If one has one’s ear to the pulse of the institutional art world, there is no question that museums have begun to implement major shifts in the way they engage their visitors – at least in Los Angeles. From MOCA’s Engagement Parties to the rash of First Fridays or whatever days, to interactive collections software at the Getty, museums have responded to new trends in media and cultural consumption using both technological and human tactics.
The overwhelming consensus (as evidenced by the alarming aging of audiences to traditional arts venues – like museums, the opera, performing arts) is that younger generations of Americans eschew the largely passive role of audience, and demand participation from their art institutions. Events, parties, and interactive artworks help this generation gather and engage, but they also desire a role in production (of exhibitions, acquisitions, programming, education) – one that is immediate and satisfying.
I believe that in finally acknowledging these trends, institutions have begun to show a more concerted interest in artists who engage in “social practice” – whose work is built on collaborative action and participation, and encourages iterative loops of feedback, research, and recommendation. This interest is felt by artists who have been working in such a way for years (Mark Allen of Machine Project had to turn down about five panel requests for the upcoming American Association of Museums Conference in May), and by young artists just embarking on their careers. For example, on Thursday I attended the first MFA thesis exhibition at UCLA, and was amazed by the number of artworks based on interaction and social research (mostly the work of Jennifer Gradecki and Derek Curry) especially in the heavily object-based UCLA context.
Yet among many institutions, there is still a self-admitted lack of knowledge about these practices. Curators who regularly deal with social practice artists in all their diversity are few and far between, and traditional curators are often at a loss when confronted with some such projects. Projects that involve social practice artists are often education/curatorial hybrids, and suffer at times from internal hierarchies between those departments. Not only that, such practices break some long-held (but largely unspoken) rules of artistic practice that have been fully embraced by art institutions – and backtracking on those traditional notions is a difficult process. For example – “artists should not work with non-artists (i.e. people from the “community,” whatever that is) to produce an art project and then show it in the museum.” Or – “art that is widely loved by and accessible to the general public should be treated with suspicion.” Or even structural rules that are far more difficult to break – “artists’ projects must fit within a specific duration.” Now these are obviously generalizations, and museums exist everywhere that have pushed, pulled and bent some of these ideas. But, I still maintain that such ideas remain at the surface of institutional consciousness, and continue to affect current programming as well as how new ideas are approached.
I had the pleasure of hearing the great Harrell Fletcher speak at USC this past Wednesday, and in his clear and calm manner, he addressed some of the concerns I outlined above. Fletcher believes strongly in projects of unknown duration, in allowing them the ability to change and evolve. His work is engineered to be highly accessible to people without an arts background, and is both site-specific and socially-specific: that is to say it’s formed around the location in which he is doing the project and intimately involves the people that live in that location. He was nonchalant when confronted with the question of authorship and artistic ethics – in involving these people in his art project, wasn’t he exploiting them? He countered with the example of an amateur theater troop. In such a context, there is no problem with a trained director leading a group of amateur actors and stage crew who have signed on to be a part of a production because they love the activity. Why then, are we so precious about authorship in art? That is most definitely a larger topic for another day, but Fletcher’s point is a good one. As institutions shift their traditional notions of art and audience in response to a changing context, the space opens for these kinds of practices to emerge, evolve, and grow.