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.