Social Practice Art’s identity crisis

February 27, 2011 · Print This Article

Attending Portland State University’s Open Engagement Conference last May, one of my favorite parts was jumping in on the conversations that BAS-ers Duncan Mackenzie, Brian Andrews, and Randall Szott were recording at the local bar around the corner. I went out there with InCUBATE to see how this field of social practice was being articulated across the country and connect with current and former collaborators on this rapidly proliferating but amorphous way of working.The question of what social practice art actually is, who is defining its parameters and to what end, is a hot mess. Since the 1990s, a number of mostly European and North American art critics and historians have struggled to understand a notoriously chaotic set of practices, under an ever changing set of  names including new genre public art, socially-engaged practice, relational art, dialogical aesthetics, etc. While I have no interest in throwing my hat in the art historical ring on that one (and I think the folks over at 127prince.org (ed. correction – 127prince.wordpress.com/ ) are doing a good job on talking through the issues), I admit that I like the identity crisis that social practice art is always wrestling with. It’s rapidly becoming professionalized through MFA programs, like California College of Arts, Otis College of Art, and PSU. Yet it also heralds a kind of everyday creativity and social connectivity that is supposedly available to anyone with or without an art degree.

I’ve thought about this with my collaborators at InCUBATE over the last couple years and we’ve participated in a lot of conversations where people tear their hair out trying to figure out where social practice begins and ends. Defining the actual parameters of “social practice art” seems to be a red herring. Sometimes a dinner party should just be a dinner party, sometimes calling a dinner party an art project makes it a richer experience for the individuals participating. Social practice art doesn’t necessarily create more democratic exchange between art and audiences, often times it creates hierarchical distinctions between artists in art school and ordinary people with creative hobbies and interests that don’t have anything to do with an art career. But while it continues to be problematic territory, the larger anxiety it brings up is pretty interesting. How are artists defining the communities their work operates in, especially when traditional contexts such as commercial galleries, museums, and non-profits aren’t the intended landing pad? If one’s work is about engaging publics supposedly outside the artworld and eschewing art-speak when it comes to creative expression, who cares if it’s called art other than social practice artists? The issue then becomes not how to judge social practice within the confines of other art disciplines, but rather how the value of that work is being defined and by who. If social practice offers us anything, it openly asks not what kind of artist one wants to be but what kind of person one wants to be and how one wants their work to operate in the world.

Thinking back to that conference too, I felt a sense of camaraderie from the Chicago contingent (people like Hideous Beast, Sara Black and John Preus, Anne Elizabeth Moore, Shannon Stratton, Randall Szott, and more), something like a mixture of healthy skepticism and a sense that yes, we’ve also been thinking about this for a while now too and let’s get into it. I’ve long been inspired by groups and spaces in Chicago who have taken the art/social-engagement approach (Temporary Services, Mess Hall, Haha, Department of Space and Land Reclamation, Pilot TV, FEELTANK, Experimental Station, AREA Chicago, the Stockyard Institute, just to name a few) and maybe those people would really not like to be lumped into the “social practice” conversation. But to me, their work asks the essential questions about the social and political ramifications of participating in the artworld.

So I hope these Bad at Sports posts on the “social practice scene in Chicago and beyond” somehow incorporate that Chicago attitude that I’m struggling to articulate. I’m going to be doing interviews with Chicagoans and artists from elsewhere, asking them what they think about the audience for their work. For this first post, I interviewed artist, activist and writer Ashley Hunt. I first encountered his work as part of his collaborative project (with David Thorne, Katya Sander, Sharon Hayes & Andrew Geyer), 9 Scripts from a Nation at War at documenta 12 in 2007, a piece which cut directly through the curatorial excess of that sprawling exhibition. Since then I’ve followed his writing in the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest, An Atlas of Radical Cartography and other places. When he told me he was touring his project Notes on the Emptying of a City, a performance/film about post-Katrina New Orleans, I asked him to do a performance at threewalls, where I work as Program Director.

More on that event is here
More on his work can be found at www.ashleyhuntwork.net / www.correctionsproject.com.


Here is the conversation we had:
AS: I know the background to your latest project, “Notes on the Emptying of the City” started when you joined with a bunch of community organizations to document what was happening in New Orleans post-Katrina. Can you describe what is meant to you to transform what sounded like essentially a documentary process into an experimental narrative that explores your own first-person perspective? Did you feel like the original piece ( “I Won’t Drown on that Levee and You Ain’t Gonna’ Break My Back,” ) the documentary that in turn inspired the performance, in some way didn’t satisfy your own personal feelings about what you witnessed during that time?AH: I think we often get caught up in defining our endeavors according to the institutions and audiences we’re expected to speak to. I’m interested in a more fluid relationship to our institutions and disciplines — be they art, activist, educational, etc — while recognizing the tool sets, vocabulary, capacities and possibilities, positions for speaking and listening that each discipline and institution might provide. There are not particular things that I wish “I Won’t Drown” could have done differently, as it was made within the urgencies of that moment, and it needed to be accountable to those specificities.

For me, this was not a time for critical distance and a good, reflective discussion about aesthetics, history, architecture and race. It was a time for contributing my energies and skills toward the efforts to get people released from jail, for locating family members and protesting the use of “looting” as a pretext to further criminalize and round up storm survivors. It was a time to privilege the voices of people more directly affected by the hurricane, rather than speak to my own experience.

At the same time, a great deal of critical reflection on the politics of aesthetics, witnessing, history, speech, architecture and (especially) race were really eating away at me. “I Won’t Drown” needed to be something that could not offer a terribly rich space for that thinking, nor should it have tried to bring people into a more contemplative relationship to the events. But once “I Won’t Drown” was completed and began to move out into the world, doing what it could do, it did become possible to think and work a bit differently. This allowed me to begin the political work that is rooted in reflection and critical understanding of the world, which I think needs to accompany the political work that is rooted in action.

One might say that this traces a certain relationship between theory and practice — practice was what I was initially compelled in to, but each practice is always constricted by the theories that, at the same time, have enabled it. Theory supplies the vision and describes a possible field for action; yet as each vision or theoretical construct has its limits, so will the practices they inspire; whereas similarly, experimental practices make new theories possible.

For me, “Notes on the Emptying of a City” is a much more theoretical piece, where rather than issue demands and arouse action, I hope for it to act upon our political imagination, from which new possibilities of action might emerge. This is to say that I want it to open a publicly theoretical space for its audiences, one in which some of the most difficult questions of Hurricane Katrina — especially the alienation of its issues from other issues and other histories, the forgetting that surrounds it, and the racialized assumptions built into its narratives — can be taken up critically, and where people who are not only activists (or at least don’t see themselves as such) can participate in the conversation.

AS: Can you talk a little bit about how you chose the different venues for this piece to be performed? The majority that I found through online research included The New Museum, Public Space One in Iowa City and then here at threewalls. I know that a component of this piece is the discussion afterwards that you then archive and becomes part of the work, what was your feeling about presenting this work in these spaces? Not that audiences at these spaces cannot be a diverse bunch, but I imagine there is a big difference in discussion from grassroots community venues that were involved in a campaign to help those incarcerated during Hurricane Katrina to an art museum. How do you see the project functioning differently, and who do you see as the audience for this particular work, versus the original documentary piece produced in tandem with the other activist organizations?AH: What is important to me is to build an audience that is not restricted to the audiences called together by one particular kind of institution or another. In addition to the more official art spaces that you mentioned, I’ve also brought the piece to a prison in upstate New York, to a very public venue in San Juan, a public university a mile from the U.S.–Mexico border, and the debut of the piece was situated at Project Row Houses in Houston, which, while an excellent art institution with an art world presence, also has a deep rooted community profile, with involvement and accountability like no other art organization I know.

Once one gains the possibility of working within art world institutions, one can also push them to mobilize their resources in ways that are accountable to ideas, subjects, communities and actions that are not necessarily ‘of’ the art world already. One can use their position to suggest that these institutions demonstrate a responsibility to communities and value systems beyond the art world, and I believe that I hold a responsibility to help do this wherever I can — which also includes trying to make events free and open to a wider public.

It should also be noted that there are a lot of really good people working in art institutions who do very important work, and more still who would like to do more radical programming but are under a great deal of pressure to sell things and build spectacle. So when I find a curator or programmer who’s willing to take up a more political project, one based upon social rather than economic or market values, I really appreciate that and see it as a form of solidarity. It can be a great chance to help that institution expand its audience to communities who will then place different demands upon the institution, perhaps helping to build a slow turn toward socially-based definitions of art rather than market-based definitions.

The value that I’ve placed upon prioritizing, cultivating and archiving the conversations that have followed the piece from place to place comes in part from my desire to trespass the boundaries that separate different kinds of institutions, but also looking to how the meanings of the piece shift as it is situated within one cultural context versus another. This process intends to provide a space after the performance where the private resonances that have built up for viewers can be brought into a public conversation with other members of that audience, or what I think of as a temporary public, while also becoming a part of a record that follows the life of the piece.

The most stunning thing to me has been the different references — historical, political, in local memory and so forth — that the piece conjures, and the forms of knowledge about the world that these stories of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans can suture together. So far, this has included border issues, colonialism, histories of slavery and state violence, the ghettoization of cities throughout the US and the larger world, and most recently, the political changes in Tunisia, Egypt, and Bahrain, and their relationship to the new labor movement forming right now in the capitol of Wisconsin. Even though these seem like geographically and historically distinct issues, our conversations have allowed us to draw important connections between them, tracing out how they may actually be continuous.




Top 5 Weekend Picks! (10/1 & 10/2)

September 30, 2010 · Print This Article

1. Leap of Faith at Architrouve

Paintings by Chicago artist James Jankowiak.

Architrouve is located at 1433 W. Chicago Ave. Reception is Friday from 6-9pm.

2. GLI.TC/H run.time & real.time at Transistor and The Nightingale

Work by Theodore Darst, Ben Baker Smith, Cole Pierce, Omar Mashal, Clint Ens, Morgan Higby Flowers, Antonio Roberts, Evan Meaney, Richard O’Sullivan, BotBorg, Aaron Zarzutzki, Morgan Higby Flowers, Jeff Donaldson, Vadim Sprikut Anton Marini, jon.satrom, and Jason Soliday (Friday) and work by Jodie Mack, Theodore Darst, Nick Briz, Alexander Stewart, Clint Ens, Nick Salvatore, Johnny Rogers, Jon Satrom, James Connolly, Ben Pearson, Jimmy Joe Roche, Karl Klomp, JB Mabe, LJ Frezza, James Connolly & Eric Pellegrino, Tamas Kemenczy & Mark Beasley, Jeronimo Barbosa, Andrew Bucksbarg, Ben Baker-Smith & Evan Kühl, and StAllio! (Saturday)

Transistor is located at 5045 N Clark St and will host Part 1 Friday from 8-11:30pm. The Nightingale is located at 1084 N Milwaukee Ave and will host Part 2 Saturday from 7-10pm.

3. Future Shock at The Green Lantern Gallery

Work by Brandon Alvendia, Conrad Bakker, Edie Fake, The Library of Radiant Optimism, Red76, People Powered, and Randall Szott.

Green Lantern Gallery is located at 2542 W. Chicago Ave. Reception is Friday from 7-10pm.

4. Wild Card at Johalla Projects

Tarot cards by Bridey Bowen, Alex Chitty, David D’Andrea, Rob Doran, Ryan Duggan, Ron Ewert, Heather Gabel, Horsebites, Myles Smutney Hyde, Damara Kaminecki, Jenny Kendler, Rick Leech, Monique Ligons, Alexis Mackenzie, Roy Miranda, Kyle James Morrison, Steak Mtn, Rachel Peacock, Bird Reynolds, Cristy Roads, J.L. Schnabel, and David Snedden.

Johalla Projects is located at 1561 N. Milwaukee Ave. Reception is Friday from 7-11pm.

5. Neither Here Nor There at Helicon Hall Gallery

Work by James Beckman, Arielle Bielak, Sher Dionisio, nikki hollander, Damien James, Robert Jeffries, Blake Parish Lewis, Lauryn Lewis, Vivien Park, Sarah Park, Holly Sabin, and Shawn Stucky.

Helicon Hall Gallery is located at 1542 N. Milwaukee, 2nd floor. Reception is Saturday from 6-11pm.




Off-Topic | Randall Szott

February 25, 2010 · Print This Article

Off-Topic invites artists, curators, writers, and cultural workers to discuss a subject not directly related to the practice of making art. We would like to welcome Randall Szott as our latest guest with his post, “More Tailgating, Less Curating”. In his own words, Randall  “has described himself as a chef, a merchant marine, or a schmuck with some blogs.” When not spending part of his time at sea, Randall can be found at He Said, She Said.

More Tailgating, Less Curating

Randall Szott

I’m a cook. When I tell people this there are no quizzical looks or sheepish follow up questions. People get it and want to hear more. Sometimes the fact that I have two grad degrees in art makes its way into the conversation and things get awkward. This, to me is a problem, a fundamental problem that I’ve been invited to say a bit about here at BaS. What follows is my highly anecdotal account of why I believe the art world should strive to be more like the culinary world. It is rooted in my experience and obviously suffused with my values. If you don’t share those values (pluralism, flexibility, openness, egalitarianism, inclusiveness, conviviality, approachability, diversity, etc.), find those values misapplied or irrelevant to the context, or if you have had a radically different experience with the art or culinary world then obviously this account will be of questionable value to you. I am talking about the capital A art world – the one that BaS almost exclusively engages itself with – not the immensely diverse “real” art world of sidewalk art fairs, church craft shows, potters in Memphis, painters in Sedona, and the multiplicity of creative artists that work outside the “recognition” of the network of biennials, jet-set curators, international journals, art historians, big city newspapers, and elite colleges/universities. Read more




Culture Worker or Slacker? You Decide….

January 7, 2010 · Print This Article

Thanks to my trusty feedreader, I’ve come across a contrasting viewpoint to the Art Work project that I posted on earlier this morning. On his blog Lebenskünstler Randall Szott notes that there are plenty of people who respectfully disagree with the underlying assumptions of Temporary Services’ new project. A tiny slice of the lengthier argument put forth by Szott follows:

“The idea that calling what you do “work” makes it “legitimate” or “meaningful” is the crux of the problem I have with much of what one finds in Art Work. This sort of thinking is everywhere on the left and Marx does in fact provide the theoretical mirror in which many self-identified “cultural workers” (I always shudder at this phrase) see themselves. Jean Baudrillard, the still mostly Marxist incarnation of which Bryan-Wilson cites, moved very quickly into a position not easily integrated within her piece or this newspaper as a whole. In his book The Mirror of Production he writes “The critical theory of the mode of production does not touch the principle of production.” That is to say that Marxist analysis too readily embraces the terms of the debate and therefore provides a mere functional critique, one that Baudrillard might note, “…deciphers the functioning of the system of political economy; but at the same time it reproduces it as model.”

Read Szott’s full argument here, along with comments responding to his post. Okay, and now I also feel appropriately shamed by my own use of the word ‘culture worker,’ which I agree can be cumbersome, pretentious, and plain-old lame sounding, but how else to encompass the different types of work we want to talk about under a single umbrella? Suggestions?