Impressions, Values

Points of Reference: Public Servants

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.


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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.”

—Deborah Fisher

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.”

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Values

Facebook, Surveillance, and Unhappiness

If you’re still not sure if Facebook is evil, read John Lanchester’s “You Are the Product” (London Review of Books, August 17, 2017). TL;DR? Here are my favorite excerpts:

“No human enterprise, no new technology or utility or service, has ever been adopted so widely so quickly [as Facebook]. The speed of uptake far exceeds that of the internet itself, let alone ancient technologies such as television or cinema or radio.

“… the company is the fifth most valuable in the world, with a market capitalisation of $445 billion. …

[An internet entrepreneur on ethical problems:] “Facebook just doesn’t care. When you’re in a room with them you can tell. They’re’ – he took a moment to find the right word – ‘scuzzy’. …”

 

On fake news:

“Facebook has no financial interest in telling the truth. No company better exemplifies the internet-age dictum that if the product is free, you are the product. Facebook’s customers aren’t the people who are on the site: its customers are the advertisers who use its network and who relish its ability to direct ads to receptive audiences. Why would Facebook care if the news streaming over the site is fake? Its interest is in the targeting, not in the content. …

“Facebook works hard at avoiding responsibility for the content on its site – except for sexual content, about which it is super-stringent. Nary a nipple on show. It’s a bizarre set of priorities, which only makes sense in an American context. …

“Jonathan Taplin points to an analysis on Buzzfeed: ‘In the final three months of the US presidential campaign, the top-performing fake election news stories on Facebook generated more engagement than the top stories from major news outlets such as the New York TimesWashington PostHuffington Post, NBC News and others.’ This doesn’t sound like a problem Facebook will be in any hurry to fix. …”

Why artists and makers should care:

“The fact is that fraudulent content, and stolen content, are rife on Facebook, and the company doesn’t really mind, because it isn’t in its interest to mind. Much of the video content on the site is stolen from the people who created it. … in 2015, 725 of Facebook’s top one thousand most viewed videos were stolen. This is another area where Facebook’s interests contradict society’s. We may collectively have an interest in sustaining creative and imaginative work in many different forms and on many platforms. Facebook doesn’t.

…[FB] isn’t too keen on anyone apart from Facebook making any money from that content. Over time, that attitude is profoundly destructive to the creative and media industries. … If the content providers all eventually go broke, well, that might not be too much of a problem. There are, for now, lots of willing providers: anyone on Facebook is in a sense working for Facebook, adding value to the company. In 2014, the New York Times did the arithmetic and found that humanity was spending 39,757 collective years on the site, every single day. …

Lanchester follows this by citing the hollowing out of the music and journalism industries.

This goes to the heart of the question of what Facebook is and what it does. For all the talk about connecting people, building community, and believing in people, Facebook is an advertising company.

Taking Tim Wu’s lead, Lanchester explains a shift from growth (increasing the number of users) to monetization (how to make money off us). The first was spurred by its IPO. The second relates to how users are now mostly on mobile devices, and how to connect multiple identities and Experian and other bureaus to track you in an unprecedented manner:

So Facebook knows your phone ID and can add it to your Facebook ID. It puts that together with the rest of your online activity: not just every site you’ve ever visited, but every click you’ve ever made – the Facebook button tracks every Facebook user, whether they click on it or not. Since the Facebook button is pretty much ubiquitous on the net, this means that Facebook sees you, everywhere. Now, thanks to its partnerships with the old-school credit firms, Facebook knew who everybody was, where they lived, and everything they’d ever bought with plastic in a real-world offline shop. All this information is used for a purpose which is, in the final analysis, profoundly bathetic. It is to sell you things via online ads.

What this means is that even more than it is in the advertising business, Facebook is in the surveillance business. Facebook, in fact, is the biggest surveillance-based enterprise in the history of mankind. It knows far, far more about you than the most intrusive government has ever known about its citizens. It’s amazing that people haven’t really understood this about the company. I’ve spent time thinking about Facebook, and the thing I keep coming back to is that its users don’t realise what it is the company does. What Facebook does is watch you, and then use what it knows about you and your behaviour to sell ads. I’m not sure there has ever been a more complete disconnect between what a company says it does – ‘connect’, ‘build communities’ – and the commercial reality. Note that the company’s knowledge about its users isn’t used merely to target ads but to shape the flow of news to them. Since there is so much content posted on the site, the algorithms used to filter and direct that content are the thing that determines what you see: people think their news feed is largely to do with their friends and interests, and it sort of is, with the crucial proviso that it is their friends and interests as mediated by the commercial interests of Facebook. Your eyes are directed towards the place where they are most valuable for Facebook.

Lanchester also mentions a shocking habit of price-gouging based on users’ class status. See the article to read it.

What can be done?

Perhaps the biggest potential threat to Facebook is that its users might go off it. … as we’ve seen in the disappearance of Myspace, the onetime leader in social media, when people change their minds about a service, they can go off it hard and fast.

The other thing that could happen at the level of individual users is that people stop using Facebook because it makes them unhappy. … The researchers found quite simply that the more people use Facebook, the more unhappy they are. A 1 per cent increase in ‘likes’ and clicks and status updates was correlated with a 5 to 8 per cent decrease in mental health. In addition, they found that the positive effect of real-world interactions, which enhance well-being, was accurately paralleled by the ‘negative associations of Facebook use’. … To sum up: there is a lot of research showing that Facebook makes people feel like shit.

This article provided much-needed perspective and a reconnection to media studies and cultural criticism, which was hugely influential on me in the 1990’s and aughts. I loved that Lanchester mentioned Neil Postman. The 90’s anti-corporate and anti-advertising ethos seems anachronistic against today’s influencers and sponsored content. The landscape of what media is, how our daily experiences and culture are influenced by corporations and capitalism, has shifted so much in the past decade. I’m interested in further reading, especially Tim Wu’s “The Attention Merchants.”

I deactivated my Facebook account a few years ago. I realized that using Facebook lowered the quality of my life: it made my days feel worse. The level of discourse is low. I didn’t want to participate in a platform that single-handedly launched an industry of click-bait. The experience is highly mediated and manipulated. (Facebook’s tinkering with user’s emotions was a nadir.) It is addictive. It’s too easy to use FB to substitute for IRL interactions. I couldn’t allow such a counterproductive corporate product to undermine what I’d learned about positive psychology for maintaining psychological wellbeing.

It took some time to break the habit, but the longer I’m off Facebook, the easier it is. I have zero regrets about my decision.

I have only temporarily re-activated my account to engage art audiences in smaller cities. In Albuquerque and Wichita, locals told me that Facebook is the primary platform for connecting with art audiences online. Often they’d acknowledge that Facebook sucks, but there’s no alternative. I would encourage small art organizations (including artist-run collectives on the coasts) to post events on their websites, and not only on FB. I know FB is easy, but updating a website has never been easier.

I’m on Instagram and Twitter. As Instagram becomes more like Facebook (I’ve noticed the feed seems increasingly manipulated), I’ll look to disengage.

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Values

“Someone who is highly self-aware knows where he is headed and why; so, for example, he will be able to be firm in turning down a job offer that is tempting financially but does not fit with his principles or long-term goals. A person who lacks self-awareness is apt to make decisions that bring on inner turmoil by treading on buried values.”

Daniel Goleman, “What Makes a Leader,” Harvard Business Review, January 2004.

Daniel Goleman on values coherence

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Values

Life’s Too Short for Poor Habits of Mind

Recommended: an essay on freeing oneself from energy-sapping forces. It’s inspired by turning 60, but the call to preserve one’s attention for the truly worthwhile and to care for one’s emotional well-being applies at any age.

“Young(er) women, take this to heart: Why waste time and energy on insecurity? … I’m happy to have a body that is healthy, that gets me where I want to go…

What matters most is the work. Does it give you pleasure, or hope? Does it sustain your soul? …I’m too old for the dark forces, for hopelessness and despair…

Toxic people? Sour, spoiled people? I’m simply walking away… Take a pass on bad manners, on thoughtlessness, on unreliability, on carelessness and on all the other ways people distinguish themselves as unappealing specimens. Take a pass on your own unappealing behavior, too: the pining, yearning, longing and otherwise frittering away of valuable brainwaves…

My new mantra is liberating… I spare myself a great deal of suffering… goodbye to all that has done nothing but hold us back.”

Dominique Browning, “I’m Too Old for This” (NY Times, August 8, 2015)
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Values

Good advice on the art school crit, and great advice for navigating around negatrons:

“…stay away from drama queens, bastards, and bullies, even the ones who are powerful and who seem to hold the potential for your future professional advancement. …Assholes only ever help themselves.”

Bean Gilsdorf, “Help Desk: Group Crit,” Daily Serving, July 21, 2014

Bean Gilsdorf on Meanies

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Meta-Practice, Values

Middle grounds

Grappling with how to find a middle ground in an art career.

In the Bronx Museum AIM program, about a third of us don’t necessarily aspire or expect to be represented by a blue chip gallery, or run an art studio as a vertically-integrated business with permanent staff. At the same time, we do want something more—I think we would like to avoid still working as adjunct professors or art handlers when we’re 50. These jobs are too demanding and precarious for artistic growth and financial viability.

I’ve also spoken to undergrads about professional practices. I advised them to devise their own self-concordant goals and to be wary of adopting conventional success models not their own.

How to find a middle ground—where artists can flourish in an expensive city and an economically polarized art field—seems to be the puzzle we’re all trying to solve.

In the popular imagination, artists tend to exist either at the pinnacle of fame and luxury or in the depths of penury and obscurity — rarely in the middle, where most of the rest of us toil and dream….

The middle — that place where professionals do their work in conditions that are neither lavish nor improvised, for a reasonable living wage — is especially vulnerable to collapse because its existence has rarely been recognized in the first place. Nobody would argue against the idea that art has a social value, and yet almost nobody will assert that society therefore has an obligation to protect that value by acknowledging, and compensating, the labor of the people who produce it.

A. O. Scott, “The Paradox of Art as Work,” N.Y. Times, May 9, 2014

Actually, there’s a small but growing contingent of us “almost nobodies” that would claim otherwise, such as the #payingartists campaign by Artist’s Network in the U.K.

For me, the issue is crystal clear: if a non-profit organization receives funds to hold exhibitions, some of those funds should go to the artists who contribute the actual artwork—without which an exhibition would not be possible. And, when artists contribute to exhibition-making with our time and labor—registration, transportation, installation, curation, writing, photo documentation, administration, etc.—we should be compensated with a fair and living wage. Larger institutions pay staff, freelancers, or outside service providers to do these tasks; funders should enable and require organizations of all sizes to pay the providers of the labor required by the institution’s programming, regardless of who it is.

Fair compensation would be a start in creating a middle ground for artists. It’s not an outlandish, and I think it’s rational and appropriate.

[Buddhist economist E.F.] Schumacher calls for economic solutions to globalization that are founded on principles of self-empowerment, self-reliance and decentralization, and local control. He advocates for decentralized working methods, or “smallness within bigness,” in which interrelated but autonomous units work together toward a greater goal. Furthermore, he presents the philosophy of “enoughness,” a Buddhist approach to economics that advocates for self-sufficiency: producing from local resources for local needs at a modest scale, appropriate for a balanced life.

Abigail Satinsky, “Appropriate Technologies,” Art Practical, April 3, 2014

Addendum: See Christian L. Frock’s “Beyond the Studio: What Do Artists/Writers/Curators Need?” (KQED Arts, May 12, 2014).

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