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.