IMLab Summer Workshop. Photo Courtesy UCLA IMLab.
For the next in this series of interviews in conjunction with the SOCiAL: Art + Peopleinitiative of public programs, I sat down with Anne Bray (artist, organizer of SOCiAL and founder of LA Freewaves) and Fabian Wagmister (director of the Interpretive Media Laboratory, IMLab). Long-time collaborators and innovators in the use of new media to foster collective creativity, Anne and Fabian spoke about the roots of their practices in leveraging a rapidly changing media landscape to enhance a connection to place, foster dynamic community development, and create generative, civically-engaged networks in Los Angeles. They will be joined by fellow artists Pedro Joel Espinosa (IDEPSCA’s Mobile Voices), Vicki Callahan (USC IML), Micha Cardenas, and Shagha Ariannia (Long Story Short) in a panel and discussion at Chiparaki on Saturday, November 3rd at 1pm.
Sue Bell Yank: I think it would be helpful to get some background on LA Freewaves, and UCLA IMLab, what your overlapping interests are in terms of interactive media, and what you hope to explore in this panel.
Fabian Wagmister: The Interpretive Media Laboratory, which IMLab stands for, is a project of REMAP, The Center for Research, Engineering, Media and Performance here at UCLA. Fundamentally it focuses on collective creativity and participatory design as a way to bridge communities with a public design process for their own neighborhoods. So we’re very interested in finding a dynamic, fluid, meaningful process by which residents of a neighborhood engage the public process in terms of what’s happening to the neighborhood. We specifically focus on Northeast Downtown at this point, because we have a base there, which is Chiparaki (where this event will take place), and because we have established a partnership with California State Parks in relation to the Los Angeles State Historic Park. Largely the two concepts, really that are connected, is this idea of collective creativity. So we look at the community not so much as providers of content for us to make things about, but as the creators instead. We are interested in creating cultural architectures where that can take place. So the gathering of media, data, all the ways to find out visual expression, we release the power into the group that is doing it. Generally we do this in the context of engaged civic research, in that basically we look at mobile devices and technology as a research tool for the community, to use it to analyze what a particular public project is proposing, and then do what we call “citizen science.” This is to go out into the community and document the reality, and see to what extent it reflects, matches, or that the plan being proposed serves the needs of the community. Usually, similar to these other projects, we provide groups with the technological infrastructure to go out into the community and basically we look at the cell phone as a magnifying glass, as a sound analysis tool. We use sensors and additional technology depending on what people are trying to study. It’s not so much about making images–even images for us is a form of data that then people keyword, categorize, and it’s a way of thinking about their own environment.
For example, a recent project, we did a Summer Institute for high school students from high schools specifically around Northeast LA. For six weeks they gathered data from their own neighborhoods and then they were introduced to statistical analysis of that data so they could learn what does this data say about my neighborhood. They focused on a multiplicity of projects including sound pollution, to history awareness of their neighbors, to what extent are people aware of the history of their neighborhood, to a number of other things.
Read the rest of the interview here.
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.
Last week, the fantastic Justin Langlois of Broken City Lab asked me to answer this question for an interview series they are doing:
Is social practice, as a term or label, more valuable in extending the reach and possibility of visual artists, or more valuable as an articulation of an entirely different space and mode of production?
Interesting question, and I had a great time answering it. You can read my submission here.
The parting thought of my answer is that there is danger in the label social practice, the danger of false expectation - that everything will be fun, easy, feel-good, and bring people together. When in fact, social practice can often be challenging, disturbing, and deal with some really unpleasant subject matter, all to attempt to bring light to some injustice or rework societal systems from some different angle.
Installation of the map outside of LAPD headquarters. Suzanne Lacy, Three Weeks in January, 2012.
As a case in point, soon after I wrote this answer I went to Suzanne Lacy’s Three Weeks in January candlelight vigil and performance. This reiteration of her 1977 project Three Weeks in May visually catalogued the past three weeks’ incidents of reported rape in Los Angeles through an enormous map installation on the exterior of the LAPD headquarters downtown, accompanied by months of conversations with activists, educational seminars, performances, a sound installation, and various other elements that comprise a signature Lacy project. The culminating performance asked audience members to share their stories, reflect on the crisis of rape in individual lives and in the city as a whole, and finally to commit to a goal to end rape and sexual violence in the next 40 years. Most powerfully, generations of rape activists took the stage at the end after sharing some truly heart-wrenching stories that were difficult to hear, and more than once brought tears to my eyes.
Activists at the final ceremony for Three Weeks in January, January 27.
As squirm-worthy as it seems on the surface, truly examining this subject is a rarity in any forum, especially if one does not have to. It is easy to simply push out of one’s mind. But such is the importance of projects like Lacy’s and their power. As if to reinforce these thoughts in my head, one supporter of the project thanked me for being there. “This means a lot that you are here,” she said. “There are a lot of more fun events you could have gone to tonight.” She was right, but I wouldn’t have traded in my meaningful experience for anything easier or more feel-good.
Yesterday I watched the “Public Art” episode of Bravo network’s Work of Art: The Next Great Artist. Besides the ho-hum projects produced and the silly, shallow commentary, the reality show solidified for me (in a fairly formulaic way) the big problem with contemporary art these days. By the end of the show, I didn’t understand why the people who won had won, why the people who lost had lost, and why the person who went home was kicked off. This is a fundamental problem with the show – the stakes are all muddy, and it’s unclear that even the participants understand what they are being judged on, not to mention the general public.
And it’s not that standards for judging art don’t exist, they are just never clearly stated. None of the various fascinating problematics of art in the public realm – histories of site-specificity and conditionality, issues of safety and accessibility – were ever spoken about (yet participants were judged on those implicit conditions nonetheless). Nor was anything outside of a sculptural object ever considered, no historical precursors were discussed, nothing challenged set notions of public art. Mostly there was musing on the blue sky, the poetics of the gravel in the “art park” area where the work was sited, and a lot of inter-artist drama (it was a team challenge – enough said). The show is absurd, and it brings to mind something my colleague Nato Thompson said recently, “Art is fighting for scraps in a Red Bull world.” The pale version of art and artists (some of whom are probably quite talented) that emerges is stereotypical, and reinforces what most of the general public thinks anyway – that art hates people, and that artists are elitist jerks or pixie-ish sprites or control-freak bitches that have nothing better to do with their lives. It’s not even good entertainment, not to mention a blow to advancing a deeper general understanding of contemporary art.
This alienation is what I believe the form (if not necessarily the content) of social practice is responding to, in part. People don’t trust art and artists, or much of anything anymore, and creating legibility in art is still not super popular. The forms that arise from the best social practice projects emerge from deep and durational research, and are often hybrids or plays off of familiar, accessible non-art social forms or spaces – schools, events, lectures, gatherings, story-telling, parks, gardens, speeches, protests, coffeeshops, restaurants, clubhouses, neighborhood associations.
Yet these forms have incurred a host of inadequate art writing, because so much of social practice work is hidden, existing over a long period of time. Traditional object-based art writers, no matter how smart and observational they are, are simply not capacitated to write about social practice. Quoting Nato Thompson again, “Without data, the hard work, the critique, everything is a gesture” – which is in turn the major critique of social practice, that it is just a series of empty gestures. It is therefore de-legitimized, marginalized, and not taken seriously.
A sustained and collective effort must be made to write more responsibly about these projects, to attempt a fuller understanding (or at least point to the untold aspects). Hard work is required – extensive interviews, the collection of documentation, on-the-ground experience over time. I would like to think that most writers don’t phone it in, and I have encountered several that really make an effort, but the mindset that this kind of legwork is needed in art writing must be adopted. I would love to see more dual residencies, writers paired with social practice artists on projects over long periods of time, allowing for a space of reflection and analysis. With the proliferation of both social practice programs and public art & culture theory programs in graduate schools (especially in the West), this kind of collaboration is natural and needed. Perhaps then artists can be recognized for the cultural contributors and thinkers that they are, not a bunch of elitists that perform empty gestures for an uncaring public.
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.
Art and Beer Event at the Portland Museum of Art, Eric Steen
Artist Eric Steen, a recent graduate from the Social Practice MFA program at Portland State University, wrote me the following in an email yesterday:
“In this article by Kristina Lee Podesva, in Fillip Magazine, she mentions that Claire Bishop calls much of the work where artists are turning galleries into bars works that have a “Microtopian Ethos”…saying, “an artist re-purposes [the gallery] as a site of refuge from the real world (even though he or she attempts to recreate social interactions there typically associated with existing places such as the pub or community centre). In this way, this work does not encourage us to strive for a larger utopian goal—such as securing permanent and free communal space—but rather to sit back and enjoy, in whatever way we can, the here and now.”
When I think about my own work, it is the smaller interactions, the ability to build relationships and insert myself into another community that is a more effective process for relaying my ideas to a broader group of people. For me, the small act, the conviviality, the togetherness, are all actions that are activism. It may be quiet, it may be small, it may not impress anyone but the people to which they are directed.”
Mr. Steen’s thoughts got me to thinking about several themes I’d like to explore in the next few posts, including the role of the academy in art production (and society in general), and what Podesva calls “the pedagogical turn in art” – in which educational activities are utilized as artistic processes or products. I find this particularly interesting both in my capacity as an educator at the Hammer Museum and as a former public school teacher. In my present job, I work frequently with undergraduates and graduates studying art (at UCLA in particular, but also many of the other first-class art schools in the Southland). I find quite a rich territory where education and art meet – from the notion of the second-class artist-educator (thanks to artist Liz Glynn for that particular categorization), to the fact that museum education departments are becoming the de facto sites for social practices (i.e. public programs such as MOCA’s Engagement Party series), to the massive output of MFAs across the country each year. What do all of these factors mean to systems and hierarchies of art production? And what does it mean to have such a professionalized MFA program dedicated to Social Practice? (Note: I currently know of three. Otis’s Public Practice MFA, the PSU Program, and CCA’s new MFA concentration in Social Practice).
Mr. Steen, the product of such a program, seems to be rethinking the foundations of relational aesthetics as well as pedagogical practice in his work. Building relationships, sharing ideas, facilitating social interactions. I am immensely curious how his colleagues from PSU are operating, and what similarities might be drawn from their work. How are they analyzing communities, the public, their audience/participants? What are the activist qualities of these “small actions” Mr. Steen speaks of, and is their purpose to impress, or change, or cause revelation, or build connections, or pleasure? Should one measure such effects? How? What are the larger societal concerns and implications of this work? How is the process of social practice production and relevant theory taught?
So many questions. Attempting to address them will require some research on my part, but this wave of new social practice art graduate programs is fascinating, and I will continue to post my thoughts down the line.
One of the issues with art that is inherently based on social exchange is that these practices have not really been clearly examined or theorized. There is a tendency amongst art writers and curators and artists to smush together all kinds of varied “movements” like Dada, Fluxus, the Situationists, Happenings, relational aesthetics (a la Bourriard), and dialogical aesthetics (a la Kester). Not to mention the fact that a variety of very vague terms are used to describe these practices (community art, public practice, social practice, etc). I have found myself falling into this lazy naming, but I feel that I must start somewhere. Very simply, the language has not been adequately defined, and I hope to work through some of these terms in my posts.
So what exactly am I talking about? Perhaps some of the definitions of writers I look to frequently in my studies of these practices will help map out this fraught territory, and an iterative study of particular projects will help to illustrate the context. We’ll start with Nicholas Bourriard. The term he coined, “relational aesthetics,” now elicits snorts and scoffs, and has come to stand for a post-critical art of “congeniality,” a realm in which a bunch of lazy artists have learned that they can call dinner parties and beer-drinking “artworks” within a gallery or museum setting. “Found” parties rather than objects, injected without much thought or rigor into art historical discourse.
Free Beer - Tom Marioni
I believe, however, that Bourriard was getting at something that has since been colloquially lost in translation - some (but not all) of the art he talks about hits on questions of community, societal mores, the meaning of public space, and how economies or technologies shape day-to-day social interaction. This is interesting, but the “theory of Form” that Bourriard advances lumps these practices with those that concern themselves only with the social networks of the art world and pleasurable congeniality. This is problematic, and does a disservice to the works that are critically examining political and cultural contexts. The metric he advances is simply not adequate to make those distinctions.
Bourriard calls relational aesthetics a “theory of form” in his series of essays on art from the 1990s. He traces this in the historical trajectory of the avant-garde, positing that the “perceptive, experimental, critical, and participatory” models of current art are carrying on the “modernist fight,” albeit in the context of quite different societal presuppositions. He defines relational art as “an art taking as its theoretical horizon the realm of human interactions and its social context, rather than the assertion of an independent and private symbolic space.” These artworks examine social systems, and turn small exchanges into issues reflective of a broader society shaped by political, economic, and social mores. He calls the “arena of encounter” created by these works “a game” - in which participatory structures are modeled. He believes that this “arena” must be judged by its coherence of form, the symbolic value of the “world” it suggests to us, and the image of human relations reflected by it.
Rirkrit Tiravanija, Exhibition View, Secession 2002
Some of the works Bourriard describes include:
“Rikrit Tiravanija organizes a dinner in a collector’s home, and leaves him all the ingredients required to make a Thai soup.”
“Philippe Pareno invites a few people to pursue their favorite hobbies on May Day, on a factory assembly line.”
“Vanessa Beecroft dresses some twenty women in the same way, complete with a red wig, and the visitor merely gets a glimpse of them through the doorway.”
“Christine Hill works as a check-out assistant in a supermarket, organizes a weekly gym workshop in a gallery.”
“Pierre Huyghe summons people to a casting session, makes a TV transmitter available to the public, and puts a photograph of laborers at work on view just a few yards from the building site.”
We could add people like Liam Gillick, Adrian Piper, Tom Marioni, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, and Jens Haaning to this list according to Bourriard’s rubric - but I still feel uncomfortable lumping the practices of these artists together. Perhaps they are all part of some broader contemporary trajectory, but they each are concerned with such different realms of interaction. Relational aesthetics is a good start, a useful entry into these practices, but is just too reductive in its language. Rigorous social practice rarely begins and ends with friendly interactivity between an artist and a public. We are beyond relational aesthetics as a theory of form, because the form keeps changing and evolving. What we need is a deeper analysis of how artists are inserting themselves into realms that have never traditionally been spaces for art.
Every chance I get, I climb above the city and take in the panorama. Los Angeles is particularly filmic – the mountains, the ocean, the neverending density, the outcroppings of tall buildings ensure that every view is both picturesquely framed and overwhelmingly extensive. I had two recent opportunities to view the city from above – one from the ridgeline hike in Runyon Canyon and another from the roof of the Talmadge, an anachronistic 1920s brick apartment building in Koreatown. This second experience, perhaps because it was night and the city spread out like a glittering jewel beneath the terrifying sheer drop of the uneven and ancient (by LA standards) rooftop, reminded me strongly of Michel de Certeau’s deeply poetic “Walking in the City.” Indeed, the city was arrested before my eyes, and just as de Certeau wrote about the crests and undulations of the “urban island” of Manhattan, I found myself admiring the long Wilshire district of steel and glass and occasional brick and the city beyond. The light-studded hills of Hollywood loomed to my north, the post-industrial orange street lights and boxy structures spread to the south, with the rising terrain of Bunker Hill to the east and the long wide boulevards to the ocean stretched due west.
De Certeau asks, as I eventually did on my rooftop perch, “Must one fall back into the dark space where crowds move back and forth, crowds that, though visible from on high, are themselves unable to see down below?” He calls this “an Icarian fall.” The city cannot remain frozen in our view forever, and the pleasure of totalizing the city into a vista is merely a temporary delight. This divide between the wholistic conceptualization of the city versus the messy, complicated morass of spatial practices and feelings and people and overlapping communities and spheres of knowing challenges any visionary that wishes to effect social justice or change by engaging the political. There is always the discouraging Icarian fall, and the struggle to hold on to the totalizing vision that binds all the uneven fragments together.
I remember that divide as I engage in these writings, which will comprise an ongoing investigation into the complex social practices surrounding art. I will try, to the best of my abilities, to embrace complexity and conflict, to work through difficult and contradictory issues, and to always try to see both the rosy vision and the chaos of reality.
What do I mean by social practice in art? Primarily, this blog will focus on artistic practices that utilize social exchange as the main medium through which to express a concept. I am by no means a cheerleader of these practices – in fact I think they often lack criticality, and are plagued by vague or misused terms like “community art” and “activist art” and “relational aesthetics.” But I am seduced by the idea that art can be a catalyst, that it can offer a different way of thinking about societal problems, and that it can advance social justice. Perhaps this is naïve, and perhaps it is simply not possible. One thing I am sure of, however, is that such an idea will never be taken seriously without a critical and systematic investigation of art that claims this status. This social turn in art must be peeled apart into its many messy layers in order to lay the ground for the truly innovative to be recognized and built upon.