“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.”]
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.
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.
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.
I’ve been part of an EU endeavor called City (Re)Searches. It started in Kaunas Lithuania, went on to Cork, and last month was for four days in Belfast; in June it will return to Kaunas and conclude in Rotterdam two years from its start. Yet the initiation of this program was years before in the planning and it will continue, no doubt, in independent and intersecting ways for years to come. This is because City (Re)Searches is an undertaking that, as researchers, we fold into the stream of our already conscious and highly developed practices, and will incorporate into the evolving discourses in which we participate.
Each meeting is framed and informed by being in the place it occurs.
The exchange in Belfast was dedicated to the topic of cultural agency at this time of social and economic change in Ireland (and we can say worldwide) that is also creating new contexts for culture and creativity. As a team of 15—artists, curators, arts administrators, social service organizers—we each come at culture in a different way.
So it was not surprising that co-researcher Ciaran Smyth, whose training is in philosophy, drew from Greg Sholette’s Dark Matter: Art and Politics in the Age of Enterprise Culture (NY: Pluto Press, 2011) in one of the presentations. We, as this author evokes, represent a mixture inside and outside the art world, working in the dark and in the light, each holding varying definitions of art and having aesthetic persuasions that can even be uncomfortable for each other. Still, as a group, we share the sense that culture and creativity have the potential to challenge and influence the outcome of our times—and that’s the beauty of the “curating” job done by organizer Ed Carroll in assembling this working/thinking group.
Sholette’s dark matter, he says, is “the bulk of the artistic activity produced in our post-industrial society,” and “is invisible primarily to those who lay claim to the management and interpretation of culture-the critics, art historians, collectors, dealers, museums, curators, and arts administrators.” It “includes makeshift, amateur, informal, unofficial, autonomous, activist, non-institutional, self-organized practices….” Still it seems to me that this author is defining another, alternative art world. What about the world? What did Bucky tell us? “Start with the universe.” That would be apt beginning for his astrophysical allusion.
In focusing on cultural labor, Sholette pulls in the concept of “the good life.” He offers the example of the Berlin-based art and media collective Kleines Postfordistisches Drama (KPD), who created a fictional “sociological” documentary about creative industry workers just like themselves. Their conclusion: “Based on actual responses, the project reveals Berlin’s creative workers trapped in their own feeble expectations about a “good life.”
But what about the good life? In Belfast we were sharing time with a range of people who trusted us enough to articulate actual responses out loud, telling us and each other what was good and what was not in their life, and speculating on how culture might make it better. No one thought what they had to say would be feeble.
The Belfast conversation was not just about supporting enrichments or extending access to entertainment, though these ways of experiencing culture were there, too: from classes to community care programs to opera to technology. But it was also about imagining a wider narrative that can enable a realization of the part we each play—not divided into dark and light matter—and one where the possibility of everyone’s own agency can come into the foreground. This is maybe not always result in changing the world, but it can lead to life well lived.
Cultural agency is not dependant on artists, though their way of seeing and practicing can offer moments of insight and real vision. One thing we know well in Chicago is that by working in collaboration, participating in making culture, we have agency in the world. This cultural agency is about self and collective determination.
But in Belfast it seemed important to bear in mind that we all have agency when we are conscious of being in the dynamic process that is life. It’s human pursuit we share, not just an art pursuit that artists undertake or invite us to participate in. While artists can make this process their art, this way of being is available to any of us. We all share with artists this way of being, if we care and are invested in the making and living of life. By living what we believe, through our work and life, be it art or something else, we give form to our beliefs and communicate them to others. That’s agency.
The theme of cultural agency for Belfast was proposed by team member Niall Crowley, former chief executive of the Irish Equality Authority because this concept is at the heart of the City (Re)Searches initiative. As the active element of culture, agency focuses “our attention on issues of power and status as well as on issues of practice and action,” noted Crowley. But as researchers, we are not, as Sholette outs it, “cultural producers, as role models for society, [who] join with other social movements to work towards new forms of globalization?” Rather we are listeners with the belief that, by working from a position that everyone has cultural agency, we can change the inequality that exists today in regard to whose cultural agency is exercised and valued.
We are familiar with social art practice’s ability to provoke reconsideration of the way things are and seek change. Ireland has its exemplars, too. We see this spirit, for instance, in the five-year effort of artist Seamus McGuinness who, with psychiatrist Kevin Malone, has worked with 102 families throughout Ireland who have lost family members to suicide. Their “Lived Lives” project was so much about the future that they are continuing this work and in some ways, I am sure, they will do so all their lives.
We see it in the life’s work of Marie Barrett who continually turns the earth that is Donegal. She understands the depth of this place, land and sea. She listens to the citizens who co-inhabit her birthplace and home, and she enables them to share their stories both beautifully and resonantly, to understand and make known what it is be of and in this place now and into the future.
To enact such a short-term, yet alive moment of critical and incisive dimension in Belfast, Jeanne van Heeswijk, artist and team member, proposed an emergency pop-up structure for the public discussions; this structure will follow us around to next sites.
It became the setting for researchers and community participants to engage a debate on who are the cultural agents in our society, what is the purpose of this agency, and what future developments are required for equality in cultural agency.
As the sole researcher from outside the EU, it strikes me that City (Re)Searchers is a rare privilege, all the more remarkable because the outcomes are open-ended and not pre-determined. In projects like this (and there aren’t many), there is a sense of trust on the part of funders and participants that something of value will be learned, even if the lines of process are nearly always blurred and become convoluted, take dead-end tangents. But then this is a path of true discovery.
It is also an act of trust among the researchers. Curiously, this is something we find we have to continually reaffirm to ourselves; even if trust is our oft-recited mantra to the communities we work with in our individual ways. We who are often the organizers of others are finding that we are in need of arriving at a way of working with each other, bringing our strategies together and yet setting them aside, balancing pragmatics and poetics. It’s a matter of trust in the making and in the waiting.
Last month we closed a trio of social justice exhibitions at Sullivan Galleries—and Laurie Jo Reynolds closed Tamms, the state’s solitary confinement prison. Art did that. Artists made work, called others to do so to, and then brought in a population that usually doesn’t come to see shows at SAIC. Why should they? But these shows made art matter because the artists leading these efforts—Tirtza Even and Laurie Palmer, Mary Patten, and Ellen Rothenberg—cared and had practical, human rights goals about which they were clear on both the subject and their commitment.
When I read Grant Kester’s essay in a new book, Engagement Party: Social Practice at MOCA, 2008-2012, my heart sank, twice. First, to read that for this series artists were to present work on the first Thursday of three consecutive months; it was a program of, for, and by the museum. Oh, there were claims this made the museum more transparent, a late entry into institutional critique, and questioned the “boundaries of art, museum, and broader culture,” but really what it offered were bookings and entertainment, and Kester, too, cites complicity.
The second sinking feeling is worse, because he goes on to list questions he feels are critical to “participatory practices.” Ok, let me pause here: he says participatory, not social practices. It’s not the realm that Abby Satinsky cites as the “Chicago attitude.” But I am not the only one to juggle apples with oranges, and social is the title of the book in which he writes, so I’ll proceed.
Here are Kester’s critical points. (1.) His need to categorize by the structure of the project. (If you must; he’s got four.) (2.) The viewer’s relationship to “the work-as-thing.” Now I am among the first to rally for process-based work, but to say that the history of modernist art “provides a virtualized inter-subjective encounter” and that “these experiences are virtual and aesthetic,” is to have never had an experience with art. Dewey, the spokesperson for art-and-life within a wider understanding of “aesthetic” is rolling over in his grave. This includes a rather wooden description of “plural relationality” that hardly conveys vitality. We have to move beyond the passive/active participant paradigm. Meanwhile the “consciousness” he cites as perceiving other’s actions is not the consciousness to which I aspire and which art can give. This curiously leads him to the tired issue of authorship in collaborative art. (Get over it.) (3.) Finally, ethics. Well, if we were talking about “Opening the Black Box: The Charge is Torture,” or “Natural Life,” or “Tamms Year Ten Campaign Office,” there’d be something at stake. Stop letting Claire Bishop set the terms, Grant (his language aesthetics vs. ethics, hers—autonomy vs. morality). You’re better than that. We are better than that.
I return to my colleague Abby Satinsky’s mention of a “Chicago attitude” that she said she was struggling to articulate. How to encapsulate all that this city spawns and sends out in the world, all that artists do and keep doing here. And with this knowledge of what’s at stake, we don’t have to give up on art, and at the same time, we will never give up on social relations.
So I turn to Japan…bear with me…. because our alliances in this endeavor are wide, and our dialogues on other terrain both contribute to them by our example, while furthering our own understanding of what the Chicago attitude is. (Isn’t that what dialogue does?) I took up this conversation in Tokyo with two Korean artists, Kyungwon Moon and Joonho Jeon, whose News from Nowhere presented at documenta 13 will go a step further with the Chicago Laboratory this fall, and I invite you to Sullivan Galleries to look and participate. But to get to the origin of making art, participation and the society, I started with the question: What personal transformative or, well, moment of crisis brought you to this point in your work?
JEON: To create art is to contemplate your own circumstances, learning through experience and expressing through art forms. Thus, art must necessarily be intensely private and subjective. I had merely been expressing subjective opinions when I began to doubt whether any of my opinions mattered to the rest of the world.
That prompted me to wonder if I could grasp the true nature of this doubt, and whether I could take it beyond my own personal views and work together with someone else to make it part of the public discourse. That’s why we decided to collaborate and brought in people from fields outside the art world to participate.
MOON: The making of art is commonly thought of as a private act. Working alone used to make me feel a sort of deprivation, as if the only voices I was hearing were my own echoes. While I still acknowledge individual exploration as being inseparable from art, I started this project because I came to realize that collaborative systems are also important, and began to wonder what sort of practical influence a collaborative project such as ours could have on society.
I also wanted to know how art forms would change in the future. What changes in relationships and modes of communication in art itself could affect society in entirely different directions? How will art be transformed in the future? The very process of asking these questions was a way to think about the evolution of art and its future prospects.
MOON & JEON: Having participated in a number of exhibitions together since 2007, we began discussing our thoughts and concerns on contemporary art, including the meaning of art, the expendability of exhibitions, and the absence of the critique. We came to think we should create art that is not only practical but also introspective, that is, in the sense that it would provide us with the opportunity to reflect upon ourselves.
We began asking questions about social function and role of art, looking at values and beliefs, and these led us to ponder: What would other artists in different fields think about our questions? So we organized News from Nowhere as an open discussion platform that reflects on art not just through arts but also through the humanities, sciences, economics, education, and religion.
Our initial motivation was to break free from art’s polarity of “the self and the other” by listening to others, sharing problems, and finding solutions together. Our priority has been on people’s participation. Each discussion is part of the process, part of the work.
We don’t offer any answers or a particular message. We want to share our discussions, processes, and views with those in the art circle as well as the society-at-large, and re-think and re-flect. In this project, the word “re-think” does not equate with “reset,” as in starting anew. Instead, our use of “re-” involves empathizing and joining forces with others to think, solve, and share ideas.