Jason DeCaires Taylor, Silent Evolution.
“Did you hear about this underwater sculptor?” my husband asks me the other day. It is rare that contemporary art makes it on his radar, even in his rapacious daily Reddit investigations, so I was intrigued. He had come across a story about it on a blog called “Messy Nessy Chic.” The author starts: “If this doesn’t give a much needed boost to tourism in Mexico, I don’t know what will.” The post describes the work of artist Jason DeCaires Taylor, who installs life-size cast concrete human figures on the sea bed (mostly in the Caribbean) that act as slowly evolving artificial reefs. His latest work involves 403 figures spanning 420 meters. There are lots of high res shots of marine life obscuring sculpted faces, a spangle of anemone spewing from the pates of anguished frozen fishermen, a barracuda circling a child’s head. Women in bikinis blowing kisses, the artist himself, muscular, in a wetsuit. Arms crossed on a boat.
The mediation of art has been a fact of our world for a long time, ever since Walter Benjamin wrote about art’s technological reproducibility starting with the invention of lithography. Beyond physical replication, though, the facility with which artists and artworks manipulate, utilize and are defined via their mediation has merely become reflective of the ways we all exist now, through narratives we create and that exist entirely through the refracted shares and likes of a viral feedback loop. Art that claims to have some social or political efficacy (or a pretty straightforward environmental utility, in the case of DeCaires Taylor) can make a good story, and mediated narratives can be an effective means to distribute the symbolic power of a work that may not otherwise reach anyone.
I don’t know enough about coral reefs and ocean ecology to know how effectively these underwater sculptures are mitigating habitat loss. My hunch is not very much. These sculptures are less a solution than a poetic concept that changes our perception of the world, as is the traditional realm of art. What really interests me about socially-engaged art, and what distinguishes that art from something like DeCaires Taylor’s work, is that it does not stop at that – it wishes to (as Dont Rhine from Ultra-red put it eloquently) “not only change our perception of the world, but change the world we perceive.” This is not a judgment but rather a shift in understanding of the role of art, and its catalytic potential.
Therefore, the role of media in these projects shifts dramatically, becoming more of a counter-agent to the work itself. In a symbolic practice (Pablo Helguera distinguishes this from “actual practice,” some sort of scalable change intervention on society, and cautions that most socially-engaged art encompass both rather fluidly—both the “change in perception” as well as “change in the world”), media can increase audience and facilitate a perceptual shift in absentia. It can likewise mischaracterize the work, essentialize it or simply have a bad opinion of it, but because of the work’s purely symbolic potential this does not necessarily diminish its ability to shift perspective. It has no effect outside of the slippery realm of the symbolic, and whether you love it or hate it, the work is what it is and it says what it says (to you).
This is quite different in the case of socially engaged artwork. In work that strives to make actual impact on the world, that is co-produced with a temporary community, as part of or in spite of its symbolic potential, media can play a devastating part in undermining the work’s interventionist capacity (especially if it treats it as a cipher, emphasizing only its symbolic nature). It can do this in several ways. First, media tends to speculate on and predetermine expectations and outcomes, which can poison a co-productive process from within. Its narratives function best with an uncomplicated hero or visionary, which ascribes a role to the artist that he or she may be actively trying to avoid. It can place the fragile process of building trust amongst participants and the tentative construction of community within a fishbowl, wherein outside pressures and attentions can collapse a nascent collective. It can heighten existing divides. It can take time and attention away from the work at hand.
This is not to say that no good comes from media exposure (acceptance, interest from authorities or those in power, deeper understanding, financial support and resources) but it is a bit like playing with fire. It can’t be well-controlled. What happens when it goes up? Who gets burned?
Next week, two projects affected by different kinds of media inflagrations (one positive, one negative), and what it meant for them.
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.