The three days I spent in Portland for PSU’s Open Engagement Conference were blessed with perfect weather, and the city seemed lush and magical. I’d never been there before, and the public space, preponderance of bike racks, walkability, used bookstores, independent coffee shops, and general greenness seemed like some kind of fevered wish fulfillment. By day three, I have to admit, it started to make me a little uncomfortable - and I began to notice the homeless people, the pervading slacker attitude among youth, the distinct lack of creative industry, the claustrophobia. Still, Portland to me seemed like an natural fit for a conference on socially-engaged art practice, and such a livable, participatory, socially-conscious city (at least on the surface) is a fitting incubator for the students of PSU’s Art and Social Practice MFA program, started by artist Harrell Fletcher three years ago. I only hope that such students make it down to Los Angeles after graduation, after their teeth are cut. We could use them in this messy, unplanned, dystopic concrete jungle.
The conference itself was a noble endeavor and a mostly fun gathering, albeit imperfectly organized. But what isn’t? There were probably a few too many parallel sessions and a few too many dispersed and too loosely connected artist’s projects on the program - if anything Open Engagement was maybe a little too open and could have benefitted from some focus and editing. There were great people at the conference that I would have liked to talk to, but once the big sessions and talks were over, everyone seemed to dissipate into the Portland ether, and I ended up hanging out with the same five people for most of the weekend.
The space for thought and the sharing of ideas around this nebulous term “social practice” was created, and organizing the conference under the term itself allowed a like-minded group of people to explore common experiences. As Harrell Fletcher put it, it was a place for social practitioners to have some “alone time” without the studio people. I enjoyed my first day, particularly Mark Dion’s keynote talk about cabinets of curiosities. Although I didn’t feel it was revelatory in any way, it covered an anthropological/library science practice of object collection and display that I find pleasing. He made an interesting point at the end that touched upon a core theme that would arise over the course of the conference - the idea that the artist is a dilettante in the oldest sense of the word, i.e. curious about everything. Dion cautioned that it is dangerous to have a society where only experts can talk to each other, and that social practice artists, who often work within other disciplines as well as art (sociology, ecology, architecture, urban planning), must learn the discourses of these other fields and create bridges. On the other hand, this provoked for me an episode of “This American Life” from the past year called “A Little Bit of Knowledge,” in which the dangers of only knowing a little bit (about finances, about real estate, about science) can get you into a whole world of trouble and depress high levels of discourse on a grander political scale. This is indeed a conundrum that is underscored throughout many of these social practice projects.
The next panel I attended could not have been a starker contrast - called “The Ethical Implications of Social Practice.” The introduction by Connie Hockaday, a documentary filmmaker and artist, jumped right into a highly questionable reading of social practice and why it exists. She made the point that the rising interest in social practice is due to the ineffectuality of protest and dissent in this country - but whereas protest and dissent functioned within an ethical framework, social practice (and art in general) does not. I found this essentializing view of social practice quite disturbing. This type of art practice is inherently complex, and is taken on for a number of different reasons. Though many practices that fall under this rubric are politically motivated (as protest would be), such practices have existed alongside rather than in place of protest for decades. Not only that, this art functions under the same ethical system that guides the justice system in this country, and does not exist in some otherly, nebulous realm. I take issue with critics who frame arguments in this way, like Claire Bishop, who popped up again in Matthew Rana’s presentation as the panel got started. Aesthetics vs. Ethics, social practice should not be judged on an inherently Christian set of ethical values alone, because then that privileges the intention of “goodness,” so then there is no bad social practice. This kind of argument gets you into a theoretical head space that removes you so far from these actual practices that little is applicable or relevant to the practices themselves. I maintain that social practices must be experienced and then written about as case studies that embrace all the complexity of the work. Only then can ethical implications be picked apart and revealed.
Needless to say, I got a little red-faced and worked up, and then I just became so utterly bored hearing the same old Claire Bishop run-around, I had to get up and leave.
I made it back into the panel just in time for the wonderful Ted Purves’s explanation of storefront project called Temescal Amity Works involved in the distribution of free fruit and exchanges of information and services in a diverse Oakland neighborhood. One audience member took issue with his point that because the project took the form of a storefront, everyone could access it, and it was unnecessary to explain that it was an “artist’s project.” The woman in the audience angrily asked why Purves and his collaborators would keep the “artist” angle rarified, and not engage in a discussion of why the project was or was not art with the general public. Purves’s answer highlighted the problematics of critiquing social art in this way - the project has gone on for two years, and obviously it is impossible to characterize every exchange as one thing or another. Doubtless there were MANY conversation dealing with the meaning of art in the project over that time period. But the bigger question that arose, in this panel and throughout the conference, was “why not get rid of the art altogether?”
I have heard this refrain over and over, from multiple people and contexts at this point. If you get rid of the art, it uncomplicates things, the division of art world vs. real world knowledge disappears, it is easier to raise money (in some cases), it erases the elite status bestowed upon artists - they just become regular people trying to help rather than imbued with some kind of special insight. These “art world” complications are uncomfortable for many young artists working in this field, and many are figuring out different ways to deal with them.
I didn’t have a good answer to this question at the time, and it wasn’t until a week later, at the American Association of Museums Conference back in sunny LA, that I began to feel strong conviction in the negative.
Next week: A Tale of Two Conferences: Part II, or Don’t Get Rid of the Art.
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
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.
Art and Beer Event at the Portland Museum of Art, Eric Steen
Artist Eric Steen, a recent graduate from the Social Practice MFA program at Portland State University, wrote me the following in an email yesterday:
“In this article by Kristina Lee Podesva, in Fillip Magazine, she mentions that Claire Bishop calls much of the work where artists are turning galleries into bars works that have a “Microtopian Ethos”…saying, “an artist re-purposes [the gallery] as a site of refuge from the real world (even though he or she attempts to recreate social interactions there typically associated with existing places such as the pub or community centre). In this way, this work does not encourage us to strive for a larger utopian goal—such as securing permanent and free communal space—but rather to sit back and enjoy, in whatever way we can, the here and now.”
When I think about my own work, it is the smaller interactions, the ability to build relationships and insert myself into another community that is a more effective process for relaying my ideas to a broader group of people. For me, the small act, the conviviality, the togetherness, are all actions that are activism. It may be quiet, it may be small, it may not impress anyone but the people to which they are directed.”
Mr. Steen’s thoughts got me to thinking about several themes I’d like to explore in the next few posts, including the role of the academy in art production (and society in general), and what Podesva calls “the pedagogical turn in art” – in which educational activities are utilized as artistic processes or products. I find this particularly interesting both in my capacity as an educator at the Hammer Museum and as a former public school teacher. In my present job, I work frequently with undergraduates and graduates studying art (at UCLA in particular, but also many of the other first-class art schools in the Southland). I find quite a rich territory where education and art meet – from the notion of the second-class artist-educator (thanks to artist Liz Glynn for that particular categorization), to the fact that museum education departments are becoming the de facto sites for social practices (i.e. public programs such as MOCA’s Engagement Party series), to the massive output of MFAs across the country each year. What do all of these factors mean to systems and hierarchies of art production? And what does it mean to have such a professionalized MFA program dedicated to Social Practice? (Note: I currently know of three. Otis’s Public Practice MFA, the PSU Program, and CCA’s new MFA concentration in Social Practice).
Mr. Steen, the product of such a program, seems to be rethinking the foundations of relational aesthetics as well as pedagogical practice in his work. Building relationships, sharing ideas, facilitating social interactions. I am immensely curious how his colleagues from PSU are operating, and what similarities might be drawn from their work. How are they analyzing communities, the public, their audience/participants? What are the activist qualities of these “small actions” Mr. Steen speaks of, and is their purpose to impress, or change, or cause revelation, or build connections, or pleasure? Should one measure such effects? How? What are the larger societal concerns and implications of this work? How is the process of social practice production and relevant theory taught?
So many questions. Attempting to address them will require some research on my part, but this wave of new social practice art graduate programs is fascinating, and I will continue to post my thoughts down the line.