Fernweh Thinking Traveling List. Photo Jessica Gogan

Gibran Villalobos’ Fernweh List. Photo: Jessica Gogan

“Social Practice” has caught on as a name, as well as a practice. I’m relieved to see relationship aesthetics (Nicholas Bourriard) dropped from the vocabulary list along with the litany of terms: new genre public art (Suzanne Lacy), dialogic art (Grant Kester), participatory art practices (Claire Bishop), more recently art of social cooperation (Tom Finkelpearl), and others of a collaborative, community, or group persuasion. Maybe it has taken us 20-some years to arrive at a name, not because we didn’t try, but because the practice itself has been evolving and this name works.

Social Practice evokes Beuys’ Social Sculpture, while practice is more open and active; it’s also less cumbersome than socially engaged art practice. It can hold a variety of ways of working and making, thus avoiding the critic’s urge to nit-pick definitions and lock in characteristics which inevitably shortchange the art and pigeonhole the artist into what amounts to a style. [Look for our exhibition in September 2014 at SAIC’s Sullivan Galleries that will bring the social practice artist into the gallery, not to document what happened out in the world but to engage the gallery as a still-critical space of, yes, “engagement.”]

2. Fernweh Community Meeting, Helmsdale, Scotland. Photo Jessica Gogan

Fernweh Community Meeting, Helmsdale, Scotland. Photo: Jessica Gogan

So being in a journey—a five-day itinerant think-tank across the Scottish Highlands—I found that our interlocutors, whether arts professionals or engaged community members, were quite comfortable identifying themselves with Social Practice.  This project was called “Fernweh,” so named by my co-curator Claudia Zeiske who founded and runs Deveron Arts in Huntly: a 4000-person community in northern Scotland that, as we traveled, loomed large as a model of social practice where “the town is the venue,” and to us became larger as well as we visited communities ranging from 200-to-600 in population (save the city of Inverness). Claudia is German-born but a couple decades ago found herself in this place that to others could have been a backwater, a no-place, but became an opportunity for her at the right time in art. As someone from one place living in another–a familiar contemporary condition– Claudia satisfies her desire to know other places and fed her continued quest to travel (Fernweh), while holding on to the memory of home with an occasional longing (Heimweh). Together these German words give a sense of one’s shifting between “farsickness” and homesickness. We might think of this as an unsettled state of being nowhere, in limbo. But we can also think of it as occupying a third space, the Buddhist empty or open space, in which we take neither location for granted and bring an awareness, an awaken-ness, to the experience at each pole and all in between.

Each place we went people embodied their place.  Lumsden was a disperse population seeking a commons; Helmsdale was the story of the Clearances reborn as cultural identity; Skye had a prehistoric lineage complete with dinosaur bones and sense of connectedness across islands of settlement; Inverness was about placemaking through artworks and events; and Huntly had accrued a connectedness to the world through a remarkable history of artists’ residence in this place.

While as a group of eight curators we traveled and talked among ourselves, when we arrived at each location, we were shown what those there wanted to show off, to be known by. Each stop was about that place’s particularities. Of course, that is what we do when we great a guest: we take them to the tourist places we otherwise never get to; we repeat the adages and defend where we are; we occupy our place to a heightened degree.  Then we had a discussion that the resident arts organization constructed on topics which, sequentially, were: collaboration + dialogue, community + place, travel + remoteness, the urban and rural, hospitality + visiting.

Helmsdale, Huntly, Inverness, Skye. Photos: Jessica Cogan

Clockwise from top left: Helmsdale, Huntly, Skye, and Inverness. Photos: Jessica Cogan

This brings me back to that term Social Practice, which I like, but which I hope in using it we do not forget about community. “Community” is different than the wider and less specific “social.” It is a term I embraced launching “Culture in Action”. Community is people, and the people we visited loved their places. They weren’t looking to get out or escape them. In these small places there was a sense of sharing that place with others, even if not in regular communication. We observed gatherings in which all generations took part, and were astounded, even if by our experience class was more consistently middle. I can look out my window in Chicago and know there are thousands of people in view. I don’t know any of them, though I suppose on some level we are a community. In these small places, there seemed a consciousness of who community was, even if in these rural locations they were not in sight. Maybe most significantly, for us as visitors privy to locals’ discourses, we sensed a commitment to community, the wish to identify as a group and share some common goals by which these places can evolve and live into the future. This meant that in each of our discussions, they asked large questions of their small places. This is a Social Practice, but community is at the heart.

So I won’t advocate for a different term. Social Practice suits me just fine, and I think it can serve us in this field well. I’d just add a caveat: remember non-spectacular places along with the big cities, practioner-artists everywhere as well as the social stars, and the purpose of it all in individual lives as well as art history.

Street Farmer's Market

61st Street Farmer’s Market


One more note in closing this social practice blog series for badatsports: community just started anew here in Chicago with the season’s reopening of the 61st Street Farmers Market. It was born out of art as an open practice—Dan Peterman’s Experimental Station  that keeps evolving as a community of artists and citizens at an uncommon intersection. It has a lot to say to places in the Scottish Highlands…and elsewhere…and they to it. Together they are a big community.

Mary Jane Jacob

Mary Jane Jacob is a curator and Executive Director of Exhibitions and Exhibition Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her latest book is Chicago Makes Modern: How Creative Minds Changed Society.

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