9.2.16

I wrote the following for this year’s group of PSU Art and Social Practice MFA students to consider in an attempt to understand their own intentions for their practice and work. It might be of use to other folks as well:

 

  1. How would you like to see your practice as a whole function? By that I mean    what do you want to be doing to occupy your time as an artist? For a conventional artist that might mean working in a studio making objects, showing in galleries, spending time doing career administration etc. How do you want your practice to alter or expand from those conventions?

 

  1. What do you want the work to be that you make as part of your practice? For a standard studio artist the answer might be oil paintings on canvas and lithographic prints or something like that. What kind of work do you want to make as a socially engaged artist?

 

  1. Who would you like your audience to be? Typically for artists it is assumed that the audience is a generic set of people who attend art world functions and go to galleries and museums. Perhaps the highest value audience would be made up of curators, gallerists, collectors, and arts writers, and maybe other artists. For a social practice artist those people might also be desirable as part of an audience, but maybe they are less important than a local audience that could include non-art oriented people. Some of those audience members also might become participants or collaborators in a social practice type project. Who do you have in mind as your ideal audience for your work?

 

  1. How is the work distributed? For a studio artist the ideal answer to this question is that a gallery would show, sell, and ship work to collectors and museums. For a social practice artists there might not be any objects to sell and ship in the traditional way, so perhaps distribute isn’t exactly the right word, maybe “deliver” would be better and that includes developing contexts for the work to be made and shown in etc. Basically, how is your audience going to be able encounter and experience your work? This also gets into the topic of primary, secondary, and tertiary audiences. The primary one are people directly involved with the project possibly as participants, the secondary set isn’t personally involved with working one the project but is able to directly experience the completed work, and the tertiary audience only encounters the work in mediated ways—documentation, including publications, web, presentations, and even word of mouth.

 

  1. Finally, how do you want to be supported to do your work? The standard artist response to this would be sales through a commercial gallery, possibly augmented by teaching, lectures, grants, etc. Though that may be the general hope that artists have very few achieve those things especially enough sales to make a living. As an artist working with social engagement sales may not be an option at all and instead along with teaching, lectures, and grants, you might want to be more innovative about other sources of funding which could include commissions from art and non-art organizations, small business approaches, non-college related educational activities, self initiated artist-in-residencies, etc.

 

There probably will be lots of crossover within the answers to these questions. The answers will undoubtedly change over time as well, but I think it is useful to consider them as a way to make decisions and actions that can help realize a subjectively desirable practice and support syste

4.26.16

Gabo Camnitizer asked me to write a text for the show that he curated in Sweden called Meaning Making Meaning, below is what I came up with. 

In 2007 I was given an opportunity to start a new MFA program at Portland State University where I had been teaching for three years. I used a new term for the program, Social Practice, that related to my own art activity, the work of a few of my contemporaries, and various historical precedents. The term had already been put into use for an MFA program by my alma mater the California College of Art in San Francisco two years earlier. My idea for the program was that I would reevaluate and alter all aspects of a traditional studio based MFA and in some ways try to merge that with another educational experience I’d had as an apprentice studying organic agriculture at the University of California in Santa Cruz. The apprenticeship was hands on and applied. The forty apprentices lived in tents on the campus farm and grew and sold the vegetables and fruits we produced through a market stand and a CSA (community supported agriculture) program.

I loved the experiential learning that took place in the farm program and wanted to find ways to adapt that to teaching art. The PSU Art and Social Practice Program has now been in operation for nine years. The students don’t have individual studios and instead share and borrow work and classroom space when it is needed. The emphasis is on collaboration, participation, site and context specificity, interdisciplinary, and often incorporates education, localism, social justice, and environmental concerns. The three-year program includes classes in writing, pedagogy, theory, professional practice, contemporary art history, and various changing topics including privilege, performance, documentary, and ethics. The students also work on both their own public projects and group ones including a participatory conference at the end of each school year. We also take program research trips to places like Los Angeles and Mexico City, and go on campouts and retreats in closer-by locations. All of the graduating students produce a public project of some kind (generally not an exhibition), and edit a book on someone else’s work (including John Malpede, Temporary Services, Pedro Reyes, Wendy Ewald, Luis Camnitzer, Pablo Helguera, and many others) as part of our Reference Points book series. By the time the students leave the program they have had a great deal of exposure to artists, ideas, experiences, and ways of working that go way beyond the typical “studio/gallery” model.

Over the years I have been asked many times if the program is in some ways an art project that I’m doing. If this was the case I would think of the students as collaborators, though it is clear that we have different roles that give me much greater power, the main aspect in that respect being that I am paid by the university while they pay the university. I also have an established career in what is now known as the field of Social Practice, while the students are in the process of trying to develop their careers. Still, these dynamics are not dramatically different from the ones in commissioned projects I have worked on for museums and art centers that were specifically intended as art projects. In those cases I have acted in some ways similar to a paid regional theater director who is considered a professional working with amateur actors, costume makers, set designers, etc. My role, unlike the theater director, is less commonly understood, being defined as an artist working with members of the public in participatory ways. But since I am comfortable with that role and don’t have any personal ethical dilemmas functioning that way, I can also easily see the MFA program that I direct as an artwork as well. There are some advantages to that conceptual framework, for instance it allows me to break from convention with the MFA program as much as I might with my commissioned art works, so there are always new things for me and the students to learn and experience. On the other hand the students themselves might resent being thought of as part of my art project, or the university might object to it for one reason or another. So as with all of my work, I’m not really fixated on calling any particular project art unless there is a benefit to doing that. For the purposes of this current exhibition maybe it is interesting to think of the MFA program as an art project, but in other situations it may not be.

3.12.15

I took a little break from this weekly writing project (like a nine month break or something like that, not sure what happened) but I want to start doing it again, maybe every other week or once a month is more realistic, we will see what happens. Writing is eventually what I really want to be doing, somehow this art stuff happened instead and really got me off course, but I have talked with Publication Studio here in Portland and they have agreed to publish a book of my collected writing from about the last twelve or fifteen years (I think maybe fifty pieces, something like that, probably less than 100 pages in total) and now I’m supposed to be getting those all together so that we can get that to happen by the fall. It will be a good summer project for me since I’m planning to limit my travel and finally really deal with my backyard garden which has been in a state of unrealizedness for many, many years, though with all of the perennials and self seeding plants, and my Ruth Stout style of composting directly into the garden beds resulting in all sorts of things popping up all over the place, there is always something out there to harvest and eat.

But I digress; what I wanted to write about today is the concept and practice of “claiming” in relationship to art and specifically social practice. I’ve always struggled with how much students and artists need to know about art to be able to function effectively as artists, sometimes I’ve felt like it might be better to know very little (so as not to be limited by existing frameworks and models), and when it comes to the MFA that I currently am in charge of I encourage people who don’t have undergrad degrees in art to apply, and we have happily accepted folks with degrees in lots of other disciplines, many of whom went on to make amazing art work. If it were in fact up to me, I’d also potentially accept people with no undergrad degree at all just based on their work and life experience, but the university won’t go for that.

At the same time my own knowledge of art history has been very influential on my practice and informs a lot of the work I do in a wide variety of ways both conceptual and aesthetic. Duchamp’s readymades, and Richard Prince and Sherry Levine’s work using appropriation have been very important to me in developing my own practice and projects. I was thrilled as a young student when I learned about those approaches, so it is always interesting to me how presenting those concepts to my own students can have such emotionally negative reactions, they seem to feel that those artists were cheating, and think that their success somehow undermines the students own skills in more traditional artist techniques. I’ve seen undergrads brought to tears when learning about Duchamp and his status in the world of contemporary art.

Anyway, what I wanted to write about here is the potential use of what I’m going to call “claiming” as an artistic method. What I’m talking about has all sorts of potential applications from ones that are just expansions of readymades and appropriation, which is in many ways what I was doing with my project The American War (though I added in site-specific participatory events as well), to other uses which start to operate further a field partly because they can function outside of the need to create some kind of object that can be bought and sold and displayed in an art world venue. I recall that Fischli and Weiss had a project in the late 90’s as part of the Munster Sculpture Project where they just claimed a community garden as their project and directed people to go see it. Actually, I just looked that up and it turns out it was a garden that they had constructed to look like a community garden and it was temporary just for the exhibition time, so that doesn’t work as an example of claiming in the sense that I’m talking about. (Though it does fit well into another topic I’d like to write about sometime which is how prior to the use of the internet it was sometimes hard to find out accurate details about temporary projects and through the reliance of limited documentation or even just word of mouth artists would often be inspired to create something new based on a misinterpretation or lack of details of something that had happened before. That might be something that is being undermined now by so much digital availability to vast documentation and information on the web.) So let’s just say Fischli and Weiss had not created the garden, but had instead just claimed it, would that be valid? For me it’s no different than a photographer taking a picture of a garden (or any other pre-existing thing) and then presenting the print as their work. Some would say that the formalization of the photograph (composition, technical elements, printing, framing, etc.) are what makes the photograph art, which from my point of view (as a fan of appropriation) isn’t necessary to call something art, its really just the act of calling it art that makes it art, but in the case of an artist claiming a garden (or any other pre-existing thing) as their art, there are still various formalizing aspects to doing that. Let’s once again take the garden as a hypothetical example even though in reality it wasn’t done in the way that I thought it was, but let’s suspend reality and pretend that it was. If that had been the case then the project would have been formalized by its inclusion in the program listing along with the other projects that were a part of the show, it would have been on the map showing where all of the sculpture projects were located, there would be a title, description, etc, it would have been included in the exhibition catalog, it would have been documented and re-presented, basically anything that would have happened to a constructed outdoor sculpture that was included in a major exhibition would also have happened to the pre-existing, site-specific, ongoing garden or whatever.

There is a potential problem with this approach that goes beyond just being valid or not as art. It could also be thought of as an imperialistic approach in that the artist without having actually made anything other than a claim, would be seen as the author of a project that someone else or some other group actually created and maintained. This hits on something I’ve also written about related to crediting, and I think it is applicable not only to conceptual claiming projects, but also to almost anything that involves other peoples un-credited contributions to art projects from assistants, fabricators, silent collaborators, participants, etc. In the case of the garden and projects like that it is simple enough to find out who actually created and maintained the garden and then to get approval from them to use the garden as part of an art project and credit them for their role. If it is possible or desirable to share funding then that can happen as well. My sense is that most people would happily have their garden (etc) included in a major art exhibition, especially if they are getting credit and potentially even payment.

Ok, so what if the claimed pre-existing thing isn’t part of a major art project. It can still work without any validating institutional approval or inclusion (though as with all art, that makes it easier to be seen as significant and valuable). There are still other ways for artists to formalize their claim. They can program their own event related to the site or object, they can document it, title it, etc. and then just put it on a website, make a zine about it, present it at a lecture, etc, etc. It could also be more than a single claim, imagine for instance a series of spots that an artist locates and formalizes to go together, like making a music play list the artist could suggest that people check out a certain tree, talk to a particular person at a store, look at a specific book at a library, eat a suggested item at a food cart, etc. all in a detailed out sequence with potentially added information about each location, sort of like a walking tour of the senses. This selection of claimed spots could be made available in a variety of forms, for instance maybe published in a local weekly newspaper or put up as a flier, or just told to a set of people, and in that way becomes applied and no longer just an idea, then can be listed on a resume, presented in lectures, printed in publications etc, just like any other work of art. A related example that also had a huge impact on me were two works by Robert Smithson, his 1967 photo article A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey, in which he describes in a very conversational tone a set of “monuments” which he observed which were in reality industrial units and piles that he was giving extraordinary significance to, basically treating things like art that weren’t intended as art. In a similar piece, The Hotel Palenque from 1972, (initially presented as a slide lecture, and later published in a Parkett magazine where I first encountered it) Smithson details with photos and more nonchalant but validating language a hotel in Mexico that he stayed at which was undergoing at the same time a process of literal construction and de-construction. The only real difference between the Smithson pieces and what I’m suggesting is the way that an audience can be invited to participate in experiencing the chosen claimed places, objects, sounds, etc.

I think the concept of claiming has all sorts of potential artistic and curatorial applications and would be a welcome addition or even substitution for much of the work produced currently by art students and other artists, who instead continue the largely futile production of studio based objects in the hopes of showing and selling in galleries, which is very unlikely given the high volume of art object production and the scarcity of status quo venues.

 

6.21.14

The question of whether social practice work belongs in museums has been brought up many times recently, partly as a result of several different museums attempting to include social practice in their programming. There are a variety of approaches to include social practice work going on or in the works at the moment with various museums in the US. I think some examples work better than others, but the idea that social practice should not be in museums seems ridiculous to me. The 20th century is filled with cases of art practices that were at first not considered art at all and in various ways excluded from inclusion in art institutions. A notable example is Impressionism, which during its introduction was totally dismissed, and now of course is considered high art and is popularly appreciated. In other cases the artwork was less easily fit into a traditional form, like painting on canvas, but still made its way into museums and art world acceptance as in the case of performance art. Social practice is no different in that it not only should be included in museum contexts, but will most likely, as in those other cases, even find ways of operating in commercial gallery systems as well. Individual artists may decide not to show work in those places or participate in the commercial art world, but it should be their decision to make (and of course will depend on if they are given that opportunity in the first place). But it is my hope that even when artists doing social practice type work operate in museums that they will continue to also do work in non-art contexts as well. Part of the benefit and in some ways condition of making socially engaged work is being able to site and activate it in whatever the most appropriate locations for the work’s specific qualities are, which might mean a museum but just as likely could be a grocery store, library, park, etc.

One of the interesting developments of social practice is that in many cases the way that it arrives in a museum context is through the education department. I think there are some good things about that, and some problems. Museum education departments are already interested in public participation and interaction in ways that curatorial departments have not been, at least historically, and as a result there is greater value placed on some of the qualities of social practice (site specificity, participation, activity, deemphasizing objects, etc.) that in traditional gallery exhibitions might be thought of as problematic. Exhibitions are usually static and only designed to be viewed, not interacted with or participated in. But education departments are generally thought of as subservient to museum curatorial work and for that reason marginalized, and that can easily rub off on social practice projects commissioned by education departments. Education departments also often have mandates related to quantitative measures of success, numbers of school groups served, etc. etc. For those reasons it can be difficult for a social practice artist working with a museum education department to be taken seriously, and/or can be used instrumentally in detrimental ways. I have talked to many artists who were asked to propose projects for a museum through education departments, which were then not given the same level of support and respect as projects that had come through curatorial. That kind of discrimination is something that can and should change for both museum education departments (who I think can play a much more important role in museums than they have traditionally) and for socially engaged projects that take place in museums.

It is a bit tricky because social practice inherently contains elements that are desirable to museums in regards to creating participatory projects and potentially even addressing problematic museum issues and topics, but social practice artists ultimately need to maintain autonomy and freedom as artists to work on projects that have no obligation to fulfill museum interests. If the conditions that a social practice artist works in becomes too prescribed and determined only by the ways that the projects can serve the museum then it will negatively impact the work. There needs to be choice for social practice artists to determine in what ways and on what topics their work is focused, and that should not be overly directed by institutional concerns. Many times I’ve been told by a museum, especially in association with an education department, that I have total freedom in developing a project and then when I come up with an idea it is shot down or altered to a point that makes it no longer interesting to me because it doesn’t seem to directly address internal museum expectations or goals.

I think there is a great capacity for social practice to be integrated in museums if the work is understood and appreciated appropriately. Because social practice projects often don’t need traditional gallery space and can be done on a different schedule than exhibitions (longer or shorter than a typical exhibition run) makes it easy for a museum to accommodate. The fact that social practice is usually site specific means there are no shipping or storage costs, and in many cases there are no objects at all to have to worry about. Social practice projects can also be commissioned by museums but then primarily take place outside of the museum building creating greater opportunities for engaging with non-traditional audiences. Social practice work is positioned as art, and museums are the most valued institutions in the art world, so it is important that social practice work and artists find ways to be included and appreciated within museum contexts.

6.3.14

When I was a kid, sometimes at night when I was trying to fall asleep lying in bed I would imagine that my legs stretched out away from my body so that my feet were miles away from my head, it was an interesting sensation.

I know that doesn’t have anything to do with social practice, but I’m super busy with grad reviews and preparations for Shine A Light and Assembly at the Portland Art Museum right now, so I’m going to take a week or two off from my normal writings and just leave you with that story.

5.26.14

I’ve often been asked about how to get the ball rolling towards making a living producing art. It’s a tough question. For every artist who somehow figures that question out there are probably a thousand or more who don’t. Imagine if people going to medical school only had a one in a thousand chance of becoming a doctor when they finished? If all of them were attempting to become brain surgeons that might in fact be the case, but thankfully for everyone needing medical attention not involving operations on the brain there are doctors for all sorts of conditions and situations.

I think that analogy, though not perfect, does illustrate the dilemma that artists all attempting to do the same basic thing (become successful in the commercial art system by making and selling consumable objects) are faced with. There are various aspects of concern with that problem, but one of them is the idea that artists need a gallery to represent and exhibit their work. That does largely appear to be true if what you are doing as an artist is following the status quo approach to art making, presentation, and distribution, but if you are not working in that way a representing gallery may not be necessary. When you let go of the idea of needing a gallery you are also released from trying to convince a gallery to show your work, which as many artist know, can be a trying experience. I think it also shapes to a large degree the type of work artists make in their attempt to conform to and please what they see as the required approval of the commercial gallery system. As a result most artists make (relatively) easily transportable objects like paintings and painting like things. (Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate painters, just like I appreciate brain surgeons, but we only need so many of both in this world.)

If you are not making consumable objects then anything else is possible from site based immovable sculptures to ephemeral event based works, and innumerable other options as well. You also don’t need to get consent from a gallery director or curator to make and present your work. You may instead need to get an ok from a library, school, non-profit, supermarket, park, etc. instead, but you will probably have higher odds of acceptance from those places than as one of the many artists trying to all show work in the same small set of commercial galleries.

So, to get back to initial question–the advise that I give people wanting to know how to “make it” as an artist, based on my own limited experience with that, is to create self-initiated public projects that aren’t intended for a commercial gallery context. If you make solid, interesting work and find a way for it to be presented publicly (or find an interesting public place and then make good work for that context which is probably the better sequence) then you will no longer have consumable style art objects piling up waiting for a hoped for, but unlikely, gallery exhibition, and instead will have made work (in some form or other) that has an audience and which can then lead to more opportunities because people are actually aware of its existence. If the work is compelling, engaging, relevant, and publicly accessible it is at least conceivable that eventually self-initiated projects will turn into funded projects that can help make a sustainable career as an artist possible.

5.19.14

An approach to creating projects that I’ve employed many times (other artists have as well) and that I think is an interesting option generally, but is not often used by emerging artists (I’ve rarely run across MFA projects of this sort), is what I’ll call the delegated model. My sense is that because there is such an engrained sense that the “artist” is supposed to do all of the “work” by themselves in a studio (as perpetuated by the studio/gallery market based art system) approaches which seem to counter that approach are largely not considered, even if they make a lot of sense.

So this is what I mean by a delegated model— the artist person or collaborative group comes up with a structure and an intended outcome that necessarily involves contributions by many other people (or organizations, etc) to be produced. There are some obvious advantages to this approach— multiple sources of knowledge and or skills can be included that go beyond the artist’s person ones, the project can be of a larger scale by having many small parts working together to form something bigger, and a variety of people can be involved and invested which also extends to those people’s built-in audiences, increasing the number and variety of people who experience the work.

Any subject matter and set of participants can be addressed and included in a delegated model, and the project can be variable in its scale and context— in other words the approach can be used in any possible situation, just like other methods of making art works like painting or photography or performance.

This might all be a bit too abstract, so let me describe a particular project as an example. I’m currently working as part of a collaborative group called Public Doors and Windows on a project for Shine A Light at the Portland Art Museum. Shine A Light is an annual event where the PSU Art and Social Practice program creates interventions of various sorts in the museum for one evening (this year it will be on June 6th.) The project that Public Doors and Windows is organizing is a distributed “book fair” that will take place in various locations inside of PAM. There are twelve participating book organizations (one of them isn’t an organization but an author, Julie Ault). Each of those participants will have a “book station” in which to display and sell their books during the night of Shine A Light and the following day. Each of the book stations (for lack of a better term) is being designed and built by either a sculpture or architecture undergraduate student from Portland State University. The students have been asked to consult with the book entity that they are paired with to find out their interests and needs, while also considering formal and sculpture concerns in regards to what they want to construct. In this way the students who wouldn’t normally have access to showing their work in a museum context have the ability to do that and at the same time they are fulfilling a functional need. All of the students have been paid a small fee to produce the structures and are being credited in the publication that goes along with the event as collaborators on the project (and are encouraged to list it on their resumes, etc. as well.)

The project is engaging to me because it creates something I’d like to experience in the museum (I’m a major book enthusiast and always like to encounter interesting publications in any context.) It works with the content of a set of mostly local and independent book publishers and sellers (and gives them an opportunity to gain exposure and sell some product), and the project also facilitates the production and display of art works by student/artists who otherwise wouldn’t have made the work or had a venue to display it in. Hopefully the project will also bring in a wide variety of interested people connected to both the book entities and the students, which broadens the audience for the project itself, the larger Shine A Light event, and the museum in general.

The delegated model is not right for every situation and leaves a lot to be desired from certain perspectives (for instance if you as the artist want to actually make an object of some sort by yourself), but it is another good optional approach that can be used effectively if artists and institutions see it as a viable and valid way to work.

5.10.14

Something that I think is often thought of as insignificant or annoying, but which I think actually holds great power and possibility is the artist resume. It is standard that artists follow existing examples of what goes into a resume, often that approach is also taught in professional practice classes in art departments and schools too. I have largely followed that process myself (though some day I hope to tackle my resume as a “project” and make it more reflective of what I’m going to suggest here.)

Conventional resumes reinforce the idea that some activities are valid and others aren’t. Usually the standards are education, exhibitions, grants, awards, and lectures, the more curated (or in academic terms, “refereed”) the better. Art students and emerging artists start with the few examples they have that conform to those categories and attempt to develop from there by pursuing more opportunities that fulfill the expectations (that of course also determines the type of work they make.)

This is what I advocate instead–start with the status quo structure, but go through the categories and see which actually applies to your practice (or your hoped for practice) and which don’t, leave the ones that do, and eliminate or alter the others, and then add in any categories that are missing. One simple example of this that I actually did on my resume was to add “projects” to the place that would normally only say “exhibitions.” By doing that a whole set of work that I’ve done that wasn’t an exhibition has a validated place to go. You could just add a separate “project” area, but by including that with exhibitions or replacing that heading all together you are asserting that non-exhibition work is just as valuable as work that happened in the form of a gallery-style show.

Of course that’s just scratching the surface, I often have students write a “social practice” CV that includes anything that they have done or experienced that they see as applicable to their ability to do social practice work. Self-initiated zines, videos, and event planning are obvious, but odd jobs, volunteer work, sports, choirs, etc. can be validated too. Working one summer at the (no longer existing) Strand Theater on Market Street in San Francisco probably prepared me more for the socially engaged work I do now as an artist than most of my formal education and gallery exhibition history combined.

Once you have liberated yourself from the conventions of traditional resumes you can also realize that “non-refereed” projects can happen anywhere and at anytime (no more waiting for a gallery or curator to confirm that your work is worthwhile enough for a public presentation). You could do projects at a school, in a park, outside of a museum, in a city hall, etc. and even if it was totally self-organized, if there was a public component (at least that’s my requirement) then you can list it on your resume, and include all of the standard points—the year, place, title, etc. So instead of following a set path to resume building, you can use your own agency to do the kind of work you want to do, when and where you want to do it, and then credit yourself (and potentially anyone who takes part) in the form of a resume. By doing that you will be asserting your own values while reshaping the possibilities of how an artist can function in society for everyone else as well.

5.10.14

Something that I think is often thought of as insignificant or annoying, but which I think actually holds great power and possibility is the artist resume. It is standard that artists follow existing examples of what goes into a resume, often that approach is also taught in professional practice classes in art departments and schools too. I have largely followed that process myself (though some day I hope to tackle my resume as a “project” and make it more reflective of what I’m going to suggest here.)

Conventional resumes reinforce the idea that some activities are valid and others aren’t. Usually the standards are education, exhibitions, grants, awards, and lectures, the more curated (or in academic terms, “refereed”) the better. Art students and emerging artists start with the few examples they have that conform to those categories and attempt to develop from there by pursuing more opportunities that fulfill the expectations (that of course also determines the type of work they make.)

This is what I advocate instead–start with the status quo structure, but go through the categories and see which actually applies to your practice (or your hoped for practice) and which don’t, leave the ones that do, and eliminate or alter the others, and then add in any categories that are missing. One simple example of this that I actually did on my resume was to add “projects” to the place that would normally only say “exhibitions.” By doing that a whole set of work that I’ve done that wasn’t an exhibition has a validated place to go. You could just add a separate “project” area, but by including that with exhibitions or replacing that heading all together you are asserting that non-exhibition work is just as valuable as work that happened in the form of a gallery-style show.

Of course that’s just scratching the surface, I often have students write a “social practice” CV that includes anything that they have done or experienced that they see as applicable to their ability to do social practice work. Self-initiated zines, videos, and event planning are obvious, but odd jobs, volunteer work, sports, choirs, etc. can be validated too. Working one summer at the (no longer existing) Strand Theater on Market Street in San Francisco probably prepared me more for the socially engaged work I do now as an artist than most of my formal education and gallery exhibition history combined.

Once you have liberated yourself from the conventions of traditional resumes you can also realize that “non-refereed” projects can happen anywhere and at anytime (no more waiting for a gallery or curator to confirm that your work is worthwhile enough for a public presentation). You could do projects at a school, in a park, outside of a museum, in a city hall, etc. and even if it was totally self-organized, if there was a public component (at least that’s my requirement) then you can list it on your resume, and include all of the standard points—the year, place, title, etc. So instead of following a set path to resume building, you can use your own agency to do the kind of work you want to do, when and where you want to do it, and then credit yourself (and potentially anyone who takes part) in the form of a resume. By doing that you will be asserting your own values while reshaping the possibilities of how an artist can function in society for everyone else as well.

5.4.14

The topic of reproducible project models in social practice has come up a few times recently. Of course the primary characteristic (in my opinion) that is particular to social practice work (as opposed to most studio based work) is that it happens in site and context specific ways, but that doesn’t mean that each project has to be totally unique in form as well. It’s great if there is time and resources available to come up with a totally new project for a given situation, and I’m happy for that to occur when it can, but for a variety of reasons that doesn’t always happen. When I can work in that way I usually start with a site visit of the project location if it is not where I live already or is in a place that I’m familiar with. During that time I wander around, talk to people, read about the history of the place, eat local food, examine the presentation space and its dynamics, and just explore in general. Usually, based on that experience, I can come up with a project that takes into account and works with some of the local people and elements that I’ve encountered to create something new or at least hybridized in a new way.

In other situations there isn’t time or funding for a site visit and the project has to happen during my first visit to a place or sometimes without me being there at all. Doing a project just based on instructions without even going to the place to help realize everything is risky and more often than not I haven’t been totally happy with the results, though I’ve been honing my instruction skills and might have improved that approach for future attempts (I’m happy to give it a try if any institutions out there are up for the experiment). The crucial element with that way of doing things ultimately is not just a great project idea and super clear and simple instructions, but also a local person or team on the ground that is really committed to working out all of the issues and engaging with the local set of participants while staying in touch with me.

On the other hand using a pre-existing structure for participation and being able to at least go to the place to personally implement it has worked many times for me very successfully. Localized collaboration (depending on the type of project) in advance is still really important, but being able to make some decisions and help out on final details in person can make a big difference. 

For other kinds of artists reproducible structures are very normal–painters paint on similar types of canvas structures, use the same paints and brushes over and over again, and show work in predictable venues; photographers use consistent cameras and print and frame their work in similar ways over many different projects; performers use existing standardized forms for the creation of songs and other performances, etc. In the case of site-based project work reproducible project structures are possible too and can still be designed to contain localized and variable content.

There are many examples of these models, but let me just describe a couple from my own practice. For several years I did a project called Hello Friend (based on a project I originally did in Portland with my friend Jess Hilliard) where I would go to a place I wasn’t familiar with, team up with a local person there, and then go on a long meandering walk with them around the area where a project was supposed to be presented (gallery, museum, outdoor projection site, etc). During the walk I would ask my collaborator to select small objects off the ground (leaves, bits of trash, rocks, etc) and to then present the object to me by closing their hand around it and then opening up while I shot a video from over their shoulder. We then repeated that activity sometimes hundreds of times on one or more walks. This process allowed me to get to know a local person and a new place while also producing a project that was about my collaborator’s curatorial selection of particular and telling elements from that environment. Though I repeated that framework and process in a wide variety of places including rural France; Malmo, Sweden; and Queens, NY, each video was created with a different person and documented different objects, ambient sounds, backgrounds, and other characteristics that made it particular to each place.

That project, though fun and very easy to produce with almost no advance work, had limited agency for the collaborators. Another project that I’ve done in a wide variety of settings also involves a walk, but leaves more room for local individuals to fill in a greater amount of content that is already significant to them. In that model there are actually two sets of participants for two different but related elements of the project, the first is usually a set of students since that kind of project has mostly been commissioned by school (VCU, University of Hawaii, Grinnell, USC, University of Michigan, etc) but could happen with any local group of people. That first set of folks is given a geographical area like a college campus or a neighborhood, and then asked to find some location of interest and a person who is related to that place who can speak about what goes on there. The location could be an interesting business, research lab, non-profit, historical site, garden, etc. etc. A day and time, usually a few hours, is designated to then walk as a group from place to place as the local people asked to present take ten or fifteen minutes to discuss what goes on at their location. This distributed walking tour creates (for me at least) very engaging and unpredictable results that once again vary greatly from location to location. The project uses a reproducible and simple structure, but the participants, places, and knowledge that is exchanged is always different.

I like to think of the previously described reproducible models (and many others) as part of my project repertoire, which can be used and adapted to many different locations and situations. I think in general if artists have a set of these kinds of participatory structures, (which can happen quickly, don’t require large budgets, and function both as research and product) it encourages greater possibilities for social practice type work to fit into both traditional art and academic settings and less orthodox ones as well. That said projects that take longer to develop and have more unique structures are also a big part of my practice. In some cases the results of those more involved types of projects create reproducible project models as well that can be incorporated in to my set of options for other opportunities later.

 

4.28.14

I just returned from a trip to Vancouver, Canada where I presented my work and took part in some discussions at the Purple Thistle and the Contemporary Art Gallery’s Field House with Broken City Lab. Carmen Papalia and Kristin Lantz organized and took part in the events.

One of the participants who came and contributed to all of the presentations was Paige Gratland who I had met years before in Toronto. It’s always nice to reconnect with Canadian friends and to realize that there is so much to learn from them. The US and Canada are both very similar and totally different at the same time. CARFAC is a great example of the difference.

There were many engaging topics of discussion related to Art and Social Practice as part of the events. Paige had an idea that I found intriguing, which was to create a “style guide” for crediting collaborators and participants in art projects. She wants to make a book version, but I encouraged her to also create a website for the project so that more people could use it as a reference. It is similar to an idea I’ve wanted to see happen in the US for a long time, the creation of a website with a set of standard payment amounts for various activities that artists do, but for which there are no current regulations on and as a result, in many cases, unfair disparity occur. I think W.A.G.E may actually be pulling off some way of addressing that issue, so I’m curious to see how that goes. In the case of Paige’s idea, there are existing examples in other fields that would be interesting to draw on including film, music, and theater. In all of those practices there seem to be systems that regulate and normalize crediting, so that it is expected that in a performance’s printed program or at the end of a film everyone who contributed is noted for what they did.

It was suggested in one or our discussions that artists who don’t credit everyone who helped make a project possible are being unethical, but I don’t think that’s actually the case. Systemic conventions are instead largely the reason that people credit or don’t credit. In music, film, and performance there are forms and orthodoxies that make it convenient and standard to credit participants, in conventional studio/gallery art those standards don’t really exist, and since that is largely the model that social practice is coming out of there hasn’t been a convention transfer for crediting. One of the main reasons for not crediting in the case of studio/gallery work is that the commercial system wants to perpetuate the idea that artists work alone and function in romantic, individual genius ways. I think that idea and model should be addressed to reflect reality and signal to artists starting out that going it alone is not necessary unless that’s how they really want to operate. In socially engaged work, without direct commercial forces at play, it should be easier to create a new approach to crediting. Even though I’ve worked in collaborative and participatory ways for over twenty years I’m still sorting out some of these issues and can look back on past projects to see ways that I’ve neglected to credit everyone fairly. I’m now much more conscious than I was in the past, but I think that having a credit guide or guides like the one Paige is proposing would be very helpful for all artists going forward.

4.20.14

This is just a thought, not fully formed at all. I was talking to a professor of psychology the other day; he specifically works with PhD students who do research about the impacts of meditation and “mindfulness activities” on people who experience stress and trauma including police officers. It sounds really interesting in general, but part of what I’m fascinated by is the way that his teaching institution allows him (facilitated by grant money, which has been traditionally more available to science and social science than art) to work with students directly on projects which the students get credit (academic and professional) for doing. He said he doesn’t teach traditional classes anymore except when he feels like it, just to keep his classroom skills honed. I think I need to spend some time observing how this all works and talking to more people about the ways that these sorts of educational structures are implemented. I want to figure out if that model could be applied to art education programs.

Traditionally, MFA programs don’t engage in direct research and practice in which a student would work in a collaborative and credited capacity with a professor on their professional work. A professor might hire a student to work as an uncredited assistant (I was in that position in grad school and I definitely learned a lot more and in a quicker and more enjoyable way than I did in most official classes), but mostly MFA students are limited to doing work on their own studio projects and get occasional feedback, and take fairly normal seminar type classes on theoretical topics.

I’m pretty convinced that existing systems and structures are what determine possibilities and appreciation, and not just with art, but with everything. Bach and Beethoven and the Beatles may have created revolutionary music, but it was able to be valued because it fit into an existing system that allowed it to function—there was an audience, distribution, funding, critical analysis etc, etc. I could list all sorts of “genius” creators and work through a similar examination— and the vast majority will also conform to the status quo structures that support those particular practices. It is harder to identify the people and projects that produced not just interesting work, but which also launched an unorthodox support system at the same time. It is likely (also because of systemic influence) that there are fewer examples (I can’t seem to think of any off the top of my head) of those attempts in general, but really we will never know because part of the problem is that kind of work, when not successful, largely disappears because there was no way to formalize it, so no one knows if it happened or not.

This state of affairs applies to a broad range of activities, but has a lot to do with unusualness of the emergence of Social Practice as a formalized art approach. If the support systems (adapted traditional arts institutions and funding, and totally new approaches including funding and presentation outside of the art world) can form into place in time it may be that Social Practice becomes an example of a type of unorthodox production (still based on precedent, nothing comes out of no where) that operates largely in a different way from the status quo and survives to tell the tale. I’m not going to hold my breath, but it has been an interesting last couple of decades to observe and experience from that perspective.

Now back to the question about MFA programs and collaborative work between students and professors. Could arts education operate to some degree like science and social science advanced degree programs? Is there a way to break from tradition to be able to borrow and adapt a more direct way for students to work with their professors on applied projects and for that to take the place of traditional class or studio credit? One issue is equitable participation. If you had a group of fifteen grad students in a MFA program would all of them need to work with the professor or professors in the same way? That seems doable if the project is designed for a whole class of people with different interests and abilities, but it might not be the most effective way to make good work. Could there also be a place for selection of students based on the appropriateness of a given project? So for instance, if I was working on a commissioned project on a specific subject or in a specific geographical location could I decide to work with a student or small set of students who had experience or interest in those specifics, and not work with the other students? Does that happen with science students? I was watching a documentary with my daughter the other day about orcas and two of the featured researchers were a university professor and one of his grad students. How did that pairing happen and how did it officially relate to the professor’s teaching and the student’s education? I’ve also heard many times about professors sharing credit with grad students for papers that they have written for academic journals, etc. Once again there must have been some kind of selection, because its just one or two grad students who are credited not a whole program or class. So I think some kind of ability and affinity selection takes place in academic science collaboration, and it doesn’t necessarily seem like a bad thing, instead there are many advantages—the partnerships are not forced or obligatory (at least, from what I could tell, not in the case of the orca example), but instead allow students and professors to work together on common interests with mutual benefits.

From my perspective an ideal program situation would be in which a group of arts grad students would work on their own individual and collaborative practices, inclusive class and program projects, and specific credited collaborations (in a variety of ways) with a set of different professors based on their existing work and opportunities, and that the educational institutions would support and value that work by funding professors (for example by giving them release time from teaching regular classes), and students (possibly through tuition remission) while also allowing them to apply that work as credit towards graduation. Its true that not every student would wind up with the same opportunities, but that’s how it works once you get out of school, and its never too soon to start getting used to how that works.

I’ve tried in many different ways over the years to do this kind of work in largely informal ways, but as noted earlier, because there isn’t really a support system to recognize and institutionalize these kinds of practices they are not easily available to function as models to build on. My hope is that as social practice becomes more accepted it will also be understood that new approaches to teaching will be necessary and supported as well.

4.13.14

I’ve been asked many times for a short description for the term Art and Social Practice. There are various reasons why this is hard to produce, but maybe I’ll give it a try. It could be that it’s best to actually come up with a few different options. An aspect of Art and Social Practice, (or Socially Engaged Art, Public Practice, etc. all of which seem to be in the same ballpark) is that the term is used in somewhat different ways by different people and institutions. I’ll just try to describe my own take on it, which isn’t meant to prevent anyone else from having their own interpretation, but might be useful as something to bounce off of or dispute.

In some ways it is almost easiest to describe Social Practice by what it is not, given its minority status within an art world that already is filled with conventions and assumed expectations. But people always complain that describing Social Practice in opposition to the generally accepted studio/gallery model is not a great idea somehow, they see it as negative and implies that there is something wrong with the conventional approach. I don’t see it as any different than using the term non-fiction to describe writing that is essentially created with a very different approach than the dominant form of literary fiction. With that as my justification let me start with the non-studio/gallery description. I think it is useful because so many people (both people in the art world and outside of it) expect art to be made, take the form of, and be presented in very specific and simple terms, something like this: a solo artists works in a solitary studio (this usually isn’t the case once any kind of art world success occurs and real production needs to start happening, then assistants of various sorts are brought in, but art world success of that sort is relatively rare, and even commercial art gallery people are still very invested in the idea of the solo artist concept for sales purposes), objects (mostly paintings) are produced by that artist in the studio, a gallery person then takes the work to a white cube space where people interested in art go to view it, some of them who are collectors buy the objects, magazines write articles and reviews of the artist and the art, the artist is loved or scorned by the public for being brilliant and free thinking or a fraud and scammer. In the non-studio/gallery model artists don’t necessarily use galleries, and instead might do their work in a grade school, hospital, neighborhood, grocery store, or a wide variety of other locations including traditional art spaces, but in that case the gallery might be used as a temporary staging area in advance of a possibly dynamic and participatory exhibition. The “artist” may start as a collaborative team, or could create a temporary collaboration with people local to the site area. There might not be any salable objects produced for the project (though its possible, but usually making the objects for the purpose of selling is not the intention). The work can be displayed or presented in a non-gallery venue, and often times the location where the work was made is also the place where it is shown. Collectors rarely figure into the equation, though funding institutions (art centers, museums, public art organizations, or other non-profits) might have commissioned the project. If the work is reviewed or written about it is often in general publications like local newspapers, or possibly in very specific publications like a school or community center newsletter. Since commercial galleries are deemphasized in that scenario and they are the biggest source of ad revenue for art magazines there tends to be very little focus on non-gallery art projects in those types of publications.

That was a little complicated, so I can understand why someone would want a more concise description. One thought I’ve often had is that I could just use the promotional language of the university that I teach at (Portland State University) and tweak it a bit to fit well as a description for Art and Social Practice:

Art and Social Practice values its identity as an engaged art practice that promotes a reciprocal relationship between the community, artists, and institutions in which knowledge and culture serves society and society contributes to the knowledge and culture of artists and institutions.
Art and Social Practice values partnerships with non-art institutions, professional groups, the business community, and community organizations, and the talents and expertise these partnerships bring to artists and institutions that support art activities. Socially engaged artists embrace the role of being responsible citizens of the city, the state, the region, and the global community and foster actions, programs, and projects that will, hopefully, lead to a sustainable and interesting future.

If anyone wants to compare it to the original you can find that on this page:  http://www.pdx.edu/portland-state-university-mission

It’s not bad for a Social Practice description (especially for institutional and grant funding use), but its maybe a little vague, and probably too positive and community-ish, also a bit redundant here and there with all that reciprocity going on everywhere.

So here are a couple of other options:

Art and Social Practice is an artistic approach that emphasizes collaboration, shared authorship, public participation, site-specificity, and interdisciplinarity, is often presented in non-art locations, and has no media or formal boundaries.

Even that has a couple of negations in it, so some people might not like it, and unless you have some examples it’s still hard to get an exact sense of what that all means. Painters really have it made in that sense, everyone at least knows what paint and canvas and art galleries are.

So I guess I fall back on what I have always done when asked to describe what kind of work that I do, which is to explain a few different projects to give a sense of the possibilities. Sometimes the reaction is that it sounds interesting even if it doesn’t sound like art, which ultimately is fine with me.

But let me take one more shot at it:

Art and Social Practice is a term that can be used to describe projects by artists that happen in public places, involve members of the public, and can take any possible form artistic or otherwise.

That’s still not cutting it.

My daughter goes to a public International Baccalaureate school here in Portland, OR. International Baccalaureate (or IB) is pedagogical approach that seems to share some vague ideals with Art and Social Practice. What if I took their mission statement and altered it:

Art and Social Practice aims to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring artists who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect.

To this end Art and Social Practice works with schools, governments and international organizations to develop challenging programs of local and international engagement with rigorous assessment.

These programs encourage people across the world to become active, compassionate and lifelong learners who understand that other people, with their differences, can also be right.

For the original you can look here: http://www.ibo.org/mission/

Somehow the word peace always makes me nervous, also that assessment part is just not going to happen, so I don’t think that description is going to work either.

I can’t help but fall back on this idea:

Artists can work in whatever way they want including making paintings that are shown in galleries as well as organizing participatory walking tours.

It would be nice if that was the generally accepted and supported idea about art in general. If it was there might not be a need for separating out social practice from other more standard art making approaches, but for the time being because of the huge systemic structures that largely accept and support primarily conventional, commercial art I think there is a need for separate development of socially engaged practices.

I’m reminded of a common experience that I’ve had as a vegetarian where I go out to dinner with a group of non-vegetarians and they say of lets just all share, we will make sure to order some vegetarian dishes. But then what happens is that they eat all of the vegetarian and meat dishes and I’m left with less than everyone else. In those situations I now insist on getting my order just for me, even when everyone else is ordering family style. Similarly, I think if Art and Social Practice was just expected to function in the larger art world system it would be absorbed because there are very few structures in place to support its needs. I’m getting a bit off topic here, but I guess that is one of the reasons why it would be good to have a more easily understood description of Art and Social Practice, but unfortunately because of the nature of that kind of work it may be impossible to really come up with a single, short, understandable way to do that. At least I gave it a try.

4.6.14

When I was in graduate school developing my practice I was very interested in the possibilities of social engagement, but had few examples to model my work on. Back then, before the popularization of the internet, it was much harder to locate really current information, especially if it was about subjects outside of the mainstream. So I collected precedents from what I could find in books, magazines, newspapers, and word of mouth. There were various significant people and projects that I ran across including the work of Wendy Ewald, John Malpede, and Larry Sultan. One extremely influential project that I found out about in a very minimal way (I think I saw one small photo and read a brief description) was Group Material’s The People’s Choice exhibition from 1981. A combination of elements in the project were of interest to me, it was done by a collaboration, the process involved working with a local community around a self-initiated gallery, and it was largely structured within a curatorial framework.

All of those different parts seemed to fly in the face of what I’d been told were the ways that artists were supposed to operate–artists worked by themselves in isolated studios, making art on their own and showing it in official galleries with no emphasis on local contexts or people, and they certainly didn’t curate other people’s work. The People’s Choice project broke with all of those conventions. Possibly the most exciting aspect and one that I really hadn’t considered much before was the curatorial approach. I remember at the time thinking that maybe I should be a curator rather than an artist, but somehow (before the proliferation of academic curatorial programs) that seemed even more farfetched than finding a way to sustain myself as an artist. Instead, I decided that I would incorporate “curation” into the set of tools I would use as I exploded all of my previous concepts of how an artist could function. This applied to working with other artists, but more importantly as Group Material had modeled, it could function as a way to include non-art participants as well.

Now after twenty years of various projects in which I have acted both as a lead artist and as a curator, editor, organizer, facilitator, educator, event planner, etc., I realize the advantage to having kept my artist status instead of becoming an official “curator.” Curators, like artists and most job titles, have sets of conventions that often determine what appears to be possible and not possible within in their profession. Traditionally, curators have stayed clear of a line that when crossed could be viewed as placing them on the wrong side of the creative process. There are more examples of this type of almost activist curator these days, who through assignments and commissions and sometimes official collaborations, actively determine what artists make. But that kind of engagement still seems to be discouraged in many ways and most curators feel like they must only select and organize works or artists instead engaging in more direct ways on the production of art works.

On the other hand I have no compunction about using my agency to blur all of the lines in regards to the way that work is made, shown, authored, etc. I guess as an artist I feel like there have been enough precedents of challenging the status quo and working within disputed territory to easily validate my position. Using curatorial methods allows for the opportunity to bring attention and appreciation to interesting people and materials that would otherwise not find a way into an art context. And since there are no established protocols for artists working with curatorial methods it is possible to determine the degree of engagement and collaboration on an individual basis. For example within my own practice there have been situations like with Michael Patterson Carver where I largely just facilitated the exhibition and publication of his drawings, and other cases, for instance with Corentine Senechal, where through my suggestion and facilitation he was able to conceive of and propose a public sculpture and was eventually able to, with my assistance, produce a piece that he otherwise would not have made on his own. Of course I never would have made work like Michael or Corentine either, which in both cases was partly amazing to me because it went beyond what I would or could do myself. So together with a variety of people I have worked with, in our various interdependent roles, have been able to pull off projects that would not have happened without an expanded curatorial and collaborative approach.

3.30.14

There are a few different types of artist residencies that exist out there. One is the classic where artists go out to a natural type area so that they can “get away from it all” and concentrate on their work. Those places are nice, I’ve been to a few of them, but personally I spend most of my time enjoying walking around rather than sitting in a studio trying to make stuff. There are also artist residencies that have a built-in exhibition at the end, making it more difficult to just wander around and space out while you are there. Another approach to the residency idea is where the artist is paired with an organization like a school, hospital, or senior center and makes work that is responsive to that place and the people there. That last one is the model I find most interesting.

In a way I have used that approach of a residency and made it a big part of my practice since I was a student. As an emerging artist I realized that if I made work that was about the context that it was being shown in that local people would feel more engaged and invested in what I was doing. Initially that meant making work that was specific to my own school, neighborhood, and local businesses and other organizations (one of my first projects of that nature was at a bakery and was all about the bakers and what they made, but took the form of an exhibition displayed in the area where customers sat to eat baked goods and drink coffee). As other opportunities occurred (and probably the opportunities were based on the fact that my practice was site-specific) I would spend time in the place where the work was going to be shown (for instance in a suburb of the Bay Area where a collaborator and I were commissioned to make a show for a regional art center we spent a month hanging out in the town and produced all of the work in response to what we encountered there) and then create projects (exhibitions, video projections, poster series, public art projects, events etc.) that were based on direct connections to the people I met, the histories I learned about, and the everyday dynamics that I encountered. I liked the process of discovery and participatory inclusion and the commissioning organizations (schools, public art agencies, art centers, etc all with available funding) were happy that work was being made about their own specific locations and with the people who lived and worked there, often times developing local audiences who ordinarily never came to see more traditional art work.

In my teaching I have also employed this type of residency structure as part of student assignments. For instance something I have done over the years at various times and in various ways is to ask students to research and connect with a department or entity on a given campus that is outside of the art program. That process alone achieves various positive effects from encouraging wandering around observing to interacting with people and disciplines outside of a student’s often normally siloed experience. Once a location of interest has been identified I ask the student to then attempt to become an artist-in-residence for that place. As can be imagined that is a bit of a stretch for both the student and the non-art department or organization and success doesn’t always happen, but there are many cases where interesting collaborations do take place as well. I’ve had students work with Black Studies, the Women’s Resource Center, the campus radio station, the campus newspaper, geology, systems science, conflict resolution, the campus community garden, and various food carts, etc. Sometimes the relationships are short lived, but others have continued on after the academic term has ended and many resulted in positive interactions for both the students and the residency sites and collaborators.

In general this kind of residency model can be used by artists within a wide set of contexts—neighborhoods, parks, businesses, libraries, schools, non-profits, city agencies, etc. etc. It is not necessary for there to be any formal artist-in-residence program in place in advance. Instead, the artist can locate places that are of interest, research and connect with them, and then if a residency relationship seems possible suggest that idea. Many non-art organizations are thrilled that an artist would want to work with them, and sometimes not only make that possible but will find ways to provide resources and even at times funding as well. There are many advantages for an artist to work in this way—a specific context and set of people are identified to work with, and actual outcomes are available for the realization of work. In the status quo approach to art making artists typically work in isolation and have only doubtful hopes that what they produce will ever find an audience. In my opinion, the residency approach gives much greater agency and satisfaction to the artist, who working in that model is able to experience real connections to the public and make contributions to society that go beyond the standard studio/gallery model.

3.22.14

I recently had an idea for a way to attempt to level the playing field a bit between conventional, commercial, studio/gallery art and more socially engaged project based work. The commercial system dominates in so many ways that it makes alternative approaches hard to sometimes seem possible much less sustainable. Most art and artists are known because of their promotion by commercial galleries who have relationships with magazines, collectors, museums, etc. etc. The art world has increasingly run in tandem with art fairs and all of the conventions that they set. There have been many interesting new developments from museums, grants, residencies, and even some art fairs to attempt to be more inclusive to socially engaged work, but mostly those initiatives still reside at the margins and don’t provide enough opportunities and funding for artists to exclusively focus on socially engaged work and survive (I’m specifically talking about dynamics in the US, it could be different in more socialized countries where there is greater public support for artists).

What if there was an equivalent to commercial galleries for socially engaged, project based artists? The basic problem is of course that for the most part socially engaged artists don’t make products to be sold, and if they do make a product it could be totally ephemeral or site-based and permanent or something else that would make it inappropriate for gallery sales and distribution. Often times I look to other disciplines to see how they operate and what might be of use in my own practice. Many creative professionals like writers, actors, musicians, documentary phototgraphers etc, have agents who handle their business interactions. Could something like that also work for socially engaged, project based artists? Currently, it might be difficult because as I said before most institutional opportunities for non-commercial artwork are still minimal and on the periphery. But that could change and more opportunities could be normalized and funded if there was greater awareness about the possible roles that project based artwork and practices could have in society.

What I’m picturing is a commercial gallery without the gallery, but still with all of the other support a gallery provides. It could be a physical office where a set of administrators would work and where artists and interested people could meet, and a website with information about a set (maybe ten) of represented artists. The administrators would do the work to organize and help facilitate projects for the artists. These projects could include work with museums and art centers, but might also involve public art, grants, and commissions for non-art institutions like schools, libraries, hospitals, non-profits, government facilities, even businesses.

Part of the role of the agency administrators would be not only to connect with existing art opportunities, but would also be to create new ones. My personal experience is that often times when non-art organizations are offered the chance to work with artists they are not only often happy to do that, but they also occasionally offer funding that otherwise might have gone to something else. For example the MFA program that I run has recently developed a formalized partnership with a local K-8 public school. The school has not only agreed to give us dedicated free classroom and office space for two years (renewable) but also provides very good funding for an alumni of the program to act as a manager to help facilitate projects between the school and the MFA students.

It would be nice if there were eventually many of these socially engaged agencies co-existing with the gallery-based system while offering something totally different. The work that would be commissioned would be site-specific, participatory, and using a variety of medias and forms. Ideally, since I’m just dreaming here anyway, each agency would have its own specific character and could operate at many different levels from start up with very emerging artists to established with well recognized artists, and mixes of every kind too. An economic model could be that all of the represented artists in a given agency would put a percentage of the funds generated by the projects towards administration costs including salaries for the administrators (maybe just a director and an assistant) and also a collective pool of maybe ten percent that would be redistributed to all of the represented artists, so that even if some of the artists didn’t do as well in a given time period they would still receive some financial support.

I’ve mentioned this agency idea to a few different people over the last six months. Generally, the more involved those people are with the regular art world the more skeptical they are about idea, but people who are less involved, even well known artists, have been very enthusiastic. So if anyone wants to give it a try let me know.

 

3.15.14

I have very early collaborative impulse memories. I loved drawing on the same piece of paper with someone else and would often do that with my dad. I shared an improvised darkroom with a high school friend and we worked on each other’s prints. In my early years of college, at Humboldt State University, my friend Cleveland and I collaborated on a variety of projects, most notably on something we called Straight Line Walks, where we would identify a distant location, usually a far off tree, and then attempt to walk to it (often several miles) while staying on a straight trajectory regardless of fences, freeways, rivers, etc. When we felt like we absolutely had to deviate from the route we would document that instance with a Polaroid camera, so that the only record of the walk was of the moments where we failed our own set of rules. After doing several of those walks on our own we started inviting guests along and asking them to select the final destination. The project came to an end when we took Les Blank (a documentary film maker from the Bay Area who had a major impact on my life and work) for a walk but he refused to wade through a puddle. The whole thing suddenly seemed absurd and silly to me and I couldn’t get myself to do anymore of them.

In graduate school I started collaborating with another grad student, Jon Rubin, and we worked together for about five years on a huge variety of different socially engaged projects. Miranda July and I collaborated on a participatory web based project called Learning To Love You More that continues to live on in various ways even though we ended its original function many years ago. I’ve collaborated with artist heroes of mine like Larry Sultan, John Malpede, Chris Johanson, Michael Bravo, and Wendy Ewald. I’ve worked on many projects with students and have recently started a new collaborative group called Public Doors and Windows with two former grad students Molly Sherman and Nolan Calisch. In all of those situations there has been great benefit with the activity of brain storming ideas, dividing responsibilities, and just spending time together. In general, though there are some great exceptions (Group Material for instance), the art world (especially the commercial art world) seems to discourage collaboration. I’ve been in the position several times of being asked to recommend an artist for an award or residency and when I suggested a collaboration was told that only individual artist could be considered. I think the acceptance of collaborations is slowly changing, but in general there are still many structural and systemic elements in place that prevent artists from even considering working in collaborative ways.

What I really want to discuss isn’t collaborations between artists, but instead collaborations that involve artists working with people who do not consider themselves artists or who do but who have little or no access to the art world. That is something I also have a lot of experience with over the years. In the past I’ve run into many critical opinions suggesting that the dynamic of artists working with non-artists is fundamentally unethical. My sense is that recently that position too has become less prevalent as more examples occur without any apparent negative power dynamics or other abuses. When faced with those argument in the past one approach I have taken is to suggest looking at other “professionals” who are able to successfully work with “non-professionals” for instance regional theater directors who may be highly trained and paid to do their job, but then work with local, untrained, volunteers as actors, set and costume designers, technicians, etc, etc. Are those willing people somehow harmed by their involvement with the trained theater person or are they in fact advantaged by that person’s knowledge and experience? Can that situation not be of mutual benefit? Similar parallels can be draw with church and community choirs, non-professional sports, amateur archeology and other science related activities, etc. etc.

But why would an artist want to work with a non-artist anyway? I think there are as many reasons as there are possible collaborations, but a couple that are compelling for me are that I want my work to be of interest to a wider public than just the art going one, and because I want to use my projects as a way to learn about aspects of the world that I don’t already know about. By working with non-artists in direct collaborations as well as with participatory models those people and the people they know or who are interested in the topics that they know about will also be invested and engaged with the project, and in that way the work becomes relevant to broader sets of people than just ones who normally go to art venues. Learning can happen in many ways, but for me one of the most effective and satisfying approaches is through direct contact with knowledgeable people in whatever discipline or topical area a given project is examining. I also like to employee some degree of chance in my work, so generally rather than coming up with a specific subject and then finding a person to help me understand it, I generally prefer to allow location and situation to determine what a project focuses on based on who I make contact with and what their existing interests and resources are. These various people who become my collaborators are able to share what they know with me, while I am able to offer them access to institutions, audiences, and sometimes funding. In this sense and in a variety of forms and degrees of collaboration I have worked with people like Albert Keshishian on an exhibition about his rug store in Oakland, CA; Corentine Senechal on a public turtle sculpture in Brittany, France; and Michael Patterson Carver in Portland, OR in regard to promoting and exhibiting his drawings of political protest, among many others. In each situation I felt like I was not only gaining knowledge and experience myself, but bringing cultural appreciation to my collaborators while expanding and (from my perspective) improving the inclusiveness of what can be considered valid in art world contexts.

It is my hope that collaboration models in all forms will continue to develop and be supported in schools, art centers, grants, residencies, museums, and public art programs, so that artists will consider collaboration a normal and viable approach and practice. Working together has many advantages, including personal social connection, and helps to de-emphasis the dominant idea that artists need to work alone to be able to express their “individual genius.”

3.8.14

I have a long list of social practice related topics that I have discussed in class and informal situations for many years. I’ve been wanting to get my ideas about those topics down in writing, so I’m going to try to address them here. For some people these concepts will be very familiar, but for others they may be new and for that reason I’m going to try to take a very simple, explanatory approach.

I’d like to take a look at the idea of “platforms” in relationship to social practice type work. These topics are not discrete so related ideas will wind up overlapping, and sometimes I think it is necessary to back up a bit and examine status quo approaches before introducing the main point that I want to focus on.

In existing dominant and popular conventions the prevailing idea is that artists work in studios or something equivalent to a studio, and then, if they are lucky (which is rare), show the work they produce in galleries. The ideal version of both a studio and a gallery is a white room, which can exist anywhere, making them generic and predictable, similar to the way that large-scale retail stores create consistent contexts for the sale of globalized products. The uniformity of this practice in a way runs counter to the concept that artists are free to do whatever they want. The systemic forces that promote the gallery/studio model actually determine a lot of how an artist works and what they make. The reason for the consistent and neutral contexts is to allow the “art” to standout without any interference from anything that might disrupt or interact with it. A common assumption is that the art is coming from the singular artist, and represents their creativity in a pure, creative way. Artist branding, style uniformity, and rarification of output are seen as necessary aspects of making sales appealing to collectors and institutions.

I could go on about the various details and manifestations of the commercial art system, but instead I will just try to reinforce the idea that typically artists are seen as people who can do anything they want, but what they choose to do with that freedom is spend long hours in isolated locations (unless they are successful enough to have assistants actually making their work) producing products that can be shipped, marketed, displayed, and sold globally. A strange aspect of that situation is that, though the majority of artists are making work to function for those commercial conditions (consciously or unconsciously) the vast majority of artists never actually have the opportunity for their work to enter into that system.

An alternate approach for artists to consider is the use of other platforms besides white box galleries in which art can function. Examples include public libraries, public schools, radio programs, websites, publications, front yards, parks, stores, billboards, building exteriors, city halls, non-art museums, t-shirts, posters, etc. Often times these kinds of platforms are more available than traditional art venues, occasionally come with financial support or other resources, and sometimes have access to very interested, non-art audiences.

In presenting working in this way it becomes natural to think about what exactly the art should be. It is possible of course to just display studio style objects on the walls of non-art locations, as is done commonly with cafes. But what if instead of sticking work that is intended for a gallery context into non-art one, the art was made specifically for the location? Now I guess I’m departing from the platform topic and leaning into the area of site or context specific work. One way of making site-specific art is to just think about the physical features of a location and make work that fits in and uses those dimensions or conditions. Another approach, which I am an advocate of, is to learn about the site from a variety of perspectives—historical, social dynamics and activities, resources, future plans, and to learn about specific individuals and groups who live or work in proximity to the site. By doing that kind of research (not necessarily academic research, but maybe a more casual and situational form of research) connections occur that could lead to collaborative or participatory relationships with members of the local public who might ordinarily only be thought of as potential audience for the work. The resulting process and product might not take the form of a sellable object at all (though it might) and instead could be an intervention, activity, presentation, alteration or removal of something that was normally there, and possibly function in an ephemeral and distributed way or be totally permanent and singular to that place.

One of the many positive aspects of this non-art platform, site-specific approach is that many more possible opportunities to show work are available, another is that by doing projects out in the world people will actually experiencing the work (as opposed to keeping work in storage in a studio or even showing it in an art venue with a very small audience) and one thing may lead to another, so that other situations for making and showing and even funding work may become possible. That was my own experience when I was starting out with my practice while I was still in graduate school in the early 1990’s. By creating self-initiated, collaborative projects in a variety of locations in my own neighborhood in Oakland, CA unexpected and fortuitous connections developed into more legitimized circumstances later on.

2.14.14

Creating a new website took a long time. There were a number of factors (possibly excuses) at play. Since the last major posting on the old website I’ve become a parent, gone through several family deaths, started a MFA program, etc. etc. I also went through many different ambivalent feelings about my relationship to the art world, and maybe the world in general. Projects kept happening anyway, and documentation of that is what I’m trying to make available now on the new website. Yuri Ono, my trusty friend and web person, has once again made this possible. Crystal Baxley is now also helping me too. I have technology aversions. I admit it. Along with the new website, which we will slowly add content to, I’m also going to try to make some periodic written posts. I like writing and want to find a way to make myself write more often, so maybe this will do that.