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 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 — not to mention the styles of address — are so broad. My insights are additionally 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 — 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. In a later panel that same day, “What’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 — 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. Rakowitz rebuffed this point yesterday when he suggested that art didn’t necessarily have to do 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 — 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 – 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 — 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 — 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.
December 15, 2011 · Print This Article
Entering the studio of Craft Mystery Cult, I was greeted by a plywood table festooned with ambiguous objects varying from crudely handcrafted clay bowls to scorched specimens seemingly pirated from the vault of a natural history museum. All three CMC members, Sonja Dahl, Jovencio de la Paz, and Stacy Jo Scott, were seated around this collection, which I soon discovered to be ephemera from their collaborative rites and rituals. Removed from the context of performance, the reliquary expressed an internal coherence— the vernacular of the objects linking hand, to material, to detritus, suggesting a connection between everyday practices of making and the more mystical aspects of ritualistic activity. The tableau was presided over by the sanctified portraits of William Morris and Johannes Itten—the patron saints of craft and color, whose workshop-based practices inform the social and conceptual underpinnings of CMC’s activities.
The members of Michigan-based Craft Mystery Cult are all in their final year of their MFAs in fiber, (Dahl and de la Paz), and ceramics, (Scott), at Cranbrook Academy of Art. They established the CMC collective as a platform to explore issues relating to the history, economy, and conceptual framework of contemporary craft. On Saturday, CMC will orchestrate a performance at Roots and Culture that draws from their sacred text, The Hapticon. I interviewed Dahl, de la Paz, and Scott in their studio as they were making preparations for this event.
Sarah Margolis-Pineo: It’s my understanding that Craft Mystery Cult was officially formed over the summer in residence at Ox-Bow, but I’m wondering if you can elaborate on the CMC origin story. What strange and mysterious forces conspired to bring this collaboration together?
Jovencio de la Paz: I don’t know that I’d say we formed at Ox-Bow, I think it was prior to that through discussion and writing.
Sonja Dahl: I’d say we began casually working on this project about a year ago now. It really evolved out of issues that originated within each of our individual studio practices.
Stacy Jo Scott: Through a number of conversations, we realized that we had similar concerns in terms of how we approach work. It seemed like we had this shared desire to create a conversation that we weren’t getting otherwise—in other venues or in other forms. It was really from this desire to create a narrative to work from… By narrative, I don’t mean the Craft Mystery Cult narrative, I mean more of a framework for understanding our art historical lineage.
SMP: All three of you come from disciplines focused on object making, and historically, discrete object making through ceramics and fiber. Do you feel like academia, as well as the larger cultural framework surrounding craft-based practices of making, are perpetuating discourses that in some ways are no longer relevant; for example, the Modernist tradition of autonomy, or the postmodern tradition of critique? In what sense were you breaking free?
SJS: I think for me and my experience with ceramics, it’s almost coming from a different direction than what you’re describing. As artists making work at this time, the conversation is so steeped in the dematerialization of the object. The desire to make and have hands-on material, and the desire to see objects manifest from work is something that’s disappearing from the larger conversation. It’s difficult to have a position to work from that seems relevant when everything is becoming more ephemeral. In a way, we’re trying to consider what position objects and materiality still have; specifically, the hand’s relationship to material as a different source of knowledge that we aren’t taught to access.
JdlP: Much of CMC’s work deals with the creation of language; specifically, the kind of language that might be able to house what Stacy Jo is describing, which we refer to as haptic knowledge—the knowledge beyond language. In order to present that or to create a bridge between that and the viewer, we work to create an environment that utilizes strategies that may be familiar from other forms such as text, performance, ritual, music, things to serve as access points to that non-verbal space. We’re really using the notion of the craft workshop as a model for collaborative art practice, which is a reference that is very different compared to other collaborative art practices in that it deals with a very craft-specific mode of production. There are interpersonal hierarchies that are very different than other collaborative groups.
SMP: Going back to your practice that draws from text, music, and performance, I’m curious what you think can be gleaned from the interstice of ritual and craft? Did you approach the project with a preconceived relationship between mysticism and making, and how have your thoughts evolved throughout the past few months?
JdlP: I think a very simple way to describe it is that it’s sort of like a logic puzzle. We’ve created a framework that has a very specific language related to the occult and mysticism through rites and rituals. Craft serves as a parallel structure that is based on skill. Take the Masons for example: as you progress in skill, you gain knowledge in a more profound, spiritual sense. So there’s this parallel, and we were always sort of guided by both. We were interested in the work of Johannes Itten, and his spiritualistic approach to making and teaching.
SJS: One of our earliest references was William Morris, who is complicated, but one thing that he championed was this idea of human dignity—the worker and the maker have a sense of dignity that is lost in certain forms of industrial production. For me, mysticism related in part to humanism and highlighting individual agency rather than obeying the types of beliefs and laws that are passed down by mastery.
SMP: Can you describe some components to the larger Craft Mystery Cult project and articulate the relationship between ritual and performance to object?
SD: One of our performances at Ox-Bow: “In Commemoration of the Death of the Prophet William Morris” really brought together many aspects of our collaborative work at the residency. It brought together the component of collecting—we would visit each of the studios and collect material remnants of their processes, so we had the slag pile from the iron pour, fragments of glass and things like that. Those objects were collected throughout the course of the project, and we were also creating other objects both through the playful re-authoring of, for example, William Morris textile prints, as well as through various different ways of employing the symbology that we had created. We generated all these objects through various modes of making and collecting, and we funneled them all into this final ritual that involved a processional, the building of this pyre in the fire pit, creating a musical, auditory experience, which all happened at twilight. In the end, it really became this performed ritual for a number of individuals that brought together history and research, object making, collecting, the spiritual, bodies moving in space, music—all of these elements that we had been working on for the duration of the project. There’s a real spirit of play that we’re getting at with improvisation. Spontaneity can occur because of embedded knowledge and experience to some degree. We brought to this collective much of our own thinking and making, and because we come without own histories, the spontaneous and inventive moments can occur.
SMP: I find it interesting that this project evolved from reaction— a simultaneous response to your individual practices within a larger academic framework. If I’m understanding this correctly, it’s the interaction of the collective—the coming together of individuals to create a new body and a new interstice from which you can cultivate an alternative framework for making and its related embodied processes.
SJS: Yeah, absolutely. And I think part of that is we have this desire to make together. I come in with a set of skills that Jovencio and Sonja don’t have, so the way I use my skill in collaboration is in a way that they can also use, which means that the work itself is often quite basic like the pinch pots. Similarly, Sonja will lead in dying indigo since she has experience with that and Jovencio and I do not, and it’s these simplified processes that guides the making of objects…
JdlP: …and thereby the aesthetic that they express.
SMP: Is it from the aesthetic that you make references to meaning in a symbolic sense?
JdlP: I think it’s the implied process more than the aesthetic of the object. Pinch pots and one-dip indigo dye are very foundational.
SJS: That speaks to our interest in skill. We’re interested in that moment of skill that is extremely foundational—not skill in terms of mastery, but skill in terms of someones first encounter with the material. In that way too, the aesthetic that we’re developing is based on the desire to speak about that primary moment of skill.
JdlP: So the aesthetic appears always untrained, or primitive, as problematic as these terms are. We are interested in this notion of prehistory, which really relates to the realm of craft in that a pinch pot made tens of thousands of years ago is strikingly similar to a pinch pot that a high school student in a public school might make. That high school student and prehistoric person are somehow linked through the object, the aesthetic of which comes from this moment of foundational, or primal creation.
SJS: A lot of work that one might consider deskilled comes from the idea that a lack of skill is a stand in for authenticity, and I don’t quite buy that. I feel like what we’re doing is somehow different from that—not that that moment of primary skill is more authentic than mastery, but it’s about creating some kind of framework around that moment—that moment has a depth of meaning that isn’t about authenticity. It’s not that the primitive person is somehow more authentic than the teenager.
JdlP: But what’s important is that they share the same moment through making that object. That moment can be opened up, and what exists there isn’t authenticity but some sort of experiential knowledge.
SMP: I often have the discussion across a range of art practices about the concept of the moment of discovery, and whether you’re working in paint or performance, it’s all about discovery on some level for the viewer, and I suppose for the maker as well. Does that concept relate to what you’re speaking to?
JdlP: But it’s a very particular kind of discovery because it’s always available through rediscovery—it’s never exhausted, and that’s where the idea of ritual is also important. That moment is always exciting for whatever reason, which is part of the mystery, and I think that’s speaks a lot to where the aesthetic of our objects comes from. It’s interesting because the show in Chicago has nothing to do with objects…
SD: Before we get into Chicago, I’ve been wanting to mention that something I think about a lot in relationship to the CMC project is the spirit of approaching things with a sense of wonder. When we talk about using basic skill and that primary moment of discovery between body and material, there’s a sense of wonder there. You can appreciate that depth of knowledge of a maker’s body to their materials and their process through a sense of wonder, and I feel that a lot of my experience at Ox-Bow visiting all the studios was a process of cultivating that sense of wonder. To stand in front of the glass studio or the iron pour, or to see them open the raku kiln—there’s a sense of wonder and appreciation that’s very important.
JdlP: And I think it’s very difficult not to feel a sense of optimism through craft…
SD: Dare we say it!
JdlP: …because you’re encountering a moment becoming—a moment of creation—it is a generative moment. It’s very integral to that sense of wonder that you are witnessing a generative process.
SJS: And it’s already essentially performative. We can go see an iron pour, we can go see someone blowing glass, someone throwing a pot—that’s performance, and that’s ritual.