I keep trying to trace emergent themes at Open Engagement. Our organizers have done a good job of marking three umbrella categories, under which each panel, presentation or discussion resides. These headings, Publics, Contexts, and Institutions, feel like hubs through which a larger, interconnected current runs. One conversation bleeds into the next. Institution could be one example of a context, for instance. An institution could also be populated by a Â public, but neither “Contexts” nor “Publics” rely exclusively on “Institutions.” The project of this particular conference, one might say, is to investigate the way socially engaged art practice runs through (or negotiates) those headers.
That said, I am hunting around for additional trends, for theoretical concerns that crop up continually in the subtext of various presentations, reflecting perhaps on a collective undertow that Social Practice artists are preoccupied with. There is something problematic about my efforts. It’s an artificial exercise in a way, especially when the subject of presentations â€” not to mention the styles of address â€” are so broad. My insights are additionallyÂ subjective, stemming from what panels I’ve seen and how the concerns therein stick to my ribs.
Still, I persist. Obviously this is a post that I deliberately published. Obviously I am interested in failing a little bit. I’m emboldened by the fact that failure, as a topic, is one of those recurring themes. Failure and the equally nebulous question about ethics. These subjects bubble to the surface not only in talks themselves, but also in audience questions. For instance, “I feel there is a danger that the projet you described could waste someone’s time. Someone in your intended audience for instance. How can you be sure you’re not doing that? What can you guarantee your public?” It suggests the artist ought to deliver something, and ideally that whatever is delivered is good, or worthy of (in this instance) one’s time. Ethics and failure are linked up with responsibility in this regard â€” conveying a feeling that something in works of art that rely on audience participation ought to offer or fulfill something.
First let me make a case for the #EthicsTrend. In an account of Friday’s panel, “Sociology (of and) for Socially Engaged Practice, Institute for Art Scene Studies” I was told Pablo Helguera, Barbara Adams, David Peppas, and Adeola Enigbokan staged a kind of reductio proof of what not to do as a social practice artist. I missed it, unfortunately, but heard that someone posed as an artist, presenting a series of ill-advised projects to the panel, pretending to be an artist. (For instance, the acting artist claimed to have done a project where s/he gave up all possessions in order to see what it was like to live under the poverty line.) The panel then critiqued these projects, highlighting what exactly was ill-advised about them. (Using the same example, the panel pointed out that the artist was able at any time to reenter her/his life of material stability). This was relayed to me by a rather horrified member of the audience who, at the end of her account, leaned in conspiratorially and whispered “And it was all a hoax! The ‘artist'” (she used scare quotes) “was making it all up!” seeming at once relieved and frustrated that she had been duped.Â In a later panel that same day, “Whatâ€™s the Harm of Community Arts and Social Practice? The Ethics of Engagement and Negative Value,” Marnie Badham, Amy Spiers, Claude Schryer, and Dr. Kathleen Irwin wrestled with questions of how and when artists intrude on a public. In her opening remarks, Badham noted first, “this turn to community is rarely explored critically,” and then asked “is social change always good?” An ethical approach is often taken for granted in socially engaged art. There is an implied use or service tends to go hand in hand with these social experiments. A desire to save the world, or at least some very small piece of it.
Here the idea of failure comes in â€” because, in a way it is impossible to save the world. However in articulating an attempt, I would argue, the art project sets out to “do” something. As such it becomes easier to measure and assess. Â Rakowitz rebuffed this point yesterday when he suggested that art didn’t necessarily have toÂ doÂ anything. But if that’s the case, one’s ability to measure success and failure becomes more difficult. And, perhaps, more interesting. For instance, this morning at “Craft + Social Practice: A Roundtable Conversation” at the Museum of Contemporary Craft, a group of panelists (Gabriel Craig, Ayumi Horie, Stacy Jo Scott, Michael J. Strand, moderated and organized by Sarah Margolis-Pineo) described their relationship to failure. Many suggested that failures provided new opportunities for insight â€” Gabriel Craig talked about “Slow Gold,” a project based on ethical metal sourcing, where he and four collaborators went to the Black Mountains in South Dakota to find gold for a couples’ wedding bands. (The betrothed couple participated in this project.) They could only find .4 grains. His conclusion, “Mining, no matter what scale it’s on is absolutely catastrophic for the environment.” On that same panel, Stacy Jo Scott of the Craft Mystery Cult confessed, “Occult is always dealing with failure. That’s because we have this desire to speak of ideals, in terms of an ideal poetic space, but also in terms of utopic vision. Knowing the failures of past utopias, but still desiring Utopia. What results is the absurd: optimism in the face of futility.”
Keep this idea of ethics in one hand. Hold in your other hand the idea of failure. Now imagine yourself in the Shattuck Annex, sitting (like I was) in chair with a small desk attached. It is the sort of desk students often use. The sort of desk I haven’t sat in for years. Keep in mind it is raining outside and the opening bars of Woody Guthries’ “This Land is Your Land” is playing on a loop. People shuffle in slowly. Some are ushered to an overflow room when the room is at capacity. In that room this afternoon, Claire Doherty gave a fantastic keynote, opening with an observation that keynote speakers have the ability to highlight and anchor conversations in a conference. The keynote provides a kind of watering hole â€“ a central point in the middle of the day during which most conference-goers sit in the same room, sharing the same experience, after scattering out again to different panels, rendez-vous, and performances. Doherty hastened to remind everyone about the underbelly of social practice â€” that many projects, while on the one hand providing photographs of an engaged and happy public digging ditches and/or eating ice cream often come out of duress or protest. These works have the ability to engage a collective, public imagination because they tend to address points of tension. She went on to discuss Nowhere Island, a project by Alex Hartley produced by Situations â€” the organization Doherty directs. As a travelling landmass, self-designated as a site belonging to no-country, Nowhere Island became another version of Utopia. Pulled by a tug boat through international waters, it visited many ports, acquiring 23,003 citizens over the course of a single year. There is much more to the story, of course, but I like situating this island in this post because the land mass in an of itself is what Doherty might call a “charismatic object,” a physical object both engaging and alluring to a public imagination. This object was capable of, again in Doherty’s words, “Nourishing the capacity for creative illusion, [such that a public was able] to act and think as though things were different.” In and of itself the island is not ethical, but it enables a public to explore their own Utopian expectations thereby exploring the problems that such ideals might subsequently create.
Now, open your hand.
In Tim Etchells words, “A Utopia of dispute might be better:”
Dear Citizens of Nowhereisland
as we stop in the shelter of a doorway in the thunderstorm
S. holds out his hand to check the rain.
The hand. The flatness of it. The open-ness. The question of it. The directness. The simplicity. The pragmatism. The straightforwardness. The sunshine.
And maybe just the repetition of this gesture, which must be as old as the hills, as old as the co-presence of hands and rain.Â
There is a reason they made a show about this town; it’s so true it’s a clichÃ© : Portland is a kind of paradise. From the Tiki bar at the airport to the food truck shanty town we hit at midnight where twenty-thirty somethings fulfilled all college cuisine fantasies (the center of the parking lot contained a small circus tent where diners could enjoy they paper plated fare), the farm to table restaurants, bookstores, record stores and basement galleries named after after major art institutions, it’s no wonder people live here. What’s amazing is that somehow people who live here manage to get to work at all. And yet, Portland with all it’s West Coast consciousness is a city with abundant social services.
So for all those reason, combined with the blend of experimentalism and casual earnestness, Portland seems like a perfect site for a social practice MFA. Perhaps even more perfect site for a conference about social practice. Which is why I am here. I am covering the 5th annual Open Engagement conference for our very own Bad at Sports.
The first Open Engagement was the result ofÂ Jen Delos Reyesâ€˜Â thesis project at the University of Regina back in 2007; Reyes wanted to create a â€œdifferent kind of conference,â€ one platforming emerging and established artists while providing a site for both â€œproduction and reflection.â€ This is Open Engagement: a conference dedicated to socially engaged art practices. Delos Reyes came to Portland State to co-direct the MFA in Art and Social Practice once she had finished her MFA, and in 2010 Open Engagement came to Portland State.Â To this day, the conference is the result of collaboration between MFA students, Delos Reyes and OE Co-director,Â Crystal Baxley.Â In her opening remarks, Delos Reyes remarked on the sometimes â€œunkemptâ€ nature of the conference, highlighting that it was focused on an artistic discipline that by its very nature is influx, and sometimes messy. That directive affords a kind of experimental quality which is perhaps missing from what she refered to as a more â€œrigid professionalism.â€
The day went on from there â€” featuring a fantastic keynote from Michael Rakowitz given to a jam packed room. Rakowitz brought out a “spinning set list,” inviting select members of the audience to come up and spin the wheel and thereby determine which of his art projects he would discuss. Each “spinner” was then awarded a prize, from a small zip lock bag of Iraqi cardamomÂ to a date seed the artist had previously eaten. I then attended a panel about harm and risk in social practice, and later a Portland Art Museum event “Shine Your Light,” complete with (among other things) a reenactment of a lost Grateful Dead concert.Â I’ll continue to post about things this weekend and am going to conduct a series of interviews while I’m here as well. All of which is to say, STAY TUNED. Follow the conference on twitter via #OE2013
The ghost of Pruitt-Igoe looms large in St. Louis. The 33-building public housing complex, designed by Minoru Yamasaki (who was also the architect of the World Trade Center) and completed in 1954, has long fascinated architectural historians and enthusiasts alike. Designed in accordance with Le Corbusierâ€™s utopian â€œTowers in the Parkâ€ vision, its demolition began less than twenty years later in 1972 as the site fell prey to dried-up funding, mismanagement, and subsequent decrepitude and crime. According to architectural theorist Charles Jencks writing in 1977, the notorious demise of Pruitt-Igoe, captured on film and televised widely at the time, marked the day that â€œmodern architecture died.â€ Today, the site exists as a giant scar in the St. Louis landscape, fifty-seven acres of urban forest just north of downtown. It is an emotional scar too, a reminder of how modernist ideals and public policy failed not only the individuals and families who lived in the towers but also, to some degree, the city at large. In fact, the decline of Pruitt-Igoe coincided with the exodus to the burgeoning St. Louis suburbs that began in the 1960s; today, 89% of the metropolitan population of 2.8 million lives outside the city limits (compared with roughly 75% in 1972), according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
I think about Pruitt-Igoe a lot because I live in its aftermath. I see it in the blocks of boarded-up houses on Jefferson Avenue that I pass every day on the way to and from work. Similar houses can be found all over the city, a side effect of a population (and a tax base) that continues to decline forty years later. I also think about Pruitt-Igoe when Iâ€™m at work at the Contemporary Art Museum in the neighborhood of Grand Center. An established cultural district, Grand Center nonetheless still faces lingering assumptions that it is a rough part of town, situated as it is near the Delmar Divide that bisects the north and south sides of the city â€” the north side being home, not coincidentally, to the large footprint called Pruitt-Igoe.
The story of Pruitt-Igoe is by now well known and documented so I wonâ€™t go into detail here (and recommend the terrific 2011 documentary The Pruitt-Igoe Myth for that). What Iâ€™m interested in is the force field-like appeal of the complex, particularly images of its punctum-style demolition, for contemporary artists. Through video and installation to social practice, a number of artists are continually circling back to Pruitt-Igoe for inspiration. Using a small cross-section of familiar artworks as case studies, Iâ€™ll explore what it is about the site that offers such rich fodder for art practice today.
French artist Cyprien Gaillardâ€™s Pruitt-Igoe Falls (2009) is perhaps the best-known example. This silent seven-minute video depicts fixed-frame footage of the 2008 demolition of a building in the Sighthill housing project in Glasgow, Scotland. Halfway through the video, the image morphs into a shot of Niagara Falls at night as seen from the American side. In the piece, Pruitt-Igoe is relegated to an allusion as well as a sobering precedent for the shortcomings of contemporary public housing. The name also serves a semantic purpose, offering a way to connect the image of Pruitt-Igoeâ€™s collapseâ€”and, by extension, the collapse of High Modernismâ€”to other spectacles, such as Niagara Falls and the recent phenomenon of ruin porn (i.e. anything about Detroit). Though barely perceptible in Gaillardâ€™s footage, the tiny figures in the foreground of the Sighthill frame reinforce this notion, their camera flashes punctuating the image as they snap photographs of the crumbling building. Gaillardâ€™s video thus reenacts Pruitt-Igoeâ€™s unforgettable demise in a highly cynical fashion, trapping it in the endless cycle of the loop, where it can be repeatedly gawked at for sheer entertainment.
Pruitt-Igoe has also surfaced in several of Michael Rakowitzâ€™s artworks, such as his recent room-sized installation at dOCUMENTA(13) titled What Dust Will Rise? (2012) and, most extensively, in Dull Roar (2005). The latter recasts the towers as inflatable pop-ups, akin to a commercial blow-up mattress you might have in your own home. In the installation, they are surrounded by a 360-degree wooden viewing platform that allows the viewer to fully circumnavigate the balloon-like buildings as they continually inflate and deflate on a timed cycle. Rakowitz, like Gaillard, captures the image of Pruitt-Igoeâ€™s destruction in a simulated mise en abyme that points to the implicit spectacle of that moment. Interested in the idea that parts of the rubble were allegedly used to construct new mansions in the nearby suburb of Ladue (which, according to Rakowitz, was the most expensive neighborhood in the U.S. at the time Pruitt-Igoe fell), he also made several related drawings depicting these mansions propped atop the rubble. The inflatable aspect of his project is particularly acrid and pithy, reducing the complexities of the story to an amusing one-liner. Nonetheless, Rakowitz unflinchingly gets to the point, demonstrating how the destruction of Pruitt-Igoe was but one symptom in a larger enactment of domestic housing policy designed to exclude poor, non-white citizens from the American dream.
While these two projects pinpoint the demolition of the buildings as the penultimate moment, Juan William Chavez is interested in everything that happens after â€” the potential of Pruitt-Igoe now. For several years, Chavez, who was born in Lima, Peru, but grew up and currently lives in St. Louis, has been making a series of artworks about the physical site where the complex once stood. Together these comprise what he calls a â€œliving proposalâ€ in an attempt to better understand what Pruitt-Igoe might mean today. After first setting foot on the grounds in 2010, he took a series of photographs and made a film about what he saw â€“ dense vegetation and a healthy bee sanctuary. The bees have become key players in his inquiry; as he explains it, the former Pruitt-Igoe complex has been replaced by an indigenous insect community that can actually thrive on the site. Along with his partner, Kiersten Torrez, he opened a space near Pruitt-Igoe called the Northside Workshop. They have taken up beekeeping and planted an edible garden, and they work with local students, artists, and community organizers to create programming that explores the active potential of the Pruitt-Igoe footprint. Chavezâ€™s work on Pruitt-Igoe brings additional dimensions of the story into relief. Through his efforts, Iâ€™ve been introduced to other stakeholders who are similarly committed to the siteâ€™s rehabilitation, such as St. Louis architectural historian Michael Allen and former Pruitt-Igoe resident and journalist Sylvester Brown, who launched an after-school project for at-risk high school students to grow local sweet potatoes and market their product. (The actual land is not completely up for grabs, however. Local developer Paul McKee purchased a two-year option on the site that expires next year.) Chavezâ€™s work is therefore symbolic but also pragmatic, aimed at building awareness and galvanizing community action to transform the Pruitt-Igoe grounds into a dynamic and truly democratic public space.
I asked Juan about Pruitt-Igoeâ€™s appeal to contemporary artists and he reminded me of the scene in Godfrey Reggioâ€™s 1982 film Koyaanisqatsi featuring images of the complex immediately before and during the actual demolition. The film traces the outline of the decaying buildings both inside and out. By this point, the complex is little more than a ghost town and Philip Glassâ€™s haunting score turns it into something out of a horror movie. Juan describes this image of a crumbling Pruitt-Igoe as an â€œepic momentâ€ analogous to moments in early cinema in which we experience time directly, as in the LumiÃ¨re Brothersâ€™ Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (1895) or Thomas Edisonâ€™s Electrocuting an Elephant (1903). It is also evocative of something more contemporarily mediated on a global scale, like the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. This visual register of Pruitt-Igoeâ€™s demise, coupled with Charles Jencksâ€™s aforementioned comment about its implication in the death of architectural modernism, imbue it with a mythic pathos that still holds sway today. So what, then, can artists like Gaillard, Rakowitz, and Chavez communicate to us about Pruitt-Igoe? A sober memory? A case of what not to do? Pruitt-Igoe is all of these things. It may be a graveyard but it is also a garden. And perhaps art can sustain it in ways that housing and economic policies couldnâ€™t.