Since returning from NYC three weeks ago I’ve been meaning to post highlights from the Creative Time Summit and Living as Form exhibition (I know, old news for the blogosphere). Both events, organized by Creative Time, celebrate socially engaged participatory arts practice. It’s one of several conferences* I’ve attended this past year exploring a broad range of cultural production by designers, artists (in the performing and visual arts), writers, journalists, policy makers, organizations, and thinkers from various fields which respond to social/political issues.
As someone who’s often disenchanted by our political system, and its (in)ability to improve the current crises, I was easily moved by what I saw at the Summit. In the air was an urgent desire for change, reflected not only in the day’s presentations but in the words of the audience (and by protesters gathered farther south on Wall Street). Early in the day, Dont Rhine, an AIDS activist, sound artist, and co-founder of the sound collective Ultra-Red asked everyone to write down a response to the question, “Why do you do what you do?”
Rhine came around with a microphone as people read aloud their answers: “I do what I do to affect change, to support artists, to heal to create; to ultimately make something happen; to promote and create unity; to understand the world in a different way; I can’t help it, I’m curious and afraid.” The goal of Rhine’s listening activity was “to shift the orientation of our latent collectivity” by empowering us, the normally silent and sponge-like audience to have a voice and to listen to one another. We hadn’t even hit the coffee break and we were already having our second participatory moment of the day!
Participation is a key component of socially engaged artistic practice. Traditionally in visual art, the relationship of the audience to the artist is a passive one; the artist is the maker of an object and the viewer silently reflects on what they see, usually in a museum or gallery setting (a space which can feel privileged or exclusive). The same traditional notions hold true for dance and theater, just substitute the white gallery space for the black box of the theater. In social practice, which has its beginnings in Dada and the performance art of the ’60s and ’70s, there’s a shift from the artist as a sole author/maker to a producer of situations, and a shift in the audience from viewer to participant. (Relational art or aesthetics is another term used in conjunction with social practice, coined by Nicolas Bourriaud and spoofed by the hilarious Hennesy Youngman.)
One of my favorite examples of relational aesthetics at play presented at the Summit was a project by Czech artist Katerina Šedá called There’s Nothing There (2003) — a work in which she asked the people living in three small towns in the Czech Republic to simultaneously repeat their everyday rituals, all at the same time. This project evolved over the course of a year as a response to the villagers’ sentiments that nothing ever happened in their communities. 315 people participated, and found themselves drinking beers in the bar, walking to the store together, and watching TV at that same time. In the mundane behaviors that guides our day-to-day lives, this group discovered how much more interesting life can be when working and living collectively. The ironically communist overtones of the project were not lost on Šedá, who was asked by the villagers to keep creating more experiences for them. Her response: you know how to do it, now you don’t need me! I’d be curious to know what, if any, social transformations or experiments have happened in these places since Šedá’s intervention.
It was hard to not get caught up in the zeitgeist of the Summit and the other conferences I’ve been to this past year. The buffet of creativity, intelligence, humor, and activism was very inspiring, and I admit, I’m drawn to much of the work. But is it art? Nato Thompson, Chief Curator of Creative Time and organizer of the Summit said, “It seems daunting to attempt to contain it all under the heading of ‘Art’, as so much socially engaged cultural work exists outside this purview. Here, we are following the logic of cultural practice to its end instead of simply following existing definitions.”
Hence, trying to write or talk about it becomes slippery, which is what makes it so interesting, experimental, alive, and vital. But, does anything go? Are there any rules or criteria to say what’s good social practice versus bad? Or as artist Kelsey Snook, puts it in her blog, what does good participation look like? (I met Kelsey this summer in Minnesota when she and her collaborators put on the Giant Sing Along at the Minnesota State Fair.) And let’s face it, social practice is nestled, at least in part, in the art world — evident through its funding sources, the emergence of MFA social practice programs at university art departments, and by who’s hosting and attending these conferences. So it’s not surprising that some of the best criticism of social practice should come from Claire Bishop, an art historian and writer of a number of articles and books on the topic of relational art and participation. She gave a fascinating lecture last May, “Participation and Spectacle: Where Are We Now?,” that was hosted by Creative Time, part of a series of talks meant to frame the September Summit and Living as Form exhibition.
Quickly, to conclude I want to give my thoughts on Living as Form, which are actually summed up nicely in the words of Nato Thompson’s curatorial statement (emphasis mine):
“Most of the artists presenting here also have their work on display as part of the Living as Form exhibition at the historic Essex Street Market. As much of this work is extremely complicated—involving numerous audiences, workshops, and considerations of regional and cultural specificity—its presentation in archival form will certainly pale in comparison to the actual living, breathing thing. However, as it would be next to impossible to bring all that work in its living specificity together, we feel that a survey of this work, no matter how removed from its original context, will provide insights into the vast new terrain that is possible with socially engaged art. Even though this work is not easy to display, it is nonetheless a significant, growing form of cultural practice.”
Because so much of the survey was archival reading material and video, it made for a terribly boring exhibition, with some exceptions, like Pedro Reyes’ shovels made from melted handguns and Surasi Kusolwong’s piles of thread waste from textile manufacturing, that included hidden gold necklaces that visitors could seek out and keep if found (see below). These works actually did provide a living, first-hand experience for the visitors, unlike the materials displayed on the shelves. If social practice truly extends beyond art, then why try to fit it into an exhibition box? Here’s a show that I am much more excited to see in its catalog form, which will no doubt be an amazing resource.
*My City’s Still Breating: A symposium exploring the arts, artists, and the city (Winnipeg), Bruner Loeb Forum: Putting Creativity to Work (Minneapolis), Festival of Ideas for the New City (New York City)
Here are some photos from this past year’s travels:
Note: While in New York I made a side venture to MoMA P.S.1. and in their courtyard space I was pleasantly surprised to discover how useful remnants, like trees and benches, from an installation called Holding Pattern by Interboro Partners, were getting donated to the local community. I think it’s a brilliant recycling plan and an example of how generosity, which seems to be at the heart of so many social practice projects, can also happen in large art institutions as well.