'Food is Art, Art is Food' Village market, outside of Chaing Mai, Thailand, 2008. | Photo: Courtesy Andy Lipkis.
For the next in this series of interviews of organizers and participants in the SOCiAL: Art + People initiative, I had the privilege of corresponding with many practitioners engaged deeply in the relationship of art, nature, and social justice. The format of the event in La Tierra de la Culebra Park on Thursday October 24th, entitled Can Artists Heal Nature in LA? includes 10 people each speaking briefly for 5 minutes, accompanied by a potluck and generous open discussion. In keeping with this format, I asked the participants to respond to questions in a single sentence (and if possible, a 140 character tweet-size answer). Some participants adhered to this more than others, but all collated succinct and thoughtful responses that give some insight into their work and concerns. Janet Owen Driggs was an instigator and facilitator of this event’s organization, and begins by explaining its underlying impetus and process of organization.
Janet Owen Driggs: The subject is such an enormous one, and one that I am wrestling with a lot at the moment. Not literally, I mean I am under no illusions that ‘art’ can ‘heal’ ‘nature’. But because I believe the question, because it is crass, enables us to access some very important, elusive, other questions. It begins to pry open:
1) Access the ways in which we conceptualize, and (attempt to) experience, the environment as a thing apart from ourselves.
2) Consider ways of constituting “non-humans” as subjects.
3) Think about our practices as beginning to not only imagine and represent difference or change, but to perform it.
It might be useful to know the process by which this was organized. Anne Bray contacted me in June (or thereabouts) to see if I was interested in organizing something about the art/nature intersection for her conversation series, SOCiAL: Art + People. We talked it through a bit and, aware of my own limitations, I reached out to a small group of people whose participation I felt was crucial to avoid a stale, repetitive conversation on the topic.
As a group we identified a number of geographically, culturally, racially, and economically diverse initiatives that are operating at that art/nature intersection. Hoping to bring people together from a variety of these initiatives, we wanted a lot of voices in the conversation. We consequently decided on the 10-person/5-minute structure and started compiling a long list of potential presenters.
Janet Owen Driggs, Olivia Chumacero, and Anne Hars organized the event, with participants and co-organizers including Hadley Arnold, Tricia Ward, Allison Danielle Behrstock, Andy Lipkis, Mark Lakeman, Ron Finley, Eric Knutzen, Jane Tsong, Jenny Price, and Sarah Dougherty. Read the rest of the interview here.
poster in documenta offices | Photo Courtesy Tamarind Rossetti
This post is the fifth in my series of interviews of social practice practitioners, curators, organizers, and writers as part of SOCiAL: Art + People, and I was delighted to have the chance to learn more about the groundbreaking exhibition dOCUMENTA (13).
This Wednesday, October 24th at 7pm at the 18th Street Arts Center in Santa Monica, a panel of curators, artists and students invited by the Otis Public Practice program will discuss the multivalent, ground-breaking exhibition dOCUMENTA(13) (which took place this year from June 9 to September 16). Documenta is a large-scale exhibition of contemporary art that takes place every 5 years in Kassel, Germany, and is open for 100 days. This year’s edition was helmed by curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev (recently named the most influential figure in contemporary art by ArtReview), who envisioned an event centered around both the frictave and romantic potentials of globalization in the dual worlds of the West and the Middle East (and the fluid digital terrain that melds and complicates their relationships). Otis Public Practice student Tamarind Rossetti instigated this event after returning from a field internship working with documenta artist Mariam Ghani. Her desire to unpack, interrogate, and reflect on the exhibition with a group of Los Angeles based artists and curators (including curator John Tain and artist Leslie Labowitz-Starus, in addition to Ciara Ennis, director/curator of the Pitzer Art Galleries and Pilar Tompkins-Rivas, director of residency programs at 18th Street Art Center) speaks to dOCUMENTA(13)’s resonance in the field, and in the development of young artists in a rapidly changing world.
Sue Bell Yank: What was the impetus behind holding this event?
Tamarind Rossetti: The Otis Public Practice Program places students around the world in field internships during an artist’s installation of a project so that we experience how the field actually operates. I went to documenta to work with Mariam Ghani on her pieces A Brief History of Collapses, 2011-2012, a video installation, and Afghan Film Archive, an online database of the Afghan films that had been hidden from 1995-2002. The breadth and intensity of the works I saw at documenta were so meaningful in thinking about how to develop my own work that I wanted to discuss these with friends and colleagues who are interested in: public practice, archives, political art, and site-generated works. We asked Pilar Tompkins-Rivas from 18th Street Arts Center to moderate a panel we convened of artists and curators, including me, who would present their experiences of the exhibition in order to consider, what can we learn from dOCUMENTA(13) and what does it suggest about current developments in social practice?
Sue Bell Yank: And what do you think is the relevance of this documenta to the state of socially-engaged art practice?
Tamarind Rossetti: Mariam Ghani’s artwork had a specific impact on how I understood and experienced documenta, because her pieces dealt with recurrences of collapse, recovery, and mirroring of histories. One piece showed a dual video projection traveling through the Dar ul-Aman Palace in Kabul and the Fridericianum in Kassel as a voice described the multiple lives each building has lived. This piece worked with building, occupation, destruction, re-habitation, while the viewer sat in the building being described, visually and historically. There was a feeling of being in two places at once, in many times at once, of the changeability of history, and the persistence of destruction and rebuilding/repurposing, redefining.
John Tain: This edition of documenta was very much engaged with various forms of artistic work identified with social practice, and the curators seem to have adopted many of the strategies to be found in such work in their own thinking. Carolyn Christov-Barkagiev’s participation in this year’s Creative Time Summit would seem to confirm this.
Leslie Labowitz-Starus: The overall experience of documenta this year was one of expanse across locations, and thinking about the big picture, how all the elements of this complex exhibiton functioned. There were multiple locations throughout Kassel, seminars in Kabul, work in Cairo and Banff. It was impossible to see it all. I saw so many amazing things, and I’m sure I missed so much. In addition to the physical multiplicities, artists from multiple generations, backgrounds, experience, and their work came together in all these places to create a whole exploration to how art relates to society at large. There was also a meeting place in Kassel where the artists and community members from Kassel got together and brainstormed how art can respond to the changing world. Knowing the past structures of society that have not worked, and thinking about what is next. What comes after this capitalistic model that is no longer working for the society? And how can artists inform and help create that?
Documenta isn’t about one artwork. It’s about all the artworks, spread out all over the city, the world. Bringing artists from the other sites: a question of what s going on in the world.
The exhibition is saying, how do you know about these things that you don’t really know about, but only see? It’s bringing things together so the visitors can see and experience in a different way: different than the news, than the media.
Read the rest of the interview here.
Ramirez Meat Market Makeover. Image Courtesy Public Matters.
For the fourth in my series of interviews with socially-engaged contemporary artists, organizers, writers and thinkers as part of the SOCiAL: Art + People events, I sat down with artists Mike Blockstein and Reanne Estrada, co-founders and collaborators in the artist-run interdisciplinary organization called Public Matters. Public Matters is a multivalent and dynamically shifting arts organization dedicated to affecting powerful change (most recently regarding food injustice in impoverished communities) over long periods of time through youth media empowerment, collective creativity, leadership development, and physical and behavioral change. They are engaged in enormous partnerships with UCLA, USC, and various community organizations as part of a five-year NIH grant to combat cardiovascular health problems in East Los Angeles, and have effectively integrated arts and creativity into combating an enormous public health crisis in a way that very few arts organizations have. I have previously analyzed the organizational structure of Public Matters, but in this interview the artists have a chance to speak more in depth about their partnerships, their teenaged collaborators, and the role of arts in social justice.
Sue Bell Yank: We can start by talking about this particular event, coming up on October 20th at 10am in East LA, the Market Makeover Smackdown!
Reanne Estrada: SMACKDOWN! I like to say SMACKDOWN as if it were in capital letters.
One of the things we learned with our work with Market Makeovers is that the work really begins after the stores are physically transformed because then you have to bring in the process of making sure people come to the stores and buy the fresh produce, the healthier items, so the store owners will keep participating and the solution becomes a sustainable one for the community. So that’s, as you know, a big undertaking because you have to promote the stores, promote the inventory, but you also have to promote behavior change. So people who are used to a cheap processed food diet that’s very convenient, are suddenly fiending for kale, or going crazy for that winter squash. So there’s a gap that we have to overcome. That’s where the “Smackdown” came in, because this fall we’re working with students from the School of Communication, New Media and Technology (CNMT) at Roosevelt High School, so they’re working on the store transformations and the promotion of the project. We thought the “Smackdown” would be a good way to get their competitive juices flowing, and also to bring in fresh blood and new attention to the stores.
Read the rest of the interview here.
bodycity. Ballona Caterpillar. Image courtesy bodycity.
The third SOCiAL: Art + People interview posted on KCET Artbound today, about a variety of incredible hybrid practices from a community of artists connected to and springing from Occidental College.
Continuing with the third in my series of conversations with artists and organizers engaged with multivalent social and public practices as part of SOCiAL: Art + People, I was pleased to speak with participants in a panel that will take place on Thursday, October 18th at 7pm on the Occidental College campus. Organized by artist Mary Beth Heffernan with the Center for Community Based Learning and the Department of Art History and Visual Arts, the panel will include artists Tucker Neel, Stephen van Dyck, Geneva Skeen, and the collective bodycity. Though their practices are diverse, they are linked by their critical and performative interventions into the public sphere, be that bodily, sonically, or via technologies of communication. All slide through liminalities, through the political and the poetic, and are deeply influenced by the context of Los Angeles.
Sue Bell Yank: The title of this panel is “Can the Sidewalk Be a Stage?” but Mary Beth [Heffernan] said that the discussion will be primarily driven by your practices. How do you find your way into this question through your own art practices?
Mary Beth Heffernan: A little context on the first question…Anne Bray kindly came up with the title after our conversations about younger artists whose work engages the public sphere. She had a summer deadline and I didn¹t have a snappy title yet. I’m not sure I would have chosen the word “stage,” as it has theatrical connotations, but it does pose the question about a rhetorical shift in action and/or speech that I think can be helpful here. My intentions with the panel are to interpret the notion of stage widely to mean a theater of action in the spirit of Augusto Boal’s notion of theater, a prompt to dialogue, break down hierarchies, and re-narrativizing space.
Read the rest of the interview here.
As a follow-up to my interview about the October 4th Artists+Institutions: Common Ground event at the Mak Center with David Burns, Sara Daleiden, and Kimberli Meyer, I wanted to post some supplemental material that might illuminate the content of the conversations. Below are the 20 questions culled and refined from the many dozens of questions submitted anonymously by the artists, organizers, curators, and writers who attended the three summer salons leading up to the public event at the Schindler House on King’s Road. I was honored to host one of the six tables at the October 4th event, and I believe we may have only used a couple of these questions as conversation starters…but quite naturally the conversation migrated to many of the topics covered here.
To get a taste of where these discussions went, of the topics and ideas most urgent to the ecosystem of people at these events, I have also included the beautiful notes created by Christina Sanchez of phrases uttered at the summer salons, many of which were repeated and expanded upon in the public event.
1. How do artists, curators and other cultural producers maintain a sense of integrity, social responsibility, and truth to their own moral compass when working within institutions that are increasingly influenced by the forces of the art market, corporate desires and/or donor-initiated programs, particularly in the current economy?
2. What are the most auspicious models for relations (power, economic, communicative) between the autonomous agency of artists and institutional identity?
3. What infrastructure, resources, and representation is needed to adequately support socially-engaged work and other developing practices that aren’t amplifying an object-based tradition of art production?
4. How can new sources of funding be generated in light of the deep shifting in the global economy and subsequent decrease in established arts funding?
5. Is it still relevant to value curators as both an agent of institutional interests and a dynamic advocate for artists, serving as an educational bridge for scholars and audiences interested in the flow of art history?
6. When is it productive to comprehend poetic performance in all activities within institutions, understanding artists have a capacity to rethink institutional structures from a position within the structure?
7. How do we work to best demystify the institution with the option to strategically rebel so that the relationship between artists and institutions can be the most mutually beneficial and productive?
8. What is the role of art in these times of polarized politics?
9. Must populism be at odds with rigorous aesthetic conceptualism?
10. Is an umbrella term such as cultural worker appropriate to describe the overlaps of artists, curators, directors, organizers, and producers within all artistic disciplines?
11. As empathetic and politically minded cultural workers, how can our desire for complex and rich metaphors within artwork translate to a complex and rich distribution within the public?
12. How do we want the next generation of art institutions to be structured and experienced in light of past tendencies towards the academic, historic and intellectual?
13. As more cultural institutions increasingly work to include socially engaged art practices and extend their responsibilities towards broader publics, how do we safeguard such incremental advances in social justice while discerning the institutions role in picking up the slack for the failures of the state?
14. What are differences between established art institutions and an artist’s work inventing agency to mimic institutions?
15. What do the changes at MOCA mean to you?
16. How do we support our museums and their directors and curators to prompt a new civic imaginary through reflection on their own operations?
17. Artists are functioning as curators and institutions are functioning as curators. How does this affect the power dynamic for valuing and production within art and culture networks?
18. What terminology is productive to describe the frequent occurrences of institutions curating an “artist producer” to curate “artist supporters” to produce large-scale discursive projects?
19. How can artists and curators best work together to navigate institutional resistance to projects that won’t necessarily drive attendance or augment an institutional “brand”?
My second interview as part of the SOCiAL: Art + People series went live on KCET Artbound this morning, and I felt so fortunate to have witnessed this fascinating conversation between Sara Daleiden, Kimberli Meyer, and David Burns about their Artists + Institutions collaboration. The public salon will take place tomorrow night and I will be moderating one of the tables–come join us and add your voice to the conversation!
On Thursday October 4th, the Mak Center is hosting a free public salon entitledArtists+Institutions: Common Ground at the historic Schindler house. This “real-time, dynamic public performance” is the capstone event to a series of intimate summer salons with invited guests who represented various positions and roles along the continuum of artists and institutions. The entire project is a collaboration between artists David Burns and Sara Daleiden, Mak Center director Kimberli Meyer, featuring Sarah Beadle and the collective Notch as well as artist Christina Sanchez. I sat down with Burns, Daleiden, and Meyer to discuss both the summer salons and the upcoming public event, as well as what challenges and urgent concerns drove them to produce such an ambitious dialogical project. We explored the real or perceived chasm between the needs of artists and the needs of institution, wondered how to negotiate that rambunctious terrain together, and acknowledged that in coming to essential understandings, we have more power to collectively change the structure of things than we think.
Sue Bell Yank: I came to the July Salon, and I was wondering what the impetus was of this whole initiative, and how the public event caps it off.
David Burns: To explain the origins, Fallen Fruit working with LACMA was the original thought bubble, which was from a conversation I had with some of the artists who were going to be working on the November 7th 2010 Let Them Eat LACMA event, who were really just confused about how you work with an institution as an artist and how you deal with things that are really pragmatic, like legal, emotional, or whatever. And that conversation kind of faded because I was working on that project, and afterwards, it didn’t leave my brain. I approached a few people about making something happen not knowing what that would be, maybe thinking bigger, or in a different way. Something that was more formal and organized. It occurred to me that one of the best choices was to approach Kimberli [Meyer] as a partner/collaborator, and we started talking, and she said, “Hey, I think this is something Sara [Daleiden] should be involved in” and then within half of a meeting I was like “Oh my god, this is probably the right thing, let’s move forward somehow.”
Sue Bell Yank: How did you two [Kimberli Meyer and Sara Daleiden] find your way into this idea, what did it mean for you?
Kimberli Meyer: I immediately thought it was a good idea, not knowing what kind of form it would take, that actually took a little time and it wasn’t until the three of us got together that we really nailed down what the form was, but I think this idea of trying to find a space, a neutral territory in a way, to talk and bring people from various sides and positions together to have candid conversations was very appealing to me. Partly that has to do with the kinds of questions that we ask ourselves internally a lot at the Mak Center that relate to the roles of us, the Mak Center staff, the roles of artists that we work with, the roles of curators that we work with, and everything in between. I feel like more and more that people don’t just have one role, that there are multiple roles and there is a whole continuum. It seemed like a good idea to give that more outward form.
Sara Daleiden: This is a totally unique collaboration for me because I have empathy and connection in two different routes. Kimberli had spoken to me about it because I had collaborated with the Mak Center on a whole slew of projects in the last seven years, and I really appreciate the Mak Center institutionally, I can’t compare it to any other institution in my life in terms of how experiments can happen and how it can both exist in the landscape of institutions in Los Angeles, but how it’s scale and flexibility allows for a certain kind of production and thought that I just think is rare here. And with David I just feel a comparative practice, I mean you talk about LACMA, I can talk about [The Los Angeles Urban] Rangers and MOCA Engagement Party, you know, and there’s all these sets of questions. What does it mean when artists are acting like institutions, taking a lot of the producing roles on…maybe that we want to, part of it’s just great, deep frustration, part of it is registration of the economic climate we’re in now. My hope for this program that has come out of the summer salons, and I’m excited for this moment of congealing it publicly with this event, is that these core questions get us to ask how we want to structure production. Whether it’s the institutional end, or the dynamic between the artist and the institution. Questions like, for those of us coming out of social and public practice, what is needed to encourage and support these practices? From the artists’ perspectives, how do we get funding when the economic climate has changed so much, and the political layers associated with that? To me, there always a deep layer about labor going on, and the history of how labor has gotten defined in art production that’s up on the table. It’s painful at moments, but there are things about that we can adjust. I think those are some of the core motivators that I saw, and I saw these two different frames on it by working with David and Kimberli. I’ve seen those questions come up in the salons because we have a range of people that conceptualize themselves in those roles and sometimes multiple roles that have been at the table in those discussions, so they already naturally themselves are negotiating, just like the three of us. There is no polarization, like you’re just an institution, you’re just an artist, it’s already this hybrid zone of action.
Read the rest of the interview here.
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.