I’ve taught classes organized around the idea of “social practice,” but to me this has become an increasingly limited and abstract way to package a university course. “Social practice” is revealing itself, at least to me, to be a term with decreasing utility, as it encompasses as broad a mass of ways of working and self-defined practitioners as there are artists, or musicians, or teachers. This is not a bad or good thing, but has forced me to re-imagine the concepts embedded in this practice that compel me — concepts that span many disciplines and are perhaps indicative of broader shifts in society rather than limited to art practice. I don’t have any resolution to these hunches just yet, but began to experiment with  different methods of investigating  such concepts, specifically a strategy I will call co-production, in a class context.

Co-production is a term that arises from public service, coined in the 1970s by a University of Indiana professor who used it to explain why crime rates went up when beat police officers started using patrol cars; in a nutshell, the police needed the community just as much as the community needed the police to fight crime. [See New Economics Foundation] I extend the term beyond such a pat example to describe mutual dependence, and a group process of self-education that leads to a co-produced social action. The mutual need of each fellow in a group to the other in the pursuit of social practice (or more precisely, social action via an art process), including the catalytic artist, is a quality in some projects that interests me, especially because of the way it reflects strategies of radical pedagogy.

In part to explore this epistemological relationship, I co-conceptualized and co-taught a tactics and strategies class in winter quarter that explored two sides of the same coin — pedagogical techniques in artwork (conversational, facilitative, inquiry-based), and artistic techniques in educational settings (creative thinking processes, critique, problem-solving) that are like opposing sides of the same structure.

I am a believer in theory, and critical thought, but for this class that allegiance had to be balanced in a context of doing. I became interested in a class that focused on processes, especially those that facilitated the emergence of group content. The content was important only insofar as it was relevant to the enactors of the process, and in fact was drawn from the lives of the students in familial, domestic, academic, and extracurricular realms.

We began by inviting the sound art collective Ultra-red to facilitate a popular education process with the group, something they had developed over the years influenced by radical pedagogues like Paolo Friere and activists like Grace Lee Boggs. Like these theorists, Ultra-red sees education and attendant facilitative strategies as activist means to combat oppression and promote self-actualization of marginalized groups. The collective encompasses a fluid group of organizers, planners, artists and activists, as well as a number of partnered groups from around the globe, in Germany, Holland, London, Los Angeles, and New York. What binds their work is the commitment to the popular education process as a means to discover a path towards social action and, ultimately, social justice. Alongside and sometimes embedded in this process is the making of an artwork. Two long-time LA-based members, Dont Rhine and Leonardo Vilchis (of Union de Vecinos), led the students through a very shortened and introductory version of their longer facilitative strategies, including having the students each come up with issues of concern to their communities, explaining, categorizing, and analyzing what came out of the discussion. This was at times a bit excruciating and frustrating, but as we stumbled inarticulately through the things that mattered to us, the elastic contrasts and overlaps between our contexts and ages and experiences and identities began to emerge.  A shared understanding and trust was formed in a single class session.

I was hard-pressed to identify how or why this had occurred, but as Dont and Leonardo described how they had continued this facilitation over the course of years in different communities and around different issues, it became clear that this method was one of a profound upheaval of classroom hierarchy. The facilitators, and indeed the whole class, must trust and believe in the expertise of their fellows to describe the issues of their ascribed community. This deep listening, acknowledgement, and discussion allowed for the emergence of shared concerns (like job precarity, debt, and emotional fulfillment) despite gaps in ages, genders, experiences, and ethnicities. This is not to say that this was all about affirmation and positivity, but rather a momentary shift in power and context that opened us up to one another.

To sustain this, and to sustain it in the context of working with oppressed peoples, is precisely how popular education developed. Rather than social action, Friere talks about revolution in his seminal book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and he warns about how leaders of such liberatory efforts must be aware of their own assumptions predicated by a system of oppression, including “a lack of confidence in the people’s ability to think, to want, and to know.” This is an easy thing to point out but a difficult one to enact. Friere speaks of leaders that most passionately and sincerely want to change the unjust, but “because of their background they believe that they must be the executors of the transformation. They talk about the people, but they do not trust them,” especially not with the task of breaking away from an oppressive order.

At the moment when the authority of the classroom was broken down, and the students were entrusted with the determination of the content and focus, they affirmed their own passions for correcting injustice (indeed, why else would they sign up for a class called Socially-engaged Pedagogy.)  And, as Friere describes, revealed that they, for the most part, believed that they should be “the executors of the transformation.” This was often couched in language like “I got out, so I want to give back to the community,” or “I saw firsthand the power of ______ in my life, and I want to give that to others.” Friere calls this a “type of generosity as malefic as the oppressors” because it marks the bearer as one who possesses special knowledge and ability, and implies deficit in the people who must be “helped.”

Many social practice artists have this attitude as well, especially those new to the field due to its recent trendiness. And the engagement of people in order to gift them some participatory experience is fine for a lot of artwork, but not so fine when such work professes to effect social change with oppressed peoples. Similarly with education; to be the purveyor of content is fine, but to be  “in communion,” as Friere puts it, with oppressed peoples and to fail to empower them to question and think critically, is not so fine either.

This was the beginning of a quarter of presented co-productive strategies, like Ultra-red’s popular education process, that students would implement with a group of their choice. The deal was that they would get as far as they could within the space of the quarter, and that they would engage deeply and seriously, choosing a group or a cause that was already important to them, and a situation they were already embedded within. This was a pretty ambitious prospect, and I had no idea how it would turn out.

Next post: how it turned out.