I’ve recently been talking to several cultural practitioners about how to educate those with a more traditional notion of art in understanding and contextualizing today’s social practice. The notion of expanded or post-studio has been around for some time now, but the historical contextualization of social practice is still very much in formation. My own efforts in this realm have been mostly trial and error, guided by some very sharp and inquisitive theoretical minds, but the way I trace the development of social practice seems to find some resonance with others striving to do the same thing.
Now, I must give a disclaimer – there are so many multiple influences and complex practices that contribute to how we understand social practice today, but from a purely pedagogical standpoint the following seems most useful for bridging the gap. I start at Beuys, simply because he is a well-known albeit controversial historical figure who was able to encapsulate his paradigm-shifting work in a few useful phrases. Most notably, the phrase “social sculpture,” which illustrates Beuys’ idea that activities which structure and shape society are a form of art no longer confined to a material object or artifact. From this radical notion (and buttressed by decades of expanded, non-object based conceptual practice) arose a variety of mostly non-object based practices engaged in social and spatial issues.
These follow several major veins that are relatable but manifest in varied ways. I would describe them as such:
Relational aesthetics – projects focused on congenial gatherings like making and distributing food or beer, discussions, invitations, and exchange (i.e. Rikrit Tiravanija)
Systems analysis – projects focused on uncovering, analyzing, criticizing and/or celebrating current systems that contribute to a deeper understanding of how society works, often with the goal of shifting those paradigms (i.e. Merle Laderman Ukeles, LA Urban Rangers, the work of Teddy Cruz, Urban China)
Pedagogical Practice – projects focused on sharing information in a non-traditional format, often user-generated and multi-disciplinary (i.e. The Public School, SOMA, The Mountain School of Arts)
New Models – related heavily to systems aesthetics, these practices focus on modeling new (or forgotten) societal systems that undertake issues ignored, perpetuated, or inadequately addressed by current systems (i.e. Project Row Houses, Watts House Project, Victory Gardens, Fallen Fruit, various eco urban farming collectives, the work of the Harrisons)
There are of course many variations and overlaps amongst these categories, and work that does not fit so well in any of these. The semantics of these categories can also be argued about – the titles are working titles and may not adequately encapsulate the definitions I have put forth. Nevertheless, I find this framework useful as a starting point. In terms of current work, I do believe that research-based analysis of social and spatial systems (Systems Analysis) is very much where it’s at – though plenty of relational aesthetics practice still exists, more model-based and solution-based practices are prevalent.
This framework still brings up some questions for me, questions that solidified when I examined the very interesting “Map for another LA” put out by the Llano Del Rio Collective just recently. The map is meant to describe growing “collectivist activity” that in many ways fall into the “New Models” category of social practice – though the practitioners may identify as artists or not. I will post further about my thoughts on this map, but now I leave you with a few questions:
1) What core values run throughout these different practices – and why?
2) Are these infrastructural practices?
3) What institutional or civic strategies that may be focusing on the goals described above (systems analysis, new models, new forms of pedagogy) are not considered social practice – and why?
4) Are the “new models” that strive for reproducibility actually spread? Or do they only perpetuate other “new models”?
I would love to hear your thoughts.
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.