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.