Some thoughts on writing a manifesto

I was asked by Scott Robertson from Fifthsyllable to write a “manifesto” for a book of artist manifestos that they will be publishing. Here is what I came up with:

I recall thinking as a young art student that I would never personally experience an art movement like the ones I was learning about in my twentieth century art history class—impressionism, surrealism, futurism, dada, abstract expressionism, conceptualism, that sort of thing. I also assumed, as part of that lack of direct involvement with an art movement, that there would be no need for me to ever consider writing or signing onto a manifesto.

Little did I realize then that I would in fact experience something like an art movement myself in the near future, and would even play a role in its development. I’m referring to what is now known as Art and Social Practice, or just Social Practice. Even though there were many precedents for socially engaged art practices (Mierle Laderman Ukeles, John Malpede and the Los Angeles Poverty Dept, Wendy Ewald, and Rirkrit Tiravanija among many other examples), they were scattered and underrecognized as a coherent movement other than through related (but not great fitting, from my perspective) terms like “community-based art” and “relational aesthetics”. In the case of community-based art, the focus seemed almost entirely on process which led to many handprint murals on school building walls, and alternately, relational aesthetics was based on the work of artists who were mostly functioning in the gallery/museum system and who often treated participants as material rather than as collaborators with agency. In the case of the developing field of Art and Social Practice, process and product are of equal importance and things like crediting, collaboration, audience, context, and making work in non-art spaces are highly valued.

I come from a photography background that focused a lot on the world and people around me. I thought of photographs as a way of pointing to things that I found interesting and wanted other people to see and appreciate. The bridge from that to a non-media based, socially engaged practice was not far for me. I transitioned away from photography while I was in graduate school at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, California, in the early 1990’s. At the same time, I made connections with professors, students, and other related folks who were also interested in expanded approaches to public art and collaborationJon Rubin, Lydia Matthews, Suzanne Lacy, Larry Sultan, Ted Purvis, Mary Tsiongas, and many others—who went on to help formalize Social Practice (or Public Practice, Contextual Practice, etc.) at various academic institutions around the country.

To my knowledge, there hasn’t been a well-known attempt at writing a manifesto for Art and Social Practice. In some ways, doing that might be antithetical to the principles of socially engaged art which tends to be dynamic, multi-authored, and resistant to a single definition. In my mind a manifesto is fixed, authoritative, and exclusive, but maybe it doesn’t have to be that way, maybe it can be seen more as a starting point to base developing ideas onto.

When I think about my own practice, even outside of the framework of social engagement, there are various important elements. Personal enjoyment, intellectual engagement, and having varied new experiences are of greater importance to me than typical art world success—settling on and developing a medium and style, working in a studio, showing in galleries, selling object-based work, receiving appreciation from collectors and critics. I was never interested in perfecting a medium or style and instead have been interested in how my practice can allow me to learn about and experience the world outside of my own normal life conditions. As a result, I prefer an interdisciplinary project-based approach to working that allows me to explore topics, ideas, histories, activities etc., that puts me in the position of learning as I develop work, and in some cases to even become an audience to the projects I have created.

In place of a more prescribed and static version of a manifesto, I would like to instead offer a few suggestions for things to think about while making work as an artist. I’ve decided to limit myself to five topics. Some of the suggestions are specific to doing socially engaged work, others are more general and I think can apply to a broader set of interests. The list is made up of ideas based on what came to mind at the moment for me right now; on a different day I would probably come up with a different set of suggestions.

  1. Make work that actually interests you. This seems obvious but, somehow, based on my experience working with art students for the past several decades I have discovered this common mistake: instead of working on things the person is actually interested in, they will often try to make art that just looks like work they have seen in magazines and in galleries. How do you go about figuring out what you are actually interested in so that your art can engage with those things? Start by thinking about what you do when you are not making art. Do you like to cook, walk, sleep, read, drink beer with friends? Once you have assessed what you like to do without the ulterior motive of making art, then you can use that to create art projects that allow you to engage in and explore those activities and subjects.
  2. Consider context. I think for the most part artists are taught to assume that the ideal place to show their work is a white cube gallery type space. By maintaining that assumption, artists are limiting themselves both in regard to the many other interesting places they can present work, but also by the nature of the work that they make, which is almost unconsciously designed specifically as objects for gallery spaces and the ability to transport those things to collectors houses and museums. Instead, I suggest thinking much more inclusively about all of the possible options for where an artist might present work and what that work might be. That could include schools, libraries, parks, stores, front yards, etc., and might be objects and activities that are ephemeral or totally permanent and not designed for shipping at all. In the situations where a gallery is the most appropriate location (and in some instances, but certainly not all, that might be the case), then it is still useful to evaluate those locations for their specific contextual qualities which include the white cube itself, but also what can be found beyond those walls (the neighborhood and everyday life the gallery is a part of) and to potentially make work that responds accordingly.
  3. Avoid friction. Artists often create obstacles for themselves that make it very difficult to produce the projects they want to make. Sometimes that is about the need for budgets or other resources that aren’t available. Other times it is because they are waiting for approval from a curator or gallerist before making the work. Often the friction is a matter of just coming up with overly complicated, elaborate projects that are laborious to produce. My friend, the artist Charles Goldman, introduced me to the idea of valuing art that is “adequate”. On the one hand that could seem limiting and uninspiring, but there is often a beauty to work that is not trying too hard, that just crosses the threshold of becoming meaningful. When artists can reduce the friction that exterior forces and limited resources create, then projects become much more possible.
  4. Expand parameters. Artists are generally taught to focus exclusively on object making in a studio environment, and not at all on the broader set of elements that surround and support the presentation of that work. In that case the “art” is just the object that has been made and nothing else. Artists can broaden out their practice to include a much wider set of aspects than just object making. That could include audience engagement, ephemera production and distribution, the construction of conceptual frameworks, the additions of participatory activities, etc. By working within a larger field of possibilities, artists can, to a much greater extent, determine and influence the way that their work is perceived and experienced. Think about how a really good restaurant considers not just the food on the plate but the whole environment that customers experience. Artists can similarly think not just about the objects they make, but instead about everything that is related to the presentation of their art to an audience.
  5. Give Credit. Unlike theater, film, music, dance, etc., art has been made to seem like it is a solo activity. Collaboration is discouraged in many ways within art education and the art world, often explicitly on grant and residency applications where only individual artists are allowed to apply. As a result, collaboration and group work practices are rarely seen as an option for emerging artists. At the same time, artists are encouraged to appear to do all their work on their own even though they often work with assistants, fabricators, curators, designers, writers, etc., who are never billed in the way they would be if they were taking part in the production of a film or theater piece. The commercial art system has promoted this misrepresentation to make it seem like the artwork they sell is purely created by just the “hand of the artist.” That unfortunate situation can be changed by artists themselves by insisting on crediting people for the roles they play in the creation of artworks. Demands can be made to arts organization to include collaboration and group work in funding and other opportunities. The art world could become a more supportive environment for non-solo based work, but artists will need to lead the way in the promotion and development of thoughtful crediting if that is ever going to happen.