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.
I recently attended the American Association of Museums (AAM) conference in Minneapolis, an enormous interdisciplinary gathering of over four thousand museum professionals from institutions of all kinds – performing arts, visual arts, science, natural history, air & space, you name it. The theme of the conference was “Creative Community,” and for my fine arts colleagues, this thrust resonated with a February 2011 NEA study authored by Jennifer Novak-Leonard and arts evaluation guru Alan Wolfe, about an increasing diversity of arts participation in America—despite the rapidly diminishing role of the art institution.
Whereas the 2008 NEA survey on the arts in America showed a significant decline in attendance at all arts institutions (34.6% of all Americans, down from 39.5% in 2002), as well as an audience that has become disproportionately white in contrast to increasing demographic diversity, the 2011 study offers a glimmer of hope. Rather than focusing only on benchmark attendance at arts institutions, the authors evaluated engagement using a broader “multi-modal” approach—taking into account arts creation, electronic media use, and participation in community venues like schools and religious institutions. Surprising in the face of declining attendance, they found that no less than 74% of Americans engaged in one of these artistic modes—the bulk participating not in museums or performing arts venues, but in their neighborhoods and homes.
All through the non-profit arts sector, this notion is rumbling the foundation of culture and widening the cracks in the walls of the ivory tower. It is not that Americans are not engaging in artistic activity – much to the contrary. They are simply choosing to participate in ways that do not include museums. From the theme of AAM to the shifts in funding priorities recently announced by several philanthropic organizations including the James Irvine Foundation, community engagement and pushing beyond the four walls of the museum are becoming urgent strategies for the continued survival of art institutions. Irvine’s new set of priorities is called “Exploring Engagement,” and apropos to the arts participation study, focuses on broadening audience demographics through an increased focus on non-traditional venues for art embedded in communities. This is not to say that these trends are a result of this data alone; rather the rise of social engagement in artistic practice, the urgency of budget crises, and the void of institutionalized arts education are all combining to make broad social engagement by museums a necessity rather than an afterthought.
The winds are shifting, and museums of all kinds are reacting—sometimes fundamentally shifting their missions and structures in response, calling into question what comprises the boundaries of the institution. At AAM I encountered many models, too numerous and multivalent to go into much detail here, but perhaps could be categorized as such: Radical Openess, Museum as Service, and Decentralized Museum. These formats are inevitably infused with socially-engaged artistic practice, a flexible and hybrid process of working that is naturally aligned with such participatory formats.
Open Field at the Walker
“Radical Openess” can be described as efforts to bring community-generated content into the space of the museum, opening the space for curation and artistic production by a broad swath of publics. The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis is programming the massive four-acre field outside of its building with museum-curated events (Machine Project did several projects there) but also with music, performance, and workshops programmed by a swath of public participants. The Queens Museum of Art likewise brings community events and programs into its space, and the Dallas Museum of Art dedicates an unprecedented 12,000 square feet of space smack dab in the middle of its galleries to participatory work and community exhibition space.
Immigrant Respect pin from Immigrant Movement International
The “Museum as Service” model is so named because it describes programs that expand the museum’s educational mission to encompass life skills and services beyond art. The Queens Museum of Art again has some of the most innovative programs addressing its unique and diverse immigrant constituencies, including the New New Yorkers program, which provides language, art, and technology classes to recent immigrants. Another fascinating ongoing project was artist-generated—Tania Brughera’s “Immigrant Movement” which now comprises a community-run revolutionary political advocacy group for immigrants including over 40 neighborhood organizations.
Trade City's PopWagon
One of the most interesting models that deeply calls into question the future of the institution I am naming the “Decentralized Museum.” These strategies stem from concerns about declining institutional attendance and seek to leverage still-thriving local arts participation by embedding the institution within communities on an intimate smaller scale. One tactic is mobility – Maria Mortati has a mobile pop-up exhibition space in San Francisco that completely packs up into a single car, and the Los Angeles Trade City theater group just debuted its mobile community stage called PopWagon. Another tactic is the satellite space, which science museums seem to be utilizing more and more – the Buffalo Science Center has created temporary “Science Spots” that appear in storefronts across the city and offer educational science programming, whereas the Los Angeles California Science Center is experimenting with institution-sponsored neighborhood “science clubs” in partnership with existing community organizations (focusing on regions that are distant and may find visiting the center an improbability).
A satellite "Science Spot" of the Buffalo Science Center
What does this mean for the future of the institution? A huge challenge of this work is capacity – museums are organized to sustain an exhibition program, and working in a tactical, mobile, or radically open way necessitates a reskilling. Queens Museum has a community organizer on staff to form stable relationships as a foundation for the programming, and other museums are assembling ad hoc teams cobbling together working processes and knowledge from many departments and staff levels. There remains a dearth of appropriate evaluation tools to measure impact beyond basic attendance, which becomes meaningless in the face of an expanded model. How does one assess the feelings about a museum, the reach of a program, from participants who may never walk through the doors? And how does this shift the perception of the museum’s success from the point of view of donors, funders, and board members? Finally, what does this mean for artists? Perhaps a broadening of opportunity, and a need for developed organizational and participatory strategies – not to mention a coalescing of best working practices and a steadfast position that socially-engaged art will not solve the audience problem for museums, but perhaps help us shift our thinking about the future of museums in more layered complexity.
If you didn’t catch my recent Huffington Post contribution, I wanted to re-post it here. It is a reworking and reapplication of the post below from March 6th. The HuffPo are shortly adding an Arts Page (about time!), and a number of colleagues and friends that I greatly respect have been asked to post to it, so check it out in mid-May. Once June hits and I have a little time again, I will be up and posting again like crazy. With the Open Engagement conference coming up in Portland on May 14-17, the American Association of Museums conference here in LA, and some other social practice-related sideline research I am working on this month, there will be plenty to write about. Stay tuned!
How Art Museums Are Striving to Stay Relevant for a New Generation
As I’ve been perusing my upcoming spring of various arts-related conferences (both academic and professional), a common question emerges again and again throughout these disparate events: how must art institutions change to re-engage current cultural audiences?
The upcoming American Association of Museums (AAM) conference (happening here in Los Angeles in late May) is called “Museums Without Borders” accompanied by some fuzzy language about “connection, community, cultural identity, and the power of the imagination,” but many of the actual session titles betray an overriding preoccupation: how to get new and younger audiences in interface with museums in innovative, user-generated, participatory ways.
The overwhelming consensus (as evidenced by the alarming aging of audiences to traditional arts venues - like museums, the opera, performing arts) is that younger generations of Americans eschew the largely passive role of audience, and demand participation from their art institutions. A recent article by Diane Ragsdale for the Stanford Social Innovation Review analyzes this trend in detail.
Read the rest of the article on HuffPo.
Harrell Fletcher. Gallery HERE, 1993-1995. Oakland, CA.
If one has one’s ear to the pulse of the institutional art world, there is no question that museums have begun to implement major shifts in the way they engage their visitors - at least in Los Angeles. From MOCA’s Engagement Parties to the rash of First Fridays or whatever days, to interactive collections software at the Getty, museums have responded to new trends in media and cultural consumption using both technological and human tactics.
The overwhelming consensus (as evidenced by the alarming aging of audiences to traditional arts venues - like museums, the opera, performing arts) is that younger generations of Americans eschew the largely passive role of audience, and demand participation from their art institutions. Events, parties, and interactive artworks help this generation gather and engage, but they also desire a role in production (of exhibitions, acquisitions, programming, education) - one that is immediate and satisfying.
I believe that in finally acknowledging these trends, institutions have begun to show a more concerted interest in artists who engage in “social practice” - whose work is built on collaborative action and participation, and encourages iterative loops of feedback, research, and recommendation. This interest is felt by artists who have been working in such a way for years (Mark Allen of Machine Project had to turn down about five panel requests for the upcoming American Association of Museums Conference in May), and by young artists just embarking on their careers. For example, on Thursday I attended the first MFA thesis exhibition at UCLA, and was amazed by the number of artworks based on interaction and social research (mostly the work of Jennifer Gradecki and Derek Curry) especially in the heavily object-based UCLA context.
Yet among many institutions, there is still a self-admitted lack of knowledge about these practices. Curators who regularly deal with social practice artists in all their diversity are few and far between, and traditional curators are often at a loss when confronted with some such projects. Projects that involve social practice artists are often education/curatorial hybrids, and suffer at times from internal hierarchies between those departments. Not only that, such practices break some long-held (but largely unspoken) rules of artistic practice that have been fully embraced by art institutions - and backtracking on those traditional notions is a difficult process. For example - “artists should not work with non-artists (i.e. people from the “community,” whatever that is) to produce an art project and then show it in the museum.” Or - “art that is widely loved by and accessible to the general public should be treated with suspicion.” Or even structural rules that are far more difficult to break - “artists’ projects must fit within a specific duration.” Now these are obviously generalizations, and museums exist everywhere that have pushed, pulled and bent some of these ideas. But, I still maintain that such ideas remain at the surface of institutional consciousness, and continue to affect current programming as well as how new ideas are approached.
I had the pleasure of hearing the great Harrell Fletcher speak at USC this past Wednesday, and in his clear and calm manner, he addressed some of the concerns I outlined above. Fletcher believes strongly in projects of unknown duration, in allowing them the ability to change and evolve. His work is engineered to be highly accessible to people without an arts background, and is both site-specific and socially-specific: that is to say it’s formed around the location in which he is doing the project and intimately involves the people that live in that location. He was nonchalant when confronted with the question of authorship and artistic ethics - in involving these people in his art project, wasn’t he exploiting them? He countered with the example of an amateur theater troop. In such a context, there is no problem with a trained director leading a group of amateur actors and stage crew who have signed on to be a part of a production because they love the activity. Why then, are we so precious about authorship in art? That is most definitely a larger topic for another day, but Fletcher’s point is a good one. As institutions shift their traditional notions of art and audience in response to a changing context, the space opens for these kinds of practices to emerge, evolve, and grow.
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.