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Open Engagement: Does it end at art?

Gran Fury. AIDS activism poster by the Silence = Death Project, 1986. Courtesy International Gay Information Center Collection. Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.

Gran Fury. AIDS activism poster by the Silence = Death Project, 1986. Courtesy International Gay Information Center Collection. Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.

I recently participated in the ongoing Open Engagement blog project “100 Days 100 Questions,” which has employed many (100 actually) artists and organizers and writers in the socially-engaged art practice field to answer questions. As number 64, I was given “Does it end at art?” and my answer goes something like “No! Well…yes, kind of it does. But not really. Sort of.” Best kind of answer! Check it out.

When I first started thinking about this question, only cliches and tired arguments came to mind – perhaps indicative of how entrenched certain critiques are when discussing social practice. My inner monologue went something like this:

First thought––well, art can clearly be a catalyst for and contributor to social change. I can think of lots of projects–likePark Fiction in Hamburg Germany, which after many years years resulted in a park and became a paragon for participatory planning and right to the city movements; or work that proposes alternative societal systems while simultaneously exposing problematics, like Krzysztof Wodiczko’s Homeless Vehicles or FutureFarmers founded by Amy Fransheschini; or the viral political and iconic power of the graphics of Gran Fury during the Act-Up movement. So art is not an end, it’s a beginning. Who’s to measure the resonant power of political artwork anyhow, “social practice” or not?

And then the second thought reared its head––well, measurement is a problem and will always be a problem. Art has to be an end in itself, despite its social value, because otherwise it must be leveraged to meet metrics. It then loses its inherent risk capital, its experimental nature, its agonistic outlook––because art investigates the exclusions in society, the unforeseen, the imbalances and impossibilities––and would be fettered unimaginably by having to meet a standard. Any success realized by an art project according to some outside metric would need to be taken up by someone else, isolated, replicated, and built upon. This is not an impossible task––just impossible for art.

So I reach the third thought. Art is an end in itself, and here I go policing the boundaries of art, exactly the tired (and frankly, boring) exercise that I try rigorously to avoid when thinking or writing about social practice.

Read the rest here.

A Conversation with Justin Langlois

The below is a conversation between myself and Justin Langlois, Research Director at Broken City Lab, conducted over email this past month. Check them out at

JUSTIN: So, I have a quick question, with regard to your categories of social practice, where might you situate practices that are more overtly activistic? While a level of activism is likely most overt in the New Models category, I was curious about your decision to not include that word or that specific language in those categories — is it a matter of it being an inappropriate description, or just not nuanced enough, too much baggage? I have my own concerns with activism as an idea, but it’d be interesting to hear your take on it.

SUE: I think activist practices run throughout all of the categories that I put forward. Just a caveat – all those categories are quite malleable at this point, I feel that they are simply a useful starting point for discussion of some social practices, but they are certainly not the be-all and end-all. I do hope they change and gain more clarity as time goes on.??I feel that, as much as social practice draws from art history, it draws equally from other forms of cultural production. Clearly architecture, urbanism, planning, theater, sociology, even advertising inform social practice, and I would place the history of protest and activism (social movements) in that context. I wrote an article for the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest on anarchist activist practices and compared those forms to some forms of social practice. You can read it here – I’d be interested to know your thoughts.

I find that traditional displays of “activism” or protest is one form of many that social practice can take, and has taken throughout its history – but that the socio-political concerns that underly these practices remain similar. Some are more effective in a more “activist” form, while others accomplish their intentions equally well through other formats. Likewise practices that are ineffective – both those traditionally “activist” in their forms and otherwise. At the Open Engagement conference recently, one participant made the point that “protest in this country is dead,” and that social practice is a reaction to that reality, a new form of activism. I don’t agree with this at all, but I do think that traditional forms of protest are frequently co-opted (um, recent Glenn Beck “rally” in Washington DC on the anniversary of MLK’s “I Have a Dream” Speech is one possible example? or the “1984″ Apple computer TV ads?) thus perhaps diluting some of their effectiveness in certain situations, and I conjecture that social practice artists often search for different formats to advance social agendas as a result. Just my two cents on the matter.

JUSTIN: I really enjoy the way in which you’ve outlined the variety of forms of cultural production that inform social practice, though I wonder if that articulation disregards the more social aspects of a social practice as well as the pedagogical aspects informing a social practice. Your loose working-categories touch on this, but it would seem that the categorization you’ve presented there and the (intentional or not) categorization you offered around modes of production are different in their organization, and in turn, equally limit the potentials for activity and affectivity within these practices that become situated through that organization. I completely understand those loose categories as works-in-progress, I suppose I’m just pushing the issue to better understand for myself.

It’s interesting you bring up the example from the OE participant talking about his skepticism of protest. While I don’t know that I’d go as far to say that protest is dead (it is alive, though perhaps significantly under the weather or even terminally ill), I’m inclined to feel that traditional forms of protest are ineffective in advancing any particular agenda and for that matter, I think the abundance of examples of the co-opting of activism’s aesthetics are, as you’ve outlined, a particularly good example of this increasing ineffectiveness.

You brought up a notion that I’ve found continually helpful, which I first read articulated by Sam Gould of Red76 — that is, questions of effectiveness and sincerity in relation to activism and art respectively. It’s a bit escapist to suggest that the in-between is the most interesting position to occupy, but yet there’s something there that could use a better articulation (and in that, perhaps it is in the term social practice).

I might offer that while social practice may or may not be overtly presented as political, we certainly know that politics continually inform it, and for a more effective form of creative push for a social change, it may be that artists taking on new roles in existing infrastructures might provide the best way forward. It’s not a new notion, but perhaps an increasingly pervasive one. And, as you’ve outlined in your article, artists continuing to take on collective forms to present workable organizational structures also continue to present a glimpse of possibility for change that has a lasting impact (whether those structures have been translated to corporate culture or not; Apple is still Steve Jobs and Google is a “friendly” monolith without a face).
To attempt to ground this for myself, perhaps the development of artists as community leaders (a strange term) is the most appropriate way to articulate how I view my practice, and in turn, what I view as being the next step towards a practice aimed at enacting social change. So, while not nearly as radical nor pointed as the collectives you outlined in Between Art and Activism, I believe there is a lot of potential in actively and publicly being in a place and exploring its complexities at a level most appropriate for the person in question. In that, there is an awareness and activation of the process of critique of existing systems and ‘ways of doing’ though with a decidedly less overtly political methodology. Maybe this is similar to Mouffé’s ‘agonistic’ political thought?

SUE: I want to address my notion of categories, which I think is tripping us both up a bit, as helpful as it might seem on the surface. Ultimately, there is only so far that these categories can go – although I do feel social practices are informed by the various forms of cultural production which I have outlined, and once produced they can be slotted (albeit in an ill-fitting way) into helpful categories that improve our understanding of these projects, you are absolutely right in that there is no connection between these two. On cannot remix aspects of architecture, art history, and activism and preconceive a project like Project Row Houses, for example. There are indeed “social aspects” that shape the best and most responsive social practice work in unpredictable ways, and I think that zone of production-in-progress is where I am struggling to write thoughtfully. Perhaps primarily because that zone also requires the writer to become intimately involved in the experience of the project as it is happening to truly gain any kind of understanding. So often, we analyze a project only from the front end (its influences and historical precursors) and from the back-end (its relationship to other similar projects, its effects, its “category” or “movement”), but not situated in the midst of process. Therefore the project in its current snapshot form, whatever that is, becomes mystifying – or worse, seems reproducible when it is not.

This becomes especially urgent when we are dealing with projects that actually seem to have some success in affecting change – then we all start looking for the rule that doesn’t exist in order to somehow reproduce it. The best way I have found to think about this is to consider the science of emergence – how ants and termites (practically brainless) are wired to follow chaotic behavior patterns until a problem presents itself, or food is available, and suddenly they all organize to perform the most amazing engineering feats. Emergence also describes how cities gain their character (how suburban Monterey Park has the best Chinese restaurants around, or how a massive jewelry district emerged in one corner of downtown Los Angeles), and how thoughts form in your head from just a series of zapping neurons and synapses. We want to believe that someone is pulling the strings, that a great conductor has “figured out” how to affect a particular kind of change in a complex environment, but these examples are simply processes that form order from chaos in certain situations. We humans are a bit different than ants, because we are able to reflect on our actions, but even so there is no rule. Artists can be facilitators and catalysts, but that does not mean that any one person is able to bend a complex environment to their will. The best we can do is what you so appropriately call “active being” – and there is something sticky about that process. Being there, in a place, investigating its histories, its resources, and reacting with thoughtfulness. This work is necessarily reactive and reflective, and thus exponentially difficult parse how it came to be. We all search for heroes, though, and it is so much easier to applaud the artist than to find out why and how the project emerged in exactly the way it did.

For more on emergence, I would highly recommend the 2007 Radiolab podcast about the subject – you can find it here. Thanks to Justin Langlois for his thoughts and for allowing me to reprint them here.

A Tale of Two Conferences Part II: To Art or not to Art?

Last week I left off with a question that arose in the Open Engagement Conference in Portland – should social practice artists get rid of the “art” altogether in their practices? Watts House Project was recently counseled by a fundraising advisor to do just that. “You can raise way more money and have way more impact as just a community development organization rather than an arts organization,” were her words of advice. “Impact” is the key word in that sentence. Is it true? Is it the “art” label that holds us back from affecting real change?

There is an aspect other than monetary to consider as well, which I noticed in the furrowed brows and distraught expressions of social practice artists at the conference. To art or not to art, that is the morally-inflected question many of these young artists are trying to work through. Certainly, works that are inherently participatory and aim to be expansive or community-based or even (gasp) aim to affect real social and political change, will involve audience and participants that do not have an art historical background or language, or indeed any way of locating what they are encountering as “art.” This was precisely the reason that Ted Purves’s project Temescal Amity Works presented itself as “storefront” or “clubhouse” rather than artwork. I heard from several artists that they shied away from even calling themselves “artists” when working in communities, even if they considered the work part of their practices, because they inevitably encountered intense distrust. The insularity of the art world, the unwillingness or the inability to rationally explain things in an accessible manner, the “sceney-ness” that another colleague told me he despised (and that’s from someone inexorably entrenched in the art world!), this culture of obfuscation has brought us to this place. No wonder artists are wondering if they should even call themselves artists, or what they do, art.

I return to Ted Purves, and his answer when confronted with this question. “Yes, it makes it more complicated [to call it an art project],” he said. “But it is what it is.” This was a little unsatisfying at the time, and I mulled over the question for about a week. Last Tuesday, I attended yet another conference, this time the enormous American Association of Museums conference in downtown LA’s convention center. One of the keynote speakers at that conference was Peter Sellars – UCLA professor and theater director extraordinaire who gave a well-known talk (but one that I had never heard before) entitled “Art and Social Action.” Besides just being an incredibly engaging and passionate speaker, Mr. Sellars made the important point that the deepest things in life must be addressed culturally – you cannot legislate or mitigate them. His example was a recent rash of teen suicides in the bush of Australia, and that neither cops nor judges nor social workers could affect the pattern, but that artists could. What art provides is meaningful empowerment, a reason to live, and a future shaped by vision rather than fear. This process is not a mass experience, but a person to person encounter, which art can also provide.

He spoke about how our culture privileges the “objective gaze” of neutrality and indifference – from journalism to public schools. Art, he argued, provides the ability to turn an “eye of equality” on our world, a transformative gaze of love that sees with moral energy and understands one’s responsibility to the world. He also said:

Art touches the deep chord of the thing you always knew, inside of you.

Art is the act of recovering your humanity.

Art can create the safe place that empowers people to face and recognize their fears.

This poetic vision of art as being core to the way we live in the world rather than additive or privileged, encapsulates the value of art to social practice. Some things, indeed, can only be addressed culturally, and this interior value provides distinction that give these practices the potential for deeper meaning and wider breadth than projects that exist without the “art.”

A Tale of Two Conferences: Part I


The three days I spent in Portland for PSU’s Open Engagement Conference were blessed with perfect weather, and the city seemed lush and magical. I’d never been there before, and the public space, preponderance of bike racks, walkability, used bookstores, independent coffee shops, and general greenness seemed like some kind of fevered wish fulfillment. By day three, I have to admit, it started to make me a little uncomfortable – and I began to notice the homeless people, the pervading slacker attitude among youth, the distinct lack of creative industry, the claustrophobia. Still, Portland to me seemed like an natural fit for a conference on socially-engaged art practice, and such a livable, participatory, socially-conscious city (at least on the surface) is a fitting incubator for the students of PSU’s Art and Social Practice MFA program, started by artist Harrell Fletcher three years ago. I only hope that such students make it down to Los Angeles after graduation, after their teeth are cut. We could use them in this messy, unplanned, dystopic concrete jungle.

The conference itself was a noble endeavor and a mostly fun gathering, albeit imperfectly organized. But what isn’t? There were probably a few too many parallel sessions and a few too many dispersed and too loosely connected artist’s projects on the program – if anything Open Engagement was maybe a little too open and could have benefitted from some focus and editing. There were great people at the conference that I would have liked to talk to, but once the big sessions and talks were over, everyone seemed to dissipate into the Portland ether, and I ended up hanging out with the same five people for most of the weekend.

The space for thought and the sharing of ideas around this nebulous term “social practice” was created, and organizing the conference under the term itself allowed a like-minded group of people to explore common experiences. As Harrell Fletcher put it, it was a place for social practitioners to have some “alone time” without the studio people. I enjoyed my first day, particularly Mark Dion’s keynote talk about cabinets of curiosities. Although I didn’t feel it was revelatory in any way, it covered an anthropological/library science practice of object collection and display that I find pleasing. He made an interesting point at the end that touched upon a core theme that would arise over the course of the conference – the idea that the artist is a dilettante in the oldest sense of the word, i.e. curious about everything. Dion cautioned that it is dangerous to have a society where only experts can talk to each other, and that social practice artists, who often work within other disciplines as well as art (sociology, ecology, architecture, urban planning), must learn the discourses of these other fields and create bridges. On the other hand, this provoked for me an episode of “This American Life” from the past year called “A Little Bit of Knowledge,” in which the dangers of only knowing a little bit (about finances, about real estate, about science) can get you into a whole world of trouble and depress high levels of discourse on a grander political scale. This is indeed a conundrum that is underscored throughout many of these social practice projects.


The next panel I attended could not have been a starker contrast – called “The Ethical Implications of Social Practice.” The introduction by Connie Hockaday, a documentary filmmaker and artist, jumped right into a highly questionable reading of social practice and why it exists. She made the point that the rising interest in social practice is due to the ineffectuality of protest and dissent in this country – but whereas protest and dissent functioned within an ethical framework, social practice (and art in general) does not. I found this essentializing view of social practice quite disturbing. This type of art practice is inherently complex, and is taken on for a number of different reasons. Though many practices that fall under this rubric are politically motivated (as protest would be), such practices have existed alongside rather than in place of protest for decades. Not only that, this art functions under the same ethical system that guides the justice system in this country, and does not exist in some otherly, nebulous realm. I take issue with critics who frame arguments in this way, like Claire Bishop, who popped up again in Matthew Rana’s presentation as the panel got started. Aesthetics vs. Ethics, social practice should not be judged on an inherently Christian set of ethical values alone, because then that privileges the intention of “goodness,” so then there is no bad social practice. This kind of argument gets you into a theoretical head space that removes you so far from these actual practices that little is applicable or relevant to the practices themselves. I maintain that social practices must be experienced and then written about as case studies that embrace all the complexity of the work. Only then can ethical implications be picked apart and revealed.

Needless to say, I got a little red-faced and worked up, and then I just became so utterly bored hearing the same old Claire Bishop run-around, I had to get up and leave.

I made it back into the panel just in time for the wonderful Ted Purves’s explanation of storefront project called Temescal Amity Works involved in the distribution of free fruit and exchanges of information and services in a diverse Oakland neighborhood. One audience member took issue with his point that because the project took the form of a storefront, everyone could access it, and it was unnecessary to explain that it was an “artist’s project.” The woman in the audience angrily asked why Purves and his collaborators would keep the “artist” angle rarified, and not engage in a discussion of why the project was or was not art with the general public. Purves’s answer highlighted the problematics of critiquing social art in this way – the project has gone on for two years, and obviously it is impossible to characterize every exchange as one thing or another. Doubtless there were MANY conversation dealing with the meaning of art in the project over that time period. But the bigger question that arose, in this panel and throughout the conference, was “why not get rid of the art altogether?”

I have heard this refrain over and over, from multiple people and contexts at this point. If you get rid of the art, it uncomplicates things, the division of art world vs. real world knowledge disappears, it is easier to raise money (in some cases), it erases the elite status bestowed upon artists – they just become regular people trying to help rather than imbued with some kind of special insight. These “art world” complications are uncomfortable for many young artists working in this field, and many are figuring out different ways to deal with them.

I didn’t have a good answer to this question at the time, and it wasn’t until a week later, at the American Association of Museums Conference back in sunny LA, that I began to feel strong conviction in the negative.

Next week: A Tale of Two Conferences: Part II, or Don’t Get Rid of the Art.

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!


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.