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Does Social Practice Belong in Museums? Artist Janaki Ranpura Responds

Recently, Mn Artists posted excerpts from a live debate on the question, “Does social practice belong in art museums?,” posed by Ariana Jacob to the audience of practitioners on hand at last summer’s Assembly in Portland, Ore.. We asked some Minnesota artists to weigh in as well. The following response comes from Janaki Ranpura, an artist who works […]

Photo from Assembly: A Social Practice Get-Together, held in Portland, Ore. last summer

Photo from Assembly: A Social Practice Get-Together, held in Portland, Ore. last summer

Recently, Mn Artists posted excerpts from a live debate on the question, “Does social practice belong in art museums?,” posed by Ariana Jacob to the audience of practitioners on hand at last summer’s Assembly in Portland, Ore.. We asked some Minnesota artists to weigh in as well. The following response comes from Janaki Ranpura, an artist who works in performance for stage and public space. Her work, Socially I Am Awkward, was part of the recent thinking, making, living exhibition at the University of Minnesota’s Nash Gallery. (You can read a related essay by Walker Art Center’s Ashley Duffalo, on the difficulty of having critical conversation about such art practices, over at the main Mn Artists homepage.)

Social practice art will inevitably be represented and addressed in public institutions, including museums. This seems appropriate and beneficial to deepening the practice of artists and improving the understanding of this term.

What’s at stake?  Legitimization from institutions on one hand and, on the other, being taken seriously as artists who are delegitimizing institutions. But being taken seriously by whom?

This dichotomy assumes that the point of social practice art is to destabilize. That is not the point of this term to me. It is the point of art, but not in any way unique to social practice. Being in a museum is not art per se. Museums are a showcase for art; they mediate between art makers and the public. They also have a function of educating artists about other artists, but there are lots of forums for that, and that function is not unique to museums.

In this context, what is social practice?   Relational. It is not a term that describes outcomes; it addresses things that raise themselves up as relevant in the course of making work. These things are interdisciplinary connections and a performance aesthetic. Here, by “performance” I mean the ways that live people react to each other and to space. Results can be community building, landscape — but that is not the focus of the term. The term, “social practice,” entails a focus on intersubjective awareness and awareness of experience of a tactile space. I add tactile because the form is live. The showing up and showing off in galleries is about the legacy of a present moment. “Social practice art” does not apply to pieces that can exist without their author present; the author/artist is the conductor of a symphonic experience of presence.

The role of museums for this form.   I’m referring, then, to social practice as interior experience. It necessarily follows that such practice escapes recording. So, what can be put into a museum? Traces.

And a history of a moment is not in any way an unusual thing to put in a museum. It is, in fact, what museums mostly truck in: showing objects with vibrancy (i.e., phenomenological potency) that remind and point to the circumstance of humanity at the time of their creation. The highest of the high continue to generate primary experience — that is, what is being seen right then — as well as referencing a significant past (what I consider as an evaluative criteria). Many, many objects in collections do not do this, and sometimes this sensation is not even universal, but rather extremely circumstantial and particular. Given this, museums can, through layout and didactics, encourage in their visitors the right headspace to discover the experiential and/or phenomenological groove an object offers.

Further explanation about that: the museum provides a place quiet enough to allow primary experience (a phenomenological be-here-now) to happen, and that primary experience is triggered by objects (when I say “objects,” I’m including space and pictures). It is clear that my stance is that of an experiential artist, calling the museum simply a box in which you have experiences … but it’s usually a sophisticated box, mind you. And this thing about sophistication brings me to another point.

What’s great about museums is that there are a bunch of professionals there. What’s great about professionals is that they spend lots and lots of hours doing the thing they do. What’s great about spending lots and lots of hours is that getting good at anything takes practice. So, there are these professionals spending a lot of hours thinking about deepening the discourse of art — and it’s for the public. What a brilliant gift to civil society. It seems to me spoiled to reject that public gift. The whole point of an artistic life is to deepen the discourse. I want to do that with the best people, and museums help grow some of those people through the curators they cultivate. All this isn’t to say that I believe in educated opinions to the exclusion of amateur ones. But I would say it by way of countering the troubling argument that only naïve participants constitute a genuine public.

Interconnectedness: Grab as many hands as possible.

This leads me to an interesting observation noted in Dorothy Chansky’s review of Shannon Jackson (PDF): that assuming an anti-institutional stance, for an artist, occupies the same space of political consciousness as the neo-liberal stance that no government is good government. We are all still using the roads, the power lines, and drinking clean water. We are all paying into the museum; it is a utility to feed the public mind. To turn your back on using public institutions is akin to assuming that it is possible to live in society and simultaneously be autonomous. The term “social practice” is particularly ill-suited to that mindset.

Talking about necessary interconnectedness leads me to funding models. Funding is not within what I mean by “practicing art” – I think of the struggle to attain personal keenness and excellence, and figuring out how to transmit it, when I use that phrase. But it is certainly smart for an artist to fund life and meaning with a Robin Hood approach: that is, make sale-able objects to fund the invisible (internal, personal) experiments of social practice. This is not corrupting, it is just clever. If you are going to be an artist, it’s a lot more fun if you’re also a fox.

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In sum: social practice is about internal experience. That experience is not recordable. It is, in its ripples outside the immediate moment, hard to share. Therefore, it can only be shared as a historical phenomenon. The best examples of such practice leave historical traces that are physically vibrant enough to trigger some kind of secondary experience of immediacy (post-immediacy, phenomenology, whatever you choose to call it). We, as artists, want to share our work with as many people as possible. Museums are good collaborators in figuring out how to do that with integrity. If you don’t agree with my stance that disruption is not a purview unique to social practice, but belongs to all art in general, you will not agree with any of the rest of what is said here.

Janaki Ranpura shapes performer / participant relationships in non-traditional spaces. She has been a fellow at the Playwrights’ Center of Minneapolis for the past three years, where she created Ububu, a play with actors and marionettes. She is a member of Public Art St Paul’s City Art Collaboratory, a think tank of artists and scientists working on urban issues. She’s in the process of developing Your Heart Is In My Mouth, a toy theater performance about family history developed through Pillsbury House Theater and with installation components created while in residence at the MacDowell Colony. She has received awards from the Minnesota State Arts Board, Forecast Public Art, the Jerome Foundation, and a Citation of Excellence for her large-scale shadow theater piece, Lovesick Sea Play. She worked on Baby Marx with Pedro Reyes at Art Basel Parcours and the Walker Art Center. She trained with Larry Reed’s company, Shadowlight, at École Lecoq and at Yale University.

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