I am pleased to be conducting a series of interviews as a part of SOCiAL: Art + People, a series of discussions around socially-engaged art in Los Angeles instigated by Anne Bray of Freewaves, and these will be appearing on KCET’s Artbound blog throughout the fall. Below is an excerpt of my intro for an interview with Dr. Elizabeth Currid-Halkett and Dr. Sarah Schrank that posted yesterday on Artbound, and the next iteration will be with Sara Daleiden, David Burns and Kimberli Meyer on the Mak Center’s Artists + Institutions salon series culmination on October 4th.
As a writer, arts organizer, and culture worker interested in socially-engaged art, I am excited to participate in SOC(i)AL: Art + People. There is a regrettable lack of informative art writing about socially-engaged art practices, largely because engaging the many stakeholders in complex reflection and documentation is exceedingly difficult. Yet through SOC(i)AL, we clearly see that this work bleeds into many fields.
The kick-off event, Is L.A. the Creative or Anti-Creative City?, is a conversation between Sarah Schrank, professor of history at Cal State Long Beach, and Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, associate professor at the USC Price School of Public Policy, moderated by David Sloane, professor of public policy at USC, on Tuesday, September 18. Professors Schrank and Currid-Halkett are concerned with measuring the effect of cultural economies, artists, land development and cultural institutions on the shape of Los Angeles and other cities, one from a historical perspective and one focused on policy and planning. My interview with them reveals both tired stereotypes and surprising realities about the L.A. art scene and the true value of art.
Read the full interview here.
I recently had the pleasure of experiencing the Venice Beach Biennial, curated by my colleague Ali Subotnick. Under the aegis of the Hammer Museum’s Made in LA biennial exhibition (closing September 2nd), VBB was a breathtakingly quick, intense, chaotic, and surprisingly subtle exhibition within an exhibition outside of an exhibition on the boardwalk. The intentional fuzziness of the VBB’s structure and curatorial framework was what made it so compelling for me, and I wrote a blog post in three parts for the Made in LA website. Check out all three links below.
Recently I sat down with Emily Anne Kuriyama, a UCLA student volunteering for artist Fiona Connor, who spent the last two weeks in the lobby of the Hammer Museum creating a crowd-sourced 600-page “alternative” catalogue compendium for the Made in LA exhibition. (When available, I will post a link to the whole massive thing here). Emi was tasked by Fiona to try to figure out how to encapsulate the participation of Mario Ybarra Jr. and Karla Diaz’s de facto art school/community center/participatory art practice Slanguage in the alternative catalogue, so we hunkered down with several sheets of blank legal paper to conduct a spontaneous written interview.
Full disclosure – I work at the Hammer in the Academic Programs department, and I have had the benefit of recently hearing Mario present his project (which is where the quotes originate from), but the thoughts and opinions here are solely my own interpretation and impression of what Slanguage does. Emi has very eloquently expressed some of the questions I have heard again and again from students of art struggling to navigate the many aspects of socially-engaged, instituent practices like Slanguage, and I wanted to share our collective thought processes.
EAK: What did/do you think of Slanguage showing at LAXART? I saw it again yesterday and there were less people there than when I had originally walked through. As an empty space, it seemed more akin to a classroom/school auditorium than when I first visited.
SBY: I think this is a problematic of trying to contain a work like Slanguage in a gallery space, [a work] which is dynamic, durational, organic, and specific to a process that is operational only when activated by what Mario calls a “loose membrane” of relationships. This is a curatorial conundrum. How to keep the space from ossifying?
It is, essentially, a platform for relations to occur, but in a “sample cup size” (in Mario’s words) rather than the “FULL MEAL” provided by the actual Slanguage space.
[drawing of a sample cup and a full meal]
Mario and Karla are both teachers, they run Slanguage as a “de facto art school,” and they view this show as serving several purposes:
1) For their own SLANGUAGE-based students; this is an opportunity to highlight their activities outside of the home base, in a “cool” art space, and that legitimization is important.
2) For all the other art students (too many to host at Slanguage itself); this show demonstrates and models a fluidity of practice that young artists are interested in — [the possibility for] hybridity between pedagogy, facilitation, and object-making that no longer needs to exist in such separate spheres — but can be navigated.
EAK: I think that I’m having some trouble understanding how “legitimization” works in the context of art school outside of “the Academy” (with a capital A sort of thing). Their model(s) of hybridized artistic practices seemed to materialize in their all-over “takeover” of LAXART with murals inside/outside of the structure. The way they hung the work rendered the object-list useless, which was kind of an awesome moment for me, since it sort of epitomized their deconstruction/reconstruction of artistic practice … like the way in which I view this particular showing of work has to take on a different process, because their process for producing work is different. I guess it just seems like they’ve accomplished so much as a group that encouraged hybridity/unity, but there’s still a disjuncture or something in connecting to the sort of structures of the gallery system. That’s not a critique really. It just seemed like that tension was there.
SBY: That tension is definitely there, and it’s infrastructural. Galleries and institutions of art have built all their infrastructure up around collecting, preserving, and exhibiting objects. The methodologies and infrastructures for “showing” a work/process/practices like Slanguage do not exist, so they intervene on those structures and disrupt them. Hence the “takeover.”
Thus, as audience, our viewing methods and critiquing methods must also shift — when work is so contextual and durational we must mine the relationships and all the dynamics in every event, in every process, over the whole period, iteratively. But that is neither realistic nor really possible, so as a viewing public, we must content ourselves with the slice that we experience.
[drawing of slice of pie]
The notion of legitimization in their practice is interesting too — as a perpetually underfunded organization with a tiny space … what they CAN leverage is the power of institutions to bestow cultural capital. The artists fostered through Slanguage are legitimized through Mario and Karla’s ability to attract the opportunities afforded them via institutions of art ~ they can occupy this space internationally, and that increased cultural legitimization then feeds back locally.
I think the fact that Slanguage has shied away from increased formalization, from 501(c)(3) non-profit status, from BOARDS and MISSIONS has allowed them to remain fuzzy, fluid, with undefined edges. They expand and contract organically, they occupy multiple platforms in institutions (education, curatorial, events, exhibitions) and they are not interested in ossifying into a more specific division of programming or practice.
[drawing of Slanguage as multi-dimensional, blobby]
Mario is sometimes asked: “Where does your work begin and Slanguage end?”
And he responds: “Why do you need the answer to that question?”
CamLab's final Engagement Party, Two in the Bush. 2012.
Last Thursday saw the final epitaph in a series of intellectual discussions on social practice put on by MOCA, a conversation between scholar Grant Kester and artists Janet Owen Driggs and Suzanne Lacy. With that contextualizing afterword (plus an upcoming book), we bid adieu to MOCA’s four-year engagement with Los Angeles social practice collectives in the form of Engagement Party.
I feel a resonant sadness at the passing of this platform, one of the few dependable spaces for rigorous socially-engaged practice within a major art museum in this city. Perhaps the work was not always so rigorous, and the structure was problematic, the collectives were not always collectives, the “social practice” looked more like straight-up performance at times, and MOCA itself became increasingly unstable territory for experimental work to find purchase. But Engagement Party mirrored my own love affair with social practice, way back when I saw the backwards lettering of the Finishing School poster suddenly clarify in the mirror of the USC IFT building’s women’s bathroom.
In the years since Engagement Party first took the ring, socially-engaged art practice has emerged in force – in critical writing, in MFA programs, in museums, in endless panels and symposia and professional conferences. It is far from ubiquitous, but the blank stares (or worse, scoffs) are less frequent. In some arenas, particularly contemporary art museums that like to push the envelope of audience engagement, the interest is quite rabid. “Machine Project, you say? Fallen Fruit, eh?” and so on.
But it is worth taking a moment to critically reflect on this platform, and what it means in the context of museum programming. First of all, working with collectives takes a lot of time, goes against the grain of how museums are used to working, and can be quite radical. Collectives necessarily have quite specific processes (after all, they had to figure out how to work and get along with each other) that can be challenging–and ultimately rewarding–for any institution willing to put in the time and effort. MOCA should also be congratulated for the consistency of its program – three to four artists per year, three month residencies, three events per artist. This platform has created a set of clear parameters for artists to work within and dependability for audiences. It has functioned to effectively raise the profile of these artists via its specific circumstances, its formal presentations of their work, its branding and marketing. The Engagement Party became a stage on which to launch a collective’s work to new publics and new heights.
Ojo's Engagement Party at MOCA. 2009.
Yet I am cautious in my lauding of Engagement Party, because I am not sure that it is actually a platform for social practice at large, and this is one reason that I was a bit confused by the Engagement Party Art Talks. Engagement Party’s structure is excellent for a specific type of events-based, performative collective, but problematic as a flexible and supportive curatorial program for socially engaged art. I never thought it was proposing to be such a program, but this is implied in the talks and the book. I am a little wary of every kind of “engaging” or performative work being shoe-horned into social practice. There is no hierarchy or judgment in this–just distinction. I have been reading Pablo Helguera‘s clear and precise primer Education for Socially-Engaged Art and love this quote where Helguera gives his take on Jürgen Habermas’s A Theory of Communicative Action:
Habermas argues that social action (an act constructed by the relations between individuals) is more than a mere manipulation of circumstances by an individual to obtain a desired goal (that is, more than just the use of strategic and instrumental reason). He instead favors what he describes as communicative action, a type of social action geared to communication and understanding between individuals that can have a lasting effect on the spheres of politics and culture as a true emancipatory force. (7)
There is a difference between politically or socially motivated works that address these issues on a symbolic level, and those that control, direct, manipulate, or influence social situations by strategically orchestrating the relations and communicative actions therein in order to achieve some set purpose. The structure of Engagement Party makes this kind of social action difficult–it is a Herculean task for artists (and supportive administrators, in the Engagement Party Think Tank) to actively buck the audience’s party-at-a-museum expectations and resultant social codes. The product of the Party becomes the symbolic realization of a set of social and aesthetic circumstances, but can rarely go beyond to what Helguera calls “actual” practice: as he succinctly writes, “socially-engaged art depends on actual–not imagined or hypothetical–social action.” (8) Liz Glynn most appropriately played with this paradox of feeling uneasy and implicated in the structure of the museum yet still participating, though her events were very effective symbolic practices and did not attempt (purposefully) social action; The Los Angeles Urban Rangers broke out of the museum altogether, shifted everything possible about the context and relations available within the parameters of the project, perhaps coming closest to Helguera’s definition.
The Los Angeles Urban Rangers. 2011.
Ryan Heffington and the East-siders' Engagement Party, Get Your Lead Out. 2010.
Still, this critique does not mean that Engagement Party was not innovative and important to this city and to the field. I would love to see more such platforms. But this acknowledgment must be balanced with the understanding that work that more closely approaches social practice rather than performative or participatory art, cannot be effectively sustained within such a format. No one pretends that social practice is easy, and as a field, museum professionals do risk resting (as it were) a bit on their laurels. How is it possible to sustain social action as well as symbolic practice, as a Habermasian “emancipatory force” with reverberations beyond our own insular worlds? Probably in something beyond three parties…but man, were they a blast.
I recently attended the American Association of Museums (AAM) conference in Minneapolis, an enormous interdisciplinary gathering of over four thousand museum professionals from institutions of all kinds – performing arts, visual arts, science, natural history, air & space, you name it. The theme of the conference was “Creative Community,” and for my fine arts colleagues, this thrust resonated with a February 2011 NEA study authored by Jennifer Novak-Leonard and arts evaluation guru Alan Wolfe, about an increasing diversity of arts participation in America—despite the rapidly diminishing role of the art institution.
Whereas the 2008 NEA survey on the arts in America showed a significant decline in attendance at all arts institutions (34.6% of all Americans, down from 39.5% in 2002), as well as an audience that has become disproportionately white in contrast to increasing demographic diversity, the 2011 study offers a glimmer of hope. Rather than focusing only on benchmark attendance at arts institutions, the authors evaluated engagement using a broader “multi-modal” approach—taking into account arts creation, electronic media use, and participation in community venues like schools and religious institutions. Surprising in the face of declining attendance, they found that no less than 74% of Americans engaged in one of these artistic modes—the bulk participating not in museums or performing arts venues, but in their neighborhoods and homes.
All through the non-profit arts sector, this notion is rumbling the foundation of culture and widening the cracks in the walls of the ivory tower. It is not that Americans are not engaging in artistic activity – much to the contrary. They are simply choosing to participate in ways that do not include museums. From the theme of AAM to the shifts in funding priorities recently announced by several philanthropic organizations including the James Irvine Foundation, community engagement and pushing beyond the four walls of the museum are becoming urgent strategies for the continued survival of art institutions. Irvine’s new set of priorities is called “Exploring Engagement,” and apropos to the arts participation study, focuses on broadening audience demographics through an increased focus on non-traditional venues for art embedded in communities. This is not to say that these trends are a result of this data alone; rather the rise of social engagement in artistic practice, the urgency of budget crises, and the void of institutionalized arts education are all combining to make broad social engagement by museums a necessity rather than an afterthought.
The winds are shifting, and museums of all kinds are reacting—sometimes fundamentally shifting their missions and structures in response, calling into question what comprises the boundaries of the institution. At AAM I encountered many models, too numerous and multivalent to go into much detail here, but perhaps could be categorized as such: Radical Openess, Museum as Service, and Decentralized Museum. These formats are inevitably infused with socially-engaged artistic practice, a flexible and hybrid process of working that is naturally aligned with such participatory formats.
Open Field at the Walker
“Radical Openess” can be described as efforts to bring community-generated content into the space of the museum, opening the space for curation and artistic production by a broad swath of publics. The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis is programming the massive four-acre field outside of its building with museum-curated events (Machine Project did several projects there) but also with music, performance, and workshops programmed by a swath of public participants. The Queens Museum of Art likewise brings community events and programs into its space, and the Dallas Museum of Art dedicates an unprecedented 12,000 square feet of space smack dab in the middle of its galleries to participatory work and community exhibition space.
Immigrant Respect pin from Immigrant Movement International
The “Museum as Service” model is so named because it describes programs that expand the museum’s educational mission to encompass life skills and services beyond art. The Queens Museum of Art again has some of the most innovative programs addressing its unique and diverse immigrant constituencies, including the New New Yorkers program, which provides language, art, and technology classes to recent immigrants. Another fascinating ongoing project was artist-generated—Tania Brughera’s “Immigrant Movement” which now comprises a community-run revolutionary political advocacy group for immigrants including over 40 neighborhood organizations.
Trade City's PopWagon
One of the most interesting models that deeply calls into question the future of the institution I am naming the “Decentralized Museum.” These strategies stem from concerns about declining institutional attendance and seek to leverage still-thriving local arts participation by embedding the institution within communities on an intimate smaller scale. One tactic is mobility – Maria Mortati has a mobile pop-up exhibition space in San Francisco that completely packs up into a single car, and the Los Angeles Trade City theater group just debuted its mobile community stage called PopWagon. Another tactic is the satellite space, which science museums seem to be utilizing more and more – the Buffalo Science Center has created temporary “Science Spots” that appear in storefronts across the city and offer educational science programming, whereas the Los Angeles California Science Center is experimenting with institution-sponsored neighborhood “science clubs” in partnership with existing community organizations (focusing on regions that are distant and may find visiting the center an improbability).
A satellite "Science Spot" of the Buffalo Science Center
What does this mean for the future of the institution? A huge challenge of this work is capacity – museums are organized to sustain an exhibition program, and working in a tactical, mobile, or radically open way necessitates a reskilling. Queens Museum has a community organizer on staff to form stable relationships as a foundation for the programming, and other museums are assembling ad hoc teams cobbling together working processes and knowledge from many departments and staff levels. There remains a dearth of appropriate evaluation tools to measure impact beyond basic attendance, which becomes meaningless in the face of an expanded model. How does one assess the feelings about a museum, the reach of a program, from participants who may never walk through the doors? And how does this shift the perception of the museum’s success from the point of view of donors, funders, and board members? Finally, what does this mean for artists? Perhaps a broadening of opportunity, and a need for developed organizational and participatory strategies – not to mention a coalescing of best working practices and a steadfast position that socially-engaged art will not solve the audience problem for museums, but perhaps help us shift our thinking about the future of museums in more layered complexity.
WHP Founder Edgar Arceneaux in front of Rosa Gutierrez's house
As an advocate for social practice and a former staff and board member of the Watts House Project, I feel a responsibility to respond to the recent LA Times article lambasting the Watts House Project and the character of its founder, Edgar Arceneaux. I am no longer with the project, though I left for purely personal reasons (mainly, the birth of my daughter and the time commitment of motherhood) rather than in protest (as the article implies). Though the project has indeed been rocky over the past few years, and there are indeed residents and former board members who are critical in very valid ways, the article paints a one-sided and partial picture of a complex situation. I don’t see Watts House Project as a looming, money-rich organization that has been surreptitiously hood-winking poor people, or as the product of a free-wheeling, unreliable charismatic leader who promises more than he can deliver with an overblown sense of his own importance. Though Ms. Finkel never explicitly says this in her article, she implies as much through its structure and selected quotes. Rather, Watts House Project is a small, capacity-poor nonprofit with a wildly ambitious mission that is attempting to produce a new model for grassroots urban redevelopment. It has run into a host of permitting, financial, and interpersonal roadblocks in a very complex environment, and has had to adjust itself many, many times to maintain a responsibility to its mission and values. Are there things that it could have done better from the very beginning? Of course. Are Edgar, the board, the residents, and the artists struggling to find a model that will work well without disastrous unintended consequences (like displacement)? Yes. Is it taking longer than anyone anticipated? Yes, certainly. And does this frustrate residents who have been working with the project since the beginning? Clearly it does.
But these issues require a loving critique, one that responsibly investigates the root causes (many environmental and institutional) and the broader context of challenges facing the project, rather than a reductive expose that blames everything on the founder. This is unfair, and lifts the responsibility to work towards success from the many people who have participated in the project in the best way they know how (including the disgruntled residents, who have been collaborators from the beginning). It plays into the very real systemic inequities and toxic territorialism that makes it so difficult for such projects to succeed in Watts. In a brief effort to unveil some of this complexity, I’d like to address a few of the points in Ms. Finkel’s article that I feel warrant further investigation.
“ONLY THREE RESIDENTS”
Ms. Finkel cites that “only three homeowners” signed up for the ambitious home renovations that would be the product of artist-architect-resident collaborations. This is misleading, as there are only 20 homes on the block, and many are rentals with absentee landlords. Watts House Project made the carefully considered decision to pilot three initial projects with only families that owned their homes, and complete only minor façade improvements on other homes. The organization was very cognizant that significant improvements to rental properties could disproportionately increase the value of the properties and displace the residents of those homes. There are several other families on the block intimately involved with the project in other ways.
HAMMER “GRANT” AND MADRIGAL PROPERTY
Initially, before the project was a non-profit, WHP focused solely on façade improvement, and its scope was only broadened to more significant home renovation after its first year. So the accusation that WHP squandered money on just a paint job and a few improvements on the Madrigal property in 2008 is highly misleading. The Hammer Museum actually asked Edgar to be part of its Artist Residency program (not simply granting the money, as Ms. Finkel’s article states) based precisely on his proposal of façade improvement for the Madrigal property, and this was what happened during the residency period. It was only later, in a completely different phase of the process and unconnected to the Hammer, that larger home renovations were discussed. It is regrettable that Noemi Madrigal had a bad experience with the shed-building process, but the shed was requested by her father Felix Madrigal (who was not interviewed for this article), the owner of the house at that time. WHP prides itself on being responsive, with homeowners as collaborators, and as the shed was identified by Felix (a handyman by trade) as the most important improvement at the time, that is the project that the organization worked on together with the family. It took six months for various reasons –it was mostly volunteer-built (which takes longer than simply hiring an expensive contractor), and included a period of time when Felix was away in Mexico for personal reasons, which halted construction.
ROSA AND THE FLOWER HOUSE
This comment in the article particularly galls me:
As for [Rocco] Landesman, [NEA Chief] reached by phone inWashington, D.C., he said he based his positive impressions on a slide show by Arceneaux as well as a tour of the block, “and it all looked good.” He also talked to one enthusiastic 107th Street resident, Rosa Gutierrez, whose home received a bright flower mural as part of the program.
He said he was not told she was on staff at Watts House Project. And he didn’t have the chance to talk to residents of the three main homes promoted as renovation projects.”
This quote implies that WHP is trying to purposefully pull one over on Landesman, and is misusing monies so as to bestow benefits upon its own staff members. The article fails to mention that Rosa received the mural in 2008 through volunteer labor and at extremely low cost (most of the paint was donated), at the same time as the improvements to the Madrigal façade. She was not hired as a part-time staff member until over a year later, and her name is clearly on the website as being part of the staff and has been since her hiring. Another sensitive issue WHP has run into is the problematic of parading of residents in front of every potential art world funder, so it has limited its “tours” to staff members and residents who have agreed to this kind of meeting. I would be more concerned if Landesman had been introduced to every single homeowner in the midst of their busy days, as if they had nothing better to do than chat with the NEA chief.
GARCIA HOUSE and LOVE HOUSE
These projects have certainly been fraught with delays, and the homeowners have experienced great frustration. Some of that has certainly been WHP’s fault, mostly promising larger plans and in a shorter time than what proved to be possible, and perhaps not having the right expertise on board from the very beginning that could navigate LA permitting and tax law, not to mention Watts politics. But there is more to the story than what was reported in the narratives describing these projects. Just something that was not mentioned:
The Garcia plans were running along fairly smoothly until it became clear that the family had an illegal structure in the back of their property where one of the family members was living. The architects proposed some solutions to allow them to continue with the other plans they had formed (permitting law is such that in order to pull certain permits, illegal structures that are not-up-to-code would have to be rectified at prohibitive cost or torn down altogether – hence the “dining pavilion” idea) but the family was not interested in pulling down that illegal structure. So the plans had to be scaled down to what was possible within LA permitting law. As well, artists Mario Ybarra, Jr. and Karla Diaz had initially planned to do an artistic fence treatment, but were thwarted when Augusto Aguirre via the Watts Towers Art Center created an admittedly lovely mosaic mural literally over one weekend (and without anyone in the family notifying the WHP or the artists). Of course the work of Ybarra and Diaz ended up being delayed – they had to start from scratch in their plans.
But really the most vitriol comes from the issue of the residential contracts. I know that discussing contractual issues in depressed areas of our city is a tinderbox topic, because so many people have been taken advantage of. So many. And perhaps because so much of the board was not from this place, they did not anticipate that moving forward in the way they did would spark such negative reactions. For the record, the board was closely split on this issue, whether or not to even present contracts with these terms to the pilot residents at all. This was a real soul-searching moment for everyone who was part of the project. In the end, the decision was made to present the contract with the model terms, and if the residents were uncomfortable, to take those terms out (this is precisely what happened with Moneik Johnson). WHP naively didn’t anticipate that this strategy would generate such negativity. Hind sight is 20/20.
However, I will staunchly defend the terms of the contract, as they go way beyond a simple compliance to tax law. The discussion about these contracts was nuanced and thoughtful (even if the way they were presented to the residents was not). Rather, the reason for these contracts was to guard against the displacement that inevitably accompanies gentrification, and to ensure that money invested into the project would be cycled back into the community itself for a continued cycle of improvement. WHP is not a pay-day lender – just a non-profit requesting a small percentage of the value invested into family homes (50% of PROFIT upon sale, only up to $50k) in order to keep that money in the community and be able to reinvest it in more homes. It requires residents who agree to these improvements to place a stake of this whole project back into their own community, to invest in their neighbors’ future, to be part of a sustainable model. I think it is a key part of the whole vision for replicative capacity of WHP, and the board paused construction for an entire year to work on it, back and forth with lawyers, back and forth amongst ourselves. It was a responsible and important discussion, and there were no precedents, so it took a long time legally to research and implement. After that beleaguered, difficult process, WHP lost sight of how it would be perceived by the pilot residents, and that was a big, big mistake. But it was not a malicious one.
However, and this bears noting, this contract issue has also since been used to drive major wedge between neighbors by the very “community leaders” that Rick Lowe advocates for in the article – perhaps because Watts House Project did not initially pay the “proper respect” required and expected. But just because people are community leaders, does not means that their motives are always pure and their agendas beyond reproach (some are, some aren’t, we all know this). This is not to say that all critique of the project stems from manipulation – some criticisms, like those of frustrated homeowners, are completely valid. But to be escalated to such rampant hostility bespeaks other factors and other agendas at play. Watts is not a void. There are forces in Watts that have harbored personal vendettas against Edgar since day one – he never had a chance with some people, not least because of his color, his personality, his class, his home in Pasadena. He didn’t see this as a reason not to try to start WHP, and he has paid the price for that audacity.
THE FUTURE FOR WHP
As I hope I’ve demonstrated in these explanations, there is a selective collapsing of time and events in Ms. Finkel’s Times article that does little justice to the complexity of the context WHP entered into, its evolution in response to ever-increasing knowledge of that context, nor its very real successes and very specific failings. Which makes me wonder, why was this article written? I am grateful that the Times is paying attention to Watts, and that the article has opened the door for the kind of discussion I am now participating in. There are important larger systemic issues at stake in this investigation and I am thankful to have this forum to discuss them. But there is an air of malevolence about this article, searching for patterns of misappropriation of funds and resources, or just general destructive incompetence, which doesn’t quite add up. Citing the LACMA funding report, for example – the funds spent were pretty low indeed for two artist honoraria and for architects like Escher Gunewardena to create architectural plans for the property (the architects themselves did it pro bono, in fact, or it would have been 10 times as expensive – they only paid their staff for the hours needed to create models and blueprints to present to the Garcias). This is expensive work, and a lot of people worked incredibly hard for very little money to try to make it happen.
If competency is the issue, is the article trying to make the point that WHP should go away? It’s not going away, though I just learned that Edgar has resigned as Executive Director. Perhaps the rhetoric has gotten so toxic that he could simply not function effectively anymore. Did the article reveal this situation, or merely fan the flames? And in a recent LA Times blog post from April 7th, is it now being leveraged as an indictment against all social practice?
I have been a critic of WHP from the start, and also have spent years of my life working on it. I have had countless conversations with many, many people critiquing the project and its failings and how to make it better. So to say that WHP is not engaged in rigorous critique is an utter falsehood – a much more rigorous self-reflexivity than I ever see in the non-social-practice art world. I wish I knew exactly where this indictment was stemming from, but I can only hope that it is simply a product of trying to wrestle with a complex new model that is struggling in a contentious context, and reduce that very real conflict into a series of sound bites.
What can WHP do better? I am sorry that Edgar had to step down in the midst of ignominious circumstances, but perhaps it is for the best. Will Sheffie is an amazing person and will hopefully be able to shepherd the program into more stable era beyond the necessary chaos of its founding. WHP can separate its pilot residents from its larger replicative model, figure out amicable terms to move ahead (if that is still desired) on all sides, and move ahead on a specific timeline and pace. WHP can strive for greater transparency in its marketing and discussions with funders, and work with neutral evaluators and scholars on a regular basis to commission progress reports. All of these ideas have been discussed by WHP, and I have no doubt they are moving forward as best they can, as they have always done. After all, they aren’t going anywhere.
In the most recent issue of the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest, I consider the role of the university in the cloistering of the aesthetic avant-garde from political and social action…playing off of the work of the marvelous Gavin Grindon and delving into the recent work of Rikrit Tiravanija and the Serpentine’s Edgware Road project as interesting counter-examples.
In a time of practically no public support for the arts and the rapid privatization of our institutions- public universities, museums, small arts non-profits, and art departments- are fighting a relevance war and losing. For the first time ever, the University of California public university system is getting more revenue from tuition than from the state, subjecting a generation of youth to ever more crippling debt. Except for the very rich, their options are limited, and as a result many visual arts departments fear slashings as debt-ridden students stream to what are perceived as more relevant and lucrative professional programs. Some of this fear is due to the fact that our cultural institutions of art are haunted by the narrative of failure of the revolutionary ambitions of the avant-garde, which seemingly renders them irrelevant as sites for social and political change. This is because we commonly translate this failure as leading to the impasse facing critical didactic art, and the estranged relationship between aesthetics and politics. I perceive that the public feels that art has become cerebral but not visceral, intellectual but not actionable, stuck in a closed system of commodification, and thus indefensible and irrelevant in its disconnection from social and political reality. This disconnect has only widened after the supposed failure of the avant-garde project , and I maintain that this perception infects institutions more drastically than ever in the face of such high stakes – the very survival of our institutions of art depends on systemic shifts of perspective on their own relevance.
Read the rest here.
Nato Thompson, chief curator of Creative Time and genuinely innovative thinker, gave a talk Wednesday night (March 20th) at the Hammer Museum to a crowd of artists, students, and art world friends. Like other talks of Nato’s I’ve heard in the past, it was highly performative, peppered with humor, and distinctly lacking in jargon or coded touchstones of an art historical theoretical canon (except, perhaps, as the butt of jokes). Wearing a hoodie in solidarity to honor the memory of shooting victim Trayvon Martin in central Florida last week, Nato set the current political stage for a discussion of activism and art (“a false duality” as he called it) and proceeded to systematically break down the artificial divisions that the so-called “art world” places between itself and everything else – especially broader cultural production (in advertising) that drives consumerism and impacts our very subjectivities, affecting how we make meaning in the world. What was so refreshing about this talk was that Nato was calling us out, collectively, for pretending that art is separate from this broader cultural context. By way of example, by refusing to take into account the effect that advertising guru Leo Burnett (inventor of the Pillsbury doughboy, the Jolly Green Giant, and others) has had on contemporary artists makes us (the art world) seem insane. Burnett said of advertising: “We absorb it through our pores without knowing it. Through osmosis.” Of course we do, and of course that changes how we think. How powerful, and how insidious.
Starting with the industrial revolution, Nato painted a broad-reaching picture of the ability of capital to consume people and radically change our very understanding of ourselves, tracing generations bombarded by the mechanisms of cultural production and the increasingly rapid co-optation of identity by forces of power. He made a very apt observation about the odd phenomenon of the hipster – the paranoid product of generations accustomed to forming identity through the consumption of music, fashion, and image that then sees that identity co-opted and sold back to them in an ever-diminishing time frame. Hipsters are “the shadow” of all of us, afraid to “hitch our wagons” to anything at all. Hipsters are everywhere, yet no one will admit to being one. And though Nato used such heavyweights as Adorno & Horkheimer, Guy DeBord, Walter Benjamin, and of course, Marx to underscore his argument, he did so in such a fluid, cogent, and narrative way that their dense theories became accessible and powerful as a result. This cultural history portion was very resonant, but once he began to draw a line between the production of space, meaning as created by bodies in space, and the rising tide of social aesthetics (basically, art’s reaction to this cultural context by seeking new access to meaning via relationships of bodies to space) the connections didn’t feel quite so strong. Perhaps this was because he cut himself a bit short towards the end, but the points raised did make sense in the larger context he had set up. My review of his presentation is short and inadequate, but the full video podcast version will soon be available on the Hammer’s website. This talk also anticipates his new book, Seeing Power: Art and Activism in the Age of Cultural Production which is due out in May.
I always admire Nato in how his form and style of presentation follows his content. Nato does this very deliberately, and is sometimes criticized as an “anti-intellectual,” which I think is crazy – he posted a great little essay about this recently on his blog. He fights the good fight against the false sequestering of art, and does so in a way that enhances accessibility rather than obfuscates it in a haze of self-referential jargon. Breaking down these dichotomies moves both ways – forcing the art world to engage with everything else does not necessarily make the world engage with art, but it certainly allows us to better grapple with our eyes wide open.
As I was reflecting on this talk and its implications for my own little world, I recently received this in my inbox:
Here is an interesting petition for a good cause: a notoriously criminal art gallery is working with the Democratic party under the banner of the 99%. Please share! Maybe we can hold these groups accountable:
Here is a blog about it with some interesting discussion:
(Thanks to Jennifer Gradecki for sending this along).
This petition against ACE Museum in conjunction with the Democratic Party co-opting the language of Occupy and the 99% is a case in point of the insipid nature of the political/cultural/advertising complex. But we cultural producers and consumers are a bit more saavy now – we can peer through the visual and emotional onslaught, and we’re getting better at it all the time.
In preparation for a recent class on art and activism I taught as part of CCA’s Social Practice Workshop, I had some time to reflect on the series of Occupy interviews with artists that I posted to this blog over three months at the end of 2011 and beginning of 2012. Using Gregory Sholette‘s recent work Dark Matter and Dave Graeber’s Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology as touchstones work, I have begun to slowly peel back some of the complex layers of the many issues relating to the intersections of art and activism touched upon in the interviews. As the Occupy movement and the AAAAAA list are somewhat more dormant these days, though just beneath the surface, it feels a good time to reflect so as to gear up for future action.
The Occupy movement was born soon after my daughter, and when people began setting up camp in front of City Hall in Los Angeles, I was recovering from major surgery, sleepless, with a newborn. Yet something about this phenomenon happening in cities across the nation seemed beyond protest for me, it was an active practice of direct democracy on a scale not seen in my lifetime, a brave seizing of public land, a leaderless people’s movement with real momentum, and I couldn’t tear myself away. Unable to directly participate in General Assemblies or the physical occupation itself, I learned of several artist friends of mine (through Facebook and an email listserv encompassing a much larger group of cultural workers under the loose affiliation AAAAAA) who were organizing actions down at Occupy and directly participating to various degrees.
The inception of the Occupy LAAAAA interviews on this blog was due directly to my hunger to vicariously experience the sweep of Occupy, and to support the movement in the best way I could, which was to document and archive what was happening through the eyes of artists and thinkers I know. I asked some people I knew to participate in order to get the ball rolling, then invited anyone who might be interested via the listserv and met others that way. I took every suggestion I got, reached out to everyone I could, and thus chronicled the articulate musings of 10 artists over three months: John Barlog and John Burtle, Emily Lacy, Nancy Popp, Matias Viegener, Elana Mann, Janet Owen Driggs, Anna Mayer, Robby Herbst, and Adam Overton.
I asked artists first about their experiences with Occupy itself, particularly participating in the direct democracy and horizontalism of the General Assemblies. I was interested in getting the perspective of people on the ground, rather than the media-filtered commentary that was often bewildered by the dispersed, leaderless polyphony of the movement and its lack of specific “demands.” I then asked about how respondents negotiated their own roles as artists within a larger activist context, how they interfaced with the site, performance tactics they used (as most worked in primarily performative ways), and finally, their thoughts about the affinity group AAAAAA, to which they all were connected.
Though there is much to consider within the complexity and depth of their responses, I would like to highlight two concentric layers through which I have begun to access this broader discussion and formulate an understanding of Occupy and the artists working within.
The first connection, though I have rarely heard it described in this way, applies the work of Occupy to the anarchist project focusing on self-organization, voluntary association, and mutual aid. One artist paraphrased theorist Dave Graeber in response to my question about the lack of specific demands coming out of Occupy at first: “by not issuing demands you’re not recognizing the authority [of current social institutions].” It is fitting then, that Graeber talks about anarchism not as ideology but as attitude in his Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology:
We are talking less about a body of theory, then, than about an attitude, or perhaps one might even say a faith: the rejection of certain types of social relations, the confidence that certain others would be much better ones on which to build a livable society, the belief that such a society could exist. (4)
This focus on interrelationships, engaging a vast and polyphonic landscape of different people and ideas and allegiances in a messy, often protracted consensus-based democratic process – that is the site through which Occupy gains its resistant power. “Answers are not the answer,” claims Adam Overton as Guru Rugu. Rather, demonstration is the answer. As Graeber describes anarchism as a creative rather than destructive force:
It is also a project, which sets out to begin creating the institutions of a new society “within the shell of the old” to expose, subvert, and undermine structures of domination but always, while doing so, proceeding in a democratic fashion, a manner which itself demonstrated those structures are unnecessary. (7)
With the destruction of the encampments, so too this “site of condensed difference,” as Matias Viegener calls it, was dispersed and diluted. It remains up to us to imagine Occupy’s potential beyond the encampments, and Graeber and anarchism can help us dream up the ultimate expression of these self-organizational forms, to connect the multiple “networks overlapping and intersecting in any way we could imagine, and possibly many that we can’t.” (41)
Secondly, the inner concentric ring of the Occupy-supportive artist affinity group AAAAAA (called “a loose affiliation rather than a coherent whole” by one of the artists and not part of the official Occupy structure by design), bounces up against its own framing inside and outside of both the art and activism worlds. AAAAAA cannot function as a demonstration of new processes in the way the encampments could, because the opposing forces within the group have not realized such a structure – for many valid reasons relating to the cultural precarity and economic balancing act its members are mostly engaged in. AAAAAA is split between a determined looseness tied to the ability to retain creative agency but also the need for a collaborative support structure with the potential to become a dynamic laboratory for ideas. At times, AAAAAA struggles with its autonomy from the larger Occupy LA, recognizing that its loose status cuts off access to the way art can engage with politics and activists can engage with structures of art. John Burtle and John Barlog describe this inner war of artist ego and political project:
We were trying to have the meetings operate on the same type of consensus model that Occupy does, but artists are too individualistic/egoistic to have that work successfully. You know, there are people who are very verbal, have a vision and want that. Artists tend to be bad at trying to manipulate things discretely, and it was pretty obvious that some people had expectations that the group would become some sort of modern day situationist internationale, so they were pushing for something more coherent or formalized that they could attach their names to. And other people, myself included, were not interested in that at all. The AAAAAA group works better as a loose affiliation, rather than a coherent whole.
So rather than a forum for “creating the institutions of a new society ‘within the shell of the old’” as Graeber describes (7), AAAAAA functions more as a way to draw a thread between what Greg Sholette calls the “growing illumination of creative dark matter.” To Sholette, creative dark matter is a metaphor for the strengthening collective force of “artists who self-consciously choose to work on the outer margins of the mainstream art world for reasons of social, economic, and political critique.” (4) Many of the artists I interviewed in this series would fall into this category, in spite of the great success and reputation many have within art institutions as well, because most have practices (by choice) that are indelibly separated from the mainstream market-driven center of the art world.
Sholette describes the activist work of many such artists not as the revolutionary avant-garde, but rather as reflecting Michel de Certeau’s notion of the “everyday dissident,” the tactical trickster who uses mimicry and flexible tactics as a dispersed form of resistance. Sholette writes, “As opposed to the committed radical of early decades who rejected capitalism tout court, de Certeau’s rebel consumer uses the power of the market against itself.” (34) Sholette cautions us, however, that such activities are not necessarily “intrinsically progressive” or imbued with any kind of moral imperative. How can we then realize the potential of these artist/dissidents, Sholette wonders, and draw connections between “occasional eruptions?” (44) Perhaps this is more useful way to consider the AAAAAA project, and to realize its potential for progressive political activity – as bridge, thread, connector that may someday coalesce small actions to effect great change.
Last week, the fantastic Justin Langlois of Broken City Lab asked me to answer this question for an interview series they are doing:
Is social practice, as a term or label, more valuable in extending the reach and possibility of visual artists, or more valuable as an articulation of an entirely different space and mode of production?
Interesting question, and I had a great time answering it. You can read my submission here.
The parting thought of my answer is that there is danger in the label social practice, the danger of false expectation – that everything will be fun, easy, feel-good, and bring people together. When in fact, social practice can often be challenging, disturbing, and deal with some really unpleasant subject matter, all to attempt to bring light to some injustice or rework societal systems from some different angle.
Installation of the map outside of LAPD headquarters. Suzanne Lacy, Three Weeks in January, 2012.
As a case in point, soon after I wrote this answer I went to Suzanne Lacy‘s Three Weeks in January candlelight vigil and performance. This reiteration of her 1977 project Three Weeks in May visually catalogued the past three weeks’ incidents of reported rape in Los Angeles through an enormous map installation on the exterior of the LAPD headquarters downtown, accompanied by months of conversations with activists, educational seminars, performances, a sound installation, and various other elements that comprise a signature Lacy project. The culminating performance asked audience members to share their stories, reflect on the crisis of rape in individual lives and in the city as a whole, and finally to commit to a goal to end rape and sexual violence in the next 40 years. Most powerfully, generations of rape activists took the stage at the end after sharing some truly heart-wrenching stories that were difficult to hear, and more than once brought tears to my eyes.
Activists at the final ceremony for Three Weeks in January, January 27.
As squirm-worthy as it seems on the surface, truly examining this subject is a rarity in any forum, especially if one does not have to. It is easy to simply push out of one’s mind. But such is the importance of projects like Lacy’s and their power. As if to reinforce these thoughts in my head, one supporter of the project thanked me for being there. “This means a lot that you are here,” she said. “There are a lot of more fun events you could have gone to tonight.” She was right, but I wouldn’t have traded in my meaningful experience for anything easier or more feel-good.