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A Conversation with Justin Langlois

The below is a conversation between myself and Justin Langlois, Research Director at Broken City Lab, conducted over email this past month. Check them out at

JUSTIN: So, I have a quick question, with regard to your categories of social practice, where might you situate practices that are more overtly activistic? While a level of activism is likely most overt in the New Models category, I was curious about your decision to not include that word or that specific language in those categories — is it a matter of it being an inappropriate description, or just not nuanced enough, too much baggage? I have my own concerns with activism as an idea, but it’d be interesting to hear your take on it.

SUE: I think activist practices run throughout all of the categories that I put forward. Just a caveat – all those categories are quite malleable at this point, I feel that they are simply a useful starting point for discussion of some social practices, but they are certainly not the be-all and end-all. I do hope they change and gain more clarity as time goes on.??I feel that, as much as social practice draws from art history, it draws equally from other forms of cultural production. Clearly architecture, urbanism, planning, theater, sociology, even advertising inform social practice, and I would place the history of protest and activism (social movements) in that context. I wrote an article for the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest on anarchist activist practices and compared those forms to some forms of social practice. You can read it here – I’d be interested to know your thoughts.

I find that traditional displays of “activism” or protest is one form of many that social practice can take, and has taken throughout its history – but that the socio-political concerns that underly these practices remain similar. Some are more effective in a more “activist” form, while others accomplish their intentions equally well through other formats. Likewise practices that are ineffective – both those traditionally “activist” in their forms and otherwise. At the Open Engagement conference recently, one participant made the point that “protest in this country is dead,” and that social practice is a reaction to that reality, a new form of activism. I don’t agree with this at all, but I do think that traditional forms of protest are frequently co-opted (um, recent Glenn Beck “rally” in Washington DC on the anniversary of MLK’s “I Have a Dream” Speech is one possible example? or the “1984″ Apple computer TV ads?) thus perhaps diluting some of their effectiveness in certain situations, and I conjecture that social practice artists often search for different formats to advance social agendas as a result. Just my two cents on the matter.

JUSTIN: I really enjoy the way in which you’ve outlined the variety of forms of cultural production that inform social practice, though I wonder if that articulation disregards the more social aspects of a social practice as well as the pedagogical aspects informing a social practice. Your loose working-categories touch on this, but it would seem that the categorization you’ve presented there and the (intentional or not) categorization you offered around modes of production are different in their organization, and in turn, equally limit the potentials for activity and affectivity within these practices that become situated through that organization. I completely understand those loose categories as works-in-progress, I suppose I’m just pushing the issue to better understand for myself.

It’s interesting you bring up the example from the OE participant talking about his skepticism of protest. While I don’t know that I’d go as far to say that protest is dead (it is alive, though perhaps significantly under the weather or even terminally ill), I’m inclined to feel that traditional forms of protest are ineffective in advancing any particular agenda and for that matter, I think the abundance of examples of the co-opting of activism’s aesthetics are, as you’ve outlined, a particularly good example of this increasing ineffectiveness.

You brought up a notion that I’ve found continually helpful, which I first read articulated by Sam Gould of Red76 — that is, questions of effectiveness and sincerity in relation to activism and art respectively. It’s a bit escapist to suggest that the in-between is the most interesting position to occupy, but yet there’s something there that could use a better articulation (and in that, perhaps it is in the term social practice).

I might offer that while social practice may or may not be overtly presented as political, we certainly know that politics continually inform it, and for a more effective form of creative push for a social change, it may be that artists taking on new roles in existing infrastructures might provide the best way forward. It’s not a new notion, but perhaps an increasingly pervasive one. And, as you’ve outlined in your article, artists continuing to take on collective forms to present workable organizational structures also continue to present a glimpse of possibility for change that has a lasting impact (whether those structures have been translated to corporate culture or not; Apple is still Steve Jobs and Google is a “friendly” monolith without a face).
To attempt to ground this for myself, perhaps the development of artists as community leaders (a strange term) is the most appropriate way to articulate how I view my practice, and in turn, what I view as being the next step towards a practice aimed at enacting social change. So, while not nearly as radical nor pointed as the collectives you outlined in Between Art and Activism, I believe there is a lot of potential in actively and publicly being in a place and exploring its complexities at a level most appropriate for the person in question. In that, there is an awareness and activation of the process of critique of existing systems and ‘ways of doing’ though with a decidedly less overtly political methodology. Maybe this is similar to Mouffé’s ‘agonistic’ political thought?

SUE: I want to address my notion of categories, which I think is tripping us both up a bit, as helpful as it might seem on the surface. Ultimately, there is only so far that these categories can go – although I do feel social practices are informed by the various forms of cultural production which I have outlined, and once produced they can be slotted (albeit in an ill-fitting way) into helpful categories that improve our understanding of these projects, you are absolutely right in that there is no connection between these two. On cannot remix aspects of architecture, art history, and activism and preconceive a project like Project Row Houses, for example. There are indeed “social aspects” that shape the best and most responsive social practice work in unpredictable ways, and I think that zone of production-in-progress is where I am struggling to write thoughtfully. Perhaps primarily because that zone also requires the writer to become intimately involved in the experience of the project as it is happening to truly gain any kind of understanding. So often, we analyze a project only from the front end (its influences and historical precursors) and from the back-end (its relationship to other similar projects, its effects, its “category” or “movement”), but not situated in the midst of process. Therefore the project in its current snapshot form, whatever that is, becomes mystifying – or worse, seems reproducible when it is not.

This becomes especially urgent when we are dealing with projects that actually seem to have some success in affecting change – then we all start looking for the rule that doesn’t exist in order to somehow reproduce it. The best way I have found to think about this is to consider the science of emergence – how ants and termites (practically brainless) are wired to follow chaotic behavior patterns until a problem presents itself, or food is available, and suddenly they all organize to perform the most amazing engineering feats. Emergence also describes how cities gain their character (how suburban Monterey Park has the best Chinese restaurants around, or how a massive jewelry district emerged in one corner of downtown Los Angeles), and how thoughts form in your head from just a series of zapping neurons and synapses. We want to believe that someone is pulling the strings, that a great conductor has “figured out” how to affect a particular kind of change in a complex environment, but these examples are simply processes that form order from chaos in certain situations. We humans are a bit different than ants, because we are able to reflect on our actions, but even so there is no rule. Artists can be facilitators and catalysts, but that does not mean that any one person is able to bend a complex environment to their will. The best we can do is what you so appropriately call “active being” – and there is something sticky about that process. Being there, in a place, investigating its histories, its resources, and reacting with thoughtfulness. This work is necessarily reactive and reflective, and thus exponentially difficult parse how it came to be. We all search for heroes, though, and it is so much easier to applaud the artist than to find out why and how the project emerged in exactly the way it did.

For more on emergence, I would highly recommend the 2007 Radiolab podcast about the subject – you can find it here. Thanks to Justin Langlois for his thoughts and for allowing me to reprint them here.

Between Art and Anarchism

I recently wrote an article on similarities in the recent evolution of anarchist groups in Los Angeles and art collectives or artists engaging in social practice, specifically comparing the Revolutionary Autonomous Communities‘ weekly food program and the Artists for Social Justice. Below is an excerpt in which I attempt to trace historical similarities between the avant-garde and anarchism, finally contrasting those to relatively recent strategies of horizontalism, reflexivity, and exchange.


Look out for Issue #7 of the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest when it comes out in a couple of weeks – not only will you find my full article, but also a constellation of other great writings.

The similarities between the avant-garde and anarchism extend beyond their similar “shock and rupture” tactics; political theorists and art historians alike have declared both to be failed movements. In the avant-garde movement, this failure arises from a paradoxical hierarchy encased in the primacy of the art object. If the art object itself contains the power to elicit epiphany, than the artist is elevated to a status “uniquely open to the world,” and viewers that are open to the transformative experience of the object are likewise more educated and socially aware than those who are not.[1]

Anarchists struggle with a similar created hierarchy, often denouncing those with any connection to institutions and systems of the current society. This has led to an insular mindset dominated by ideologues, with adherence to extremism serving as a measure of commitment. The desire to completely dissociate has undermined the goals of systematic revolution and greater freedom, replacing one hegemony with another.

Complicating these intrinsic problematics is the proven ability of capitalist systems to subsume and harness radical tactics into new forms of control. Belgian political philosopher Chantal Mouffé writes: “The aesthetic strategies of the counterculture: the search for authenticity, the ideal of self-management, the anti-hierarchical exigency, are now used in order to promote the conditions required by the current mode of capitalist regulation, replacing the disciplinary framework characteristic of the Fordist period.”[2] As mass marketing employs the surface aesthetics of the avant-garde or revolutionary iconography to imbue brands with “cool,” strategies of the alternative arts movement are now foundational pillars of the worldwide art market, and corporate structures (as in Google or Apple) embrace a superficial ideal of egalitarian self-management, the “shock and rupture” tactics of the radical left are effectively deflated.

Because of this systematic adaptability, many have claimed “any form of critique is automatically recuperated and neutralized by capitalism.”[3] In the past few years, however, both artistic practice and anarchist organizing have come to embrace new strategies of radicality that are distanced from “shock” tactics in their commitment to a social and spatial awareness. Exemplified by the two Los Angeles groups (the anarchist RAC, and artistic Artists for Social Justice) that started in 2007, this radicality emerges in self-reflexive organization and practical exchange.

[1]Grant Kester, Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art(Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2004), 27.

[2] Chantal Mouffé, “Art and Democracy: Art as an Agonistic Intervention in Public Space,” Art as a Public Issue 14 (2008), 7.

[3] Mouffé, 7.

The Role of Social Art according to Bishop and Mouffe

Claire Bishop

Claire Bishop

Chantal Mouffe

Chantal Mouffe

The idea of approaching a problem rather than representing or exposing it, and the process through which that approach occurs, is a central concern in social practice.

Claire Bishop, who always provides a nice old-school art historical approach to this tricky subject and is a joy to disagree with, outlines her notion of the central concerns of “participatory art” (a terms that, for her, encompasses the broad sweep of things, from relational aesthetics to public practices to socially-engaged art, whatever you want to call it):

“Recurrently, calls for an art of participation tends to be allied to one or all of the following agendas:

- “the desire to create and active subject, one who will be empowered by the experience of physical or symbolic participation. The hope is that the newly-emancipated subjects of participation will find themselves able to determine their own social and political reality.”

- “authorship – the gesture of ceding artistic control is conventionally regarded as a more egalitarian and democratic than the creation of work by a single artist, while shared production is also seen to entail the aesthetic benefits of greater risk and unpredictability. Collaborative creativity is therefore understood both to emerge from and to produce, a more positive and non-hierarchical social model.”

- “a perceived crisis in community and collective responsibility. This concern has become more acute since the fall of Communism, the isolating effects of capitalism. One of the main impetuses behind participatory art has therefore been a restoration of the social bond through a collective elaboration of meaning.”

Bishop’s framework is limited to the form of “participatory” art, the types of practices that involve audience members in the creation or realization of some type of product or event. As such, she sees only a narrow scope for such art – for her it is a fundamentally anti-capitalist form striving to empower the people (its “subjects of participation”), disperse authorship, and restore the social bond. Hinted in her writing is the idea that participatory art is somehow a nostalgic recasting of the lost ideal of Communism. She is clearly unimpressed by this, and searches for a “critical art” amongst what she sees as nostalgic and moralistic practices.

I feel that Bishop accurately points out some tenets that guide some forms of social practice, but she fails to grasp the larger reasoning behind these explorations. For a different and more encompassing theory of social practice, I turn to Belgian political philosopher Chantal Mouffe and her seminal article Art and Democracy: Art as an Agonistic Intervention in Public Space in the 2008 issue of Art as a Public Issue No. 14.

Mouffe begins by answering the hidden question, “Why the social arena as a site for artistic interventions?” Quoting Andre Gorz: “When self-exploitation acquires a central role in the process of valorization, the production of subjectivity becomes a terrain of the central conflict…Social relations that elude the grasp of value, competitive individualism and market exchange make the latter appear by contrast in their political dimension, as extensions of the power of capital. A front of total resistance to this power is made possible. It necessarily overflows the terrain of production of knowledge towards new practices of living, consuming and collective appropriation of common spaces and everyday culture.”

Clearly, like Bishop, Mouffe also sees these interventions in social spaces as an opposition to the dominant capitalist system and its exploitative symptoms. She explains: “What is needed to widen the field of artistic intervention, by intervening directly in a multiplicity of social spaces in order to oppose the programme of total social mobilization of capitalism. The objective should be to undermine the imaginary environment necessary for its reproduction. As Brian Holmes puts it: ‘Art can offer a chance for society to collectively reflect on the imaginary figures it depends upon for its very consistency, its self-understanding.’”

Mouffe casts this kind of “agonistic” practice (which does not promote an oppositional agenda to the dominant system, but rather an acknowledgment of the limits of any form of rational consensus) as playing an activist role in “the struggle against capitalist domination.” Though her distinctly Marxist viewpoint colors her framework for the role of art interventions in social arenas, the idea that these practices play an important part in the critical questioning of societal systems that self-perpetuate based on exclusion is exactly how I like to think about rigorous social artistic practices. They are forms of much-needed critique, played out in the social spaces of everyday life. They are not solely about “restoring the social bond,” or proposing “non-hierarchal organizing,” but rather about exposing flawed societal systems by experimenting with modes of interactions and social critique…whatever those may be.

Project Row Houses in Houston's 3rd Ward, started by artist Rick Lowe

Project Row Houses in Houston's 3rd Ward, started by artist Rick Lowe

We need only think about the current healthcare debate, in which moralistic anger and irrational fear enters into what should be a rational policy debate. Hopelessness that a rational consensus will ever be achieved has certainly permeated my consciousness, and I am tempted to agree with Mouffe, that such consensus is never possible in a democracy, despite what Enlightenment thinkers have taught us. But this is where I believe social practice has a role. Not in solutions, but in experimenting with process, in pointing out systematic symptoms of post-criticality and hierarchy and exploitation, and how these conditions create an imaginary environment that reproduces such broken systems ad infinitum.