especially those that facilitated the emergence of group content. The content was important only insofar as it was relevant to the enactors of the process, and in fact was drawn from the lives of the students in familial, domestic, academic, and extracurricular realms.
We began by inviting the sound art collective Ultra-red to facilitate a popular education process with the group, something they had developed over the years influenced by radical pedagogues like Paolo Friere and activists like Grace Lee Boggs. Like these theorists, Ultra-red sees education and attendant facilitative strategies as activist means to combat oppression and promote self-actualization of marginalized groups. The collective encompasses a fluid group of organizers, planners, artists and activists, as well as a number of partnered groups from around the globe, in Germany, Holland, London, Los Angeles, and New York. What binds their work is the commitment to the popular education process as a means to discover a path towards social action and, ultimately, social justice. Alongside and sometimes embedded in this process is the making of an artwork. Two long-time LA-based members, Dont Rhine and Leonardo Vilchis (of Union de Vecinos), led the students through a very shortened and introductory version of their longer facilitative strategies, including having the students each come up with issues of concern to their communities, explaining, categorizing, and analyzing what came out of the discussion. This was at times a bit excruciating and frustrating, but as we stumbled inarticulately through the things that mattered to us, the elastic contrasts and overlaps between our contexts and ages and experiences and identities began to emerge. A shared understanding and trust was formed in a single class session.
I was hard-pressed to identify how or why this had occurred, but as Dont and Leonardo described how they had continued this facilitation over the course of years in different communities and around different issues, it became clear that this method was one of a profound upheaval of classroom hierarchy. The facilitators, and indeed the whole class, must trust and believe in the expertise of their fellows to describe the issues of their ascribed community. This deep listening, acknowledgement, and discussion allowed for the emergence of shared concerns (like job precarity, debt, and emotional fulfillment) despite gaps in ages, genders, experiences, and ethnicities. This is not to say that this was all about affirmation and positivity, but rather a momentary shift in power and context that opened us up to one another.
To sustain this, and to sustain it in the context of working with oppressed peoples, is precisely how popular education developed. Rather than social action, Friere talks about revolution in his seminal book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and he warns about how leaders of such liberatory efforts must be aware of their own assumptions predicated by a system of oppression, including “a lack of confidence in the people’s ability to think, to want, and to know.” This is an easy thing to point out but a difficult one to enact. Friere speaks of leaders that most passionately and sincerely want to change the unjust, but “because of their background they believe that they must be the executors of the transformation. They talk about the people, but they do not trust them,” especially not with the task of breaking away from an oppressive order.
At the moment when the authority of the classroom was broken down, and the students were entrusted with the determination of the content and focus, they affirmed their own passions for correcting injustice (indeed, why else would they sign up for a class called Socially-engaged Pedagogy.) And, as Friere describes, revealed that they, for the most part, believed that they should be “the executors of the transformation.” This was often couched in language like “I got out, so I want to give back to the community,” or “I saw firsthand the power of ______ in my life, and I want to give that to others.” Friere calls this a “type of generosity as malefic as the oppressors” because it marks the bearer as one who possesses special knowledge and ability, and implies deficit in the people who must be “helped.”
Many social practice artists have this attitude as well, especially those new to the field due to its recent trendiness. And the engagement of people in order to gift them some participatory experience is fine for a lot of artwork, but not so fine when such work professes to effect social change with oppressed peoples. Similarly with education; to be the purveyor of content is fine, but to be ”in communion,” as Friere puts it, with oppressed peoples and to fail to empower them to question and think critically, is not so fine either.
This was the beginning of a quarter of presented co-productive strategies, like Ultra-red’s popular education process, that students would implement with a group of their choice. The deal was that they would get as far as they could within the space of the quarter, and that they would engage deeply and seriously, choosing a group or a cause that was already important to them, and a situation they were already embedded within. This was a pretty ambitious prospect, and I had no idea how it would turn out.
Next post: how it turned out.
At a recent conference about socially-engaged art, Dutch artist Jeanne van Heeswijk seemed uncomfortable presenting about her ongoing work with residents in Anfield, UK called 2Up 2Down: Homebaked, despite having done so dozens of times. In a way, she was faced with an impossible task — how to help us to understand the complicated breadth of what she was engaged in? After all, her presentation (bolstered by internet searches) was probably the only way that most of us there would experience the work, as an arbitrary and mediated snapshot. Her passion and her ability to tell a compelling story with nuance and detail still flattens the work. Such work is an ever-shifting series of tenuous relationships, and its coalescence through encapsulating narratives is the false echo of an effort that one person alone (even one deeply embedded) can never truly grasp. Such work breathes.
The newspaper and magazine articles I later found, in the local Liverpool Echo, the Guardian, Frieze Magazine and the New York Times, were even more frozen in time than Jeanne’s passionate talk, especially because many of them were reviews of the just-opened Liverpool Biennial, the international art exhibition Homebaked was associated with. The reviews of the biennial itself were mixed, but nearly all were glowing about the work in Anfield, and every single one mentioned van Heeswijk and her project out of the many works represented in the exhibition platform. The positive descriptions focus on the deleterious effect of the Housing Market Renewal program in Liverpool, a slash-and-burn form of urban regeneration in which large tracts of housing were scheduled for demolition and rebuilding in various working class neighborhoods. The neighborhood of Anfield, poor but attractive due to its proximity to the football stadium, fell victim to this excision in 1998. Many residents moved out, sold, and boarded up their houses, but because of the financial crisis and changes in leadership, the area never got rebuilt or even fully demolished. The remaining residents now live amidst the abandoned and blighted remains of a neighborhood in permanent limbo, the cornerstone of which was the former Mitchell’s Bakery. Commissioned by the Liverpool Biennial to create a project “with lasting impact,” artist Jeanne van Heeswijk began working with a group of teens (common pattern in such projects, perhaps because teens are such powerful forces for advocacy in a community—they effectively motivate participation in both young and old and refuse to be ignored) to take over the bakery as a meeting space and create a community-owned Land Trust. The plan gained partners and additional neighborhood participants and has slowly progressed, coalescing into an “alternative to the existing situation,” as van Heeswijk puts it. “I’m talking about small-scale developments with more manageable footprints which are easier for the community to understand what will happen.” The newspaper articles are aspirational, painting Anfield as a victim of runaway greed and governmental overreach that was given a “glimmer of hope” by the Homebaked project. The residents caught in the middle become symbols for the precarity of our times, casualties in a housing war. Jeanne van Heeswijk is oft-quoted as saying, “Housing is the battlefield of our time, and the house its monument.”
Homebaked is a great story. The metaphors abound (“we will rise,” and “brick by brick, loaf by loaf, we build ourselves,”), eliciting domestic nostalgia, strategies of cooking and food as social lubricant and cooperative effort. The issue it addresses is very timely, and the people involved are creative, articulate and empowered by the artist. In fact, its story became so popular, so resonant in the media, had “such legs” as they say, that the Anfield Home Tours that were part of the Liverpool Biennial exploded. These “heritage” tours, conducted by and with Anfield residents, were laborious and intense. They were also meaningful, poetic, and symbolically powerful, but drew time and effort away from what was considered the actual work –getting the bakery up and running and lobbying for it (and the houses around it) to be sold to the communal Land Trust. Jeanne van Heeswijk lamented this. She worried over how cute the branding was, how immediately accessible the references and the narratives were. She fretted about the very pressing work at hand, and the very real possibility that everything the community had been working towards could still be demolished. She worried that the tidy media characterizations of Homebaked would overshadow the messy chaos and systemic imbalances the project had to navigate every day.
Addressing his own attempt to encapsulate these practices into an exhibition format, Nato Thompson begins his essay in the Living as Form catalogue by describing poetic projects that gain a lot of media traction, their concise and reverberating explications that move us. He asks, are these projects geared for the media? “Each project flourished among news outlets as these artists created a new spin around old stories,” he writes. This is characteristic of the media society we live in, where the political, poetic, and functional merge, where life and virtuality and art are entertwined. But most of all, a society where politics and media are deeply intertwined and feed off one another. Becoming media saavy is a necessity for nearly everyone, and it is very difficult to give up control of the symbolic media narrative in favor of the actual on-the-ground work, because it is not so clear that one does not determine the other. A member of the collective Ultrared, who also work with communities on complicated issues of housing and services, underscored the porosity of these borders “People will describe their world the way the media describes it. But then as the conversations continue, the story changes.” It becomes more grounded, more realistic. It opens new possibilities. This observation makes clear the necessity of media understanding, literacy, and manipulation in these projects, because the media narrative determines the way people see themselves. A symbolic counterattack on prevailing narratives, carefully calibrated through self-branding and actualization, can shift understandings and pave the way for progress, as surely as baking bread or laying down brick. Ultrared also said of socially-engaged work, “It’s not just changing our perception of our world, it’s changing the world we perceive.” In fact it must do both: change perception, and the world, for one follows the other.