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Saturday 05.21.11

« Storm Tharp curates the Lumber Room | Main | craft conversation: christy matson »

Notes on Open Engagement 2011

I was speaking with a friend last week in Los Angeles. It was a short visit, yet in catching up, I mentioned I would be covering Open Engagement for PORT. Being of a socially just mind, he said he would some day like to attend and wished me a good time. I responded with signs of lingering doubt, and perhaps a tad too much sarcasm when I went on to give as an example of the 'happenings', the Best Friends for a Day project. His response was, "You won't know unless you try it. You might meet someone whom you will be very sad to see leave at the end of that day. Perhaps even devastated." He was serious, and I suspect we parted on slightly less amicable terms.

I want to believe. I really do. So, I told myself, that over the course of the three days of Open Engagement, I would try my best to keep an open mind (as a writer covering the conference) and make a concerted effort to understand (as an artist) what it means for those thusly engaged in the choir to be washed in the blood of social practice art forms.

The evangelic metaphor is purposeful, for it is very evident that this group of artists is very supportive of each other in their various causes and projects. But when I hear not once, but twice, that the avant-garde, borne as disruption, is dead, or at least has no place in socially engaged art, I almost choke on my serving of warm milk and dry toast; yet, it was refreshing to hear such a sentiment that wasn’t couched in a language that was both relativizing and patronizing, or with a smile not that much different than Dick Cheney’s sneer when he speaks of the misguided progressive agenda. Nevertheless, I was somewhat taken aback and angered by such a sentiment for it seemed unnecessarily dismissive.

Much of what else I heard time and again at the conference went something like this: Well then, let's re-imagine an activated event/space and propose a discursive methodology that is open to failure as well as opportunities for surprising avenues of change. And that may be why I had the impression that many of the presented projects at Open Engagement were about a process that is less finished than defined, or in discovery mode than as a thesis, subtly side-stepping its own indeterminate yet subtly hegemonic doctrines through well-intentioned insistence on interjection into whatever suits a fancy. In other words, a simple act of faith and good will put into action, and that was reason enough.

I do not take acts of faith lightly. Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that I wish I would have brought a tape-recorder instead of a notebook, to transcribe, and perhaps later understand the rush of rhetoric from prepared texts and dodgy answers that eluded me at first blush during post-presentation questions from the audience/participants. I want to linger with the ambiguities and the accompanying resonance, for this, it seems, is where the 'art' comes in, not as dissent, but as latitude.

And this may be why Social Practice's critics speak of hubris: by gardening they are farming, by engaging in conversation, they are doing social work, or in cooking for others they bring meaningful sustenance to a larger commonweal. And it is this simplification of the strategies and outcomes of said methodologies that are emblematic of the cynicism I cannot seem to escape. It travels with me and like the Devil dogging; it colors my reflections on the event, even when I take a lunch break.

Fear_him.jpg
(Fear Him)

Is there a significant difference between what this street preacher is doing and what socially engaged artists do? Inside Open Engagement, the parishioners are readily assembled, but out in the community they hope to ‘innervate’. But how are these interventions avoid being seen as something more than self-importance cloaked as evangelical fervor? As Pablo Helguerra related, even in Mexico, he is seen as a crazy tourist; and this may have been the most important point of his presentation, except that it could bring up an uncomfortable self-analysis of one’s real purpose, for how is this different than the sense of alienation and corresponding desire to engage that every artist feels?


Shine a Light at the Portland Art Museum (involving PSU's social practice MFA candidates)

There may in fact be little difference, which might have been the subtext at Saturday morning’s Art Museum Summit at the Portland Art Museum. Several times throughout the weekend, mention was made that socially engaged art avoids easy commodification into the capital-driven art market, of which the museum and the commercial gallery have all too frequently been the bastions. After several slide presentations by museum administrators and artists working with museums, some of the artists began to gently touch on the matter of whether their participation in various ‘happenings’ within the museums primarily served as spectacles to bolster museum attendance. Coming late in the course of the presentation, this question was perhaps the key issue that might have been discussed from the start. Instead, I was left with the feeling this was finally viewed as a necessary compromise, as if first and foremost, the artists wanted their ideas and work to be heard and seen. And who can blame them? It takes money to make art; and funding, if not coming from selling work, is mostly secured in the form of grants and awards, and complicity comes in the form of approval. The CV comes first, and for good reason.

A parallel is evident in OE presenter Fritz Haeg’s work. Haeg comes to art making with a background in architecture, which is evident in both his Edible Estates and Animal Estates projects. The gardens in the former are designed as mixed-use areas, part sculpted lawns and part garden beds. While suggesting that it is possible for people to re-purpose their front yards, as any farmer would be quick to point out, in Haeg's gardens, optimal food production has taken a back seat to an aesthetic. Potential as a radical act has been compromised. (However, there has been press coverage and a book published.) In much the same manner, his Animal Estates calls attention to the native animals that have been lost to urbanization. Building abodes that these animals might inhabit in otherwise inhospitable environments does little more than point out the obvious. And when asked why he didn’t instead choose to address issues such as the loss of small family farms, or work toward an actual reintroduction of natural habitats for displaced animals, Haeg said that those concerns were not the things that initiated his investigations and work. Instead (and it is to his credit for his honesty), he said that his Animal Estates was prompted by recognizing (in his words, a "fun thought") that he loved animals, and offered little further elucidation.

Nest_Haeg.jpg
Fritz Haeg's Eagle Nest @ Whitney Biennial 2008 (the first piece he ever sold to a collector)

Should socially engaged artists have a more politically charged agenda? Clearly, some in the Haeg's audience thought so. Yet, doing so may come at the expense of letting go of the label 'artist' for that of 'activist', or for that matter, social worker, farmer or zoologist, something other artist presenters at Open Engagement addressed not as an Achilles heel but as the space in which they operated, not only holding onto their identification as artists, but also, as it were, polymaths for new potentials within areas of society/nature/culture that have captured their imagination and study.

The responses to the anticipated criticism of naiveté or amateurism are varied. When Julie Ault heard the word dilettante used within a certain context in one seminar, she expressed a worry that she might be considered such, even though she chooses to think of herself as wearing many hats. (Ault, by the way, is doing some very interesting work in conjunction with the artist James Benning, but it is less social practice and more archival.) In fact, professionals and experts within a given field may consider artists with an insatiable curiosity and desire to practice in the realm of another profession as charlatans or interlopers instead of interlocutors or self-appointed practicum students. And it is here that I have empathy for these artists, albeit qualified, for it is also possible for them to be their own worse enemies.

It may seem that I have abandoned my quest to believe in the goals of and stated purposes for socially engaged art. I want to believe. I really do, for there is evidence that the human spirit is capable of compassion and all of the good intentions that can manifest from that on a grand, quasi-utopian scheme. So it very well may be that my protestations are those of one already in the fold, so to speak, for it does not take astute analysis to know that much of the world we live in has gone to shit and something always needs done about it; yet, in fact, there are many dedicated people engaged in that change who do not call themselves artists, and I suppose I am more inclined to align myself with their endeavors.

Artists have a necessary role in society. We work in metaphor, and in that very particular kind of disruption, create new meanings. Yes, disruption. It has been that way throughout the modern age, and is otherwise a fundamental process of change in the world and in art practices. And, while it can be said that relational aesthetics works toward new understandings, something remains amiss. Something real is taking place, yet it often lacks more than an ephemeral presence in the practical aspects of the world in which it professes to take an interest. The dialogue, a key component of so much of what constitutes social practice art, becomes circuitous and ambiguous (as more than one presenter posited, such is the nature of the discursive) when confronted with scrutiny. Echoed tired phrases and an obvious lack of dissent among its thinkers make it seem doctrinaire. Radical conviction has been usurped (rather like a dialectic without an antithesis), replaced by open-ended research with the stress on necessarily watered-down theory that has persisted for the last thirty years within the strictures of art schools and museum education departments; and as such, social practice art is already in danger of becoming no more than a tool of the institution where knowledge has almost been fully commodified as tuition and donations. My fear is if socially engaged art continues along its current trajectory of seeking inclusion within these institutions, it may lose any teeth that it had, and soon all that will be left is self-promotional, glad-handing conferences. We already have enough of those.

Finally, I am fully aware that while I have leveled several criticisms at particular presenters, and made some generalized remarks and characterizations regarding some of the rhetorical shortcomings I gleaned while at Open Engagement. I cannot pretend that I have a final say in my perceptions, and in the spirit of the conference, seek further input. Therefore, I would ask for comments below so that we may have further dialogue. Thank you.

Posted by Patrick Collier on May 21, 2011 at 16:25 | Comments (8)


Comments

Ironically, I don't have a long theoretical response for this post. Like most cool things, they trend. I'm having the same problems understanding/accepting social media art. Secondly, the institutionalization of socially engaged art will most likely have the same fate as the commercialization of street art. I wish 'things' wouldn't get exploited beyond likability. But that's what happens to cool things, right?

Posted by: Garric Simonsen [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 21, 2011 08:06 PM

Irony strikes in the lack of conversation.

Posted by: Garric Simonsen [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 21, 2011 11:01 PM

Having just slogged through the post below yours on Storm Tharp's show, I want to thank you for the most beautiful phrase I've read in hours: "In re-reading and editing this text..."
[*Admin note that quote was from an older version of the post that we mistakenly used and is no longer present. So ironically it wasn't the edited version.]

Artists, even good ones, will carry on doing amazing bits of 'social practice' work in spite of all attempts to institutionalize their teeth. As always. The trajectory in the sights of the organizing/categorizing wing of the art world(s) is never the only trajectory. I like to think things like Open Engagement, for all their heart-in-the-right-placeness, keep the dentists busy and distracted, so other things have more room to happen. And who knows, maybe Open Engagement opens an eyeball or two.

Posted by: s [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 22, 2011 11:04 AM


Hello Patrick,

Thanks for opening the conversation about the OE conference.
For all your stated discomfort with the conference the only clear critique that I find articulated here is that social practice art is not sufficiently disruptive to be interesting art. Your argument seems to be that the role of art in society is essentially disruptive, but that social practice art is too inclusive and accommodating and therefore it is not good art.

This argument seems disingenuous considering how little of the art reviewed by this blog or exhibited in a Portland gallery context can seriously be argued to be disruptive at a cultural or political level.

The fact that contemporary artists can reference the history of the avant garde among their intellectual influences does not mean that there are any traces in their art of the culturally and politically disruptive forces generated by the groups of people we now historicize as the avant garde.

How can you write off socially engaged art for not being disruptive enough if few art works ever are significantly disruptive?

That said, I love effectively disruptive art. But, I find the most interesting contemporary examples of that kind of work to be contending with social engagement in one manner or another: Santiago Sierra paying day laborers to hold up a wall in a gallery, Mark Dion imprisoning a nurse log in a highly managed unnatural version of a natural environment in Seattle, where if the people and processes he put in place to keep the tree alive succeed, the artwork will eventually be destroyed by the tree, and Tania Bruguera having mounted police do riot crowd control maneuvers on the audience at the Tate.

One of the interesting questions that came up at the conference was from a story Rick Lowe told at the closing panel discussion about having a group of students visit his studio to look at the paintings he was making about race and power and say yah, we know about all those problems you are showing, we see them everyday in our own lives, but if you are so creative, how come you can't come up with a solution to any of them?

Why is pointing out problems more plausible as art then attempting solutions? Even if you don't like the art that comes out of trying to enact solutions, the question of why the terrain of attempting solutions is less explored and less credible as art is interesting, and even important, to consider. Sure, socially engaged art practices bring up some irksome questions, but then let's have a conference to articulate and discuss those matters. The questions were not always delved into as deep as anyone at the conference wanted, but I think your initial cynicism must have never really left you if you didn't notice any of the interesting discussions.


Sincerely,

Ariana Jacob

Posted by: Ariana Jacob [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 24, 2011 11:42 AM

Often, the best way to achieve some clarity on a position taken is to be confronted with a critique of ones thesis. Add to that making a matter of tone, and we may find divisions not a wide as they first seem. Aware of these truisms, and also knowing that timeliness might be required of my review of Open Engagement, I admit a certain imprudence. Hence, the above final paragraph.

The fact of the matter is that I suspect there is a commonality amongst all artists, whether they be studio-based or inspired by community, and the lines in the sand can be sucked away with the slightest inspiration. I made reference to this when I wrote: Artists have a necessary role in society. We work in metaphor, and in that very particular kind of disruption, create new meanings. Yes, disruption. It has been that way throughout the modern age, and is otherwise a fundamental process of change in the world and in art practices. However, I am not at a point in my analysis to elucidate beyond that intuitive notion.

Additionally, I could not be in all places at one time, so while there may have been Parallel Sessions that offered more insight than what I was able to garner from listening to featured presenters and actions I had the opportunity to view, I am left with an incomplete assessment. Such, I would think, are the parameters we all work within, and while silence is an option, it is not in an artists temperament. Thusly, I do not wish to take a mutual avocation away from those socially engaged.

I am reminded of Barthes The Pleasure of the Text, wherein he writes Let difference surreptitiously replace conflict. Difference is not what makes or sweetens conflict: it is achieved over and above conflict, it is beyond and alongside conflict. Conflict is nothing but the moral state of difference and it might do us all well to embrace this not so subtle enjoinder. It is something that I find lacking in discussions surrounding all art practices, but more of an avoidance technique than another option, that of aggression.

It is true that I proceed with a barometer to discern the efficacy of an art form with a stated intent to promulgate dissent, or disruption. (However, it is not the sole criteria to initiate a critique.) And, Ariana, the examples of artists you provide would, no doubt, indicate inclement conditions that I would find invigorating. If I gave the impression that I am wholly dismissive of art that is socially engaged, then even I must do a more thorough close reading of my essay, and, given the opportunity, emphasize again that I was responding only to those portions of the conference I was able to attend. Even so, I would imagine that there would be those in attendance that might take issue with one or more of your chosen examples: Sierra as too exploitive; Dions piece as a rehashing of a bunch of other artists who have made similar works, Paul Sutinen and myself included, years ago; and Bruguera, in her current work living as a poor person for a year in Queens, as clueless. (She gets to walk away.) In the final analysis, these critiques are not so different than one would expect to find in a studio arts program with a faculty and student body worth their salt.

No, I suppose my overall thesis was not whether social practice art is disruptive, or disruptive enough, but that the Open Engagement conference itself (again, for the eight or so hours each of the three days I attended) seemed to suffer from a self-congratulatory air via a strategic circling of the institutional wagons. And, if I understand Arianas suggestion correctly, the creation of a conference that thoroughly addresses the more irksome questions that are arising in the wake of social practice arts insurgence and acceptance into the art institutions is an excellent way to progress.


Posted by: Patrick Collier [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 25, 2011 01:13 PM

Patrick,
I am dissatisfied with how you are using the term disruption. It seems to me that for you to perceive an artwork or practice to be disruptive it must be sufficiently antagonistic to its audience and the cultural milieu that audience is a part of. While some social practice artists certainly do take part in this kind of disruption in their work, I think what it means to be disruptive is far more expansive than what you account for. I will use Fritz Haag's work as an example since you chose pull it apart in your post. The first thing that came to my mind looking at the photo of the eagle's nest was "What isn't disruptive about seeing a huge, empty eagles nest on the ledge of a building in Manhattan?" You claim that he is simply pointing out the obvious, but I don't agree. On one hand, many works of art point out something that seems obvious retrospectively. On the other hand, I highly doubt that many New Yorkers or other urban dwellers are walking around thinking "Gosh, this city sure destroyed the natural habitat of a lot of species!" Seeing the empty nest has the potential to make the passerby question the nature of the space she inhabits, the other possible forms it could have taken, and at who's expense it came to be what it is today. Sure, it isn't active habitat restoration - surely no eagle will ever use that nest - but it is a catalyst for thinking about the use of space and its consequences. The same holds true for his Edible Estates project. Maybe we can consider it 'just gardening,' or maybe we can look at is as poignant commentary on the absurdity of the common American practice of using valuable, productive land to grow grass on. The disruption element holds especially true when we take into account his site selection as he chooses to cultivate one yard in a sea of yards. Additionally, while one side of me wants to agree with your expressed disappointment that food yield tends to take a backseat to aesthetics in his projects, another part of me sees the value in this as well. Many homeowners may be sympathetic to the ideas of urban agriculture, but unwilling to give up the social space of the front yard. Fritz's works shows that the two aren't mutually exclusive by creating microfarms that families can still hang out in.

Another thing you bring up the idea that because social practice works tend to look like the activities of other disciplines that professionals in those disciplines might tend to regard those artists as charlatans or interlopers. From your post I couldn't glean whether or not you actually agree with this yourself, but I don't doubt it is often true. However, as a professional student of urban studies and planning with a decided interest in social practice art, I find this terribly misguided. In my idealized world of post-disciplinary academics, where we all finally realize that we are working on the same problem - the betterment of the human (and animal and plant and planetary body) condition - from a wide range of different modes and methodologies, I see artists as the first pioneers into any new avenue of inquiry. Artists can work free from the institutional and bureaucratic blinders of those disciplines to find new ways of understanding that may be invisible to such professionals. To use Fritz's work again, as urban agriculture is a major topic in the world of urban studies and planning, some of the big questions I find professors and professionals coming up against is how do we get people to engage with their environment, consider food security, and participate in urban agriculture? How do we get people to not only question the way we currently use land, bit to also realize that the reality of the urban environment is nothing more than the collective of our interactions with each other and the landscape? To put it more simply, how do we create a strong democracy around land use? Fritz's Edible Estates definitely provides insight into these issues by creating a venue for new possibilities within reach of the average American family. Granted, he may not be the best example as he does have a background as an architect (which is closely related to urban planning), however I think it is interesting that he felt he needed to askew that moniker for that of the artist to do the work he wanted to do.

Finally, I want to comment on the issue of whether it is more valuable for art to present problems or solutions. I think this is a false dichotomy. I do believe that social practice art does present problems and offer dissent just as much as any avant-garde movement of the past has, it's just less condescending about it. The social practice artist chooses to recognize herself as part of the social body, rather than outside and elevated from it, and in pointing out solutions she is giving her audience the benefit of the doubt of their awareness. The recognition of the problem is inherent in the presentation of a solution, but the focus on the solution is a choice to make an active turn towards the positive and possible rather than on a static focus on the imperfect and offensive. As a casual observer of art for a large portion of my life, I have found my typical reactions have only occasionally fallen outside of the range from "So what?" to "No duh" to flat out annoyance and anger. I can definitely identify with the young man that Ariana references posing the "I get your point but what are you going to do about it?" question to Rick Lowe. In this respect I have more faith in social practice art to produce something meaningful that the majority of other forms. Or, to work in metaphor, if avant-disruptive art is the friend that lets you not-so-gently know that you've been getting a little bit out of shape lately, social practice art is the friend that says "Wouldn't it be fun to start a jogging club?"

casey

Posted by: Casey Szot [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 30, 2011 03:36 PM

Casey takes issue with my characterization of the type of disruption that occurs within socially engaged art. Indeed, if one were to perform a sort of phenomenology of disruption, one would certainly find similarities within the mechanics of how any rupture manifests, which in turn allows for a continuum, if you will, of the ways things are dismantled, torn asunder, re-envisioned, or otherwise changed. (Metaphor works in such a manner.) And to this degree, I must agree that socially engaged art meets the criteria that allow social practice artists to consider their work as art.

Even so, within the social realm, efficacy can be thwarted, not by intentions as much as assumptions that go unchallenged. This holds for the interpersonal as well as the intrapersonal; and with this in mind, I would caution against the use of such phrases as I see artists as the first pioneers into any new avenue of inquiry. The bulk of my essay deals with the various manifestations of such an attitude, and, if anything, should be read as a caveat for all artists, for while none of us are actually outside and elevated from the world, we must be aware that such a non-self-reflexive attitude can nevertheless exist and exhibit itself to others in a variety of ways.

Posted by: Patrick Collier [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 31, 2011 10:57 AM

"On the other hand, I highly doubt that many New Yorkers or other urban dwellers are walking around thinking 'Gosh, this city sure destroyed the natural habitat of a lot of species!'"

What urban dweller doesn't give this some thought? None that I know, I don't think, although they must be out there. And surely you'd had such thoughts before you saw the nest photo, Casey, and so I wonder what it had to offer you other than the satisfaction that "others" would be challenged.

Nothing beats art as a way of evoking the feel of life, and I can't figure out why anyone who has ever been moved by that would want to make art that doesn't do that first, even if art can do other things that are worth doing.

Posted by: rosenak [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 31, 2011 11:36 PM

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