I had two experiences in the past week in which students in a high-level pedagogical situation rejected all discussion of artistic theory or concept in favor of the nitty-gritty. In one, a workshop focused on Alternative Art Spaces and how they came to be (with excellent panelists Mark Allen, Julie Deamer, Lauri Firstenberg, Daniel Joseph Martinez, and Yoshua Okon), most participants were thrilled by the meaty conceptual discussions about motivation, intention, context and process – but a small percentage were upset and disappointed that no “worksheets” were given, no “practical advice” imbued.
The second was a discussion between students at one of the new “social practice” MFA programs out there and a well-known artist engaged in a community project. The discussion devolved from a conceptual and philosophical musing on process, adaptability, the importance of nimbleness, and the idea that preconceived structures rarely hold water for long in the real, complex world…into a demand for a step-by-step playbook of how to “involve” community partners more effectively. Without being privy to the many conversations, swirling politics, and difficult personalities involved, the students grilled the artist unabashedly – “Well, why don’t you just find a way to collaborate?” “Why don’t you figure out what they want and what you want and work within the common ground?” “What should be the five first steps to avoid these problems in the future?” These questions seem reasonable coming from the outside, but betray both a misunderstanding of community practice and a fundamental catch-22 – it is nearly impossible to gain an effective understanding of community practice without firsthand involvement, and nearly impossible to effectively critique a practice within which you are intimately entrenched.
Similarly with alternative spaces, there is no such thing as a play-by-play, a how-to for opening a successful non-profit. These things are dependent on people you know, the strength of your mission, your ability to express it, the appropriateness of your location, your relationship with funders, your prior experience. The only way to learn is by doing – and the smart participants of the workshop gleaned this from the very intelligent and experienced presenters. I would urge those who were not satisfied enough to go out and start volunteering at one of these spaces. Get down and dirty, get nitty-gritty. The best advice the panelists could offer was to go out and do it. Find a way. Meet people who have the skills you need and bring them on board. Talk, talk, and talk some more about your idea and get advice about how to implement it. That will probably lead to more questions than answers, but at least you will then know the right questions.
I am a teacher myself, but I grow tired of worksheets and playbooks and how-tos. I put on workshops to facilitate discussion of the conceptual and philosophical values that underly the best ideas. The nitty-gritty is where the rubber meets the road, and the nitty-gritty should be completely conformed to the philosophy of the project. You can’t teach it generally – it is inherently specific. So if you want to learn how to involve community – go and observe how someone tries to do it, from beginning till end. If you want to learn how to start an organization, go help someone do it. Or just do it.