An Interview with Artist Steven Husby

April 27, 2013 · Print This Article

Guest Post by Robert Burnier


After seeing Steven Husby’s exhibition, BRUTE FORCe, at 65GRAND, I had the opportunity to catch up with him and ask if we could dig a little deeper into his process. There were several aspects of my earlier writing on his show that I wanted to hear more about from him, but it seemed to me that certain activities of his outside the studio and gallery were also of interest. In response, he very generously took great care in his answers, giving us substantial insight into his motivations, ideas and ways of approaching a studio practice.


Robert Burnier: When would you say you first began to explore the notions that led to the kind of work you’re doing today?

Steven Husby: I would say that I’ve flirted with pictorial recursivity, deductive structure, and something like absolute opacity for years. The house–painterly way I work really started in undergrad as something to aspire to and something to work against. A kind of pop–inflected formalism was in the air – and I was young and impressionable. Over time I’ve generally found it to be worthwhile to give myself over to the more excessively restrained aspects of my practice, probably because I’m not a particularly neat, linear, or orderly person, but I like what happens when I try to behave as though I were. I think I was first attracted to limits both as things to provide traction and as things to be subverted in some way. I found as soon as I practiced these things, the force generated through restraint was greater than I could ever achieve without it. The channeling, focusing, and projecting of force – whether from inside or out – is absolutely key to the whole project.

RB: How do you feel about the use of concepts from science or mathematics in a work of art? Are they intrinsically important to you in some way or do they act more as metaphors on which to hang other concerns?

SH:  Well on the one hand I sympathize somewhat with Joseph Kosuth’s early position on these things – on the face of it these concerns are external to whatever the ‘art’ concerns may be. But from that standpoint so is form, beauty, and meaning – critical or otherwise. And though I sort of love the perverse absolutism of that, I wouldn’t want to go so far as to say that these seemingly external concerns are not relevant – they are; however, I think you’re correct to key in to them as metaphors. I’m not a scientist or a mathematician, and I have no formal training in anything like those fields. If anything – I would say that although I’ve had a ‘crush’ on math and science from an aesthetic standpoint for so long that I can hardly remember not being intrigued by the imaginative possibilities they suggest to the laity, I have almost no innate aptitude for the practice of either. I’d say I’m passably adequate with numbers, and although my studio practice entails some small degree of discipline and rigor, it pales in comparison to that required by even the most rudimentary scientific method. I think what has allowed me to move forward in my practice has been remaining open to the possibility that potentially nothing is external to it.

I think at first I thought that I was only ever interested in these strict pictorial procedures as perverse, radically artificial things in stark juxtaposition to everything else, and in the expressive potential of choosing that sort of perverse limitation as a resonant gesture. But I’ve also always really loved designing things and making and looking at objects. I believe in the work as this weirdly sincere gesture that somehow enfolds a healthy amount of skepticism. I’ve often been too proud to spell out my intentions, so as a consequence the work can be read as purely formalist or procedural, or in some way simply ‘about’ structure or something like that. And I believe that it is not really my place to say that it’s not. Sentence meaning takes precedence over speaker meaning. But then why painting? It’s a very specific choice. I’m getting bolder about putting forward my own rather more emotionally loaded interpretations of my work as I’ve gotten more comfortable seeing more kinds of things as internal to it.

RB: What things were most important to you as you prepared to arrange and install the work for BRUTE FORCe? And what got you onto the idea of making those posters instead of the usual show card?

SH:  I knew that I wanted to show the big red painting, and the rest of the decisions proceeded from that one. I had begun work on the black and white paintings when the show was first proposed several months ago, but I hadn’t originally intended to show any of them until I had completed all sixty-four in the set. My original idea was to show the big red painting, and a group of small collages on the wall that is now occupied by the black and white paintings, but that idea fell by the wayside fairly quickly, as I realized that the collages just weren’t going to hold that wall, and the idea of presenting the first eight of the sixty four paintings I began working on towards the end of last year just made more sense as something that could actually hold their own across from the red painting.  I had recently completed the second four, so when the opportunity presented itself I couldn’t resist the temptation to exhibit them earlier than I had originally planned.  Progress continues on the remaining fifty-six, which I will show in partial groupings as I complete them.

This leaves the inkjet on canvas, which extends my investment in photographic imagery which began in 2009 when I began taking photos in the course of my daily life like a lot of people do, and experimenting with ways of bringing that kind of imagery into my exhibition practice. I’ve always liked how the really opaque geometric paintings looked in rooms – what they do to the space around them as these relatively unmodulated pictorial objects breaking up the contingency of real space. And I’ve always liked how the paintings looked paired with other people’s photographs – so at some point the idea of “sampling” the real in that way just made a lot of sense to me – so that’s where that decision comes from.  The poster is just a natural extension of that process of sampling, formatting, and juxtaposition, in this case of graphic with more atmospheric sorts of visuality. The title also came pretty early on – though originally it was going to be something like Brute Force: Coming Attractions. The text on the back – “This Is Not a Blog” – is one I wrote over the course of a couple of years for my website not long after I began maintaining one – also in 2009. I think that process of maintaining a website – the initial excitement, and eventual ambivalence I began to feel about its implicit demands and limitations – led me to where I am now with respect to my attitudes towards contemporary image culture, and the pressure that that exerts on our perception of paintings as objects which occupy a peculiar site of intersection between ourselves as embodied physical beings and ourselves as beings looking, passively watching, seeing into and through everything, comparing images to images.


Untitled AC, 2012, acrylic on canvas, 24 x 30 in

RB: When you move from paint to, say, inkjet, what kinds of issues are raised for you in the use of those differing methods? In both cases the surfaces are just immaculate and consistent, but is there something fundamentally questioned here or do these questions reside on a level other than craft?

SH:  That’s a surprisingly difficult question to answer. With both I feel I’ve been engaged in a kind of pantomime of external limitation. Compared to many other painting practices I’m aware of, mine has consistently been much more seemingly de-subjectivized in many respects. And yet I’m not really interested in renouncing subjectivity at all – far from it. I’ve never thought of myself as a pure formalist. My work has been placed in those contexts, and I’ve never felt like it was appropriate for me to say no to that aspect of how it reads. But nonetheless, I often find myself articulating my concerns in weirdly formal ways when what’s called for is some kind of subjective or objective narrative, and in weirdly narrative and anecdotal ways when what’s expected is greater tact I suppose. As much as I seek out limits for their expressive potential, I’m never not chomping at the bit. I suppose that’s what it means to seek limits for their expressive potential.

I think my work is full of all sorts of ‘tells’ that it’s not just a matter of beauty, taste, decoration, or craft. I’m very much of my generation – between the super restrained anti subjective artists who emerged in the nineties under the influence of the pictures generation, and the super–subjective, affect heavy painters emerging now. I started using opaque color and hard edges when that was what the painters I respected seemed to be doing. It made more sense to me than trying to be a gestural painter, and I wasn’t alone in that. But I have to emphasize that I always loved ab-ex, and even more the really unfashionable stuff that came later like color field – specifically Louis. But then around ’98 or so, when I was nearing the end of my undergraduate education, right around the time I started seriously diving into more ambitious literature around contemporary art, painters like Ingrid Calame and Monique Prieto were getting a lot of positive attention. And a painter friend of mine turned me on to the work of Gary Hume, and it just made sense to try something like that…to try on some kind of obviously artificial restraint, rather than just keep layering imagery and processes relating to everything I was thinking about and responding to all the time into a finite number of surfaces. What I was doing before I ‘discovered’ opacity was something like a clumsy, handmade version of Raygun Magazine. It had it’s moments…but what I found by limiting my methods and imitating what I was capable of imitating at the time was something that felt much more mine in a way I could actually stand behind without feeling totally feeble and awkward. I feel like what’s been happening in my work the past couple of years is that I’m finally finding ways to slowly find a place in the system for all the impulses I had to restrain in order to find the system in the first place. This process of opening and diversifying also happens to coincide with my introduction to teaching (not coincidentally.) So I’ve been giving myself permission to think like a student. To try things…to try on things which I don’t necessarily ‘own,’ the same way that I didn’t ‘own’ flat color when I began using it in the late nineties. I don’t own inkjet on canvas, or half tone images. That stuffs just in the air, and if I think I can do something interesting with it I’ll try. The same goes for writing, making posters, blogging.

But to get back to your question – what the inkjets and my earlier adopted approaches to painting share is a certain degree of apparent impersonality – which I don’t so much attempt to shatter or disrupt as find myself inevitably doing in a weirdly personal way, which is what I think makes it interesting and confusing to take in, and really hard to narrativize succinctly.

RB: How and to what degree would you say you incorporate chance into your working process?

SH:  The answer to that question hinges on whether or not one believes in chance. On the one hand, randomness is real. On the other – it is only part of what feeds into the stream of what we call ‘chance,’ which is where genuine randomness and selection bias intersect. I believe in keeping my options open, following my impulses – allowing them to act as a lens or a filter. I don’t believe that the act of arbitration is necessarily an act of self–expression, and to the extent that it is I’ve found it more helpful not to try not to be overly censorious of it. But editing is still very important to me. I see recursivity everywhere these days, but that doesn’t mean that it’s always visible. I think for some of us, our task as artists entails keeping an eye out for it, and sharing it when it shows itself to us from our vantage point.

RB: For the red painting, do those shapes come from somewhere in particular, or is that pattern the result of interlocking circles?

SH:  I arrived at this more or less ubiquitous pattern – which I later learned is called Seigaiha – through a process of simplification of previous, more idiosyncratic drawings. The drawings I paint from are always virtual, which permits me to work fast and loose with structure without loosing sight of the whole, and allows for global changes (inverting values, distorting the entire drawing in a consistent way, etc) without losing anything I might find a use for. The way I begin drawing is almost always the same. I build a very simple pattern – usually a stripe gradient – alter it’s structure in some way – then cut and past fragments of the altered pattern back onto itself, crop and repeat. Sometimes I’ll come back to an older drawing and change something simple about it, and a new body of work will spring from that. In the case of the wave pattern – I was working with perspectival gradients distorted to form parabolas converging on a single point – like Saturn rings. I was cutting and pasting these patterns onto themselves – mirroring them, etc. The patterns that emerged from that suggested much simpler patterns, so I thought I’d see what would happen if I just drew those, using interlocking circles, as you suggest. I was curious what would remain if I stripped away some of the more sophisticated topologies the computer enables me to access. I was also looking for ways to try out more fallible kinds of marks, and these simpler patterns suggested themselves as appropriate vehicles for that.

RB: You seem to have an alternate practice of developing multiple tumblr blogs that are linked to your website. They don’t appear to behave as continuous logs as much as they resemble carefully chosen artist’s notes. Do these relate to specific bodies of work or perhaps mark plateaus in your thinking? How would you see us experiencing them in relation to the objects in your studio or in a show?

SH: I started playing around on tumblr about a year ago. I haven’t been able to devote as much time to it recently as I did in the beginning – but this seems pretty consistent with many people’s experience of maintaining a blog, so I’m not overly concerned about my temporary neglect of it. My step dad recently asked me how I manage to follow through with time consuming studio projects – and an artist friend asked me a similar question with regards to the big red painting in the show at 65GRAND. My answer to both of them was that I find that it’s really helpful to maintain several projects at different speeds and different timbres simultaneously so that each can act as a relief from the others, enabling me to follow through on each one in due time. This is true to what I learned in graduate school, which for me was process of pulling things apart and allowing them to stand by themselves without having to be all up on top of each other in one piece. This is still how I like to work. Tumblr’s really great as far as that’s concerned, because it’s something I can literally do while I’m waiting for paint to dry. But on a more serious level, which I’ve attempted to address elsewhere – on my blog “a little less democracy,” – the tumblrs are a way for me to gather and collect, circulate and redirect things that are floating around our culture. I try to be savvy about how I use it, not simply passively participating – but it’s not always easy to tell the difference. In part I think I’m using it to teach myself how to be as savvy as I can about images. I’ve found it a lot harder to shoot photos  – “from scratch” let’s say – since I started using it. You get a lot more picky. And it’s easy to get a lot more interested in playing with the relationships between what’s already ‘out there’ than with adding more images to the pile. It’s all so seductive and yet so ephemeral and insubstantial. The relationship between that insubstantial current – a kind of dreamtime – on the one hand – and the resistant density of paintings and objects and bodies in space on the other – is pretty interesting to me. I’m no expert – but when I give myself over to it (tumblr) it feels like I’m learning something – though what that is exactly is pretty hard to define. I think it has something to do with creating – or generating meaning passively through a kind of visual aikido – rechanneling the others’ force, which ties it back to my more strictly painterly pursuits.

RB: Given the sorts of wide-reaching ideas you like to think about, to what extent do you focus on histories – personal, artistic, cultural – as being ruled by extra-historical forces? Is there a link between these notions and, say, a blog title such as “a little less democracy”? In that case, I don’t see you as so much making a political point as just wondering aloud whether everything is in merely a matter of fluctuating opinion; that some things, if not universal and transcendent, at least move at much slower rate.

SH:  For sure. I’m definitely in tune with the notion that politics as it’s discussed in the mainstream, and practiced in the voting booth is epiphenomenal. I’ve always liked Ecclesiastes, and identified (perhaps a bit too much) with the spectator position. The older I get, the more I see that there is no spectator position, yet I also feel like I see how in the big picture our individual agency amounts to very little – we’re all spectators of a great deal of the structures which determine how we will spend our time on this planet. Things get done collectively. Masses move and are moved. Demographic biases are real limits in the world – real forces moving through bodies that have to be accommodated. In that regard it seems nothing short of miraculous to me how much more progressive people have been persuaded to say they are on things like gay rights recently. This is a hard won and incredible step forward in many respects. At the same time, it’s deeply disappointing that masses of people must be persuaded to accept what ought to be self–evident. This is sort of where the title of my primary blog comes from – I’m a little suspicious of the “democratic impulse” if there is such a thing. It seems like a con.  And of course the defenders of democracy are absolutely correct – it’s the worst form of government –except for all the other ones that have been tried. At least it’s less obviously sadistic than outright dictatorship. But still…I’m an artist, so I’m predisposed to be suspicious of community. It’s been very important for me personally, and as an artist, as a child of the Midwest, to learn to not anticipate and accommodate my natural opponents before I consider how things seem to me from my own vantage point. It’s an ongoing process.

This interview was conducted via e-mail in April, 2013.

Steven Husby’s exhibition, BRUTE FORCe at 65GRAND, continues through May 11.


ROBERT BURNIER is an artist and writer who lives and works in Chicago. He is an MFA candidate in Painting and Drawing at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and holds a B.S. in Computer Science from Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania. Recent exhibitions include The Horseless Carriage at Andrew Rafacz Gallery, Salon Zurcher at Galerie Zurcher, New York, the Evanston and Vicinity Biennial, curated by Shannon Stratton, and Some Dialogue, curated by Sarah Krepp and Doug Stapleton, at the Illinois State Museum, Chicago.

Studio Visit: The resalvaged ecosystems of Mara Baker

April 26, 2013 · Print This Article

Mara Baker is a self-described student of deterioration and reside and their roles in different modes of aesthetic production. She’s trained in both painting (SAIC) and fiber arts (Cranbrook), and the interplay between the two fields formally drives much of her work, particularly the paintings comprising her contribution to the the upcoming SideCar exhibition Just Like All Those Times Tomorrow (May 4-June 1). The group show, which combines new paintings from Baker with collaborative ceramic work by Nathan Tonning and Amanda Wong, is focused explicitly on artistic use of discarded materials and Romantic and modern conceptions of ruins.


Real and Fake Things II, various foams, found residue, and acrylic, 2012

Baker has a deep and sustained interest in these thematics, but it’s her obsession with systems– self-contained, breaking down, sustainable— and her interest in the history of her materials that consistently draws me to her work, rather than just her interest in debris as medium. For example, in a show this fall for which she and I wrote a collaborative zine-essay, Baker made tiny, exquisite collages composed of album cover remnants from a pile of records she found in a warehouse where she was installing another show created from another group of found objects. Baker is now experimenting  with creating sound files created from playing the broken records, combining them in auditory collages. The reiterations of her systems play with notions of ecological sustainability, creative destruction, and the role of the artist in keeping material animate past its intended lifespan.

But where her work has often been performative and installation-based, Baker has firmly moved this year into making paintings, and her current “residue” work, which will be the basis for the SideCar show, and which is composed entirely of past work–Baker is decidedly unromantic about breaking down and sacrificing previous projects for the sake of experimentation– is unquestionably taking up painting’s problematics.


Still Life With Apples, foam, carboard, acrylic and other found residues on canvas, 2013

In the “residue” series, spray paint and glass create transparent layers that give recycled materials “a new history,” Baker says, “creating a sense of space without building up.” She’s deeply interested in the interplay between the real and the representational in mixed-media work, and the paintings often employ representational images like blurred photographs that formally reference abstract elements. Where previous two dimensional work has been sculptural in its formal approach, she finds such materials can create space and depth without losing the surface of the picture plane. “Still, I’m most successful when piling, wrapping, and removing something.” She points out a few paintings that have abstract white space, either scraped off or added to the top of her layered images—what Baker calls “the conceal, something underneath you can’t see” that creates somewhat “quieter objects.”


All Of The Above, cardboard, plexi, acrylic and other found residues on canvas, 2012

The removal of materials, particularly through scraping, also takes up Baker’s long-term interest in information and entropy. Removing parts of the picture  is a canceling out of information, masking out particular places and forcing focus on others. It’s also a terrifying part of the process. “Predictability isn’t good for me,” she explains, showing me photographs of earlier versions of paintings that felt to her overworked. Most of the failed paintings ended up as raw material, torn up in careful piles in her studio, to be utilized, along with spray-painted tarp from past projects, in new distillations. Being able to find something and being able to save everything border on obsessions, and Baker’s own memory forms yet another archive. At one point she shows me a multicolor map of the approximate locations of oil spills that struck her years ago; many such images form a latent visual vocabulary in her head while she works. Baker’s studio thus forms a kind of ecosystem in and of itself. “When I first started making work, my paintings were about expressing and working with family history as material,” Baker muses, “but now I feel that way about the iterations of my work.”

The paintings, too, often carry the memory of previous performative installations about risk and disintegration; the black straps holding three layers of glass and painted linen together keep one painting on the wall as precariously as Baker’s 2008 installation “Internal Weather,” which pumped tinctures of acrylic paint through plastic drinking straws until they exploded. Some of that four year old residue of painting and soap lives as colored stains in the new “little worlds” of her current work. But when I ask her about recreating the past, Baker draws a firm line: “You can’t just recreate anything. You have to set up particular conditions for it to happen.”



Fake and Real Things, III, plastic, foam, found residues and acrylic on canvas, 2013

Top 5 Weekend Picks! (4/26-4/28)

April 25, 2013 · Print This Article

1. Forlesen at The Renaissance Society

Picture 1

Work by William Pope.L.

The Renaissance Society is located at 5811 S. Ellis Ave. Reception Sunday, 4-7pm.

2. Anyone Who’s Everyone at DOCUMENT


Work by Suara Wilitoff.

Document is located at 845 W. Washington Blvd. #3f. Reception Friday, 5-8pm.

3. Breathing at Tritriangle


Work by Hiba Ali, Evelin Garza-Luna, HaeJoo Jung, Eunice Kim, Robin McKay, Peter Nichols, SunMin Park, Nathaniel Stone, Liang Su, Sarah Verhoeve, Blanche Vivian Villarouge, Jason Williams and Darya Zorina.

Tritriangle is located at 1550 N. Milwaukee Ave. Fl. 3

4. the fiction is outside at PSA Projects


Work by Dan Paz.

PSA Projects is located at 2509 N. Lawndale Ave. Reception Sunday, 8-10pm.

5. Apocalypto Nouveau at Firecat Projects


Work by David Tanimura.

Firecat Projects is located at 2124 N. Damen Ave. Reception Friday, 7-9pm.

Steven Husby: BRUTE FORCe at 65GRAND

April 25, 2013 · Print This Article

Guest Post by Robert Burnier

Untitled, 2012 . inkjet on matte canvas . 60 x 48 in

Untitled, 2012, inkjet on matte canvas, 60 x 48 in

Normally when you think of covering all your bases it’s a way of being non-committal, of hedging your bets. But in Steven Husby’s case, it is precisely the opposite: showing different sides in order to invite you into a world and a mindset that can’t be contained in one object. In this way he takes a leap of faith beyond becoming enamored of any one approach to his work. Even the title of the show – BRUTE FORCe – seems meant in this inverted sense. It refers less to a domineering position than to exhaustively being open to a wide range of possibilities, to traverse as many combinations as one can.

This, then, seems to be both the form of the show and its central investigation. On view are the different worlds that can emerge when even a single aspect of each has been changed, and when we look in toward the building blocks of a certain “fact” of existence. We see what could have happened, and find the minute aspects of our situation in altering the path our universe can take.

For example, a set of eight meticulously crafted canvases of shaded triangles installed in a grid on one wall offers relationships where something in one is not like the other. We can determine that they are related somehow, and if we keep going, it is possible to suss out the entire potential set – exhaustively, as it were. But it could be otherwise, so a closed system like this also stands, in a way, for infinite alternatives. The surfaces are exquisite, displaying a minimal sense of touch. Brush strokes are sumptuous but also absolutely registered directionally to one side of each triangle, in a fusion of organic movement and idea.

Another canvas of interlocking red semicircles seems to be totally defined except for the notion that it could go on forever beyond our comprehension and that the color has a subtle, airy modulation which is actually quite unpredictable. Color here conveys other senses of openness. Speaking with the artist at his opening, he said he took care not to wear a favorite yellow shirt so as to avoid “fast food restaurant” associations. So clearly, the subjectivity inherent in this aspect of the work isn’t lost on him.

An inkjet print of a severely blown-up, half toned image rounds out the show. Ostensibly, this could have been the most distant of the works given its totally mechanical origins, but I found it to be as luscious as any color field. The discrete dots seem to gain more character as they are enlarged, and whatever image they represent dissolves into a sort of mock-expressionism. The practical uses for the half-tone seem subverted, giving us access to their blunt reality while allowing us to wander freely across the gorgeous, delicate, matte surface they generate.

Husby’s work is a studied exercise in emergence and the way that severe restrictions can somewhat paradoxically throw subtle expression and gesture into great relief. Having a foot in the minimalist tradition, there is an emphasis on the presence of the object in front of us, but not to convey any absolutes about this or that thing, self-contained, so much as to be a platform to experience a more expansive potential outside of what is there.


(For an in-depth interview I conducted with Steven Husby about the work for this exhibition and his practice, check back with Bad at Sports this coming Saturday, April 27th!) Steven Husby’s exhibit, BRUTE FORCe, is on view at 65 Grand until May 11th.


ROBERT BURNIER is an artist and writer who lives and works in Chicago. He is an MFA candidate in Painting and Drawing at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and holds a B.S. in Computer Science from Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania. Recent exhibitions include The Horseless Carriage at Andrew Rafacz Gallery, Salon Zurcher at Galerie Zurcher, New York, the Evanston and Vicinity Biennial, curated by Shannon Stratton, and Some Dialogue, curated by Sarah Krepp and Doug Stapleton, at the Illinois State Museum, Chicago. He also serves as a museum departmental specialist at The Art Institute of Chicago.

In Conversation: Social Practice Queens

April 24, 2013 · Print This Article

Social Practice Queens (SPQ) is a collaboration of the Art Department of CUNY Queens College and the Queens Museum of Art with the goal of developing an MFA pilot program in Social Practice.  The vision is to serve as a model for education in this field by combining the expertise of a group of artists, administrators, educators, and those engaged with local issues specific to Queens, NYC, one of the most complex and multicultural urban centers in the world.  

The first cohort of SPQ students began the program in spring 2012 with a semester-long introduction to the Corona, Queens neighborhood and its newest public space, Corona Plaza.  The Queens Museum and its organizers have been instrumental in transforming Corona Plaza into a programming and organizing platform for the community, and have been actively collaborating with the students in the development of their projects, which are set to launch this summer.

And, plans are afoot for a conference in the spring of 2014 in the QMA’s new expansion wing that will emulate aspects of the Open Engagement conference at Portland State University, but with a decidedly NYC flavor.

SPQ collaborators Prerana Reddy and Jose Serrano of the QMA offered some insight into this experimental partnership, and what it means for the collaborating institutions, students, and community stakeholders alike.

Juliana Driever: You chose to name this a “social practice” program, though there is a bevy of other ways of calling this work: new genre art, socially engaged art, relational art, et cetera. Is using the word “practice” a way around using the word “art?” Are you interested in pushing this kind of work beyond a specifically art-oriented dialog?

Prerana Reddy/Jose Serrano: The choice of the words “social practice” was more pragmatic than anything. There was no deliberate distancing from using the word “art.” It had more to do with acknowledging the growing community of practitioners that has come to identify with this particular terminology.

What we did spend a lot of time on was discussing what form of ‘social practice’ we could excel at, and how that might end up in our branding. So there were ideas ranging from ‘urban social practice’ to ‘critical social practice’, which would have been intended to highlight the kinds of artist projects that address the complex urban fabric of a place like Queens, or signal a stronger critical-political component, respectively.

JD: There are a handful of other “social practice” (or similarly dubbed) MFA programs in the U.S. The interest in this discipline as a course of study seems to be growing. Do you think this creative interest has something to do with the larger state of social relationships, a shift in the state of art pedagogy, or a conflation of these and other circumstances?


SPQ graduate student Seth Aylmner collaborates with the youngest artists of Corona toward the creation of a bronze sculpture for Corona Plaza. Courtesy of the Queens Museum of Art and Queens College Art Department.

PR/JS: There at least as many answers to this as people involved in the initiative.  Some might say that the development of these programs has to do with simply fulfilling a need, as more students identify with this type of work and are looking for graduate degrees…

There has been an increased pressure on arts and academic institutions to define the benefits they provide to society at large. In an era of economic crisis, there is always a pressure to think of arts and culture as a luxury that can be cut.  I think there is a genuine belief on the part of those who work in these institutions that art provides not only educational benefits, but a cohesive and inclusive space for a healthy and engaged civic life of the communities that they work in and with. In a time when public space is increasingly privatized and policed, it behooves artists, designers, and public intellectuals alike to work together to strengthen the public sphere. Social Practice emerges at a time in which what practitioners know intuitively must be expressed more concretely and analyzed more rigorously.

JD: Unlike other social practice MFA programs, SPQ is in direct partnership with a major museum, which is a unique set-up for an MFA program to start, but even more so given that much socially-engaged art typically takes place beyond museum and gallery contexts. Does the QMA’s investment in this program also signal a shift in the role that museums play in support of such work?

PR/JS: At the Queens Museum of Art, we are constantly striving to examine whether the avant-garde in the realms of art and politics can actually meet. Can an art project simultaneously address aesthetics and concrete social goals in public space? This is a constantly evolving process, one that must be responsive to shifting demographics, economic conditions, political will, unplanned crises, and a constantly unfolding definition of art. Unlike the confines of the gallery or contracted set of artistic services rendered in non-museum spaces, engaging in complicated social relations in the “real world” involves a surrender of control over outcome as well as some amount of risk. This is not something that all museums want to enter into or are well-positioned to do.


Families read together at the UNI Project’s Mobile Reading Room at a Community Celebration at the newly designed Corona Plaza, 2012. Photo by Neshi Galindo.

 However, equally, if one is receptive, such projects provide invaluable input in the context of a long-term, iterative experiment in local knowledge production. It also requires staff with specialized training and social networks outside of or in addition to those found in traditional curatorial or museum administration spheres. For example, the QMA staff includes two community organizers, three art therapists, and more than twenty teaching artists whose backgrounds and language repertoires mirror the diversity of our largely new immigrant neighbors. QMA’s exhibition program consistently exhibits artists who work collaboratively with our community members, and our partnerships include municipal agencies, local advocacy organizations, health care providers, urban planners, local business associations, and public libraries.  Furthermore, these staff must be consistently present in community spaces and events, and possess the intuition, social skills, and social capital to overcome communication barriers and historic mistrust of arts institutions.

Participatory public artist projects exist within triangular set of relational dynamics amongst the Museum, the artists’ projects, and audiences. Museums have curatorial and social questions that are motivations for commissioning such projects: the development of new species of artists residencies within museums as labs for investigation; mutual education and different modes of interaction; the changing understanding of the mission of museums and their responsibility to the cultural vitality and health of local communities; the visibility (or invisibility) of participatory art practices and their relationship to traditional gallery exhibitions and experiences; and the role of documentation, presentation, and new digital and interactive (web2.0) technology in the life and dissemination of such emerging practices.

JD: Because “social practice” implies an inherent nature as an applied art, is there the desire/need for the equivalent of a “materials and techniques” handbook or something such? In a very practical sense, how does one approach teaching this area of study?

PR/JS: We don’t necessarily have a “unified theory” of how to teach this work, because it depends so much on context, but we’ve been doing a lot of experimenting.  First, nothing is more important than lived experience.  It is important to encourage students to develop projects and actively participate in the initiatives of others, including more experienced artists but also with people and organizations in other fields that align with their interests. The museum provides “these points of access” for students to enter into ongoing projects as they unfold and to meet a wide variety of artists, organizers, and administrators at various points in the process of “social practice.” But we have realized that there are important community organizing skills that seem to be relevant to most of the student projects. QMA’s Public Events Department is also “on-call” to advise students how to manage permits, navigate city agencies, work with CBOs, find necessary technical services or advice, which are also key components in this type of art practice.

Maureen Connor, one of the lead faculty of SPQ, recently instigated a social practice pedagogy group that is jointly developing an introductory Social Practice syllabus with other NYC and East Coast faculty this Spring. They have been meeting weekly since mid-December and are teaching the course while developing it. In addition to Maureen, the group includes Caroline Woolard, Scott Berzofsky, Robert Sember, Mark Read, Laurel Ptak, Sasha Sumner, Shane Aslan Seltzer, and Susan Jahoda.

JD: Taking human relationships as a medium and a context is an undoubtedly tricky thing. Have you identified/partnered with key figures from Corona to help facilitate projects with the students? What has been the community involvement and response to this initiative and its projects?

PR/JS: That “permaculture” approach has been a kind of ideal for Corona Studio, and into this context we introduced SPQ and the first cohort of students. In the spring of 2012, the first SPQ course was based out of Immigrant Movement International, and was focused on the transformation of Corona Plaza.  It was called: “Corona Studio: Transforming Corona Plaza” and was opened to both graduates and undergraduates in both the Art Department and the Urban Studies departments at Queens College.  Throughout the semester, we invited some of our most valued community partners as visiting lecturers to help the students develop “listening tools” that would help them have meaningful conversation with the stakeholders of the plaza, and in doing so, learn to see the potential for creative interventions in a more holistic community context. Over the course of the last year, the students have remained connected to the community by participating in many of the museum’s ongoing public events in the Plaza, and by carrying forward their own creative projects in Corona with the support of the Museum and its partners.  Many of these projects will culminate with public events in Corona Plaza throughout the summer of 2013.


Community celebration at the newly designed Corona Plaza, 2012. Photo by Neshi Galindo.

For example, Barrie Cline and Sol Aramendi, two students in the program, are collaborating on a project with members of the community organization New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE), a long-time community partner of the Museum which advocates for the rights of recently arrived and often undocumented immigrant workers in Corona. The first installment of the project will culminate in the launch of a publication showcasing the writing and photography of the members of NICE in collaboration with union tradespeople from the Harry Van Arsdale School for Labor Studies, an institutional connection offered to the project by Barrie Cline.

JD: A criterion common to some of the most successful community-based projects is sustainability: the desire and ability to stick around in a community for an extended period of time. How have you considered encouraging a meaningful, lasting relationship between the students, the college, the museum, and the community?

PR/JS: We’ve had the opportunity to think about this question quite a bit, as the Museum has invested a lot of time and energy addressing the sustainability and health of our relationships in the community of Corona.

Over the last eight years, we have had an actively cooperative stance in terms of our community relationships, and have developed a strong network of over 40 community partners, some of which participated in creative collaborations we proposed to them — for example, working with one of our commissioned artists, or co-producing a cultural event in Corona Plaza.

Corona Studio was born from a desire to sustain these creative relationships, by committing ourselves to a program of commissioning long-term artist projects that are actively interested in working creatively and cooperatively with our community partners in Corona, and the people of Corona at large.


Workshop at Corona Plaza by Change Administration and DSGN AGNC. Courtesy of the Queens Museum of Art and Queens College Art Department.

The first of these commissioned projects was Immigrant Movement International, a cultural space initiated by Tania Bruguera that is going into its third year and has become the de-facto home of many of the local cultural groups that we have been working with throughout the years, like the Corona Youth Music Project.  We have also developed long-term projects in Corona with the Ghana ThinkTank artist collective, the Change Administration, and DSGN AGNC design collectives in the context of the transformation of Corona Plaza. In the case of each project, our goal was for it to benefit from the relationships developed by the ones that came before, and for it to pay it forward to those that come after.

So for example, Immigrant Movement International became an active partner and the host for many of the gatherings organized by the Ghana Think Tank, and the social projects surrounding Corona Plaza.

We have been thinking about the question of sustainability not simply in terms of each of the individual projects, but also in terms of their fluidity and openness to connect with existing relationships and resources, and their willingness to re-invest their community energy into subsequent projects, as well as other locally-driven initiatives.

Each participatory art project allows new, often unforeseeable, partnerships and projects to emerge based on the skills and insights learned through their interactions both with the community collaborators and the Museum.  The community who participates in those projects might shift their perceptions about what art is and what roles it could play in social life, what types of personal transformations it could bring about in terms of self-perception, new social interactions, and political possibilities. The challenge then becomes one of capacity and commitment: how to continue to build upon these possibilities and to remain accountable to partners beyond the lifespan of a project or a grant cycle that supports it.  On the evaluation side, it is difficult to understand the impact of such projects. Exit interviews, final reports, surveys, and the like represent a very small slice of what takes place in a participatory art project, somewhat like a single frame in a serial scan of a longitudinal social process. Ultimately, we believe the engagement approach of any institution is necessarily situated in both ecological and ethical terrains, in that such endeavors live within a dense, interconnected local environment as well as a set of contested value systems that must be constantly negotiated towards generative rather than reductive outcomes.