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.