Chapter 3 Context (specific artists and collectives and your place within these fields)
Try to add a few sub-titles where you think it makes sense so that you break up the long passages of narrative for the reader.
Evolution of Social Practice: 1970-Present Social practice and socially engaged art are terms commonly used today to describe art projects that hover between different disciplines or fields of knowledge. These projects usually involve direct participation and social cooperation. Crossing into other disciplines they challenge arts autonomy as a discourse. The line between art and life are blurred. The development of this practice is rooted in the late 1960’s as artists began moving into the realm of everyday life and civic engagement. Artists have continued to move further into everyday life, breaking down the barriers between artist and audience, and initiating socially engaged projects with the goal of confronting political issues and strengthening communities.
The conversations and debates surrounding social practice and socially engaged art have led to countless books and articles over the past 10 years. Art historians and art critics have tried to create a framework to distinguish this kind of practice from others. Art historian Miwon Kwon’s contribution to the field, One Place after Another: Site-specific Art and Locational Identity (2002), critiques process based community art through the evolution of site-specific art. This text provides a framework for a type of practice where the process is the central aesthetic of the work. In the book Kwon challenges this position on an ethical basis. The process as central aesthetic paradigm is the focus of Grant Kester’s critique of collaborative art. Kester’s book, The One and the Many: Contemporary Colaborative Art in a Global Context (2011) supports dialogic art and collaborative art practice. His analysis of 2 paradigms, the textual and the collaborative, serve to distinguish projects that have socially beneficial outcomes and unfold over time through collaboration from those that rest on the modernist and avant-garde position of disruption and ironic detachment. Along similar lines, Queens Museum director and art historian Tom Finkelpearl’s book What We Made: Conversations on Art and Social Cooperation (2013) traces the history of socially cooperative art from the civil rights movements of the 1960’s and the feminist movements of the 1970’s to our contemporary time. Like Kester, Finkelpearl draws a distinction between cooperative artist practice and relational symbolic practices. Rather than relying on conventional signification, disruption, and autonomy, socially cooperative artwork intersects with other disciplines to provide socially beneficial outcomes and possibilities for art. Art historian and critic Claire Bishop takes a decidedly different position on the topic of socially engaged art in her book Artificial Hells (2012). Bishop favors the disruptive, believes in the autonomy of art, and questions the significance of artwork that does not antagonize, basing her analysis on the traditions of the avant-garde and performance art. She does however champion the concept of collaboration and the pedagogic approach with her analysis of Tania Bruguera’s Arte de Conducta in Havana, Cuba. The pedagogic approach that is essential to most cooperative and collaborative art projects is further explored by artist and educator Pablo Helguera in his book Education for Socially Engaged Art (2011) Like Kester and Finkelpearl, Helguera posits that socially engaged artists work across disciplines and that they enter various discursive fields, like pedagogy and educational science, during the process of making their art. Helguera elaborates on the concept of pedagogy within the work of artists for whom process is the central aesthetic.
In her introduction to One Place After Another, Kwon describes the redefining of the art-site relationship that has occurred over the past 50 years. She argues that site-specificity, rooted in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, has been redefined in various ways by contemporary artists. These artists define site as , “context specific, debate-specific, audience-specific, community-specific, project-based” (2). This destabilizing of the site comes out of debate surrounding special politics – “ideas about art, architecture, and urban design, on the one hand, and theories of the city, social space, and public space, on the other” (3). Kwon describes a trend as she sees it in projects that expand out into the public realm, projects that are “dispersed across much broader cultural, social, and discursive fields, and organized intertextually through the nomadic movement of the artist.” From this point, Kwon is able to posit that a new type of practice, “community artistic praxis, as opposed to community based art” has emerged. Written in 2002, this description would appear to relate to what critics and historians would later refer to as social practice, participatory art, or socially engaged art.
In The One and the Many (2011), art historian Grant Kester critiques collaborative art practice, a continuation of his previous work on art and the dialogic process. The book focuses on “site-specific collaborative projects that unfold through extended interaction and shared labor, and in which the process of participatory interaction itself is treated as a form of creative praxis” (9). Kester believes this turn represents a paradigm shift in artist practice.
Kester asks the basic question “why are artists collaborating?” and asks the sub-questions: what is art when it gets blended with other disciplines? What forms of knowledge do these types of practices generate? How do we criticize art like this, and if the process is the art what methods do we use to critique it? These questions are similar to A. Downey’s and C. bishops and will be discussed in detail later. Kester identifies a paradigm shift that follows political global change (the negative effects of neoliberalism and the optimism of global political renewal) – the shift to disavow the authorial position of the artist, the move toward collaboration and participation, and the “increasing permeability between “art” and other zones of symbolic production” (7). Kester sees this contemporary shift as being similar to art made during previous moments of social crises (progressive era, depression, 1960’s).
According to Kester, while the traditional definition of collaboration might be 2 artists working together to create a virtual third artist, the type we see today involves the artist (the one) as the “locus of creative transformation” (2) (with the many). To construct his textual paradigm, Kester offers up a definition for modernism. Modernism is referred to as an ongoing project that brought about the move toward singular genius but also the gradual erosion of the authorial position of the artist. The condition of modern art is the same in many ways to contemporary SEA and collaborative practice: “The ability of aesthetic experience to transform our perceptions of difference and to open space for forms of knowledge that challenge cognitive, social, or political conventions (12). The term textual art is often used by Kester to refer to object making and event making that is intended to be shown to a viewer. Textual Politics refers to the process of reading or decoding work “insulated from the exigencies of practice or direct action” (14).
Chapter 1 focuses on the re-articulation of aesthetic autonomy as art practices parallel, overlap with, and challenge other fields of cultural production. The chapter looks at the artist’s personality vs. autonomy and the implications of this on collaborative practice. The chapter also discusses the idea of Textual Politics and the ways in which work is read and experienced.
Chapter 2 begins with the question, “What forms or knowledge are catalyzed in collaborative interaction?” (15) “How do they differ from the insights generated through the specular experience provided by object-based practices? (15). The chapter also looks at rural/urban dichotomy, global dialogic practices, and the discourse of “development”.
Chapter 3 looks at Collaborative art and the image of urban renewal/regeneration and how artists also work to reclaim urban space and go against gentrification and displacement. Here again is the question of agency, identity, and labor.
Queens Museum director and art theorist Tom Finkelpearl enters the conversation through the lens of community based practice or “social cooperation.” Finkelpearl wrote What we Made (2013) to confront the fact that many artists consider their work to be cooperative – that is what they do as their art. The process is the central aesthetic. Examples are given to illustrate the difference between relational/participatory art practice and social cooperation. According to Finkelpearl, social cooperation is defined as work that is dialogically based and created collaboratively. In essence the work is made by the group.
Finkelpearl sets up the context for what he calls the art of social cooperation through the American framework. He breaks it down into evolving categories beginning with the social movements of the 1960’s, civil rights and community organizing, and “the Movement and participatory democracy”, elements of which culminate in performance based activism. Finkelpearl claims that the 1960’s counter institutions and community organizing models, and art practices (like Fluxus/Kaprow/Beuys) that were outright performative, participatory, and conscious-raising, plus the influence of theory from Europe that arrived in the 1980’s and the culture wars of the 1980’s, culminated in what we now recognize as cooperative art. The rapid rise of artists like Theaster Gates and the myriad books on the subject of this kind of practice, suggest that the art establishment is finally opening their eyes to it.
After analyzing community organizing practices and social movements, Finkelpearl takes a look at the pioneers of American cooperative art. Within his description the concept of experimental pedagogy is discussed. Kaprow’s “Project Other Ways” is described as progressive participatory education that begins to take on the dialogic model. But while Kaprow wanted to “play with the world” others wanted to change it (22) – leading to projects like Tim Rollins and K.O.S.
The Public art Movement of the 1990’s is also described as a watershed moment in the development of art and social cooperation. Finkelpearl takes the same route as Kwon in arriving at conclusions regarding the significance of “Culture in Action” and its reception in the art world. Finkelpearl later moves on to the subject of relational aesthetics and Bourriaud. Perhaps most important is his description of Bishops post-Bourriaud remark. Basically he thinks that the post-Bourriaudian might want to engage in direct social cooperation rather than relational kinds of work.
Finkelpearl also describes the concept of alternative forms of exchange and reciprocity - as well as collectives and a description of exchanging with social life as the medium of expression.
In her book Artificial Hells (2012), Art historian Claire Bishop concentrates on what she calls participatory works, where “people constitute the central artistic medium and material, in the manner of theatre and performance” (2). Rather than looking at work that is simply “relational” she looks at work that is participatory as a politicized working process. She also concentrates on Europe, and on the relationship between participatory art and “Marxist and post-Marxist writing on art as a de-alienating endeavor that should not be subject to the division of labor and professional specialization” (3). Bishop refers to the social turn as a turn back to the social and the historic avant-garde, positing that the fall of communism in 1989 was a major “point of transformation” in this turn.
In her critique of participatory art, Bishop favors the disruptive, the provocative. She chooses to relate participatory art to the historic avant-garde and performance art. For Bishop, participatory art or socially engaged art is defined as art fused with social praxis, however she prefers the criticality and aesthetic of antagonism to cooperation.
Through the lens of participatory art, Bishop examines, “the tensions between quality and equality, singular and collective authorship, and the ongoing struggle to find artistic equivalents for political positions” (3). Bishop primarily looks at theatre as she believes that theatre and performance are crucial in the encounter that takes place in participatory art. This position sets Bishop apart in that she is most interested in participatory art that is provocative – again a return to the historic avant-garde.
In part 1, The Social Turn: Collaboration and its Discontents, Bishop makes reference to Kwon’s idea of site-specific art practice and social engagement, or rather the “site” itself as social engagement, the paradigm that her thesis arrives at. Socially engaged art is today’s avant-garde, the carrying out of the modernist goal to blur art and life. In essence socially engaged art has the potential to re-humanize. However, given these criteria, every socially engaged art project could be called good. As a critic, Bishop is interested in how socially engaged art can be critiqued as art. She designates two “areas” of thought on the subject: Non-Believers: Aesthetes who reject this work as marginal, misguided, and lacking artistic interest of any kind and Believers: Activists who reject aesthetics questions as synonymous with cultural hierarchy and the market.
Bishop wonders if there can be some middle ground. Many of the artists engaged in the social turn value the process over the product – or means without ends. In engaging others, aesthetic judgments would seem overtaken by ethical criteria. Bishop gives the example of the Turkish Oda Projesi, which is devoid of recognizable aesthetics intentionally – because they are seen as dangerous. Bishop in turn asks if they are dangerous shouldn’t they be used? In any event the projects discussed (including Thomas Hirshorn) illustrate how aesthetic resolution is sidelined in favor collaboration with the community. She references Kester and his writing on dialogic art, which moves away from “sensory” and towards discursive exchange and negotiation”. Communication in this case is an aesthetic form (similar to Bruguera’s aesthetics as transformation).
Bishop favors the provocation – a turn back toward the historical avant-garde - that the work might accept a level of the absurd and eccentric. She goes on to describe several projects by Phil Collins, Artur Zmijewski, and Carson Holler. In these cases the artists venture into the darker side – or antagonism. In one example, Jeremy Deller’s Battle or Orgreave (2001), a reenactment project, engages a community by actually re-opening an old wound rather than “healing it” directly.
Bishop references French Theorist Jacques Renciere, for whom art operates as removed from rationality while blurring art and life. In the final analysis, art that contains with in it these contradictions and the dark side – the aesthetic and not purely good or self-sacrificing – can allow us to confront more difficult things. “Untangling the knot – or ignoring it by seeking more concrete ends for art is slightly missing the point, since the aesthetic is, according to Racier, the ability to think contradiction: The productive contradiction of arts relationship to social change, characterized precisely by that tension between faith in arts autonomy and belief in art as inextricably bound to the promise of a better world to come.” In other words, the disruptions created by artists can show us how we might live differently.
Artist and educator Pablo Helguera enters the conversation through education with a desire to discuss the nuances of what he calls socially engaged art. His short handbook Education for Socially Engaged Art (2011) is meant to serve as a guide for those interested in learning about the genre. The book is divided into useful sections with mostly theoretical perspectives on socially engaged art. Helguera defines socially engaged arr in the United States as a genre that emerged out of Allen Kaprow’s work in the late 1960’s and developed along with feminist art and criticism taking on pedagogic characteristics. Helguera, like Bishop, describes SEA as “performance in the expanded field”. To understand socially engaged art, Helguera argues, you have to have an understanding of “pedagogy, theater, ethnography, anthropology, and communication, among others”. As Helguera is an artist and educator he takes on an educational approach in writing this “handbook”. Helguera posits that socially engaged artists work across disciplines, that they enter various discursive fields during the process of making their art. Like other authors he is concerned with separating symbolic practices like relational aesthetics from socially engaged art.
Socially Engaged Art: The Local and Global Contexts and an American Framework The discussion of a disruption vs. cooperation in socially engaged art, as reflected in the positions of Bishop, Kester, Finkelpearl, and to some extent Helguera, are further discussed in terms of their local and global contexts as well as European and American frameworks. Kester offers examples of where the global meets the local in somewhat uncomfortable ways in the Chapter The Genius of the Place from his book The One and the Many (2011). Finkelpearl and kester discuss this concept further in What We Made (2013). Finkelpearl also develops what he calls an American Framework for art and social cooperation, rooted in the developments of the civil rights movement and community organizing.
Kester uses the example of Francis Alys’s, When Faith Moves Mountains, to better understand collaboration as a form of artistic production. This piece, according to art critics, fits within the local and global context. The participants are from Peru and they shovel sand in a futile effort to move a massive sand dune that stands high above a shantytown. The piece is a critique of modernization (the usual critique offered up by Alys in his projects) and failure is part of the poetic symbolism of the work. Critics however state that the “local” participants experience the forming of community, the “spirit of conviviality”, or the “degree zero” of community”, while globally the pieces re-presentation in galleries and institutions as a film invites further interpretations. For Kester this re-presentation becomes purely symbolic, reducing collaboration and all its complex components to the textual paradigm. For Kester, Alys is a textual artist failing to make collaborative art. He delivers the goods to a global audience fixed in the textual paradigm as well, seeing disruption and provocation as the only worth while form of artistic production and representation. The very provocation of critiquing modernization through failure fixes the piece in the textual paradigm.
In an interview with Tom Finkelpearl in the book What We Made (2013), Kester expands on the local and global perspectives on collaborative art. How do artists work within the collaborative paradigm and how do they make “labor productive differently?”
Continuing his assertion that “there is discomfort in the artworld with projects that “don’t incorporate a sufficient degree of ironic detachment”, Kester is interested in work that according to Finkelpearl “(is) complex conceptually and socially.” Kester looks very carefully at these projects as they unfold. Going deep into projects that create critical consciousness, changed consciousness, and respond to social concerns, he returns to the local and global conversation, focusing on Indian artist Navjot Altaf .
Altaf works in villages around India, designing water pumps in collaboration with villagers. The pumps help woman in the villages collect water and provide a space for relaxation and togetherness. To create the work, Altaf works in the villages for several years. According to Kester, Altaf has “effectively remapped the psychogeography of the villages” (122). Through the collaborative process, Altaf plays with the notion of “craft” which in the local context has complex symbolic and material meaning. She learns from the villagers and they learn from her. According to Kester, “consciousness is being transformed at both the individual and collective level, and that’s what art‘s all about” (123).
In the same interview, when asked about how virtual space serves as a backdrop for socially engaged art today, Kester responds by talking about touch. According to Kester, modern art theory began by eliminating touch and tactility. He gives an example of a Maori tradition in New Zealand. This traditional ceremony involves touch and physical sensation and influenced MLK Jr. and Ghandi. In Maori culture, they think about “ways in which people inhabit space and interact collectively, and how the somatic informs cognitive and perceptual experience” (125). In essence, thinking in the west has been dominated by the idea that Oriental = reliance on the reassurance of physical touch and Advanced European = master the world through optical distancing and abstraction.
The final discussion of the interview critiques the Danish art collective SuperFlex. Kester describes the groups project in Tanzania, where parady and “situational critique” is supposed to offer an alternative to Danish NGO’s. Kester researched NGO’s in Tanzania and revealed that these groups engage in similar practices. It seems SuperFlex was relying on “ironic distancing”, separating themselves from people working in the NGO field. But why? Perhaps once again we encounter the difficulty of transcending the textual paradigm.
In What We Made (2013), Finkelpearl sets up the context for what he calls the art of social cooperation through the American framework. He chooses to do this, perhaps to separate the conversation a bit from the work of other historians and critics. The American Framework is understood to encompass immigrant artists who have played a vital role in the development of cooperative art. He breaks it down into evolving categories beginning with the social movements of the 1960’s, civil rights and community organizing, and “the Movement and participatory democracy”, elements of which culminate in performance based activism. Finkelpearl claims that the 1960’s counter institutions and community organizing models, and art practices (like Fluxus/Kaprow/Beuys) that were outright performative, participatory, and conscious-raising, plus the influence of theory from Europe that arrived in the 1980’s and the culture wars of the 1980’s, culminated in what we now recognize as cooperative art.
Relational Aesthetics Relational Aesthetics is often presented in opposition to social practice, existing within a similar discourse but set exclusively within the institutional frame. In his critique of the work, Grant Kester questions the assumptions that Relational Aesthetics (as defined by Nicolas Bourriaud) has in relation to the position of the viewer. In Kester’s opinion, Relational Aesthetics is stuck in the textual paradigm. It assumes universiality with respect to the work of art and the viewer in the tradition of modernism. The term Relational Aesthetics originates in the writing of curator and art critic Nicolas Bourriaud. In his essay, Relational Aesthetics (1998) Bourriaud creates the framework for what he terms Relational Aesthetics, a genre of art practice that emerged in the 1990’s. Relational Aesthetics involves people as its central medium but operates within the conditions of the art world or art institution. Claire Bishop arrives in the conversation through her critique of Bourriaud. Bishop is interested in the provocative and disruptive capacity in socially engaged or relational art. Even her description of Tania Bruguera’s Catedra Arte de Conducta focuses on the symbolic and the performative in its pedagogic elements.
Bourriaud explains relational art as “the sphere of human relations as art Venue (p. 44). Through his descriptions of RA, Bourriaud attempts to characterize artist practice of the 1990’s. Bourriaud claims that 1990’s art is no less politicized than the works of the 1960’s, “Developing a political project when it endeavors to move into the relational realm by turning it into an issue. (17)
Relational aesthetics is a response to the shift from goods to service-based economy and virtual relationships of Internet and globalization – a response that has prompted artist DIY to model “possible universes.” The horizon of Relational Aesthetics encompasses “the realm of human interactions and its social context, rather than the assertion of an independent and private symbolic space (RA. P. 14).” Within this definition, “meaning is elaborated collectively (p. 54)” and the audience is given what it needs to create a community.
In Artificial Hells (2012), Bishop continues her case for participatory arts location in performance and provocation. Like Bourriaud she is concerned with the genre’s fitting within the art historical frame, namely the avant-garde.
In the chapter Pedagogic Projects: how do you bring a classroom to life as if it were a work of art? From Artificial Hells (2012), Bishop analysis several pedagogic models that have recently appeared in the expanded field of contemporary artist practice. The first of these case studies is Tania Bruguera’s project “Arte de Conducta”, a school for political performance art in Havana, Cuba. This example illustrates how a “school” can be symbolic by acting outside the conventions of traditional pedagogy while providing useful knowledge and ultimately successful performance art. Being both useful and Symbolic, “Arte de Conducta” provides one example of how a “workshop” might be considered a work of art –even if only as a provocation.