I would like to return to my discussion of theoretical frameworks that have been used to analyze socially-engaged artworks (oh, what a difficult term…isn’t all art rife with the social? But I hope you know what I’m talking about by now), as in my previous post on relational aesthetics. In that post, I pointed out that Bourriard’s discussion of relational aesthetics as a “theory of form” just didn’t quite do justice to the social, spatial, and political dimensions of this work. Grant Kester, in his book “Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art” gets a little closer to laying out the various layers of social practice, what he terms as “dialogical aesthetics” (another relatively useless term – shoehorning these practices into some qualified type of aesthetics still seems so reductive to me). Kester manages not only to link these practices quite cogently to an art historical lineage, but also to begin to think about a more rounded framework for approaching them critically. Which is why his book, even after 10 years, is still the undisputed central text concerning community-based and socially-engaged artworks.
Kester begins the chapter in which he lays out his analytic framework by talking about conceptual art not only as a move away from the purely visual, but as a robust set of concerns extending beyond (but not entirely rejecting) the art object itself. He says of conceptual artists like Adrian Piper, Vito Acconci and Felix Gonzalez-Torres: “They tend to focus on ways in which the optical experience is conditioned by a given social context or physical situation and by the viewer’s participation.” Seedbed, Acconci’s iconic performance in January of 1971 at Sonnabend in New York, is cited as an example – the viewer must be present to complete the piece, as the interaction between the masturbating artist under the floor and the unaware, disgusted or curious viewer was central to the piece.
I like this little concise description of conceptual practice from this era, because it throws into relief the different territories we are dealing with in art: optical experience, social or physical context, and viewer participation. It also provides a useful model for distinguishing social practice: in my view, social practice takes the work of conceptualism and twists it to privilege the context over all else. To switch around Kester’s description accordingly, I would say that social practice artists are concerned with the way a given social context or physical situation (usually both) is conditioned by optical experience (or aesthetic exchange) and viewer/creator/stakeholder interaction.
Accordingly to Kester, how successfully an artist enacts this analysis and practicing of the social can be broken into a three-part theoretical framework. He takes John Latham and Barbara Steveni’s Artist Placement Group as the trigger for his first two parts: 1) a project should first be examined by its ability to define art as a “condition of openness.” Does the artist seize the opportunity to approach a problem “unconventionally, naively, open-mindedly, as if from the outside?” He does note, however, that the tolerance for this kind of problem-solving practice drops quickly when applied outside of the art world, as in APG. Secondly, he examines a project in terms of its “critical time-sense.” Is the artist thinking in very long terms, about the “viewer-to-be” and about communities that are not yet emergent? Is the artist also thinking backwards in time, with a historical time-sense? He links this with what he calls a “spatial imagination,” the ability to “comprehend and represent complex social and environmental systems, identify interconnections among the often invisible forces that pattern human and environmental existence.” Finally, Kester ends with an analysis of the ability of the artist/project to “enact these insights through dialogical and collaborative encounters with others.”
I do think that this framework hits upon three major reasons for why an artist might be an appropriate “incidental person,” someone equipped to confront larger societal problems: 1) the ability to approach a problem naively and with a condition of openness; 2) a longer critical “time-sense,” beyond the short-term thinking dictated by certain disciplines (i.e. the market, quarterly, in election cycles, in fiscal years, etc); 3) a spatial imagination as defined above.
Yet the enactment of these artistic insights is where we fall down. Relational aesthetics, dialogical aesthetics, conversations and beer drinking and making food for each other…it all feels very 1990s. Form evolves, as I said before. What are things like these day? Well, Mark Allen from Machine Project took over LACMA for a day and will be taking over Visitor Services at the Hammer Museum for a full year. Edgar Arceneaux is renovating houses down in Watts and conducting job-training in green technologies. The LA Urban Rangers are giving tours of public access beaches in Malibu and holding public easement potlucks. And that’s just a few…
How do we approach such projects critically? Do we measure their effects, conduct surveys, link their forms to previous art historical models, interview the artists for some insight into their conceptual rigor? It is fraught territory indeed.