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.
In response to the ongoing economic crisis and the slow erosion of public monies dedicated to higher education in California, research institutes such as the University of California Institute of Research in the Arts (UCIRA) are focusing on the state of education in the arts and humanities, and how critical pedagogy in these departments is affected by impending pressures on these departments to demonstrate their revenue-generating viability. As Grant Kester posed in his keynote address at the recent UCIRA conference, these pressures have manifested in two strands that complicate the autonomy of the university, “on one hand, seeking to integrate it more seamlessly into the circuits of commercial development, to make it more subordinate to the demands of the market, and on the other to expose this creeping integration as a symptom of the erosion of the university’s raison d’etre and the growing pressure to place dwindling public monies in the service of private development.”
This pressure towards integration has, in part, thrown traditional Enlightenment notions of humanistic education [as outlined by Emmanuel Kant and Friedrich Schiller] into crisis, in which Socratic dialogue and argument in the sequestered realm of the University lose legitimacy when proposed as actions that attempt to change the existing social order – insisting instead that ideas refined in the forge of the classroom be utilized only to bolster the existing capitalist system.
Art departments in particular have struggled to reconcile their pedagogical development since modernism with these new pressures and current social contexts – in many cases by withdrawing themselves further into hermetic and insular discourse. As Kester proposes along with theorists and teaching artists such as Ernesto Pujol and Boris Groys, “[The University, especially departments of art and humanities] has evolved a curious symmetry with modern notions of art and the aesthetic as sequestered realms dedicated to the preservation of certain utopian impulses, carried over from our religious past in desacralized form. These include the harmonious reconciliation of the individual and the social, the cultivation of an ostensibly intrinsic ethical impulse, and a projected notion of humanity striving towards perfection or improvement.” Art education in this country, along with modern notions of art and the aesthetic, seek to cultivate new forms of consciousness in the passive receiver, inevitably emphasizing the division between the enlightened expert/artist and the ignorance of the student/viewer.
There is a value in preserving the university (and specifically the Arts and Humanities) as the one place where new ideas can be proposed and discussed for their own sake – [ostensibly] not driven by the forces of the market, capitalism, and neoliberal politics. In a way, art departments must become the “conscience of the art world” – and universities the conscience of our broader social context. Criticality and an educated public opinion is necessary for democracy to function and for social change to occur – according to educational theorist John Dewey, “education is a regulation of the process of coming to share in the social consciousness; and that the adjustment of individual activity on the basis of this social consciousness is the only sure method of social reconstruction.” The tools of critical thought lead us to a more functional democracy. Yet making the connection between the sovereignty of ideas within the university and the application of research fluidly in actual social context remains a deep gulf to bridge when social context (specifically within art departments, but throughout the humanities) is held consistently at arm’s length.
The rejection of professionalism in the arts as related to modernism has left art an open field where both positive and negative liberties can occur – though art schools preserve a surface appearance of openness and self-actualization, it is unclear whether they are actually providing the tools to students to either successfully function commercially or become critical thinkers and active citizen-artists. What situations are we preparing students for? To be teachers? To be commercial artists? To be critical thinkers? Ernesto Pujol claims that “In the United States, we are not graduating artists, we are graduating teachers right and left, and we should finally admit it.” If this is the case, how do we rearticulate theory and practice within art departments, recast art as research and practice as the development of theory, and theory as a critical tool to aid in the formulation of engaged action in the social context? This is not to make art necessarily the site for social change, but not to recognize the important and rapidly dwindling space for “social consciousness” within art departments spells their doom.
Almost despite their pedagogical context, art students are paying more attention to audience, and rejecting the vestiges of modernism. Many are searching for new methods of synthesis (built upon the immediate and universal access to information), more criticality, and the elusive possibility for social relevance. This change is emerging from the passive student/viewers rather than the artist/experts at the helm (though in some cases the teaching cycles turn over so fast that last year’s MFA grads end up teaching this year’s adjunct classes, bolstering Pujol’s claim), as well as increasing numbers of non-accredited artist-run pedagogical spaces that seek to explore new paradigms. This “pedagogical turn,” including projects like the Mountain School for the Arts, SOMA, the Bruce High Quality Foundation University, and the Public School is not new (Allan Sekula’s School is a Factory and the pedagogical activities of Joseph Beuys are excellent precursors), but many have reached quite unexpected entrenchment and longevity. One could even argue that these ground-up shifts have resulted in experimental new programs emerging from within public universities in California and elsewhere that focus specifically on art’s relevance within social contexts (UC Santa Cruz’s Digital Arts/New Media MFA program, CCA’s concentration in Social Practice, Otis’s Public Practice Program to name a few). It remains to be seen whether such programs represent any structural pedagogical change that translates to an increased flow of ideas and action into real social context, but the enduring value of the public university and its art departments demands increased relevance over stagnation.
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.
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.” 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.” 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.
I’m going to try my best to keep these posts a little shorter, but these concepts do not coalesce in my head very easily or in a very fully baked form, so I find myself having to really write through them. Also, I am not exactly the most concise of writers. So, thanks for bearing with me.
I would like to return to my discussion of theoretical frameworks that have been used to analyze socially-engaged artworks (oh, what a difficult term…isn’t all art rife with the social? But I hope you know what I’m talking about by now), as in my previous post on relational aesthetics. In that post, I pointed out that Bourriard’s discussion of relational aesthetics as a “theory of form” just didn’t quite do justice to the social, spatial, and political dimensions of this work. Grant Kester, in his book “Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art” gets a little closer to laying out the various layers of social practice, what he terms as “dialogical aesthetics” (another relatively useless term - shoehorning these practices into some qualified type of aesthetics still seems so reductive to me). Kester manages not only to link these practices quite cogently to an art historical lineage, but also to begin to think about a more rounded framework for approaching them critically. Which is why his book, even after 10 years, is still the undisputed central text concerning community-based and socially-engaged artworks.
Grant Kester, Conversation Pieces
Kester begins the chapter in which he lays out his analytic framework by talking about conceptual art not only as a move away from the purely visual, but as a robust set of concerns extending beyond (but not entirely rejecting) the art object itself. He says of conceptual artists like Adrian Piper, Vito Acconci and Felix Gonzalez-Torres: “They tend to focus on ways in which the optical experience is conditioned by a given social context or physical situation and by the viewer’s participation.” Seedbed, Acconci’s iconic performance in January of 1971 at Sonnabend in New York, is cited as an example - the viewer must be present to complete the piece, as the interaction between the masturbating artist under the floor and the unaware, disgusted or curious viewer was central to the piece.
Vito Acconci, Seedbed, January 15-29, 1971, New York City
I like this little concise description of conceptual practice from this era, because it throws into relief the different territories we are dealing with in art: optical experience, social or physical context, and viewer participation. It also provides a useful model for distinguishing social practice: in my view, social practice takes the work of conceptualism and twists it to privilege the context over all else. To switch around Kester’s description accordingly, I would say that social practice artists are concerned with the way a given social context or physical situation (usually both) is conditioned by optical experience (or aesthetic exchange) and viewer/creator/stakeholder interaction.
Accordingly to Kester, how successfully an artist enacts this analysis and practicing of the social can be broken into a three-part theoretical framework. He takes John Latham and Barbara Steveni’s Artist Placement Group as the trigger for his first two parts: 1) a project should first be examined by its ability to define art as a “condition of openness.” Does the artist seize the opportunity to approach a problem “unconventionally, naively, open-mindedly, as if from the outside?” He does note, however, that the tolerance for this kind of problem-solving practice drops quickly when applied outside of the art world, as in APG. Secondly, he examines a project in terms of its “critical time-sense.” Is the artist thinking in very long terms, about the “viewer-to-be” and about communities that are not yet emergent? Is the artist also thinking backwards in time, with a historical time-sense? He links this with what he calls a “spatial imagination,” the ability to “comprehend and represent complex social and environmental systems, identify interconnections among the often invisible forces that pattern human and environmental existence.” Finally, Kester ends with an analysis of the ability of the artist/project to “enact these insights through dialogical and collaborative encounters with others.”
I do think that this framework hits upon three major reasons for why an artist might be an appropriate “incidental person,” someone equipped to confront larger societal problems: 1) the ability to approach a problem naively and with a condition of openness; 2) a longer critical “time-sense,” beyond the short-term thinking dictated by certain disciplines (i.e. the market, quarterly, in election cycles, in fiscal years, etc); 3) a spatial imagination as defined above.
Yet the enactment of these artistic insights is where we fall down. Relational aesthetics, dialogical aesthetics, conversations and beer drinking and making food for each other…it all feels very 1990s. Form evolves, as I said before. What are things like these day? Well, Mark Allen from Machine Project took over LACMA for a day and will be taking over Visitor Services at the Hammer Museum for a full year. Edgar Arceneaux is renovating houses down in Watts and conducting job-training in green technologies. The LA Urban Rangers are giving tours of public access beaches in Malibu and holding public easement potlucks. And that’s just a few…
LA Urban Rangers, Malibu Beach Safari
How do we approach such projects critically? Do we measure their effects, conduct surveys, link their forms to previous art historical models, interview the artists for some insight into their conceptual rigor? It is fraught territory indeed.
One of the issues with art that is inherently based on social exchange is that these practices have not really been clearly examined or theorized. There is a tendency amongst art writers and curators and artists to smush together all kinds of varied “movements” like Dada, Fluxus, the Situationists, Happenings, relational aesthetics (a la Bourriard), and dialogical aesthetics (a la Kester). Not to mention the fact that a variety of very vague terms are used to describe these practices (community art, public practice, social practice, etc). I have found myself falling into this lazy naming, but I feel that I must start somewhere. Very simply, the language has not been adequately defined, and I hope to work through some of these terms in my posts.
So what exactly am I talking about? Perhaps some of the definitions of writers I look to frequently in my studies of these practices will help map out this fraught territory, and an iterative study of particular projects will help to illustrate the context. We’ll start with Nicholas Bourriard. The term he coined, “relational aesthetics,” now elicits snorts and scoffs, and has come to stand for a post-critical art of “congeniality,” a realm in which a bunch of lazy artists have learned that they can call dinner parties and beer-drinking “artworks” within a gallery or museum setting. “Found” parties rather than objects, injected without much thought or rigor into art historical discourse.
Free Beer - Tom Marioni
I believe, however, that Bourriard was getting at something that has since been colloquially lost in translation - some (but not all) of the art he talks about hits on questions of community, societal mores, the meaning of public space, and how economies or technologies shape day-to-day social interaction. This is interesting, but the “theory of Form” that Bourriard advances lumps these practices with those that concern themselves only with the social networks of the art world and pleasurable congeniality. This is problematic, and does a disservice to the works that are critically examining political and cultural contexts. The metric he advances is simply not adequate to make those distinctions.
Bourriard calls relational aesthetics a “theory of form” in his series of essays on art from the 1990s. He traces this in the historical trajectory of the avant-garde, positing that the “perceptive, experimental, critical, and participatory” models of current art are carrying on the “modernist fight,” albeit in the context of quite different societal presuppositions. He defines relational art as “an art taking as its theoretical horizon the realm of human interactions and its social context, rather than the assertion of an independent and private symbolic space.” These artworks examine social systems, and turn small exchanges into issues reflective of a broader society shaped by political, economic, and social mores. He calls the “arena of encounter” created by these works “a game” - in which participatory structures are modeled. He believes that this “arena” must be judged by its coherence of form, the symbolic value of the “world” it suggests to us, and the image of human relations reflected by it.
Rirkrit Tiravanija, Exhibition View, Secession 2002
Some of the works Bourriard describes include:
“Rikrit Tiravanija organizes a dinner in a collector’s home, and leaves him all the ingredients required to make a Thai soup.”
“Philippe Pareno invites a few people to pursue their favorite hobbies on May Day, on a factory assembly line.”
“Vanessa Beecroft dresses some twenty women in the same way, complete with a red wig, and the visitor merely gets a glimpse of them through the doorway.”
“Christine Hill works as a check-out assistant in a supermarket, organizes a weekly gym workshop in a gallery.”
“Pierre Huyghe summons people to a casting session, makes a TV transmitter available to the public, and puts a photograph of laborers at work on view just a few yards from the building site.”
We could add people like Liam Gillick, Adrian Piper, Tom Marioni, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, and Jens Haaning to this list according to Bourriard’s rubric - but I still feel uncomfortable lumping the practices of these artists together. Perhaps they are all part of some broader contemporary trajectory, but they each are concerned with such different realms of interaction. Relational aesthetics is a good start, a useful entry into these practices, but is just too reductive in its language. Rigorous social practice rarely begins and ends with friendly interactivity between an artist and a public. We are beyond relational aesthetics as a theory of form, because the form keeps changing and evolving. What we need is a deeper analysis of how artists are inserting themselves into realms that have never traditionally been spaces for art.