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:
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.
This is the creation of an archive, or the augmentation of an existing archive, as the structure and content of an art project.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
Making projects that have funny elements is one way of making them more accessible. Personally I like my humor pretty dry.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Using the action of taking away something that exists somewhere, but in someway making the erasure evident as the art project.