While I like Creative Time’s Pledges of Allegiance artist-designed flag project, it seemed like a missed opportunity to not include more emerging artists. Air Rights, a project flying artist-designed flags curated by Christina Freeman at Flux Factory, is just the right antidote. The artists were less well-known. The flags were weirder. And it was in Queens.
How I know what I know about social practice.
I’m collaborating on a participatory project and advising a social practice grad student right now. It’s made me think about how I know what I know, and why I approach and shape projects the way I do. I didn’t major in social practice—I majored in printmaking, working with Ted Purves as a thesis advisor. Though I sometimes wonder what I might’ve learned had I majored in social practice, it’s gratifying to come across references that are intellectually stimulating because they resonate which my existing practice.
Public Servants: Art and the Crisis of the Common Good, edited by Johanna Burton, Shannon Jackson and Dominic Willsdon. // Source: MITPress.MIT.edu.
The dialogue spurred by Ben Davis’ “A Critique of Social Practice Art: What Does It Mean to Be a Political Artist?” still poses fresh, relevant questions. Originally published in 2013 on an activist website, Davis’ critique generated a remarkably thoughtful debate on Facebook between Deborah Fisher (director of A Blade of Grass), Nato Thompson (then artistic director of Creative Time), Tom Finklepearl (NYC Commissioner, Department of Cultural Affairs), artist Rick Lowe of Project Row Houses, and many others who have dedicated their life’s work to socially-engaged art or social practice.
This debate was reprinted in Public Servants: Art and the Crisis of the Common Good, edited by Johanna Burton, Shannon Jackson and Dominic Willsdon (MIT Press, 2016). [That an MIT Press book would reprint a Facebook thread is sort of amazing.]
The debate spans:
- Weighing the political efficacy of social practice projects versus their symbolic power. Davis provocatively asks if social practice projects are a distraction from activism. Many respond by defending the importance of the symbolic power of art, and the “need for a poetics of social change” (Fisher).
- How socially-engaged projects relate to power, privilege, appropriation, and exploitation.
- Projects should be guided by ethics, specifically, treating people with care and respect and not being co-opted by power it intends to reshape (Fisher).
- Be wary of when the image of social consciousness is used to gain social capital (Thompson) [in other words, “performative wokeness“].
- Does a project help or harm? Is it merely tolerated? (Fisher)
- Socially-engaged art is not inherently good. Likewise, neither is creative place-making. Indeed, developers use artists to create “vibrancy,” rather than critically-engaged projects, and resources can be diverted away (Lowe).
- Social practitioners shouldn’t get too “self-satisfied” (Davis) because social practice cannot replace activism and organizing. [I would argue that no one person or role builds a people’s movement. It wasn’t explicit but the solutions hinted at seemed Alinskyist.] Davis says that artists have an important role to play in political struggle, but they don’t have special access to political wisdom. [I think any artist who’s read any writing by Davis or Gregory Sholette knows that political education is a serious endeavor distinct from art practice.]
- How to assess socially-engaged art, such as through ‘participatory action research’ and ‘collaborative action research’ and involving stakeholders (Elizabeth Grady). While you don’t want to rely only on artist’s first-person accounts, you can define efficacy first in terms of artists’ goals (Fisher).
- The impossibility of not being co-opted by capitalism and the possibility of momentary acts of resistance. Davis cites Rosa Luxemburg on how many small victories and tiny inspiring acts are needed in the building of a movement.
Some thoughts expressed exceptionally eloquently:
“A great artwork embraces paradox and contains multiple, sometimes contradictory, truths. …this quality… gives a great socially-engaged art project the ability to reframe, reshape or, for a moment, redistribute power.”
Fisher also described the Rolling Jubilee as:
“a gesture that punches through that which oppresses us in a way that is infectious and influential because of its profound elegance.”
This “profound elegance” is my primary criteria for successful social practices: how they balance relations and forms, through process and ephemera. The projects I most admire are ethical and non-exploitative. They honor participants’ dignity, agency, intelligence, and time. And they are enticing and welcoming.
At the same time that I want to hold artists accountable to high standards, I also think it’s important to let artists be creative, experiment, and fail. The rules and forms of social practice aren’t codified. We don’t need any more predictable art or social relations.
The Public Servants editors wisely end the chapter with a passage from Louisa MacCall, co-director of Artists in Context, which connects artists and non-artists to collaborate on addressing issues. When I read MacCall’s words, it was like she was describing the goals in my practice (emphasis mine):
“What if we consider artists as researchers who can design, experiment, fail, innovate, and contribute to society’s knowledge production?
“To regain our sense of connection, agency, and empathy—which are vital to a just and sustainable society—we must consider the different kinds of questions and outcomes artists are proposing as indispensable to our systems of knowledge production.”
I’ll keep diving into Public Servants.
I’m also looking forward to the US Department of Arts and Culture’s “Citizen Artist Salon: Art & Well-Being” this Wednesday which connects social justice and wellbeing.
“how social justice is a chief indicator of individual and community health; how art can nurture well-being; and what you can do to build a culture of health.”
442 is a graphic novel following a regiment of Japanese Americans fighting in WWII even as their families were housed in concentration camps in the US. It was written by Koji Steven Sakai and Phinny Kiyomura, and the artwork is by Rob Sato.
You can read 442 by downloading the Stela app and subscribing.
Rob, a classmate from undergrad, posted about his grandfather’s and great-grandparents’ detention in a concentration camp in Rohwer, AR. He also wrote:
As fewer and fewer of those who experienced [Japanese American internment] firsthand remain in the world I hope their stories remain very alive, that this history can be as much a part of collective human knowledge as possible, and not for wallowing in pity but to arm minds against xenophobia and fear mongering. If there’s anything that should be taken away from the whole mess it’s these simple but somehow still bafflingly misunderstood facts—Japanese American Internment was not just “unfortunate” but wrong, it was unnecessary and protected no one, it was inarguably racist, it could happen to anyone, and actions like it will be tried again and again and again.
Though “the court had finally overturned the 1944 decision that the United States government could force more than 120,000 people of Japanese descent into internment camps,” Japanese American internees “lamented that it came as part of the decision that upheld President Trump’s ban on travel into the United States by citizens of several predominantly Muslim countries.”
“‘This was absolutely the wrong case to include Korematsu in,’ said Alan Nishio, who was born in a California internment camp, Manzanar, in 1945…. ‘We are continuing to use the guise of national security to limit the civil rights of immigrants and people of color without really any basis.'”
—Jennifer Medina, “For Survivors of Japanese Internment Camps, Court’s Korematsu Ruling Is ‘Bittersweet,’” New York Times, June 28, 2018
“These immigration policies are for people who conflated America with whiteness, and therefore a loss of white primacy becomes a loss of American identity.”
—Charles M. Blow, “White Extinction Anxiety,” New York Times, June 24, 2018
This checks all boxes that make me happy: DIY flags. Processions. Participatory art. Empowering women, especially right now. Check, check, check!
Check out Processions’ Make Your Own Banner guides for extensive downloadable PDF toolkits and school resource kits.
Join us on 10th June for PROCESSIONS, a mass artwork celebrating 100 years of women voting, in Belfast, Cardiff, Edinburgh and London.
On Sunday 10th June, women* (*those who identify as women or non-binary) and girls from across the UK will come together to create a vast participatory artwork taking place simultaneously for one day. PROCESSIONS will be a living portrait of UK women in the 21st century.
My only wish is that I could be there in one of those four amazing cities this Sunday.
I’ve been a fan of Mel Chin’s art since I learned of the Fundred dollar bill project (inviting students to color in bills, collecting them, and presenting them to Congress to request funds to fix local environmental injustices). And I’ve been a fan of the idiosyncratic artist since hearing him speak at the College Art Association conference in 2011. Chin’s a smart, collaborative, humble social practitioner and an unpretentious famous artist. He’s Chinese American and a through-and-through, singing, guitar-strumming Texan. He’s obsessed with the flawed human condition and environmental injustice, and makes art that earnestly and optimistically seeks change.
See Mel Chin: All Over the Place at the Queens Museum through August 12 (with auxilliary public artworks in Manhattan). I especially love the Flint FIT project.
Read an astute review, “Mel Chin’s Tongue-in-Cheek Encyclopedia of the World,” by Ryan Wong in Hyperallergic. This passage sums up some of the contradictions and poetics of working in social practice:
“Revival Field” and “Flint Fit” fill a unique role in the spectrum between art, social practice, and activism. In political terms, they might be called prefigurative — gestures that are both effective in themselves and utopian, albeit on a small scale. While Chin acknowledges that there is more work to be done in Flint, the project both embodies a new politics and gestures towards more. As he puts it, “You gotta show it can be done.”
The term “prefigurative” is intriguing. Here’s a definition from Wikipedia:
Prefigurative politics are the modes of organization and social relationships that strive to reflect the future society being sought by the group. According to Carl Boggs, who coined the term, the desire is to embody “within the ongoing political practice of a movement […] those forms of social relations, decision-making, culture, and human experience that are the ultimate goal”. Prefigurativism is the attempt to enact prefigurative politics.
I love Ryan Pierce’s paintings. I’ve been a fan of the techniques, narrative coherence, Charles Burchfield-esque pulsing life, and the tension between hope and hopelessness in his paintings since we went to grad school together.
Ryan’s newest project, The River in the Cellar, sounds amazing. I love this combination of fiction, paintings, books, and geo-cached participation. It’s such a brilliant combination of Ryan’s interests in ecology and wilderness (as seen in his work co-founding Signal Fire, which helps artists and creative agitators engage with our remaining wildlands).
Ryan describes the project this way:
The River in the Cellar is a short fiction set in my painted world: a future of accelerated climate change and new forms of governance. The book includes eleven full-color archival inkjet prints corresponding to the storyline, and—here’s the participatory part—the prints will be cached throughout the Portland and Mt. Hood area, and it will be up to the reader to locate and assemble the illustrations while reading the book. The project is offered in a signed edition of 200.
There are a few ways to play: you can come to the reading event and buy the book and see the original paintings that comprise the color prints. You can order one from my website and assemble it another time. Lastly, you can skip the scavenger hunt and order the book with the complete accompanying print set for $50 here.
More info: RyanPierce.net
To create Class Set, Bay Area artist Jessalyn Aaland invited artists to create posters featuring a quote by authors or activists. The artwork was reproduced via Risograph printing and offered for free to K-12 teachers, bringing art and inspiration into resource-strapped classrooms. Over 4,000 posters have been distributed so far.
Each of these artworks are also freely available for PDF download. Non-teachers can also purchase the set of 10 posters for a very affordable price of $100, which will be invested in a second round of posters.
Teachers can find more information about the authors and artists in a curriculum companion (freely available as a Word doc or PDF). It also contains activity handouts, including activities for students to make their own posters.
Sometimes I worry that being a project-based artist makes my work too ungainly to explain. Class Set is a great example of a project that is satisfyingly cohesive as a whole. The sum of its parts form compelling connections with audiences and constituents. The fact that the posters and curriculum are freely downloadable is an important part of the project—the posters gain life through their movements through the social imagination.
I love the inspirational messages in the posters. The following ones especially resonated with my current interests in interdependence, trusting the process, and courage in the face of vulnerability.
Skateboarding is such a perfect metaphor for the importance of failing (and falling) in the process of invention. If you don’t know about Jeffrey Cheung and Unity Skateboards, read about them in the NY Times.
For more info, or to download posters or the curriculum, visit ClassSet.org.
Participating artists: Jeffrey Cheung, Veronica Graham, Sarah Hotchkiss, Carey Lin, Paul Morgan, Yetunde Olagbaju, Grace Rosario Perkins, Sofie Ramos, Muzae Sesay, Chelsea Ryoko Wong
Featuring quotes by: Sherman Alexie, Gloria E. Anzaldúa, Stephen Bantu Biko, César Chávez, June Jordan, Corita Kent, Ursula K. Le Guin, Wangari Maathai, Nelson Mandela, Toni Morrison
HT: Susannah Magers (IG: @suzorsuziq)