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.