Every chance I get, I climb above the city and take in the panorama. Los Angeles is particularly filmic – the mountains, the ocean, the neverending density, the outcroppings of tall buildings ensure that every view is both picturesquely framed and overwhelmingly extensive. I had two recent opportunities to view the city from above – one from the ridgeline hike in Runyon Canyon and another from the roof of the Talmadge, an anachronistic 1920s brick apartment building in Koreatown. This second experience, perhaps because it was night and the city spread out like a glittering jewel beneath the terrifying sheer drop of the uneven and ancient (by LA standards) rooftop, reminded me strongly of Michel de Certeau’s deeply poetic “Walking in the City.” Indeed, the city was arrested before my eyes, and just as de Certeau wrote about the crests and undulations of the “urban island” of Manhattan, I found myself admiring the long Wilshire district of steel and glass and occasional brick and the city beyond. The light-studded hills of Hollywood loomed to my north, the post-industrial orange street lights and boxy structures spread to the south, with the rising terrain of Bunker Hill to the east and the long wide boulevards to the ocean stretched due west.
De Certeau asks, as I eventually did on my rooftop perch, “Must one fall back into the dark space where crowds move back and forth, crowds that, though visible from on high, are themselves unable to see down below?” He calls this “an Icarian fall.” The city cannot remain frozen in our view forever, and the pleasure of totalizing the city into a vista is merely a temporary delight. This divide between the wholistic conceptualization of the city versus the messy, complicated morass of spatial practices and feelings and people and overlapping communities and spheres of knowing challenges any visionary that wishes to effect social justice or change by engaging the political. There is always the discouraging Icarian fall, and the struggle to hold on to the totalizing vision that binds all the uneven fragments together.
I remember that divide as I engage in these writings, which will comprise an ongoing investigation into the complex social practices surrounding art. I will try, to the best of my abilities, to embrace complexity and conflict, to work through difficult and contradictory issues, and to always try to see both the rosy vision and the chaos of reality.
What do I mean by social practice in art? Primarily, this blog will focus on artistic practices that utilize social exchange as the main medium through which to express a concept. I am by no means a cheerleader of these practices – in fact I think they often lack criticality, and are plagued by vague or misused terms like “community art” and “activist art” and “relational aesthetics.” But I am seduced by the idea that art can be a catalyst, that it can offer a different way of thinking about societal problems, and that it can advance social justice. Perhaps this is naïve, and perhaps it is simply not possible. One thing I am sure of, however, is that such an idea will never be taken seriously without a critical and systematic investigation of art that claims this status. This social turn in art must be peeled apart into its many messy layers in order to lay the ground for the truly innovative to be recognized and built upon.