7.9.19

Imagine finding some writings or drawings that you had done ten years earlier. At the time that you made them you had no thoughts about publishing or exhibiting the work, but now much later you see value in considering them differently, so you go about formalizing the work for the public to be able to experience the drawing or writings. Similarly, you might have gone through a hard experience at an earlier time in your life that later on you were able to see as educationally valuable, so in your mind you reframe the experience from negative to positive retroactively and you tell people about that change in perspective.

What if you used that retroactive claiming/framing approach to non-material forms of art? You could at any moment go back in time to earlier activities you did and reframe them as artworks, even though at the time you didn’t think of them as art. The possible activities and experiences are endless, but for example let’s just say you walked to work for a week instead of driving a couple of years earlier and still recall that you enjoyed the chance to get some exercise while noticing things that you didn’t see while in a car and had a few unexpected interactions with people along the ways that were interesting as well. You could take that experience and retroactively claim it as an artwork and reframe it by giving it a title, date, location, description and potentially documentation that could be from that time if you happened to take a photo as you walked or through re-constructing the activity by taking a photo now that represented the earlier activity or by making a drawing, re-performing the activity publicly, etc. though documentation (other than a title etc.) of the retroactive project isn’t actually necessary. You could then add that “project” to your resume and website, create publications based on retroactively claimed works, talk about them in lectures, and apply for funding to retroactively reframe more projects or work with others to select and formalize their own retroactive artworks. I can imagine sceptics saying that without initial intention the past activities can’t be reframed as art, but why should we be concerned about when the activities happened, eventually everything becomes a part of the past, and there is still intention it’s just intention to retroactively reframe rather than intention to do something at a future point.

Another variation on this idea is to think about all of the email writing that you have done in the past not as writing emails, but simply as writing, in which case most of us would have already written enough for several books. It’s a way of valuing what you have already done in ways that you may not have previously done, and through that process it might also make you appreciate what you are currently doing or going to do in the future in a different way.


1.26.19

As soon as I finished writing short descriptions for the first set of terms and topics related to social practice (see the previous post) I immediately started compiling a new list. So here are an additional twenty-two terms and topics with subjective definitions, I’m sure there will be more to come.

Duration

The amount of time spent working on a project is one way of looking at the duration of the project, though it could also be referring to how long the project is active too, or both of those two together. There is a sort of knee jerk idea that when it comes to socially engaged work that long duration equates to being better, and that short duration is less good. I’ve always felt that this was not an accurate assumption, and as I have said many times, if a bad project lasts a long time it doesn’t make it better it just means it is bad longer. My feeling instead is that duration is just another factor in determining the best way to approach and develop any given project. Some projects, based on resources available, circumstances, etc. are best when they are very short term. There are ways to avoid the problems that come when an artist is “parachuted” into a project, primarily by setting up the work so that the artist allows local people to present content creating a situation in which the artist becomes an audience to the project that they have conceived of and or facilitated.

Social Justice

There is often a confusion that social practice work inherently needs to be about social justice issues. I don’t think that’s the case, if it were it would be called “Art and Social Justice” not “Art and Social Practice”. Many artists doing socially engaged work are interested in and engaged with social justice issues, and that can of course be the subject and purpose of their work if that is what they want to do, but social practice work could also be about non-political, non-social justice type topics, and or can be indirectly addressing social/political issues in various ways.

Education

Many socially engaged projects have educational components built into them. One of the advantages of project-based work is the opportunity to use the process as a way to learn about topics that the artist is interested in from experiential, direct, and indirect approaches. I like to position myself, when working on a project in a place that I am not familiar with, as the one who is learning from the people who I meet and interact with, often creating project structures that allow those local, and more knowledgeable people to be the ones providing content and leading the educating of me, other outsiders, and each other.

Ideal Situations

Artists have the chance to construct situations in the way that they would like them to be as opposed to the way that they might normally exist. For instance, just because kids are not normally included in the art world, at least not in positions of agency, it is still possible for artists to create projects that allow kids to take those kinds of roles. That same approach can apply to anything else that an artist would like to see happen within the small-scale realm of possibilities that they have control over when producing a project.

Ethics

In general, it is important to be able to determine how to behave and operate in life so that you are functioning within both personal and societal ethical practices. There are of course constructed laws that we each need to decide if we will follow or not follow and in what ways. This might be partially considered from the point of view of self-interest, familial interests, societal interests, and based on if the laws make sense in any particular situational circumstances or not, though some people prefer to use precedent and generalized moral codes instead of having to make ethical decisions based on each issue and experience that they encounter. There are pluses and minuses for both approaches, but I favor the situational ethics one even though it requires a lot more work.

Artists need to also figure out their own ethical ideas, methods, and value systems and then try to apply them as they do their work. I tend to think that common sense and following basic social contracts of not harming others (or annoying them too much) is the best approach, but it could be that many artists are not aware of the potential harm they might cause through their work and so need to educate themselves to have greater understanding of their own biases, privileges, power etc., so that they can effectively do the work that they want to do in meaningful and useful ways.

I have encountered the idea that social practice artists need to be especially conscious of their ethical responsibilities because of the social nature of their work, but I have always contended that everyone (including studio/gallery artists) should be engaged with understanding their impacts on other people, the environment, wealth distribution, hierarchies, etc. and that artists who are interested in socially engaged practices are generally at least already somewhat aware of these dynamics, whereas non-socially engaged artists often times are less conscious of the ways they are making impacts with their work from ethical perspectives. Also, when faced with this question I often ask for an example of a socially engaged art project that has had a negative ethical social impact and have not yet been given a good suggestion (though I’m sure there are a few out there). Considering a socially engaged project to not be very good from a subjective point of view doesn’t qualify. There is lots and lots of “bad” art being made out there (and because there are a lot more paintings and sculptures than socially engaged projects that means there are also a lot more “bad” paintings and sculptures than there are “bad” socially engaged art projects) but that is no reason for artists to stop doing work, at least not from an ethical point of view.

Walking

Many socially engaged projects have featured walking as a primary element (including several of my own). There are many reasons why walking is appreciated from a social practice angle. Walking is something that is free and available to most people in some form or other and does not require special skills to do. It provides an opportunity to get exercise while holding conversations, examining the environment that is being walked through, and providing self-transportation. Walking can easily be combined with other activities like presentations, readings, and performances. I also just really enjoy walking, so when given the opportunity to do any kind of project that I want to do I often choose to include walking as some part of it.

Funding

In the US the typical ways that artists fund themselves are through commercial sales, teaching, or arts grants. In reality most people who think of themselves as artists don’t receive any funding at all, and probably most artists don’t even bother trying to get funding for their work. There is a big disparity between the number of artists and the capacity of commercial galleries to show and sell those people’s work, as well as a limited number of art teaching possibilities and arts grant opportunities. Those options are all available to project based socially engaged artists, but there are other ways to fund work as well. Working on commissions from arts and non-arts organizations is one example. Sometimes the commission can be for a project that does not interfere with regular exhibition and other programming at the institution, which makes it more likely and increases the number of possibilities (temporary event-based projects or exhibitions in non-gallery parts of museums like cafes and bookstores for instance). Another approach is to create projects that function as self-initiated institutions or artist residencies within existing organizations like schools, libraries, park systems, or sanitation departments (like Mierle Laderman Ukeles) and to apply for funding that is not normally available to individual artists through those entities. A small business model is another option. It is important to see funding approaches as part of projects and not just as the support system for them.

Variable Practice

There has been a pervasive idea in the past that artists were supposed to pick a medium and develop a style for their art and work on that for the rest of their lives. There has always been lots of deviation from this approach, but it still persists as a concept that is often taught to art students. The primary benefit of artists working in that way is to be able to deliver consistent product for the commercial gallery system and all of the other art world elements that rely on that system. Artists, on the other hand, rarely only want to work with just one medium and style and have to be conditioned into finding value in that approach. Any kind of artist can free themselves from that way of thinking and create a more interesting, varied practice for themselves, but socially engaged artists are particularly well situated to work in that way because they are generally not directly connected to the commercial gallery system, and work on different kinds of projects that can be situationally determined, so that in one case the artist might use photography in an exhibition form, and in another creates participatory sculpture for a public context, or mixes up multiple mediums and styles in one project, anything is possible when the artist has a variable practice.

Learning

As I mentioned in the “education” topic, an artist can position themselves as someone who is given an opportunity to learn through the process of creating a project. That could include anything from learning a new media to learning about the culture and history of a project location. The shift is that in normal conditions it is the artist that is supposedly offering up culture and education to the public and in this other scenario the artist is instead learning about existing culture and knowledge from members of the public.

Site-visit

Going to a place where a project will be happening to have a personal experience evaluating the nature of the place and the type of project that would be interesting to develop there based on resources, social dynamics, histories, etc.

Hanging Out Method

A process which can be used during a site visit or during the research phase of any project in which the artist wanders around, talks to local people, and spends time casually observing in the location where they will be developing a project in order to come up with ideas for the concept of the project.

Inclusion

Within a socially engaged art project the artist has the opportunity to be as inclusive as they would like to be in various ways, that could include who the collaborators and participants are, how accessible the project is to local and diverse audiences, and in what ways the project is made available in documentation form, which could include free publications distributed publicly etc. to allow the project to be known by people who might not normally go to a contemporary art venue or presentation.

Hierarchy

The art world system is built on status and hierarchy, but artists can deviate from that approach if they want to. That can include not going along with the idea that you can only go up the steps of “art world success” which would dictate that once you move from showing in alternative spaces to commercial galleries, to fancier commercial galleries, to museums, that you cannot move backwards for fear that your stock will go down. Instead, if artists showed their work based on what they actually thought was interesting that could mean that they worked with a whole range of different status level organizations (alternative spaces, Community College galleries, museums, etc.) in different places (not just art world hubs like NYC, and LA) and as part of socially engaged projects that might take place at schools, prisons, hospitals, the list goes on). If artists make it clear that they don’t want to be limited to art world status conventions and hierarchies then the system can change, but examples need to be made by people in power to correct that situation.

Artists can also use their agency to dissolve or diminish hierarchy through collaborating with people who have less art world status (kids, non-artists, artists with little or no art world connections, etc.) and can also alter audience hierarchy by privileging and creating access for local audiences and people who are generally given less value by the art world system.

Instructions

The use of instructions, prompts, scores, or assignments as part of a participatory art project. In many cases the artist comes up with the instructions and others (who should receive credit for their roles) respond by producing whatever the instructions suggest. This can be used as part of “distance projects” but you really have to be careful about who is on the other end facilitating the instructions, because if they don’t know what they are doing or deviate from the specific instructions without consultation with the artist things can fall apart or turn into something undesirable.

Exhibitions

Typically, it is assumed that artists want to primarily show their work as part of exhibitions, but in the case of socially engaged projects exhibitions might not be the best platform for the work. Sometimes an opportunity for an artist is tied to doing an exhibition even if that is not the primary interest of the artist. In that case the exhibition can be seen as a resource for the project that can also include non-exhibition work (workshops, public art, performances, web, publications, etc.) that happen both inside and outside of the exhibiting institution.

Public Art

Public art has typically been thought of as permanent sculptures or mural type projects that are funded by government percent for art programs or corporate entities. There are several alternatives that could also be thought of as public art including non-sanctioned street art of various kinds, temporary public art in the form of fliers, posters, performances, or interventions, and site-specific participatory projects. Over the last couple of decades there has been a slow but promising shift towards using percent for art government funding to support less orthodox ideas of what public art can be considered. Social Practice seems to be included in that development.

Collections

A big part of typical art world success is based on the museum and private collections that an artist’s work has been acquired by. But what if as an artist you don’t make objects that are easily bought and sold and shipped? If your work is project based and possibly ephemeral or site-specific it might not be able to be collected in typical manners and that reduces the status (and funding) that an artist can receive. But there are examples of artist’s works that have somehow made their way into art collections while not being object based. Roman Ondak’s piece “Good Feelings in Good Times” which is owned by the Tate Modern in London is a good example. The project is a set of instructions detailing how a group of actors should be hired to stand in a queue line in various locations attracting members of the public to line up behind them until they disperse and reassemble somewhere else to repeat the process. Apparently, the work operates in the collection in a similar way to a painting—it was purchased, it is listed as belonging to the Tate, it can be borrowed by other institutions, etc. So instruction based work is one approach to use for entering into the arena of a museum collection (and you would think the Tate would be very happy with it because of the lack of need for storage when it is not in use) but there are other methods as well. Documentation and artifacts from a socially engaged project can also be collected, and if a curator is open to it a project could be designed by an artist specifically to function as part of the museum’s collection. When artists who have different kinds of practices are treated equitably by art world powers then it will be more likely that artists will be able to choose the ways that they want to work without systemic structural pressure and conditioning determining that for them.

Status Quo

I have realized over the years that much of my work is based on creating alternatives to various status quo situations that I run across in society. You could say that “conceptual twists” use similar dynamics—taking something that has a normal way of operating and then tweaking it into some alternative form so that it breaks from our status quo understanding. This has made me think that it is important to understand and recognize the status quo in various situations so that you can then contemplate deviating from that to create an interesting project. The status quo is not always bad and a twist on the status quo is not always good, so just making an alternative is not necessarily the right thing to do in every situation, but it usually useful to understand the status quo of a given situation and to critically evaluate it for yourself when working on socially engaged projects.

Project Producer

This is the idea that, like a movie producer or other kinds of producers who handle logistics for a director or team of people working on a film etc., there could also be producers for socially engaged art projects that are not the main artist or artists and not a participant of the project, but instead help to produce the project by handling budgets, scheduling, paperwork, brainstorming ideas, etc. It would be interesting if artists took this role for other artists. I have not run across any formalized version of that in the US, but have encountered something like that in Canada and parts of Europe for some public art projects, but in those cases the “producers” were not artists and instead were administrators or curators of one kind or another.

Intimate Projects

This involves making projects that the artist has a personal connection to as a starting point for something that could then be made of interest through participation and other involvements by a wider audience. One of the current students in the PSU Art and Social Practice program, Xi Jie Ng has created several projects that operate in this way, one was based on her interest in her grandmother’s bunions, and another that she is working on now is about the apartment complex where she lives. Xi Jie suggested this term as one that should be added to this list after I described a project that I was working on that had to do with my grandfather and his work as a farm manager at a university in California.

Re-naming

An approach to making work that very literally just renames existing things in the world. That could include existing buildings, streets, geographic areas, monuments, everyday objects, systems, jobs, activities, etc.

Theory

I’ve always had a resistance to reading and giving legitimacy to theory in its typically canonized forms. I always found comfort in the supposedly Yogi Berra quote “In theory there is no difference between theory and practice, in practice there is” finding in that assessment a very true statement, from my experience and perspective, that makes it hard for me to value totally abstracted theoretical ideas (in terms of art) that have no applied, concrete elements to them. But it could be that my aversion to theory has also led me towards an unnecessary bias that could be more nuanced and less polarized. I have read and appreciated lots of theory that is related to direct experience on topics including alternative education, farming, politics, ethics, etc. I also realize, especially as I have been writing these term and topic definitions, as well as earlier writing of various kinds, that I have been in some ways creating a kind of theory, but one that is based on my thoughts, conversations, and readings, coupled with applied experiences of producing socially engaged art projects for over half of my life. It could be that like many other examples of redefining for myself what I consider to be valid forms of various things–education, art, history, etc. that I also just need to think of theory differently, allowing it to be another resource that I can tap into, in ways and at times that I find useful.

12.24.18

Each week in the PSU Art and Social Practice MFA program we have an hour of what we call “topical discussion.” During that hour we explore a topic related to art and social practice. Some of the topics are very basic like collaboration, or site-specificity, but there are also terms like “A Touch of Evil” which we heard about as a program when Pedro Reyes explained his understanding of how that idea works in art projects while we were visiting him in Mexico City a couple of years ago. Many of the ideas we discuss are not specific to socially engaged art, but we are looking at them from a socially engaged art perspective. Several of the concepts are ones that I have used in my own work but until recently hadn’t named what they were or how they could be used as strategies when developing a project. Some of these topics are ones I have been already written about in previous versions of these thoughts that are posted here and some of them I have yet to address but hope to at some point in the future in a more substantial way.

It has been interesting to see how these discussions, topics, and terms have been introduced into the ways students talk about work, sometimes seeming to offer explanations for previously difficult to explain decisions and actions. Seeing that happen has made me think that it might be important to make our findings more publicly available in case they might be useful to other people.

I have compiled an ever-growing list of topics and the students are all selecting a couple of them to try to construct descriptions for them. Some of the students asked me to write up my own brief explanations that might be useful for them to develop more fully, others thought that might limit their own approach to the topic (for those in the latter category read no further). At some point when the students have created enough topic descriptions we plan to post them on the PSU Art and Social Practice MFA website (which would hopefully grow over time) and to potentially also publish them in a book of some kind that might be ready to distribute during our 2019 Assembly conference.

Here are the current (though I’m sure I will add more later) set of terms (in no particular order) and my short, subjective descriptions:

Conceptual Twist

In comedy they call this “misdirection.” It’s the element in a project that in some ways breaks from expectation or logic. The whole project can be constructed as a conceptual twist or it can be added in somewhere.

Touch of Evil

I’m just going off of what I understood Pedro to mean by this, but my recollection of what he said is that it is an element in a project that could come across as challenging, negative, edgy, messed up, etc, but adds complexity. There is a critique of social practice that it is about trying to “do good” and in fact many socially engaged projects might have an intention of making some sort of positive impact on society, but if you can throw in a “touch of evil” then it makes the project more complicated and less easy to write off as only trying (most likely unsuccessfully) to do good.

Archiving  

This is the creation of an archive, or the augmentation of an existing archive, as the structure and content of an art project.

Enigma

As Emily Dickenson said, “tell the truth, but tell it slant” or something like that. Just because it is socially engaged art, doesn’t mean that the work can’t have mystery! It’s just a careful balance because too much enigma can make work inaccessible, but not enough can make it dull.

Adequacy

I got this term in relationship to art from the artist Charles Goldman. The way he explained it to me was the idea of making art that barely passes the threshold of being art. He liked that dynamic of just crossing the line, it is evident in a lot of his work. I’ve expanded that idea when I talk to my students to also include an artist’s whole practice. To consider what you need as opposed to what you might want. Do you need to have art world fame or just neighborhood fame? Do you need to do super elaborate and expensive projects or will more basic ones be satisfactory? It’s a question to pose for each thing that an artist engages in, and what’s interesting is that often the more modest a project or practice the more beautiful.

Replacement

Or in it’s more explanatory but cumbersome term “system segment replacement.” This is an idea I stumbled on while thinking about a possible project and then realized that it applied to a lot of my past work as well. The way it works is that you take an existing system (any one will do) and you leave the start and end points but take out and replace some part of the middle. In many cases that might mean creating a less efficient system from the point of view of time or costs, but the qualities that can be created are potentially much more interesting.

Augmentation

The process of adding onto something that already exists as a project. That could be an art related institution, event, publication or non-art organization or activity like a library, small business, a festival, etc. The idea is that you are taking something that functions normally and then are adding to that in someway that changes the existing something.

Claiming

This is the basic Duchamp readymade approach, except it can function not just through re-contextualizing non-art objects into art contexts, but can expand that strategy by suggesting that non-art objects, organizations, activities, etc can be artworks without physically putting them into an art context. Instead, through the use of framing devices, it is possible to achieve the perception that the claimed subject is an artwork. Those devices could include using a title, location, date, etc in a publication, website, lecture, or listing as part of a larger art exhibition.

Residency

More precisely this could be called the self-initiated residency model. For this approach the artist creates (generally with approval) an artist in residence position for their self (or others) at an organization that normally doesn’t have an artist in residence program or position. This could be at a school, a business, a library, a park, etc. Once the “residency” is established, (which can be formalized by being listed on the organizations website, through establishing a space for the residency within the organization, through physical signage, business cards, etc) then the artist can work within that context to develop work that is relevant to the people who exist in that place.

Conceptual Art

In this case what I’m talking about, and I wrote more extensively in a previous text about this, is the radical potential of conceptual art. By that I mean the use of conceptual art approaches, which require little or no material resources, in circumstances in which people have limitations that make it hard to create physical art works. The place I’m thinking of in particular is prison because I’m currently leading a conceptual art class at a local prison myself, but it could apply to almost any situation with any potential participants who might feel like material based art making is unappealing or inaccessible and who instead could find conceptual art strategies of interest and use.

Delegation

Or the “delegated model” where the artist conceives of an idea for a project and then asks a set of other artists (or non-artists) to create an aspect of the project, then when all of the pieces are put together into a single exhibition, event, publication etc, the small delegated parts become a larger whole. It is important in delegated projects, as with all social practice projects, to credit each participant for the role that they have played in the project. The primary artist is likely in this approach creating the structure that the other people are then filling in content into.

Platforms

The platform is the structure that the project takes place in or on, so that in the case of most object based art work, the platform is a gallery or museum or quasi-version of those things like an alternative space in a garage or a cafe, etc. In the case of social practice projects and other non-object based work the platform can be a school, a library, a food cart, a radio program, the web, clothes, a podcast, etc, etc.

Framing

This is in reference to an artist deciding the parameter for a project. In the conventional approach the object (painting, sculpture, photograph, etc) is the artwork that an artist makes and nothing else is art. But in a social practice project the artist can decide that the artwork includes the process as well as various tangential elements including publications, events, posters, documentation, etc. It also allows the artist to collaborate in various ways and to create co-authorship as part of a project.

Distance

The idea here is that the artist constructs a project that is to take place remotely from where the artist is living. This could be either done with a site visit to the location where the project is going to take place or potentially without ever going to that place. Instead, the project is produced by people in the location where the project is taking place through instructions that the artist has created for that place. The people on the ground in the project location can be thought of as collaborators and should be credited for their role in the project.

Context

The context is the place that a project is developed and produced in, which includes not just the physical elements of the place, but also its history, current and future dynamics, and emotional/psychological elements.

Audience

In regards to social practice projects I like to think in terms of three different audiences, the first are people who actually participate in a project directly and also experience it, the second are people who experience the project directly but didn’t participate in the development or construction of the project, and the tertiary audience are people who experience the project through documentation or any kind of mediation including photographs, video, written description, word of mouth, etc.

Consulting

The act of discussing, brainstorming and working on the concept of a project with another artist or an organization as an artwork in and of itself. This is related to something that Lee Walton has discussed, the idea of an “artist assist” being something that should be valued and credited in the way that an “assist” in basketball (and maybe some other sports?) give credit to an assist when one player helps another player to score points. It’s interesting that this kind of consulting is highly valued in other occupations, but in art there is no existing form for even acknowledging when an artist assists through consultation.

Pitching

This is what you do when you come up with a project idea and propose it to a person who has the ability to help facilitate the production of the project. This could be directed to a curator or other art professional, but it could also be a non-art person, someone who works for a city agency, a librarian, a business owner or non-profit director etc. The pitch should be simple and easy to do so that it doesn’t take up much time and energy before and agreement has been made. In most cases an email with a description of the project idea and the potential resources needed. Having some kind of “in” with the person is always helpful, but is not totally necessary. One extra related idea is that when it comes to traditional art venues, a social practice type project proposal can be to do work that takes place not in the galleries (which are less likely to be available) and instead in an unorthodox place like the lobby, cafe, bookstore, or outside but in proximity to the art institution.

Project work

Instead of working on an object the artist works on a project, which most likely would happen outside of a studio and could have multiple elements and not be designed to be purchased in the traditional sense of an object being bought and sold, but could instead be commissioned. In this way instead of the artist making objects and then hoping that they will be sold, the artist is commissioned in advance and then produces work to fill that commission.

Self-healing Projects

This idea is related to using the delegated model but could be done in other ways as well. The way it works is that when designing a project it is constructed in such a way so that if any one (or potentially more than one) part or participant doesn’t work out the rest of the project still happens and is not adversely impacted.

Multiple Points of Access

Having various entry points or interest areas within a project, so that some people might be engaged by one aspect of the project and other people might be engaged in another. This could also apply to how a project functions for a non-art audience in certain ways, but also has elements that might be interesting from an art world perspective as well.

Publications

Social practice people seem to really like publications. It makes sense for a few reasons, one of which is that since there are not always objects made for a social practice project publications can function as a tangible thing that can represent the project. Also depending on the way the publication is produced (newspaper printing is a good example) it can be done cheaply and in large number so that it can be given away for free. And again, because objects aren’t always primary in social practice projects documentation is important and publications can serve as one means of doing that.

Documentation

Because social practice projects don’t always involve objects that can be transported and re-presented and instead might be totally ephemeral or totally permanent and un-moveable, documentation is important for a tertiary audience to experience the work. This can happen in traditional forms like photographs, video, etc and can be shown on the web, in publications, and as part of lectures. But documentation can also be done is less orthodox ways like through re-creations, drawings, rumors, etc.

Design

Because social practice type projects often involve publications, posters, and other design related materials, it can be very useful to either develop good design skills or to cultivate good relationships and collaborations with designers.

Self-initiated Institutions

The creation, as an art project, of an “institution.” It could be ongoing or temporary, for instance a contemporary art museum in school, an artist residency in a prison, a small personal library inside of a college library, etc. Various formalizations can be employed to enhance the sense that the self-initiated institution is real like a website, signage, staff positions, etc.

Curation

The use of curatorial strategies as an artwork or art practice, so that the artist may function in some ways like a curator selecting and presenting work, but doing that while still seeing what they do as their work as an artist.

Local Audience Engagement

Constructing projects so that wherever they take place the local audience feels interested and invested in the project. This can be done at both art and non-art venues by exploring who lives, works, hangs out at or near the location that the project is being presented at and to then make work that those people can have a role in or is of interest to them.

Interdisciplinarity

The use of various disciplines, medias, and approaches as an artist in any project, as opposed to being an artist who only works in one medium.

Collaboration/Participation

Working on a project with more than one person and or designing a project so that other people can participate in it. There is a range of ways that people can collaborate on and participate in social practice projects. If we start with passive viewership as the least involved way that someone can engage in an art work, we then move on to simple interactions where the people involved are not significant as individuals, then into more involved types of participation where the participants are important as individuals, and eventually onto partial collaboration and ending with full collaboration in which the project is totally conceived of, developed, a produced by two or more people. Collaborations can be done with artists and non-artists as well.

Site-specificity

Making work that is responsive to the location that the work is being made in including the physical elements of the space, but also the broader contextual elements as well—the history, social dynamics, resources, etc. This could also be called “context-specific” or “circumstance-specific.”

Art Institutions

There are various advantages to working with arts organizations and some downsides. They know about and understand contemporary art and are open to the idea that artist will do unorthodox things and are supportive of that kind of activity. But doing socially engaged project work is sometimes hard to accommodate for organizations that are primarily used to putting on exhibitions. Additionally art organizations (especially smaller ones) tend to attract art audiences, which can be limiting.

Non-art Institutions

There are various advantages to working with non-arts organizations and some downsides. They have access to non-art audiences of various sorts depending on what kind of organization they are and where they are located, and they have resources that are sometimes more interesting than arts organizations have depending on the kind of work that they do. But non-arts organizations are not necessarily familiar with contemporary art and may not be supportive of the weird ideas that artist may want to do with them. They also might have pre-conceived concepts of the ways they think art might be useful to their organization, which may not be of interest to artists.

Humor

Making projects that have funny elements is one way of making them more accessible. Personally I like my humor pretty dry.

Crediting

Like films or plays or music recordings it is also important to credit the people involved with art project, it is also an opportunity to counter the status quo idea that artists need to work solo and in proprietary ways.

Existing Forms

Inhabiting existing forms can sometimes be more effective and efficient than trying to always create new ones. That’s partly why painters continue to use canvas and oil paint over and over again, but when it comes to project based work sometimes there is a sense that the form needs to be different for each project. I don’t think that’s necessarily true, project structures can be reused in different circumstances to create very new content. Also you can use a non-art forms like a cafe, library, making furniture or clothes, offering counseling or education, etc as your art project.

Re-creation

Replicating a preexisting project, event, exhibition, etc as an art project. The re-contextualization of the original project is what makes the new version of interest to do. Crediting the original project and producers of that project are important and if possible asking their approval to do the re-creation.

Revealing

Constructing a project that shows something that is normally hidden or not focused on, it could be a system, a history, a person’s activities, a place, etc.

Removing

Using the action of taking away something that exists somewhere, but in someway making the erasure evident as the art project.

 

 

12.22.18

12.22.18

I want to digress a bit from Social Practice and go into a more general topic, or topics—letters of recommendation, and open calls.

I’m often asked to write letters of recommendation for students or past students for everything from small awards to PhD programs and I have grown to question their value. In fact several years ago we removed letters of recommendation from the set of requirements that we ask for in the application for the PSU MFA in Art and Social Practice program. Instead we just request a list of references and their contact information. The reason for this is multifaceted, in most cases from my experience of being on MFA selection committees the letters of recommendation are never read for many of the applicants who have been filtered out in a first round of evaluation based more on their work samples and their own statements, which are generally seen as more significant than letters of recommendation and college transcripts etc. As a result my sense is that there are a lot of people out there (like myself) having to write a lot of these letters that are not actually considered. What we do in our MFA program is once we have settled on a set of reasonable finalists we reach out through email to some of the references that have been listed to ask about particular questions that they might be able to give insights into. From my experience these short, targeted email exchanges are more helpful than generalized letters of recommendation, which are usually positive or they wouldn’t be writing them in the first place. So by eliminating the requirement for letters of recommendation we cut down on the workload for people asked to write the letters, and create a system that is more effective at determining the qualifications of the applicants.

A little side note on the recommendation system is that I also think it might be interesting in both the case of letters of recommendation (since regardless of my little critique they aren’t going away anytime soon) and references is to broaden out who we think of as qualified to provide those services. Instead of relying largely on academics and occasionally arts professionals like curators and public arts administrators, what if we also included a wider set of people who have come in contact with the person being recommended? They might have some useful thoughts in regards to their abilities that otherwise might not be considered. Obviously you would want to avoid people with extreme biases (although it’s not like teachers and curators who have worked closely with artists don’t have personal biases) like parents and friends, but maybe a neighbor or co-worker or fellow student would round things out a bit and make for a more complete perspective on the applicant. Something to think about or perhaps encourage (maybe we will suggest that in the Art and Social Practice MFA application).

The other related, systemically embedded, (but I think should be rethought) process, are open calls for artists. These happen in a myriad of ways for everything from group shows, to awards, public art, residencies, and of course graduate programs. In some cases they may be unavoidable, but can at least be mitigated in various ways. There are a variety of issues I have with the open call procedure. The big issue is that in each instance it creates a lot more losers than winners. Along the way to achieving that unfortunate situation the process of filling out the applications takes up huge amounts of time, energy, and money that could be going towards the actual work that the artists want to be doing as part of their practice. And even though open calls are thought to be “democratic” they are often times very exclusive to the people who are in the know and have the time, energy etc to put towards the application process.

So what should be done about this terrible situation? First of all for people who are currently administrating open calls or who are considering the creation of one stop and think if your objective is really best fulfilled by that particular approach? It might not be, and your program could be better served through using a thoughtfully designed curatorial selection or some other process that eliminates applications.

Again the things that should be avoided are creating extra, unpaid work for artists who already are often suffering from a lack of time and funds, producing more losers than winners (the experience of rejection weighs heavy on sensitive artist people and can create a feeling of defeat that might end up causing them to give up, so not only do they not get the thing they were applying for they are also made to feel like their work is not good and maybe shouldn’t be pursued), and inadvertently limiting the pool of people who are being considered for whatever is being offered.

If the open call is still going to be employed, the extra work and creation of more losers than winners issues can be addressed to some extent by simplifying the application process so that it is much easier to apply (requiring a lot less work and investment), or alternately by making it more complicated in a way that filters out applicants that are unlikely to be successful in the first place. Though we have eliminated reference letters in the PSU Art and Social Practice MFA application we have added the requirement of making three short videos that help us to determine if an applicant would be a good fit with the program, but that also discourages applications from people who are not willing to fulfill somewhat strange unorthodox requests, cutting down on the total number of applications, but increasing the percent that might be desirable for the program.

Additionally, open calls can be structured so that everyone who “applies” can be included in some way (possibly online) and then individuals (or collaborations) can be curated from that set for specific other functions. Years ago I co-created, with Miranda July and Yuri Ono, an online web based participatory project called Learning To Love You More which offered assignments that Miranda and I came up with and the opportunity for anyone to add their results which we called reports. Everyone who followed the instructions and submitted was included on the website, but then from that set (which eventually reached about 8000 participants) we selected certain people who got small grants and or were included in exhibitions that happened at museums and art centers around the world. Of course it was better to get funds or have your work shown in an institution, but those things were not the main point of LTLYM and so for the people who didn’t receive those extras it was unlikely that they felt like they were losers or had put in work that didn’t have a purpose in relationship to the broader project.

In regards to the problem of many open calls not actually being inclusive there are a couple of things that can be done to improve that condition. One approach, which also helps with the workload and loser dynamics, is to use a nomination system, which additionally attempts to spread out the potential for finding people that might normally be left out. I was once asked to be a nominator for a large financial award and exhibition at a museum in NYC. The administrators created a thoughtful selection system–they asked ten artists in different parts of the country (many of which were not art hubs) to each nominate five artists from their region who they thought would benefit from the award. From that set of fifty artists a selection committee picked five artists to receive the award. It still left forty-five people feeling like they had not been given awards (which was bad, but if the award had not been nomination based and were based on an open call instead there could have been hundreds or thousands of people in that position). The artists who were not selected were still all listed (in the catalog, online, and at the exhibition) which was a partial benefit because it was treated as an honor and not as a loss. But the more important feature was that it allowed for a much more diverse set of artists to be placed under consideration. One of the people who I nominated was untrained and had previously had very little experience with the art world, but was still given an award based on the strength of his work.

In general I think it is important for people in positions of power in relationship to the arts community to be thoughtful about what they may be structurally asking artists to do and how that might be impacting them systemically. Status quo approaches are not always the best ones, but they get replicated again and again even when they might be causing more harm than good. Being creative about the structure of a selection process is just as important as being creative when making artworks (it could even be thought of as an artwork under certain conditions).

One other slightly connected side note (that probably should be in a separate writing, but I likely won’t get around to it, so am just going to stick it in here) related to open calls is the way that they often exclude collaboration. Many awards etc are set up specifically to only consider individual artists and that structurally discourages collaboration through offering fewer resources to artists who collaborate, by institutionally devaluing co-authored work, and through causing friction in interpersonal dynamics when one collaborating artist gets an award and another doesn’t while using work that was produced together. I have personally addressed the collaboration exclusion situation with administrators in the case of at least three major grants and awards locally and nationally. Though I was met with resistance in each case, over time two of the organizations have made changes to their policies that are more open to collaboration, my hope is that eventually that will no longer be an issue going forward and that collaboration will be given the support and respect that it deserves.

12.19.18

12.19.18

I’ve been talking with my students lately about the radical potential of conceptual art. Part of what I’m suggesting is that conceptual art or “conceptualism” (the art historical term for that category of work) was radical in the sense that it challenged existing formalism, and attempted to offer alternatives to the status quo commercial system, but quickly became aestheticized and commodified as it gained acceptance in the art world. So both the early work (pre-usage of the term conceptual art) produced by Duchamp, Manzoni, etc and classic work by the artists known as conceptualists like Kosuth and Weiner was “radical” in its departure from formal object based modernist work (impressionists, cubists, etc in the case of Duchamp, and abstract expressionism for the conceptualists) and created an interesting and liberating set of methods for making art, but possibly because in both cases the artists and work found great acceptance in the art world (which is really the commercial art world) those approaches to making art didn’t have a chance to be realized in more politically and socially impactful ways. There are exceptions to this in the strategies that were used by activist groups including Act Up, interventionists like the Yes Men, and artist collectives, notably The Gorilla Girls, all of which employed conceptual devices in the pursuit of revealing hidden information and promoting political agendas. But what I’m finding interesting in regard to conceptual art is how it can become understood and used by people who may not have knowledge of modern art history, people who might want to employ conceptual art methods in their daily lives and circumstances but who are have not been trained as artists. I’m thinking about conceptual art that can be produced in prison, or in a grade school, or any other non-art context and venue by the people who are in those places normally.

I’m currently leading a conceptual art class in a minimum-security prison. We meet every two weeks for an hour. Its part of a larger set of activities the PSU Art and Social Practice MFA program facilitates at the prison. I show examples of past conceptual work and we have seminar style discussions. One of the reasons that I’m interested in introducing conceptual art to a prison context is because unlike other art approaches—sculpture, painting, photography, video, installation, etc. conceptual art requires no materials, no studios, no galleries, or any other resources of that kind. Once conceptual art methods are understood they can be used to produce projects immediately, with no approval, and without any costs.

It has been a slow but very engaging process working through existing ideas of what art can be and what artists can do and offering up broader parameters emphasizing conceptually based approaches. There have been times of revelation and excitement as the process unfolds. People who previously had never considered non-object based ways of making art have come up with thoughtful conceptual project ideas that redefine the physical and psychological context of the prison. One person suggested that we could as a group look out of our classroom window at the people making their way to the yard for a period of time and claim that as a work of art. We discussed formalizing elements for the piece that would help it to be understood as art by adding a title, date, etc. The thought of writing that information up on a label and attaching it to the wall next to the window was contemplated. Finding a way to document the project also provoked various ideas, as well as how it could be added to a CV and other professional materials to potentially be used to apply for funding to support more projects.

An interesting moment happened while discussing conceptual art during one class when one of the people in the group turned to me and said that he liked the ideas but needed another example help him understand things better. I paused for a second and then said that the class we were in was in fact a conceptual art work. The person who asked the question nodded his head, and a knowing murmur arose from the group. I will be curious to see how things develop further.

9.5.18

I brought this topic up with my grad students last Spring. It seems obvious, but I think people can loose track of this for a variety of reasons—the idea of actually enjoying the work you do as an artist. Being an artist is an unorthodox thing to do in society in general with various struggles to overcome, so you would think that if someone was putting in the effort to make that happen they would deeply enjoy whatever artistic activity it was that they practiced. But that doesn’t always happen. The original impulse to be an artist often gets reoriented as things like school, commercial sales, reviews, grant applications, trends, routines, etc start to impact the way that an artist works. Success, though only a problem for a very few people who try to make it as an artist, can also have unexpected negative effects. Pressure from expectations, becoming overly busy, and a need to produce more and more product can take its toll and alter what might have been a hoped for dream into an unpleasant grind.

 

I asked my students to stop and really consider what aspects of their practice give them pleasure and satisfaction, and what parts become unpleasant and annoying. Sometimes it’s hard to sort out exactly where pleasure ends and unpleasantness starts. Some of the students call this the “fun factor.” I’m a little leery of referring to this condition as merely “fun” because though fun might be part of it, the kind of pleasure that I’m talking about might also include rigorous work, hardcore conceptualization, debate and conflict, addressing difficult topics and various other non-fun sounding activities. That’s because pleasure is very individually defined, so I don’t want to suggest that what I’m talking about is only about superficial fun, unless that’s what you are into and want to be experiencing as part of your practice as an artist (probably some level of fun is important for everyone).

 

What I am advocating for is an evaluation of each person’s activities as an artist, including all of the effort that goes into supporting the artwork, and to then to determine if there is a priority being placed on the things in life that give each artist pleasure, or if somehow the balance has gotten off and there is more time spent on work that is not enjoyable.

 

From a social practice point of view it is possible to think very expansively about what kind of work you might want to be doing since that approach is not dependent on spending time in a studio (or quasi studio) and there is no need to make objects that might have a commercial appeal for the gallery system. If it turns out that you really like spending time in an isolated place that you have to pay rent for while trying to make rarified objects that rich people might want to buy then you just have to be one of the 2% (or whatever small number it is) of people trying to do that who actually support themselves that way long term, or get yourself a day job and pursue that type of art making on the side if it really brings you satisfaction. My sense is that most artists don’t really want to function in a strictly studio/gallery model and if freed from that system (which is mostly a matter of psychologically breaking away from the conditioning that society has created to limit the idea of what an artist is and how they get paid for what they do) they will have more options for finding pleasure in their practice. I have discussed that dynamic in other writings so I’ll get back to the main point–what aspects of your work as an artist give you pleasure, and how does your practice as an artist support doing those things?

 

In my discussions with students this sometimes takes a while to sort out. Originally they might have really liked to spend time drawing or making sculptural objects and that’s what lead them to become an artist, but along the way they realized that they didn’t want to always make drawings or sculptural objects, and the art world system didn’t seem appealing once they were able to experience a taste of it. Luckily artists have incredible freedom and once they realize that they can construct a practice that combines all sorts of interests–maybe a little drawing, research, teaching, walking, sleeping, working in a garden, having discussions with groups of people outside of your friends and family, working with kids, curating, etc–they can creatively choose to do what they really want to do.

 

Having the freedom and flexibility to construct a diversified practice is a major piece in developing a pleasurable life as an artist. But there is another element that is also pervasive in derailing the ability to achieve that pursuit. It is the idea of success. Artists who are trying to operate in the art world largely have similar ideas about what success looks like. I think that perception primarily comes from social/educational conditioning that is really more about commercial gallery interests than creating satisfying individual artistic practices. Success in those terms means having high-end commercial gallery representation, sales, inclusion in important museum collections and international biennials, reviews in art magazines and newspapers, awards from foundations, residencies, etc. All of that requires lots of travel, time spent in studios with assistants and fabricators, socializing at openings and art fairs, staying current with trends, and often times making work when would rather be doing something else.

 

From what I’ve experienced and observed the problem is that expectations for success are set too high (based on art world convention) and don’t include individual deviation. My suggestion is for artists to examine their unique needs and desires. It might not be of interest for some people to achieve certain status quo aspects of art world success, and instead there might be more value placed on just being successful enough to have consistent but less prestigious projects happening. The projects could be of a diverse nature and without object production, which would be oppositional to the needs of the commercial gallery system. The projects could be localized and possibly might be produced in partnership with non-art funding organizations. The artist might want to spend only part of their week working in a studio or office and the rest of the time doing other seemingly non-work related activities, which could none the less be useful to the development of their practice. If instead of attempting to be a successful artist in the terms of the art world artists found their own concepts of success for their practice, perhaps they would also find more pleasure and satisfaction in their lives and would create precedents that other artists could follow leading them to greater satisfaction as well.

4.7.18

I’ve been negligent about writing for a year or two, these things happen. I’m going to try to get back into writing regularly again.

Ok, so here is a topic—the potential positive relationship between studio art and artists and projects by artists doing social practice type work. There has always been some level of antagonism between these two groups, and some of it is understandable. From the perspective of the orthodoxy (studio/gallery artists) any new approach can be threatening. As an artist that is invested in a conventional way of working (even if that way isn’t functioning from a support perspective) it can be challenging when artists working in other ways that may seem to involve less labor and hoop jumping receive recognition and support. It’s destabilizing, and frustrating, and all of those things. And from the perspective of the upstart socially engaged artist the dominance of the studio/gallery model seems unfair and marginalizing, and in various ways those dominant conventions sometimes indicate that socially engaged work might not even be art (and its never fun to be told that your art isn’t art). In the end the two approaches don’t really have a lot of overlap, they are about as different as painting is from documentary filmmaking, and in that same way should not be seen as competition to each other.

This is a generalization, but usually studio artists want to primarily show their object-based work in gallery spaces (in galleries, art centers, and museums) where as artists doing social practice often work outside of conventional art spaces, and even when they do make work for art contexts they are frequently more interested in non-gallery locations within the institution or in making work that happens only temporarily in gallery spaces while studio-based art is being displayed. Sometimes that work might be responding to a museum’s collection or the work of an artist being shown in the gallery space. In that sense the social practice work can be seen as an augmentation of what is already being presented adding new perspectives to typical exhibition dynamics.

But there is another way that socially engaged art is sometimes mutually supportive of studio-based work. Some social practice projects are designed to contain studio-based work. For an example I’ll use King School Museum of Contemporary Art (KSMoCA), which is a contemporary art museum located inside of a Portland public school. The project, which I created with Lisa Jarrett and now also includes many other collaborators, was constructed conceptually as a large, expanding, and ongoing social practice project. But inside of that framework is the need and desire to present work by studio-based artists in a variety of ways. The primary and longest standing version of that is a rotating set of exhibitions in which well known studio-based artists show their original work, but also do lectures and workshops with students at the school as well.

We have now engaged numerous studio based artists in the KSMoCA project over the last four years or so and all of them have been excited to have the opportunity to show their work in an unusual context with an audience that they don’t normally reach. They have also enjoyed interacting directly with the students at the school. Generally, studio-based artists are not ever asked to leave their status quo environments for making and showing work, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t respond well to that possibility when it is given. I think there is a lot more room for that sort of thing to happen in all kinds of contexts, giving studio artists many more chances to show their work than in the limited set of traditional galleries and museums that exist in any given location.

The benefit in this symbiotic relationship for the socially engaged artist creating a structure like KSMoCA is that it is necessary to have work to show and artists to engage with inside of the framework that they have created. Obviously, not all socially engaged projects need the content of studio-based artists, many of them work with non-artists or with people who don’t consider themselves artists. But in some cases social engaged artists can function like unconventional curators for studio-based artists, facilitating the presentation of their work in contexts that go way outside of the normal capacity of more traditional curators.

(A side question that might come up then is why don’t socially engaged artists just call themselves curators? The answer from my perspective is that curatorial strategies are just one among many approaches that a socially engaged artist can use in producing a project, so being labeled solely as a curator would be limiting, where as working as an artist (at least in my definition) can include switch around roles, cross lines, and hybridize in ways like almost no other practice.)

This same type of supportive relationship dynamic that I’m describing between socially engaged art and studio-based art can also apply to socially engaged art and performance, film, literature, music, architecture, etc. Basically, conventional artists of all sorts have nothing to fear in regards to socially engaged art, and potentially a lot to gain from it.

 

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.