On March 22nd, I had the fortune of seeing the Thai contemporary artist Rikrit Tiravanija lecture at USC. I was quite excited by this chance, especially because I had frequently read about Tiravanija’s work as theorized by others, particularly Bourriard and his seminal book on relational aesthetics (and thus heavily categorized and polarized over time through that lens) but had never had the chance the hear the artist speak in his own words about his work.
After studying only the now-canonical and much imitated cooking-food-in-galleries projects of the 1990s, I was pleased to learn about Rikrit’s more recent work, and to hear it described in its complexity of possible meaning and process rather than as relational aesthetics. It actually gave me a new perspective not on the aesthetics of relations or social exchange, but rather on labor and distribution processes as related to the aesthetics of protest and activism. Not at all what I was expecting.
Rikrit’s practice is evolutionary in its iterations, often seizing on a theme or way of working and building upon possible tendrils of meaning, form, distribution processes, and contexts over a series of exhibitions and projects - and responding to the restrictions and frameworks of an institution or art context in the process. His current work can be traced to a process he has since worked with in many variations - collections of traditional images of protest from around the world (hand-made signage, peaceful and violent gatherings, rallies and marches) clipped from newspapers and then carefully re-drawn by art students in Thailand and elsewhere. These collections of images are then displayed in myriad contexts within institutions around the world - framed as works on paper, fabricated into silk-screened wallpaper, drawn as collaborative wall murals over the course of an exhibition, translated into sound and pressed on to vinyl records, etc, etc.
Alongside this, Rikrit has begun to experiment with the fabrication, distribution and display of that most ubiquitous and anonymous vehicle of protest imagery, the t-shirt. Sporting tongue-in-cheek phrases like “No Country for Old Prime Minister” (distributed and photographed at the Bangkok protests of 2008), or “Less Oil More Courage” (which has since made its way on to Greenpeace tote bags), these shirts have most recently been fabricated by art students in a makeshift pop-up shop in Gavin Brown’s space in New York, and displayed in “parades” (not protests or marches) on the backs of teenage models in art fair contexts. The slogans, a jumble of appropriated, submitted, and made-up phrases referring to a variety of social issues and protest contexts, are gathered haphazardly into the frame of art before just as fluidly migrating out into other frameworks and lives.
Rikrit embraces and lays bare these distribution methods of activist imagery dedicated to social change (of the t-shirt, the newspaper, the hand-made sign, the protest gathering, the gallery, the art edition, the art fair spectacle), as well as issues of labor and authorship - and this, what I believe to be the most compelling and critical aspect of his work, is also what opens him to the most vitriolic criticism. After his talk, a young MFA student attacked Rikrit for using the labor of “Thai children” to produce his work, for failing to produce anything with the trace of his own hand (i.e. Walter Benjamin’s “aura”), for ethical irresponsibility and charlatanism.
Authorship is one of the greatest sticking points, again and again, when it comes to social practice works. Surprisingly, it comes from a much younger generation of artists (today’s MFAs) than one would expect, and the anger and confusion behind these “authorship” questions is sometimes palpable. It would be a little too easy to blame this young artist himself for just having a screw loose and dismiss his comments - his rage was palpable and I have felt it elsewhere - and it speaks to the state of the very system that Rikrit is attempting to address through the transparency of his methods. Young MFAs are often doomed to work as studio assistants during their best years, and resigned to a difficult life of adjunct teaching positions, the struggle for recognition, and the pressure to produce ever more cutting-edge commodified objects. Clinging to self-expression and craft and authorship is a very natural reaction to the life that these artists are very likely entering into.
Yet by this very token, artists like Rikrit are creating critical art by questioning the anonymous power of protest imagery in those contexts, re-appropriating that anonymous imagery to an artistic context and applying complex layers of authorship and distribution to it (like licensing phrases/slogans for free to Greenpeace, selling t-shirts for $10-20 that could be considered art objects that are fabricated by art students, clipping media images and applying the hands of artists, albeit student artists, to their reproductions and selling them under his name and then redistributing that money back to the student artists…). Rather than attempt to assert or remove himself, rather than insist upon a false frame for what he does, Rikrit navigates the many complexities and contradictions of these very systems of aesthetic distribution, influence, and power - embracing them and peeling them open. Anger is a natural response, but it should be leveled at the contextual processes Rikrit so masterfully identifies and lays bare rather than the man himself. This work is so much more than cooking food in galleries and congenial conversation - it implicates each of us participating in this art world context and beyond - with a smile and a wink.
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.