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.
Emily Lacy performing at the Occupy Bailraiser event at Machine Project in Echo Park, December 4, 2011.
Emily Lacy is a Los Angeles-based musician, performer, and sound artist. Her work with music and performance creates resonating layers of sound that have recently infused several Occupy solidarity events in the city, and her experience at the raid of the Occupy LA encampment deeply affected her thoughts and feelings about the movement. Below she describes both her intellectual thoughts about the movement as well as her embedded bodily emotions in a fluid and articulate narrative that is, at once, both heartbreaking and hopeful.
What are you making/interested in making with regards to Occupy LA & the Occupy movement in general? Why?
EL: I’m interested in making sounds and music that supports protesters. In some cases, it means bringing music to spaces that are not even thinking about Occupy, like a random DIY music show I might be playing. In other cases, it could be making sounds in the background of a march or protest to facilitate unity and harmony among people and ideas. Sound and music are such flexible mediums that they work well in these contexts. The music can take on traditional forms of song with guitar and voice, or more experimental soundscape-type-of-material, with megaphones I discovered that can loop and play back. The music runs the spectrum from folk to punk, to art music, or sound art.
What role do you feel you/your work plays in interfacing with the protest? What role would you like it to play?
EL: I’m not sure what role it’s playing or will play in the future. Let’s say that the outcome is to be determined. I can only say that I want to contribute to things in a positive fashion. I look around and I see a world getting darker, and these protests have given people like me hope that things could change for the better.
Many recent actions are highly performative - how do you think these “perform” inside or outside of the Occupy context?
EL: Well, I think a lot of the aspects of the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protests in themselves have been very performative. The whole idea of a 24-hour protest comes off to me as very much like a performance. They are durational in the way that a lot of long-form performance or music is durational. Anything that then takes place at the site becomes an act of performative protest, people having a working group meeting for example or preparing a meal for protesters - those acts in themselves become performative in my view. They serve practical, immediate purposes but also act as a symbolic protest because of site-specificity. Camping as a performance I think is something that has come to light. Also there have been amazing actions like the Chicago protesters who collected trash from the site of a foreclosed home and then delivered the trash to Bank of America’s doorstep and eventually its lobby (Bank of America had foreclosed on the home). That was an action that really spoke to me. Also, recently protesters lay down in front of a gala in Washington, D.C. and put red carpets over their bodies, effectively suggesting the partygoers would need to walk all over them (and the entire 99%) to enter the festivities inside. Those are powerful gestures to me.
I think as major encampments have been raided what I am experiencing is a distinct lack of continuous performance: lack of duration, lack of continuity within the performative framework of a 24-hour protest – that has now been effectively silenced. It was like a flame that didn’t ever go out, the tents were constantly performing, but now they have been slashed and pushed down into another kind of politics.
Artist-actions, or people who identify as artists, and their performative actions that have taken place inside or outside of Occupy as protesters, it’s interesting to think about. I was happy that Pete Seeger at over 90 years of age joined protesters in New York recently for a midnight march. It’s very inspiring to feel that thread from him, someone who is a great hero of mine. It’s interesting too that within the language of Occupy, very serious issues of labor are being brought up all around us, and very visibly within the art world context on many levels. For instance the letter that was circulating in relation to Marina Abramović’s performance at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA) by someone who had auditioned and was offered a job within the Abramović performance, I thought that had very interesting implications. There were also art handlers protesting Sotheby’s because they were asked to take a paycut while their CEO takes home 60K a day. A day! That was one of the first times in this movement that I started to feel things dramatically on a strictly mathematical level. It does not seem right to allow these kinds of labor relationships to exist.
I think great performances can help us ask questions, or can help us find the courage to ask questions that we most desperately need to ask: am I doing enough to contribute to this moment in time? Are my rights in danger? What lengths will I go to for justice? Have I become a zombie by my acquiescence to the state of things as they are?
How do you feel the AAAAAA list (or other Occupy artist affinity groups) operate? What role do they play? What are the challenges or benefits of these groupings?
EL: The AAAAAA list has been great for me in that it has created a sub-community of artists within the Occupy context in Los Angeles. It has created a place for dialogue and support, and that’s very useful to me. I’m grateful to the people who’ve made it what it is. I’m curious to see how it, and the movement, develops over time.
There has been criticism of the Occupy movements and the horizontalism of the General Assembly – a polyphony of voices and lack of clarity in message or goal. What are your thoughts on this?
EL: I think it’s great that it has created a sense of equality. At these things, it doesn’t matter how rich you are, or what your job is. You have a voice because you have a voice. America, like the whole world, is complicated, but I think what’s great about Occupy among other things is you see a kind of cross-continental and cross-regional sort of global solidarity coming out of this. You hear a language of unity instead of one of competitiveness or divisiveness. When is the last time you heard of people in Egypt marching for protesters in Oakland? We are marching for each other across city, state, and national lines. There’s a power in that idea that we are all in this together. I still think the broader ideas of Occupy are just emerging, almost as if we are moving into this translation-like stage, where we are moving from one language to another and the meaning isn’t totally clear yet. It’s like a state of mutation. Maybe this is what change looks like. Criticisms around lack of clarity I think relate to a culture that is used to sound bites, and a two-party system where meaning is very easy to deduce on the surface. I think the goal of Occupy is pretty clear though: Let’s make a system that works better. Now the process and the attempts at getting there, to a better system and a better dialogue, sure those might look messy because they are messy. Therapy is also messy, but do we criticize people for trying to help themselves in that context? The movement and the General Assemblies are something like the forming of a people’s union, a way to surface grievances and provide support for each other, though we all work for different people.
The contestation of space (and particularly public space) has been brought to a head in encampments around the country. What are your thoughts on this, and how do you feel about the ways Occupy protests have continued? How do you think the Occupy movement should respond?
EL: I think it’s a scary time. Witnessing the raid at Occupy LA was really educational for me as a citizen of this world. I thought a lot about the power of ideas, and the danger an idea can take on when it stands for something that’s viewed as radical, or highly political in nature. In this case, as in many others, we are talking physically about camping tents. Fucking camping tents! But the tents are a symbol for this kind of call for justice, the tents are a symbol for a movement that is saying the current system must be confronted for what it is: corrupt, broken, suspicious. The tents we’re saying we will not let these things go unnoticed, we will sleep outside until we fix this. Imagine if the tents were doves, symbols of the peace movement. Imagine if you saw 1400 riot police moving into slash and destroy living things. What I saw that night when the police came in and established their position was incredible, it was a shift in power, and thus in ideas. The physical removal of people and things changed the power dynamic and thus the dialogue, and in that way it felt like a kind of spiritual violence. Even though they didn’t use tear gas, it was still violent. Because they took the park away (legal or not) they changed the current exchange of symbols. They took away a statement. They took away a dangerous idea. I saw something removed and extracted that night and it felt so terrifying. I had never felt so physically like the enemy before. These sites are being treated as crime scenes and that is very alienating. I will never forget some of the things I saw that night. It’s not the same as watching something on TV, there is a danger and a violence that exists in the flesh I can’t describe otherwise.
I believe it is important to witness these things. Even if you don’t plan to be arrested, we must bear witness to these acts which are taking place around us. We must bear witness to the churning of ideas and dialogue, and be willing to see in person when a great shift of power or space is set to be contested. Responding to a photograph or video footage will not do the trick. It’s not the same as witnessing injustice firsthand. Shifting the experience of the movement and the protests back into the physical body, from the realm of ideas, is a different experience altogether. It’s a different reality because you fear for your life in a different way. You fear for the implications of your physical body. Maybe what I saw challenged my view of the relation of the body to ideas. We must witness that, I believe, if we are willing to succeed in this.
How should Occupy respond? By not giving up, by building something important again. By standing together. By inventing new ways to protest. By continuing an active dialogue that is totally relevant to our daily lives.
What are your own hopes for the Occupy movement?
EL: My hopes are to end up in a world that is more reflective of my values. I believe I should have the right to dental care and health care, without question. I have teeth that have literally fallen out of my mouth due to neglect. We’ve acquiesced to a system that allows this. I haven’t had a physical in over 5 years, since I last had health insurance through a job. Even then I was exploited through the costs of insurance I was required to pay at that point. I believe that going to college should not have been a 125K economic mistake. I believe that we should not be exploited at the hands of those at the very top, for relationally sick economic gains. I’d like to know that my mother will not have to work till the day she dies to survive, and that she’ll have affordable healthcare through the rest of her life. I’d like to live in a world that reflects these things. I want people put before profits. This is the struggle I see articulated in the Occupy movement. And it is a struggle. It’s also not just about humans either, our planet and our environment are too being looted for profit. I want the looting to stop.