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Staying Relevant

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!

Excerpt:

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.

Interaction! Participation! Engagement! Production!

Harrell Fletcher. Gallery HERE, 1993-1995. Oakland, CA.

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 Рlike 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.

Ode to the Nitty-gritty

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I had two experiences in the past week in which students in a high-level pedagogical situation rejected all discussion of artistic theory or concept in favor of the nitty-gritty. In one, a workshop focused on Alternative Art Spaces and how they came to be (with excellent panelists Mark Allen, Julie Deamer, Lauri Firstenberg, Daniel Joseph Martinez, and Yoshua Okon), most participants were thrilled by the meaty conceptual discussions about motivation, intention, context and process – but a small percentage were upset and disappointed that no “worksheets” were given, no “practical advice” imbued.

The second was a discussion between students at one of the new “social practice” MFA programs out there and a well-known artist engaged in a community project. The discussion devolved from a conceptual and philosophical musing on process, adaptability, the importance of nimbleness, and the idea that preconceived structures rarely hold water for long in the real, complex world…into a demand for a step-by-step playbook of how to “involve” community partners more effectively. Without being privy to the many conversations, swirling politics, and difficult personalities involved, the students grilled the artist unabashedly – “Well, why don’t you just find a way to collaborate?” “Why don’t you figure out what they want and what you want and work within the common ground?” “What should be the five first steps to avoid these problems in the future?” These questions seem reasonable coming from the outside, but betray both a misunderstanding of community practice and a fundamental catch-22 – it is nearly impossible to gain an effective understanding of community practice without firsthand involvement, and nearly impossible to effectively critique a practice within which you are intimately entrenched.

Similarly with alternative spaces, there is no such thing as a play-by-play, a how-to for opening a successful non-profit. These things are dependent on people you know, the strength of your mission, your ability to express it, the appropriateness of your location, your relationship with funders, your prior experience. The only way to learn is by doing – and the smart participants of the workshop gleaned this from the very intelligent and experienced presenters. I would urge those who were not satisfied enough to go out and start volunteering at one of these spaces. Get down and dirty, get nitty-gritty. The best advice the panelists could offer was to go out and do it. Find a way. Meet people who have the skills you need and bring them on board. Talk, talk, and talk some more about your idea and get advice about how to implement it. That will probably lead to more questions than answers, but at least you will then know the right questions.

I am a teacher myself, but I grow tired of worksheets and playbooks and how-tos. I put on workshops to facilitate discussion of the conceptual and philosophical values that underly the best ideas. The nitty-gritty is where the rubber meets the road, and the nitty-gritty should be completely conformed to the philosophy of the project. You can’t teach it generally – it is inherently specific. So if you want to learn how to involve community – go and observe how someone tries to do it, from beginning till end. If you want to learn how to start an organization, go help someone do it. Or just do it.

Privileging Context over Aesthetics

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

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

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

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.