Thus far at Open Engagement, I’ve heard no discussion around the terminology of social practice, or specifically what to call “social practice.” The conference at large seems  presently unbothered by the nomenclature of its  discipline. It’s quite refreshing, actually. Perhaps it means the terminology is settled, or perhaps because the conference is organized by PSU’s Social Practice MFA Department, the department inadvertently sets a precedent for how artists define their methodology in this particular context. Earlier this week Mary Jane Jacob’s made a similar observation on Bad at Sports, outlining a good list of terminology options, along with their point of origin, and thereafter drawing the conclusion that, “Maybe it has taken us 20-some years to arrive at a name [“Social Practice”], not because we didn’t try, but because the practice itself has been evolving and this name works.”

While suggested terms continue to crop up, (relationship aesthetics, new genre public art, dialogic art, participatory art practices, participatory art, art of social cooperation, live art, service media etc.) the discipline itself  continues to evolve as well. It seems possible that the artist practitioners might be less invested in the politics of terminology and more interested in what is at hand, what is commonly understood as the best term which will supply a shorthand meaning to a given listener: practically speaking, what term to use when applying for a grant?

I realize, very few people want to sit in a room listening to others pontificate on the benefits of one name over another — nevertheless, I find it interesting because Social Practice (as a discipline) is straightening out, in a way, becoming more and more compatible with the canon of art. As such, the terminology around it seems to be settling down as well. What was once a renegade discipline has reached a kind of young adulthood. The field is still wide open for experimentation and development, but some of its edges have been defined through consensus. The various MFA programs dedicated to Social Practice further reinforce that transition, as they are forced to codify-in-order-to-teach. Those programs are similarly invested in propagating their own terminology, to validate the significance of their program. And this too is what I find so interesting about names: while the artists themselves might be more interested in the activity of making, the administrators, curators and theorists flanking the discipline have a lot at stake in the theoretical baggage/leverage different names bear. I’ll admit that for a while it seemed a little like the Wild West to me, where every year another artistic thinker would propose a new name for the discipline, like a cowboy opening a new shop in a small, as yet brand new town. Each new phrase brought with it a host of promises to be tested.

Regardless owhole settled things might seem now, I like to think there is something about Social Practice that resists a stable affinity with language. While it might adopt an umbrella term for practical ends, the artists working within this discipline continue complicate the labeling of their work with other qualifying terms. In one statement I read this week, for instance the artist said she “worked in social practice and participatory art,” implying some difference between these two often synonymous terms; when presented side by side like that, the words feel somehow self-conscious and slightly uneasy as a reader has to trouble over their distinction. In other words, while I may be preoccupied with these terms, it would seem a number of participants here in Portland enjoy mucking up their terminology, culling from various lexicons and thereby creating  a unique assemblage of terms for themselves.


Caroline Picard

Caroline Picard is the Executive Director of The Green Lantern Press—a nonprofit publishing house and art organization—and Co-Director of Sector 2337, a hybrid artspace/bar/bookstore in Chicago. Her writing and comics have appeared in publications like ArtForum (critics picks), Everyday Genius, Hyperallergic, Necessary Fiction, and Tupelo Quarterly. In 2014 she was the Curatorial Fellow at La Box, ENSA in France, and became a member of the SYNAPSE International Curators’ Network of the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin in 2015. Her first graphic novel, The Chronicles of Fortune, is due out from Radiator Comics in 2017.