Art Worlds, Research

Watch: On Why Art Belongs in the World

A beautiful work of storytelling and advanced learnings about sharing art.

Kristy Edmunds’ keynote speech at United States Artists Assembly 2019 is stirring, smart, and compelling. I highly recommend it. Watch the video, which includes an intro by Ann Hamilton.

Person holding a bowl in one hand, standing at a podium.

Keynote speaker Kristy Edmunds. // Source: UnitedStatesArtists.org.

Edmund’s speech comes from her perspective as curator and artistic director, facilitating relationships between artists and institutions. She’s particularly pro-artist [which is something you might assume people working in the art world would be, but actually, some are anti-artist, H/T Shannon Stratton].

Edmund’s perspective was especially interesting to me as a social practitioner, in thinking about partnerships with organizations, institutions, and communities, and also as an artist who thinks about my work less in terms of objects to be owned, and more in terms of aesthetic experiences and engagements.

Below are a few highlights.

On partnerships between artists and institutions

The quality of invitations to artists and audiences matter.

Artists are not to be treated as vendors. A public is not to be treated as consumers. Do not transact poetics and people, ever.

She said that requiring measurable outcomes facilitates gatekeeping and hinders bridge-building.

On how art lives in the world

When introducing performances, Edmunds feels compelled to tell audiences:

We have a job together, which is to make a memory. We will be the living archive for this artist, in this moment, in this time. We going to become its permanent collection.

I love this idea. She explains:

Art belongs in the world. It is informed by the maker, its place, city, community, culture, conditions—everything through which it is made—but it isn’t owned by the organization that helped facilitate it. Nor, once it is given by the artist, is it exclusively owned by them. It become owned by a public, in the world, in a memory that we made…

Ownership as a fixed idea is transformed into something else. To me, that transformation is a participation in belonging to the work, to the experience of it, to the acknowledgment of its maker, to the cultural assets that stand with it, and also to us, fleeting or long.

The future completes our work—how it sustains or endures. What is forged in our cultural memory connects us uniquely.

For me, when an artwork exists that way—as a shared memory or an experience ingrained in the body—that’s whats most exciting about working in the realm of aesthetic experiences. That’s why I keep going back to making projects with people, inviting participation, gathering stories, and sharing emotions and experiences.

She also shared this tidbit:

…Art needs to belong in the world because it is how we practice, in the words of Deborah Hay, “the deep ethics of optimism.”

 


Tangent: On “The deep ethics of optimism”

*Since I’m obsessed with optimism I wanted to learn more about what this phrase meant. I found an interview with choreographer Deborah Hay. She said, “A friend of mine who is a poet talks about ‘the deep ethics of optimism.'”

Then I found an interview with writer Zara Houshmand:

Issues of social justice matter to me very much but over time I’ve been more inclined to look inward at deeper sources of change—the mechanisms of empathy, breaking down prejudice, embracing the other, fixing oneself at the root in ways that create a more viable relationship with the rest of the world. In other words, doing the spiritual work to make yourself available for the work of social justice. It goes beyond finding a balance of contemplative and active life, or marshaling limited resources to prevent burn-out. Rather, it’s about what it means to commit to impossible tasks wholeheartedly, the deep ethics of optimism.

This relates to ideas that I keep coming back to, as well as new ideas I am currently discovering:

  • What I’m trying to achieve in my art is space for connection, for people to be whole-hearted, vulnerable, and authentic. Through my work, I am trying to ask, “How do you keep your heart open?” I think this is connected to optimism and embracing the abundance of the world and human goodness, which informs your ethics and how you move through the world and relate to change.
  • What is the relationship between social change and personal growth? This came up a lot in my recent Belonging Project at the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society. I focused a lot about how belonging feels. Then we looked at how to relate this to how belonging (and othering) happens on institutional scales, on a societal level.
  • I’ve also been thinking more about what it means when “the personal is political.” When are acts of self-care or self-actualization empowering and radical? When are they self-indulgent and afforded by privileged? For whom? In what conditions?
    • Self-care can be radical for people subjected to systematic violence. I identify as a woman of color, and, I’m also East Asian, educated, with sources of income that allow me to pursue being an artist, cis, able-bodied, neurotypical, with birthright citizenship and fluent English.
    • I am encountering my own ageism, ableism, and fat-shaming and the loss of privilege afforded youth, ability, and control over my body. I want to challenge these biases to work towards social change and inclusion, AND to accept myself for improved mental health. I recognize that this latter reason is completely self-interested; that this is how privilege works (I didn’t have to think about this before, I could be un-empathetic and uninformed about those affected); and this is how bias works (I couldn’t ‘see’ it until it affected me directly).
  • I’m reading adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy (AK Press [an anarchist worker-run coop🤘🏽], 2017) and “doing the spiritual work to make yourself available for the work of social justice” seems very related.

 

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Art Worlds

To Making Good Vibes

A double-whammy of expanding communities of artists. 

Some of my best moments in life are when I’m surrounded by smart, generous, enthusiastic artists. I’m thankful that I was able to be in that situation twice in the past two days. I am grateful for everything that went into making those moments happen.

Yesterday, I attended the orientation for Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s Process Space, a five-month studio residency on Governor’s Island. I was excited about the opportunity but also anxious about meeting 19 strangers! There’s a lot that could go wrong.*

But it went really well—everyone was friendly and excited as we took the ferry across the sunny NY Harbor. When we sat down to get to know each other, it became clear that the participants have an interesting range of advanced inquiries. I was glad to see other POCs and a majority of female participants.

And I was happy that following the official orientation, J organized a happy hour. How I appreciate these social spaces has matured over the years. It’s not only for fun, but to learn more about individuals’ opinions, pasts, and senses of humor; it deepens connection, trust, and empathy. The sooner these spaces happen within any kind of artists’ programs, the better. I’m really excited to continue getting to know my cohorts, working alongside them in Process Space, and building a community of likeminded artists.

Today, I met up with 16 artists from the Artists in the Marketplace program for our informal, for-us, by-us walk-through of the Bronx Calling exhibition at the Bronx Museum. I initiated it because there’s so many strong, smart, and mutually-invested artists in my 2014 cohort, I knew it would be worthwhile to meet members of this year’s group.

I love it when artists talk about their practices and interests in an intelligent, unpretentious, and honest way. It’s great to be able to take in their words and ask them questions in the same space as their original artwork. I’m thankful to the smart, diverse, articulate artists who shared their enthusiasm and attention today.

Making these spaces happen takes initiative, labor, and, risk—you can’t guarantee that people will attend or enjoy themselves. But I would encourage artists: Do it! Why miss an opportunity? Make time and space to have fruitful conversations with other artists about art! If you’re worried about the time commitment, remember that events pass—and so does the labor of organizing them.

The payoff is worth it. Though the happy hour and walk-through were initiated by individuals, they manifested like potlucks—everyone coming to the table with something, like good will, openness, and receptiveness.**

*Recommended satire about social anxiety, see: “Everything I Am Afraid Might Happen If I Ask New Acquaintances to Get Coffee” by Hallie Cantor.

**Of course, these spaces are the cherries on the cake that is the support of LMCC and the Bronx Museum, for whom I’m tremendously grateful.

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Art Worlds

Workers Are People, Too

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Art labor and working conditions have been on my mind lately–perhaps it’s because I installed at the recent art fairs, where art handlers get access without influence.* For example,  installers at Frieze receive exhibitors’ class “C” passes—which are good only for entry before or after public hours.

A recent op-ed on NYT (Tony Schwartz and Christine Porath, “Why You Hate Work”, May 30, 2014) states what many managers, HR people and executives seem impervious to (but anyone with a shitty job already knows):

Employees are vastly more satisfied and productive, it turns out, when four of their core needs are met: physical, through opportunities to regularly renew and recharge at work; emotional, by feeling valued and appreciated for their contributions; mental, when they have the opportunity to focus in an absorbed way on their most important tasks and define when and where they get their work done; and spiritual, by doing more of what they do best and enjoy most, and by feeling connected to a higher purpose at work.

…Put simply, the way people feel at work profoundly influences how they perform.

This seems so obvious to me, yet some excel in failing to consider that workers are people. (In a particularly dense example, I’ve had to explain why “feeling valued and appreciated for [one’s] contributions” means not treating workers as interchangeable and
replaceable by firing them willy-nilly.)

…Partly, the challenge for employers is trust. …many employers remain fearful that their employees won’t accomplish their work without constant oversight — a belief that ironically feeds the distrust of their employees, and diminishes their engagement.

The worst example of this is requiring some workers (but not white collar staff) to use a fingerprint scanning time clocks. (Workers were allowed to choose which finger to scan in with. Guess which one it was?)

Of course, many supervisors get it, and are generous and humane. Their employees are happier and more productive for it, and likely so are they.

* “[Preparator] work gives the perspective of an insider without the credibility of one,” Torreya Cummings, as quoted by moi in “Portrait of an Artist: Wily and Engaged,” Art Practical, May 4, 2011.

 

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