I’ve had a pretty ridiculous week, so forgive this quick post - with luck, I will have more time to get back to theory and inquiry this weekend. Rather than maintain radio silence, though, I wanted to share my excitement about this announcement from Creative Time that I just received about the fantastic group The Yes Men:
Creative Time is proud to announce:
THE LEONORE ANNENBERG PRIZE FOR ART AND SOCIAL CHANGE FIRST ANNUAL AWARD of $25,000 to THE YES MEN, Oct 23
Creative Time is pleased to announce the inception of a new, annual, $25,000 award: The Leonore Annenberg Prize for Art and Social Change, presented by Creative Time to an artist who has committed her/his life’s work to social change in powerful and productive ways. The first recipient of the prize is The Yes Men, and it will be bestowed during the opening ceremony for The Creative Time Summit: Revolutions in Public Practice, on October 23 from 6 to 8pm in the historic Stephen A. Schwarzman building of the New York Public Library. The ceremony will feature an introduction by Amy Goodman, the host of the award-winning program Democracy Now!. The award is generously supported by The Annenberg Foundation.
From the Press Release:
The Yes Men agree their way into the fortified compounds of commerce, ask questions, and then smuggle out the stories of their hijinks to provide a public glimpse at the behind-the-scenes world of business. Over the years they have also launched some very unconventional products—from the Dow Acceptable Risk calculator (a new industry standard for determining how many deaths are acceptable when achieving large profits), to Vivoleum (a new renewable fuel sourced from the victims of climate change. The gonzo political activists were the subject of a documentary film, The Yes Men (2003), and their new documentary film, The Yes Men Fix the World (2009), was awarded the prestigious audience award at the Berlin International Film Festival.
Still from The Yes Men Fix the World
Their film The Yes Men Fix the World recently debuted in theatres in the UK and on HBO in the United States, and will be released nationally in theatres in October. More information about the film and a trailer can be found at theyesmenfixtheworld.com.
The Yes Men perfectly capture the spirit of the award, which honors an artist or artist group for historically significant work that has an expansive impact on society. At the ceremony, they will give an interactive, performative lecture.
The prize will be awarded in a ceremony that also opens The Creative Time Summit: Revolutions in Public Practice. The Summit is presented by Creative Time and LIVE from the NYPL as part of the LIVE from the NYPL fall season. The Summit continues on October 24, from 10am to 7:30pm, with over 35 international cultural producers whose work has made an impact in the world giving presentations.
These artists, thinkers, and activists range from anarchist collectives to art world luminaries. Their approaches intend to not only reflect, but also act upon moments of historic change, breaking the traditional barriers between art, culture, and politics. The Creative Time Summit will give attendees a chance to see a vast array of artistic practices in rapid-fire presentations, taking place back-to-back all day. These artistic practices defy easy museological categories, and aggressively blend art, politics, and space. Presenters include Okwui Enwezor, Thomas Hirschhorn, Temporary Services, Baltimore Development Cooperative, Not An Alternative, and many more.
I have been a fan of the Yes Men for a long time - they elegantly and brilliantly use satire in pursuing both social justice and political causes, and have a hearty set of balls to boot. They have a knack for infiltrating arenas in which they do not belong and turning inexplicable social systems on their heads. Bravo to them.
If you are interested in seeing their new film, “The Yes Men Fix the World,” the Hammer is hosting the West Coast Premiere on October 21st at 7pm. Check out the website for more information - like all Hammer programs, it is free, so if you are in LA, I hope to see you there.
The idea of approaching a problem rather than representing or exposing it, and the process through which that approach occurs, is a central concern in social practice.
Claire Bishop, who always provides a nice old-school art historical approach to this tricky subject and is a joy to disagree with, outlines her notion of the central concerns of “participatory art” (a terms that, for her, encompasses the broad sweep of things, from relational aesthetics to public practices to socially-engaged art, whatever you want to call it):
“Recurrently, calls for an art of participation tends to be allied to one or all of the following agendas:
- “the desire to create and active subject, one who will be empowered by the experience of physical or symbolic participation. The hope is that the newly-emancipated subjects of participation will find themselves able to determine their own social and political reality.”
- “authorship – the gesture of ceding artistic control is conventionally regarded as a more egalitarian and democratic than the creation of work by a single artist, while shared production is also seen to entail the aesthetic benefits of greater risk and unpredictability. Collaborative creativity is therefore understood both to emerge from and to produce, a more positive and non-hierarchical social model.”
- “a perceived crisis in community and collective responsibility. This concern has become more acute since the fall of Communism, the isolating effects of capitalism. One of the main impetuses behind participatory art has therefore been a restoration of the social bond through a collective elaboration of meaning.”
Bishop’s framework is limited to the form of “participatory” art, the types of practices that involve audience members in the creation or realization of some type of product or event. As such, she sees only a narrow scope for such art – for her it is a fundamentally anti-capitalist form striving to empower the people (its “subjects of participation”), disperse authorship, and restore the social bond. Hinted in her writing is the idea that participatory art is somehow a nostalgic recasting of the lost ideal of Communism. She is clearly unimpressed by this, and searches for a “critical art” amongst what she sees as nostalgic and moralistic practices.
I feel that Bishop accurately points out some tenets that guide some forms of social practice, but she fails to grasp the larger reasoning behind these explorations. For a different and more encompassing theory of social practice, I turn to Belgian political philosopher Chantal Mouffe and her seminal article Art and Democracy: Art as an Agonistic Intervention in Public Space in the 2008 issue of Art as a Public Issue No. 14.
Mouffe begins by answering the hidden question, “Why the social arena as a site for artistic interventions?” Quoting Andre Gorz: “When self-exploitation acquires a central role in the process of valorization, the production of subjectivity becomes a terrain of the central conflict…Social relations that elude the grasp of value, competitive individualism and market exchange make the latter appear by contrast in their political dimension, as extensions of the power of capital. A front of total resistance to this power is made possible. It necessarily overflows the terrain of production of knowledge towards new practices of living, consuming and collective appropriation of common spaces and everyday culture.”
Clearly, like Bishop, Mouffe also sees these interventions in social spaces as an opposition to the dominant capitalist system and its exploitative symptoms. She explains: “What is needed to widen the field of artistic intervention, by intervening directly in a multiplicity of social spaces in order to oppose the programme of total social mobilization of capitalism. The objective should be to undermine the imaginary environment necessary for its reproduction. As Brian Holmes puts it: ‘Art can offer a chance for society to collectively reflect on the imaginary figures it depends upon for its very consistency, its self-understanding.’”
Mouffe casts this kind of “agonistic” practice (which does not promote an oppositional agenda to the dominant system, but rather an acknowledgment of the limits of any form of rational consensus) as playing an activist role in “the struggle against capitalist domination.” Though her distinctly Marxist viewpoint colors her framework for the role of art interventions in social arenas, the idea that these practices play an important part in the critical questioning of societal systems that self-perpetuate based on exclusion is exactly how I like to think about rigorous social artistic practices. They are forms of much-needed critique, played out in the social spaces of everyday life. They are not solely about “restoring the social bond,” or proposing “non-hierarchal organizing,” but rather about exposing flawed societal systems by experimenting with modes of interactions and social critique…whatever those may be.
Project Row Houses in Houston's 3rd Ward, started by artist Rick Lowe
We need only think about the current healthcare debate, in which moralistic anger and irrational fear enters into what should be a rational policy debate. Hopelessness that a rational consensus will ever be achieved has certainly permeated my consciousness, and I am tempted to agree with Mouffe, that such consensus is never possible in a democracy, despite what Enlightenment thinkers have taught us. But this is where I believe social practice has a role. Not in solutions, but in experimenting with process, in pointing out systematic symptoms of post-criticality and hierarchy and exploitation, and how these conditions create an imaginary environment that reproduces such broken systems ad infinitum.
With the famous and elusive Kogi Korean BBQ Taco Truck parked just outside, the foot traffic in and out of LAXART, a small non-profit gallery on the Culver City art row, was astounding last night. The crowds might also have been due to the dearth of good summer art shows, and a heightened anticipation for the fall season of edgy new shows and lots of fabulous new work. A steady stream of people wandered into Mexican artist Gustavo Artigas’s project room and filled out ballots to petition that one of six Los Angeles landmarks be demolished. The buildings in question - the Disney Concert Hall, the Pacific Design Center, the Broad Contemporary Art Museum at LACMA, the Kodak Theater, the Staples Center, and the Rodeo Drive boutiques - were selected by a group of Los Angeles architects as those with the least aesthetic value. The voting structures were giant podium-sized ballot boxes with color photographs of the six buildings in question under a piece of plexi on top, and pollees filled out small printed ballots to drop in. The LAXART voting site was the project’s hub, but it was certainly not the only one - the artist has created a website as well as a series of voting structures to be placed throughout the city.
The Staples Center, Downtown (Figueroa Corridor)
Rodeo Drive Boutiques, Beverly Hills
Broad Contemporary Art Center, Mid-Wilshire
The Pacific Design Center, West Hollywood
The Kodak Theater, Hollywood
Walt Disney Concert Hall, Downtown (Bunker Hill)
The press release describes this project thusly: “Artigas’s highly accessible yet formally and intellectually advanced artist interventions in Los Angeles expose the thinness of community and the vast tensions that can foreshadow societal breakdown.”
In general, I agree with that statement. Artigas has a knack for pointing out tension and social resilience in highly elegant metaphors, like his Games series, but I was less certain of the efficacy of this Demolition project in achieving the same results. I actually wrote this bit of the press release on his Games series, about a year ago when I still worked at LAXART and the project was in its initial stages. I’d like to quote it here, because I think reflects quite accurately what I like about Artigas’s work, and will help to highlight some of my issues with Vote for Demolition.
“Gustavo Artigas’s broader practice encompasses institutional critique, the exposure of social tensions through artificially devised, game-based platforms, and the exploration of how abstract notions like borders and social contracts affect reality. These provocative interventions progressed to a new level at the cross-border exhibition inSITE 2000, in which Artigas realized his two-part piece Rules of the Game I & II. In Rules of the Game I, the artist installed handball courts on both sides of the Unites States/Mexico border, which were quickly taken over and utilized by residents. The playful interactions that occurred when a ball would fall on the opposite side of the fence only to be congenially returned emphasized the realities of migration and the superficiality of the made-up border space. Artigas further developed this layered social commentary with Rules of the Game II, in which a Mexican football (soccer) team and an American basketball team negotiated for space on the same court in a Tijuana high school. The tensions and jostling, sometimes approaching violence, were ultimately resolved as the players learned to move fluidly around and between one another, living symbiotically but within two very separate frameworks. His work is simultaneously instantly accessible and highly poetic, and he masterfully uses conflicts to tease out insights into the real out of a morass of socially abstracted concepts.”
Gustavo Artigas, Rules of the Game II, 2000
Glowing press release language aside, I do actually love those two pieces in their simplicity and their power. With Vote for Demolition, though, I just am having trouble making the metaphor work in quite the same way. It is real, in the way that these games were real - there is a familiar process of voting, the petition will be formal and legal, and the possibility of demolition does actually exist outside of fantasy - but just like the games, the actual results are likely to be inconsequential, and the greater meaning is grasped from the symbol this staging becomes. So what does the symbolic hope for demolition, both the voting process and the destruction of a building mean? Clearly Artigas wants to shine a light on the arbitrary nature of the built environment, and recast spatial configuring as a democratic process. He singles out architects to make the building selection, highlighting a generational divide in architectural taste, then polling the public for their opinions on these supposed eyesores. But how is he defining the complex layers of community in Los Angeles? Is he really digging deep into the process of polling, investigating how spatial imaginations shift if you are the audience member at Disney concert hall, or the homeless man outside, or the juror who must park there, or the resident of the apartment building across the way who is blinded by the reflected sun every morning? How are we able to do anything other than speculate randomly about this process and its results?
I am curious to see how the data is brought to bear in the finished incarnation, what insights can be garnered from this demolition effort. Artigas seems to have little commentary on the meaning of architecture in our lives, and is relying on the results of his data to interpret its effect on the societal fabric. Yet I fear his simplistic polling process will yield very little information, and is an underdeveloped idea in comparison to the magnetic poetry of his Games pieces.
Marjetica Potrc, Urgent Architecture, 2004
One huge challenge I see in social practice is an enormous shift in the kind of working method and knowledge base required of these artists than those who work exclusively in the studio. If social practice involves an artist “inserting” him or herself into a community, the types of knowledge and skills required of that artist expand exponentially.
Of course, it’s difficult to make that statement lightly, because contemporary studio artists work in incredibly varied ways, many involving huge amounts of contextual research into history, society, and space. Not to mention that such artists, in order to navigate the territories in which they operate, often need a fairly solid art historical and theoretical knowledge base. But artists operating in social arenas must strive to understand the communities they inhabit, even briefly, and they must be completely self-aware and reflective that their actions are of consequence within such communities. They must even be prepared to face the fact that their presence might be unwelcome, unwanted. These artists must be prepared to fail on a wholly different scale than studio artists – a very public and a very consequential scale.
The weighty social practices I am talking about here are largely community-based, and exist outside of the safe space of the museum or gallery. These practices are in the public, involve city government, require groups of people buy in to the project, and call for often massive funding. Amy Franceschini’s Victory Gardens project in San Francisco was on a city-wide scale, whereas The Watts House Project operates in a very small, specific community in Watts, but perhaps affects peoples’ lives (for better or worse) even more deeply because of its focus. Marjeta Potrc’s interest lies in informal cities and design solutions in places like the West Bank and Caracas, and her massive research into these communities reflects the social practice aspect of her work.
Amy Franceschini, Victory Gardens, 2008
Yet to juggle the huge range of contextual knowledge required, the specific proficiencies needed in the realm the artist makes his or her own (i.e. housing, philanthropy, building social connections, pedagogy, marketing) and the added ability to reflect, to remove oneself from everything and break down one’s systems of doing things, analyze the hierarchies and power structures at work, and make connections amongst all the different spheres of one’s knowledge is a tough prospect. As the scale of the project grows, it becomes less and less likely that all of these skills and knowledge can be embodied in one person. Teams must be put together, and the artist must acquire yet another skill – how to run a working and dynamic organization. Although social practice artists often talk about collaboration (more on that later), it is really organizational practice that forms the infrastructure for massive project production to occur.
Perhaps it is the socio-cultural-spatial-economic building of knowledge, the work with groups of people, the organizational capacity, and the rigorous approach to a problem that distinguishes the social practice artist.
Quickly back to the pedagogical theme of these posts, though, and a final question: How can the academy support this type of knowledge-building for MFAs in social practice programs? What spheres of understanding do they feel are most primary, and how does this privileging reflect the hierarchies within these institutions themselves?
How do you teach someone to be a visionmaker, teacher, communicator, connector, housing expert, engineer, marketing expert, director, and artist all at once in a two-year program?
You don’t, not really. You nurture the desire and hope they can rise to the challenge.
Art and Beer Event at the Portland Museum of Art, Eric Steen
Artist Eric Steen, a recent graduate from the Social Practice MFA program at Portland State University, wrote me the following in an email yesterday:
“In this article by Kristina Lee Podesva, in Fillip Magazine, she mentions that Claire Bishop calls much of the work where artists are turning galleries into bars works that have a “Microtopian Ethos”…saying, “an artist re-purposes [the gallery] as a site of refuge from the real world (even though he or she attempts to recreate social interactions there typically associated with existing places such as the pub or community centre). In this way, this work does not encourage us to strive for a larger utopian goal—such as securing permanent and free communal space—but rather to sit back and enjoy, in whatever way we can, the here and now.”
When I think about my own work, it is the smaller interactions, the ability to build relationships and insert myself into another community that is a more effective process for relaying my ideas to a broader group of people. For me, the small act, the conviviality, the togetherness, are all actions that are activism. It may be quiet, it may be small, it may not impress anyone but the people to which they are directed.”
Mr. Steen’s thoughts got me to thinking about several themes I’d like to explore in the next few posts, including the role of the academy in art production (and society in general), and what Podesva calls “the pedagogical turn in art” – in which educational activities are utilized as artistic processes or products. I find this particularly interesting both in my capacity as an educator at the Hammer Museum and as a former public school teacher. In my present job, I work frequently with undergraduates and graduates studying art (at UCLA in particular, but also many of the other first-class art schools in the Southland). I find quite a rich territory where education and art meet – from the notion of the second-class artist-educator (thanks to artist Liz Glynn for that particular categorization), to the fact that museum education departments are becoming the de facto sites for social practices (i.e. public programs such as MOCA’s Engagement Party series), to the massive output of MFAs across the country each year. What do all of these factors mean to systems and hierarchies of art production? And what does it mean to have such a professionalized MFA program dedicated to Social Practice? (Note: I currently know of three. Otis’s Public Practice MFA, the PSU Program, and CCA’s new MFA concentration in Social Practice).
Mr. Steen, the product of such a program, seems to be rethinking the foundations of relational aesthetics as well as pedagogical practice in his work. Building relationships, sharing ideas, facilitating social interactions. I am immensely curious how his colleagues from PSU are operating, and what similarities might be drawn from their work. How are they analyzing communities, the public, their audience/participants? What are the activist qualities of these “small actions” Mr. Steen speaks of, and is their purpose to impress, or change, or cause revelation, or build connections, or pleasure? Should one measure such effects? How? What are the larger societal concerns and implications of this work? How is the process of social practice production and relevant theory taught?
So many questions. Attempting to address them will require some research on my part, but this wave of new social practice art graduate programs is fascinating, and I will continue to post my thoughts down the line.