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From Pixels to Pavement

Communities are built on shared stories, not communication platforms. The activity of people coming together in common cause – for arguments, activism, person-to-person exchange of expertise and experiences – has little to do with the CMS or social media used to do so. Our modes of communication are evolving, certainly, but it strikes me that […]

PHONEBOOK-4-COVER-915x515Communities are built on shared stories, not communication platforms. The activity of people coming together in common cause – for arguments, activism, person-to-person exchange of expertise and experiences – has little to do with the CMS or social media used to do so. Our modes of communication are evolving, certainly, but it strikes me that the roots of community – real community – remain remarkably constant. That sense of belonging, of fellow-feeling, that comes from participation in a vibrant community is, as ever, firmly rooted in the realm of human connection first, even if those connections are made in digital rather than physical space. (Indeed, physical proximity matters less and less in the formation of communities, thanks to the ease of connecting with like-minded folks across great distances in real time. Everywhere is local online.)

The infrastructures of communication by which a group’s members engage one another don’t, in themselves, create communities. But look closely at the support systems and embedded interests of the platforms on which we assemble, and it’s just as clear how and where we house that human exchange – particularly online – matters deeply.

Who owns and operates the “free” social media platform your community uses for its gatherings? How is work and personal information you upload to your individual profile in a “community” database used by the website hosting it? Who moderates your conversations? Who created the algorithm that determines what is gleaned for the information feed you see from those you “follow”? And to what end is that data being shaped? If your community is using a commercially-owned, proprietary platform to conduct its conversations, who pays for it? Specifically, what (or who) is being sold in the process?

The various modes of communication we use now don’t, themselves, create our communities. But the media we choose for those interactions surely shapes them. Commercial media platforms are in the business of business: the for-profit social Web is designed with invisible fencing and incentives built-in, corralling and nudging its users’ energies and conversations (more or less adeptly) in profitable directions. There’s nothing necessarily evil about the arrangement. But we’d be wise to remember that when we gin up conversation around a community question on Facebook, mobilize around viral hashtags on Twitter, exchange “likes” and “shares” and clever GIFs on Tumblr, we’re effectively working someone else’s party.

For arts communities, in particular, issues of equity and access, inclusion and visibility in our shared stories are too important to leave in the hands of salesmen. I want to see more open-source platform creation, more web-savvy intention, from the code up, at the foundation of arts communities coming together online. I want artists and independent-minded cultural producers to build transparent, responsive digital spaces for themselves that might better connect community members in conversation, from pixels to pavement, in ways that reflect the values they hold in common. Our modes of communication, as conscious communities, need to reflect the shared stakes and benefits, arguments and activism that draw us together in the first place.

This essay was originally published in PHONEBOOK 4, (Chicago, IL: Threewalls, 2015). 

 

It’s Time to Expand the Field of “Regional” Arts Writing

  I like sociologist Alison Gerber’s definition of an artist. Her way of wrestling with the vocabulary of artistic practice and “field” resonates with my own attempts to wrangle the lexicon of contemporary art-making and criticism. For her short contribution to Temporary Art Review’s rolling Hand in Glove “social response,” she writes: “When I say […]

 

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Photo: Florian Klauer (Unsplash)

I like sociologist Alison Gerber’s definition of an artist. Her way of wrestling with the vocabulary of artistic practice and “field” resonates with my own attempts to wrangle the lexicon of contemporary art-making and criticism. For her short contribution to Temporary Art Review’s rolling Hand in Glove “social response,” she writes:

“When I say artists, I don’t mean you and your friends. I didn’t really know that, not in my bones, until I became a quote-unquote scientist, until I sat down for a year or two and puzzled out what, exactly, I meant when I said ‘artist’ – and, more importantly, what I wanted to mean, what world I imagined when I conjured these artists. For the past few years, I’ve defined ‘artists’ for my own purposes with a proxy for artistic practice: the exhibition of artworks in public. I’ve drawn on rosters I constructed from the kinds of places where we encounter artworks: diverse presenting institutions that include galleries and museums, to be sure, but also cafes, studio crawls, churches, city streets.”

That notion of making work to share, somehow, with others in a public sphere seems to me crucial. After all, the soul of art lives not primarily in the act of a work’s creation, but in the dynamic, conversational space where two minds meet in the experience of it. It doesn’t matter if that work is presented in a gallery or on a stage or in a derelict city lot; what matters are the stories we tell each other about what we see there, the human labor of the making and sharing of it for that purpose.

Art so made and presented for others’ consideration amounts to a kind of blind query, a call from one mind to others like it. And that call is what good arts criticism answers – it’s a completion of the work, in a sense, accepting the artist’s invitation to look, to argue, to parse meaning or mystery, to find affinity there, or not.

At Mn Artists, our mission and mandate has always focused, first, around the needs of the regional arts community and improving the lives of working Minnesota artists. And for 13 years, our organization has included among its offerings a dedicated space and budget for homegrown arts writing and critical dialogue. But local artists are hungry for more than just visibility in a digital space; they want criticism and arts journalism that goes beyond simply holding a mirror up to local arts activities. Minnesota’s artists are educated, talented, sophisticated makers looking to connect their own practices here with larger currents of cultural work and conversation. They’re eager to have eyes from outside looking at work happening locally, but also invested in looking up and out and responding to what’s going on beyond our state’s borders.

Arts publishing that is mindful of its regional roots and local relevance doesn’t preclude engagement with artists, organizations, and audiences who are like-minded but may be working elsewhere. Indeed, the local arts scene is only enlivened further by those more far-reaching connections. And thanks to stability afforded by support from the McKnight Foundation and our home within the Walker Art Center, Mn Artists’ editorial efforts can afford to take a long view, to incubate that wider-network of artists, critics, and organizations across the country over time. We also have the breathing room to build a deep archive of editorial content covering disciplines – like dance, new music and jazz, poetry, visual art, social practice – that aren’t commercially viable fodder for in-depth coverage in most for-profit publications. As communities of practice and interest coalesce in the digital landscape, strict adherence to regional geographical boundaries in our editorial coverage, as a web-based platform for artists, seems not only less desirable, but even counterproductive to serving their demonstrated interests.

And so our strategies for publishing “regional” arts writing and criticism have, over the years, broadened. In recent years, we’ve adopted a wide-angle editorial strategy that serves the regional arts community by bringing outside writers, artists, and viewpoints into the fold of our coverage. Ultimately, we’re after writing and critical response with authentic regional flavor, local relevance, and a distinctively Upper Midwestern voice, but which isn’t bound by provincialism or needlessly small spheres of coverage. To my mind, it’s a declaration that the writing and artworks made in Minnesota are clearly strong enough, broadly relevant enough to resonate with audiences both here and far beyond the region.

Read more contributions to the Hand in Glove “Social Response” on Temporary Art Review.

Hand in Glove: An Introduction and Recommended Reading

—The following is excerpted from an editorial statement for Hand in Glove written by James McAnally, Executive Editor of Temporary Art Review. Artist-centric practices have continued to normalize as a dominant way of working in response to economic necessity, socially-aware apertures and numerous other factors. Hand-in-Glove has been a formative platform for gathering in this emergent field […]

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—The following is excerpted from an editorial statement for Hand in Glove written by James McAnally, Executive Editor of Temporary Art Review.

Artist-centric practices have continued to normalize as a dominant way of working in response to economic necessity, socially-aware apertures and numerous other factors. Hand-in-Glove has been a formative platform for gathering in this emergent field since its first iteration, organized by Threewalls in Chicago in 2011. Now, paired with the launch of the nascent Common Field network, it is arriving at a pivotal moment for the field more broadly. Questions of the sustainability of this notoriously precarious activity, paired with latent institutionalization and professionalization within the field, are more pressing than ever as practitioners gather to consider the paradigms and platforms through which we engage.

Hand-in-Glove, in its own words, is “an itinerant gathering created by and for the practitioners in the field of alternative art spaces, projects and organizations” that “will investigate the contexts and conditions of artist-led culture across the country.”

As perhaps the only national gathering consistently focusing on the field of alternative art spaces, projects and organizations, the evolution of Hand-in-Glove also acts as a speculative narrative about the arc of this practice. It is “by and for” the field, offering an opportunity for necessary self-assessment about both its current dynamics and future shape.

The field, such as it is – this artist-centered, alternative terrain – is formalizing. It is inscribed in institutions mobilizing down and taking on more flexible forms, as well as small scale organizations organizing through networks of support. The field is also continually shifting – projects redirecting or shuttering, organizers moving and leaving their positions, questions of sustainability, growth, equity and access always on a precipice. Hand-in-Glove is a meeting point for these complex dynamics, offering a moment of reflection on both its own development since 2011 as well as the evolutions around artist-centric practice over the past several years.

Over the next several weeks, Temporary Art ReviewMn Artists, and Common Field are embarking on collaborative and cross-platform editorial project, a social response to Hand-in-Glove, featuring framing texts on the convening, commissioned essays, and critical responses to this year’s convening, September 17 through 20, in the Twin Cities.

With these conversations, in writing and in person, we’re attempting to open a porous space in which we ask these questions back to ourselves:

What is our common field of practice and how do we advance it?

What are models of growth that don’t use the mechanisms of institutionalization?

Can we articulate our position of artist-centricity in tangible terms?

Are we successfully embodying the kind of art world we wish to see more broadly?

***

Weigh in with your own thoughts here or in the ongoing conversational threads unspooling over the coming weeks on Temporary Art Review, in their section for the Hand in Glove “Social Response.”

To prepare for the Hand in Glove convening this week, we’ve been reading up, compiling resources and links to landmark articles in this burgeoning field. Below, you’ll find a selection of suggested articles and essays, notable web resources and books, that might help us navigate as we get the lay of the land for this emerging common field.

RETHINKING DIY, “RURAL,” AND ARTS-BASED COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT

  • Robert Gard’s landmark essay on arts development in smaller towns as “a laboratory through which the vision for a region is reformulated and extended,” at the forefront of a larger, national renaissance in arts and culture: “The Arts in the Small Community: A National Plan” (aka “The Windmill Book”)
  • A chapter from the book, Building Communities, Not Audiences: The Future of The Arts in the United States, in which Maryo Gard Ewell offers valuable historical context for current trends in community-rooted, socially-engaged art: “Arts-Based Community Development: Where Did We Come From?
  • Burn the Maps” by Art of the Rural founder Matthew Fluharty on redrawing the maps of the cultural center and periphery to account for evolving demographic, cultural, and economic realities in “rural” America (Mn Artists)
  • Lane Relyea with Katy Siegel” on the historical and future implications of DIY, contemporary post-studio practices, and the M.F.A. as a rising art world institution (The Brooklyn Rail)

ART WORK AT THE INTERSECTION OF CLASS, MARKET VALUE, AND LABOR

  • Art Practical’s double-issue on “Valuing Labor in the Arts,” includes a wide-ranging assortment of essays – from writers working in economics, sociology, art history, performance studies, dance, film studies, and literature – which explore the intersections of art, activism, artistic service, compensation and labor.
  • Ben Davis’s “9.5 Theses on Art and Class
  • Sociologist Alison Gerber’s piece on art and the state, “The Nightmare Audit of an Indie Artist.” (Narratively)
  • Marion Fourcade and Kieran Healy’s “Moral Views of Market Society” (The Annual Review of Sociology)
  • From Julia Bryan-Wilson’s book, Art Workers, the essay, “From Artists to Art Workers,” unpacks the implications cultural labor in the political sphere: “art work is no longer confined to describing aesthetic methods, acts of making, or art objects—the traditional referents of the term—but is implicated in artists’ collective working conditions, the demolition of the capitalist art market, and even revolution.”
  • Loren Nosan on carving out new pathways for successful artistic practice, outside the realm of “the immensely powerful consumerist machine” and the institutional and credentialing systems which perpetuate it: “Artists of the World, Unite!” (Galleryell)

COMPLICATING “SOCIAL PRACTICE”

  • Critic Ben Davis untangles some of the nuances in the question of what it means to be a political artist today in “A Critique of Social Practice Art” (International Socialist Review)
  • Is Social Practice Gentrifying Community Arts?Bad At Sports’ incisive dispatch from the Creative Time Summit (NYC), The Association of American Cultures (Providence, RI), and Hand in Glove (New Orleans): August – October 2013
  • In “Disasters Align,” Red76 founder Sam Gould makes the case for a rangier sort of socially-engaged art that forgoes easy, art world-friendly categories like “social practice” in favor of articulating a field of practice that embraces more disruptive, unabashedly irrational work and interaction. (Mn Artists)
  • An Xiao Mina writes on the nexus of artists, the internet, and social movements in “An Activism of Affirmation” (Walkerart.org)
  •  “Fighting Words: A Public Debate on the Relationship Between Social Practice and Arts Institutions”  documents remarks from a lively conversation at Assembly, a social practice gathering held last year in Portland, Ore., compiled by Ariana Jacob, on the question: Does social practice belong in museums?  (Mn Artists)

WHERE HAVE WE COME FROM, AND WHERE ARE WE HEADED?

Monica Sheets offers two suggestions, writing: “These are some oldies but goodies that seem to still be highly relevant regarding the danger for (neoliberal) instrumentalization of artists’ work and socially engaged art’s problematic relationship to the political.”

Seattle’s and/or organization founder, Anne Focke, writes: “In the late 1980s, several hundred people met twice at remote locations on two islands, one on the U.S. east coast and one on the west, to consider “the creative support of the creative artist.” Sponsored by the New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA), the first conference was held in May 1986 at Montauk on the eastern tip of Long Island, New York and the second in November 1988 on Orcas Island near the Canadian border in Washington state. These two gatherings brought together artists, arts funders, and dedicated people from organizations that serve artists. For two days (Montauk) or four days (Orcas) they talked, performed, argued, ate together, played together, and tackled critical concerns beyond the arts. They also built life-long friendships and professional relationships and provoked questions that remain today.”

Noteworthy websites and online resources:

Suggestions for further reading:

Many thanks to Maia Murphy, Maria Sykes, Alison Gerber, Shanai Matteson, Colin Kloecker, Andy Sturdevant, James McAnally, Monica Sheets, Abigail Satinsky, Jehra Patrick, Emily Gastineau, Anne Focke, Shawn(ta) Smith Cruz, and Paul Bonin Rodriguez for their contributions to the list.

Conference information:

Hand in Glove 2015 (#HIG2015) will take place September 17 – 20 at the Soap Factory in Minneapolis. For more information on topics, sessions, and related events, visit the convening’s website: http://commonfield.org/convening

Let’s consider this a working document – please feel free to add your own reading suggestions in the comments.

Superscript Required Reading

Later this week, critics and artists, journalists, editors, and all manner of people interested in the future of cultural media online will convene at the Walker Art Center for Superscript, an international conference (the first-of-its-kind, as far as we can tell) on “the future of arts criticism and journalism in a digital age.” Our featured […]

superscript

Later this week, critics and artists, journalists, editors, and all manner of people interested in the future of cultural media online will convene at the Walker Art Center for Superscript, an international conference (the first-of-its-kind, as far as we can tell) on “the future of arts criticism and journalism in a digital age.” Our featured speakers hail from an array of outlets, large and small: from Rhizome, e-flux and frieze to VICE, Pitchfork, and BuzzFeed Books; from Temporary Art Review and The New Inquiry to Creative Time Reports and the Los Angeles Times.

We’re more interested in articulating nuanced questions for consideration than offering definitive answers:

What’s the role of the “professional” critic?

Is virality killing or cultivating new audiences for the arts?

What are the promising models for funding and sustaining substantive arts reporting and criticism?

How is the web changing the way artists tell their stories or expand their practices—or how we think about art? 

We have been reading up, mulling essays and think-pieces, polemics and manifestos on the present and future issues in the field by a motley assortment of inspired artists, critics, and media folk from a range of disciplines and platforms. Below you’ll find a shortlist of the thought-provoking pieces we bookmarked and shared as we made our preparations. Please do weigh in where you see gaps in our list, and leave your own recommended reading suggestions in the comments.

Topic: Criticism, Credibility, and Collusion

Topic: Sustainability, Growth, and Ethics

Topic: Connectivity and Community

Topic: Artists as Cultural First Responders

Related information:

Superscript: Arts Journalism and Criticism in a Digital Age is a three-day conference, copresented by Walker Art Center and Mn Artists (May 28–30, 2015). Here’s a list of all the ways you can participate in the conversations and events surrounding Superscript (whether you attend in person or not).

Presented as part of

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