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.


Public Servants: Art and the Crisis of the Common Good, edited by Johanna Burton, Shannon Jackson and Dominic Willsdon. // Source:

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.”

Citizenship, Meta-Practice

More on the Power of “No”

Artists, where is your line? How do you know you’ve crossed it? Are you prepared to do what’s necessary after you’ve crossed your line?

Artist Steve Lambert pledges to give away any prize money received from a right-wing, anti-civil rights family whose fortunes are made in pyramid schemes and the military industrial complex.

So today I pledged, if I win I will not keep any of the money. I will hand over all my award money to the LGBT Fund of Grand Rapids. I will also volunteer to come back to Grand Rapids with the Center for Artistic Activism to work with LGBT to fight for equality.

The reason I became an artist is because I believe it helps create free human beings. It can show us other ways of looking at the world, other ways the world can be. It makes us more empathetic, more understanding, and more open. It helps us grow. I think the money behind ArtPrize is working against, what I see as, the spirit of art itself.

Citizenship, Meta-Practice

No, Thank You: Letting a tech-sponsored art opportunity pass

My response letter to a tech company’s in-house art program.

Recently I was invited to submit a proposal to a tech company for an artist’s residency or commission at their corporate offices. The project manager was very gracious. The program sounds fiscally generous. I debated whether or not to do it. Some colleagues have participated or will do so (I wish them nothing but the best), and I’ve benefitted from such projects as well as sales to other tech firms. Still, my instinct was to propose an idea that would never be accepted, but I didn’t really want to waste time essentially pranking a nice person with a fake proposal. So I wrote and submitted the following….

I’m skeptical of the idea of creating artwork as a site-specific, private, corporate commission with employees as the constituency. Here’s why.

  • I try to make my work not about me; I try to make it about the viewer and his/her perceptions or emotions. The viewer and the context shape the meaning of the work. For your program, I’d make work for your audience and your site, so I’d have to ask myself, Why these employees? Why these offices? And I haven’t come up with good enough answers.
  • As I understand it, there’s no public viewing program, so the commission serves employees, and ultimately, the corporation’s goals such as maintaining morale or acting as recruitment or PR talking points. Psychologists like Phil Zimbardo have written that marketing efforts exploit humans’ instinctual reciprocity; by offering perks, the corporation may well be influencing workers to spend increasing hours of unpaid overtime at their jobs, rather than in their communities (where they could support local public museums and galleries).

    Perhaps you see your program as a philanthropic venture benefitting artists. There are many ways to support artists. A purchase program of existing works would allow artists like me to spend less time working day jobs and more time in my studio. Supporting an existing art organization that is open to the public would benefit the organization, as well as artists and the viewing public.
    But investing my labor, time, and attention to provide a service and product that may be instrumentalized as corporate culture perks doesn’t speak to why I’m an artist.

  • I came of age in the 1990s, and anti-corporate, DIY, punk ethos is in my cultural DNA. Overwhelmingly, I see corporations putting profits before people. Even if this program seems like an exception for those involved, it does in private what I’d rather do in public.
  • I feel loyal to friends—artists and small arts organizations—in San Francisco who are being priced out or evicted, or mourning the city’s declining diversity due to the influx of tech workers and their wealth. It’s a huge issue that individuals like you and I cannot singly account for—yet while my small decision to let this opportunity pass may not change anything, it at least spares me anxiety of a possible dilemma, the uncomfortableness of explaining my rationale to friends, and any self-doubt about ethics.

You asked why I’m motivated towards residencies like –––: it’s non-profit; the organization provides time and space for artists to be artists—they have no agenda and don’t require specific outcomes; and I feel great about their constituency—their exhibitions are public and their visitors heterogenous. Another difference is that they don’t own the work afterwards. I get to show it elsewhere, sell it and garner additional support, or live with it and change it if I like. If they do purchase the work, there’s an additional fee, as well as the honor of joining the collection of an organization that has earned artists’ esteem.

I don’t have all the answers; in fact, like many in the arts, I have way more questions than answers. But if you’d like to know more about references that have influenced these thoughts, the introductions and first chapters of both Ben Davis’ 9.5 Theses on Art and Class, as well as Martha Rosler’s Culture Class are worthwhile examinations of the complicated position that many contemporary artists negotiate.


Julia Bryan-Wilson on artists’ privilege and power

About a month ago, scholar and critic Julia Bryan-Wilson delivered a short, affirmative, and electrifying speech about artists’ professionalization, political capacities, and privilege. It is beautiful in its erudition and alacrity.

She presented the talk in a recent conference, “Institutions By Artists—Debate 2: Should Artists Professionalize?”on Vimeo (Bryan-Wilson’s talk starts at 38:40). A segment has found its way onto YouTube as “Julia Bryan-Wilson is totally badass.” I didn’t click on the cheap meme title until only recently, and I can’t help but mull over her points, especially in relation to other references. Here’s are some excerpts of her talk:

First, on ethical behavior and relations:

If there is a space for art outside of the state and market…, it is … the space of embodiment that is separate from the total administration of everyday life. It’s within this space that it makes sense to redefine professionalism so that it does not denote walking lockstep to the beat of the neoliberal, entrepreneurial drum, but rather, managing yourself, practicing an ethics of care when you engage with others. We might call this ‘minding your business,’ and I don’t mean ‘business’ in the white-collar sense, but the inter-relational ways in which we move through the world….

[I’m all for art world ethics.]

Then, meeting realism with artists’ wiliness:

[The question of ‘Should artists professionalize?’ is, rather,] “How do you want to acknowledge your own production within a highly compromised economy? Let’s be strategic about how we contribute to those structures and be tactical about how we might interrupt or stall its ruthless logic….

[Earlier today, our book club reading Martha Rosler’s Culture Class discussed whether artists should make political art or take to the streets. Rosler concluded that artists don’t have to choose. And even though works of art may be eventually rewritten (co-opted), the process takes time, an in that gap, critical art works can efficaciously speak to present conditions. I love that note of optimism, the quick-footed juking out of false dichotomies.]

Instead of, ‘Should artists professionalize?’ we should ask, ‘How should artists profess?’ Profess, of course, has many meanings. One of them is to declare oneself skilled or expert—to assert knowledge. But it also means to lay claim to something falsely, insincerely, or deceptively. I think artists should profess, by accepting their expertise as well as their wily ways. I call for the professing of professionalism, ironizing and making strange professionalization, turning it upside down to curdle it, to estrange it from itself….

She concludes with this powerful embrace of paradoxes inherent to discussions about artists’ political agency:

Let’s reframe the question:

Should artists and critics profess what they believe in? Be more transparent about the stakes of their making and how they support themselves? Yes.

Should artists and critics be self-aware of their own circulation within frameworks of power, of their own implication in larger systems of financialization and self-management? Yes.

Should artists advocate for themselves, and for social justice more broadly, with an understanding that their fights might have some surprising resonance with other questions of inequity? Yes.

Should artists also organize with an awareness that they have certain class privileges, due to cultural capital, even if that cultural capital does not always easily translate into actual political power or long-term financial security? Yes.

[Ben Davis’ 9.5 Theses outlines that artists’ autonomy means that we’re more like middle class workers than the lower class we may feel like.]

Should artists fictionalize rather than financialize? Make shit up? Falsify? Infiltrate? Yes.

Should artists with art school educations realize that just because they are underpaid does not mean they are underclass? Yes.

[This is a huge point. On the one hand, I sympathize with art school grads with huge debts, who are struggling to make ends meet in expensive cities like San Francisco and NYC. On the other hand, I also know what it’s like to come from a working class background, and can’t help but feel that calls for, for example, art school debt forgiveness are myopic and entitled.]

Should art historians and critics acknowledge our profound privilege as tastemakers? Yes.

Should we all take more risks, but all the time acknowledge that the risks we take are not equivalent to many other people’s and the risks they live? Yes.

Bascially, JBW brings some perspective: that the art world is not the world, indeed, the world is much bigger than the art world, and yet artists can contribute positively, cannily, to both. Fantastic.

Citizenship, Meta-Practice, Values

Just say no

Stop asking artists to work for free.

And artists, just say no to working for free.

That’s what Tim Kreider called for in “Slaves of the Internet, Unite!,” a funny, bitterly-laughing-because-it’s-true, op-ed on NYT (Oct. 26, 2013). (Recent grads and emerging artists are the most guilty.) Krieder included a form letter:

Here, for public use, is my very own template for a response to people who offer to let me write something for them for nothing:

Thanks very much for your compliments on my [writing/illustration/whatever thing you do]. I’m flattered by your invitation to [do whatever it is they want you to do for nothing]. But [thing you do] is work, it takes time, it’s how I make my living, and in this economy I can’t afford to do it for free. I’m sorry to decline, but thanks again, sincerely, for your kind words about my work.

“In this economy” implies the recession, and that working for free might be OK in abundant times. But in this capitalist economy, where artists have no protections, I don’t think we can’t really afford it, recession or none.

The Graphic Arts Guild has been preaching to freelance illustrators and graphic designers to ask for decent compensation for the good of their fields, and it’s about time for fine artists and freelance writers to take up the mantle.

W.A.G.E. has been agitating for artists to get paid for our labor—such as exhibiting our work. I’ve added my name to the list of supporters, and you can too.

Their latest project is W.A.G.E. Certification, in which non-profits in NYC can sign up to be certified as organizations that equitably pay artists’ fees. I love the idea; nationwide requirements like CARCC would be ideal, but short of that, this model, sort of like a Better Business Bureau of art nonprofits, is a huge step forward.

I hope it spreads like wildfire around the country.

I hope foundations take it up as a grant requirement to nonprofits.

Basically, W.A.G.E. Certification requirements stop organizations from asking artists to work for free:

1. Artist Fees must be paid.

2. The Artist Fee is separate from, and must not be used to cover travel, lodging, installation, shipping or any other expenses associated with production.

Though W.A.G.E. Certification is currently in progress, it’s already helped me think through certain artist’s opportunities.

For example, a Brooklyn art nonprofit has a current call for a fellowship program. Successful applicants will receive a solo exhibition along with the requirement to stage a public program. No funds are promised.

In fact, not only will artists not receive an artist’s fee, nor any production expense reimbursements, applicants are required to submit a budget and a plan for external funding for the public program. So in addition to unpaid exhibition labor, Fellows will undertake fundraising and project management labor, too.

The organization’s only monetary outlay, according to the application, is the printing of postcards. That’s like, what, $75 to $300, a pittance compared to artist’s expenses incurred in a solo show. I could easily spend $1-3k on materials alone, whereas the greatest financial burden is incurred by the time it takes to conceptualize, prototype, procure, produce, pack/crate, transport, install, and de-install a show.

(Think about this: I work as an art installer at a nonprofit gallery. They pay me to handle artworks. This other nonprofit gallery would have me take time off from a paid job to do the same exact labor, but will not pay because the artwork is by a different artist: me.)

This nonprofit receives support from state, city, and borough funding agencies, as well as corporations and foundations. Yet not one of those dollars will go directly to individual artist Fellows who will take on the lion’s share of creating a gallery exhibition and public event. In exchange for a venue and access to the organization’s audience, Fellows arguably take responsibility for a fraction of the gallery’s annual programming, not for a fraction of its annual budget, but zero compensation.

Sometimes interactions that should be little to no work still amount to working for free.

I recently contributed images to a nonprofit organization’s printed curriculum, which, despite their good intentions and my attempts at self-protection, still ended up backfiring.

They didn’t have money for reproduction rights (always suspect to me, as publication budgets usually account for design and printing). 

I did it as a favor to friend, though I asked for a contract. (Again, artists, get the GAG handbook if you haven’t already!) The organization’s lawyer drafted one that specified artworks, and I submitted images with full caption information.

The publication included images that I didn’t permit them to use, as well as incomplete and incorrect captions (which would have duly credited the art organizations that did support me with actual money). I sent the organization a list of ways they overstepped their own agreement. They were sincerely apologetic and pulled the curriculum to revise it, which I appreciate.

Zero compensation is bad enough; further time and frustration expended is worse.

Kreider should be paid well for his skill. I admire his ability to write about this topic humorously. To me, arguing such an obvious point makes me smack my forehead in exasperation.

Organizations can be very ironic in how they characterize their own labor. An artist’s residency program posted this recently on

We are tired of artists not getting the support and time they need to move forward with their artistic careers. So, we want to offer artists a space to rest, experiment, and create – and to do so with ease.

The note of frustration is pretty hilarious, because what this organization does—charge about $850 USD after tax for a one month rental of a bedroom and semi-private studio—doesn’t qualify as artists “getting the support and time they need” to me.

For that amount, you could rent a small studio in Brooklyn, the second most expensive urban area to live in the US, after Manhattan.

What I am really after is the normalcy of transactions. Artists provide a service and undertake labor. Nonprofits who purport to support artists should then funnel their funds to artists. It’s pretty simple.

I was once hired by a nonprofit to design an appeal letter for their direct mail campaign soliciting cash donations. I finished the job and sent an invoice for my services, extending a nonprofit discount to them.

A week later, I receive an envelope in the mail. Expecting a check, I opened it, only to find the very appeal letter I designed.

“Oh!” I thought. “You’ve got it turned around. I don’t pay you. YOU pay ME.”

I need to bring that clarity and certainty as a designer to my approach towards opportunities as an artist.

Despite this rant, I am glad that nonprofits exist. They’re part of a legacy of social change and transformation in this country that I’m very proud of. Lots of amazing and ethical arts nonprofits exist and support countless artists. Nonprofits are spaces in which alternative futures can be played out in the present… until the time when better alternatives will become more viable.

Meta-Practice, Values

How to be everywhere at once, or not

Inspired by a walk around Chelsea and CAA, here are a few thoughts about how artists of a certain level are able to sustain multiple galleries and fairs…

Variations and editions

At Doug Aitken’s show at 303 Gallery, the list of works stated that all artworks, except for the site-specific installation, were multiples. Text works that could have been fabricated by sign shops were editions of four, plus two artist’s proofs. Other text works that might involve more chance, such as a piece with broken mirrors and another foam piece that was partly carved by hand, were variations, plus artist’s proofs.

The way Aiken and many contemporary other artists edition sculptures seems  pragmatic—there is so much research and development that goes into each work, and so many venues for international artists, that being able to exhibit and sell the same work is advantageous. Yet, these editioned sculptures would never be displayed next to each other, or heavens forbid, in the same fair at different booths—like the earliest fine art print editions, the whole concept of an edition is to create scarcity and value. I’m curious if collectors feel like they’re buying originals, are concerned with the fidelity to exhibition copies, or are simply less concerned with purchasing copies, especially of industrially-fabricated works.

(The show itself was dazzling in the video as well as in person, but not especially affective. I believe a critic for the New Yorker found the show to be resemble window displays, and I got the same feeling. There were intimations of destruction, but no danger. In the large hole drilled out of the concrete gallery floor, the milky water was lit from beneath, as if a hot tub. One text work was set behind a faux wall with a cartoonish circular hole cut away; the drywall was filled with pebbly rubble painted white as if on a theatrical set made of Plasticine.)

A few rules make disparate drawings a series

Of particular interest at Mark Dion at Tanya Bonokdar:

1. The vitrines with marine encrustations that were on view in International Orange in San Francisco are now highly salable objects in a Chelsea gallery. (Also, I believe  those were clearly indicated as collaborations in San Francisco, a fact not obvious in NYC.) The settings are so different I found it humorously ironic. Fort Point was bitterly cold, practically in the Pacific Ocean than abutting it. The vitrines were lit in a theatrically dim light, which minimized Fort Point’s peeling walls. At Bonokdar, the pristine gallery housed a number of vitrines and installations, all of which were perfectly installed and maintained. The change of context from the edge of the continent to the center of a commercial art world demonstrates a fluidity that contrasts greatly with so many artists I know who exhibit in odd places in the Bay Area.

2. Dion makes preliminary sketches for his various public projects and commissions—from the UK to San Francisco’s Balboa Park—in red and blue colored pencil. Who knows why, but the effect is that a room with dozens of such drawings hung salon-style looks fantastic. A simple set of rules increases the volume of exhibition-ready work.

Conflicts of Interest Vs. Conflicts of Self-Interest

At the College Art Association conference a few weeks ago, I attended a session called “The Future of Art Magazines” (see’s write-up). A comment that has stuck with me is that people play so many roles in the art strata, that it can pose dilemmas to critics. For example, critics who are also curators may worry that they can’t negatively review certain institutions that they might work with, or risk offending artists that they might curate or be asked to curate. I wondered if this was an actual conflict of interest, when the potential of a partnership is merely a potential. Perhaps it would better be phrased as a conflict of self-interest?

Of course people do this all the time. Yet the frequency of self-interested behavior doesn’t make it right—call it Darwinian, hustlin’, or playing the game, it’s also selfish, opportunistic, and small.

To be big, one must imagine that other people are big, too. That artists or administrators won’t be offended if you write a negative review with honesty and integrity. Whether others are in a position of power or not relative to yourself, people should be able to handle direct, open communication with judiciousness and discretion. In my recent correspondence with commenters on Temporary Art Review, I have been trying to encourage artists to give feedback directly to residency administrators. It seems a reasonable thing to do, except for a fear of retaliation that is not a part of the art world that I would like to participate in.


Via e-flux: Sotheby’s: offer your art handlers a fair contract

Don’t be jerks, Sotheby’s. Do the right thing.

Art handlers lift things that are heavier than you want to lift, handle things that you’re too nervous to handle yourself, and pack and unpack things that you’re not skilled to handle. If you want workers to handle art and antiques with care, treat your workers with dignity.

Sign the petition at

For the past eight months, Sotheby’s has locked its 43 unionized art handlers out of work. Rather than negotiating a fair contract with its employees, the company has issued a set of demands: the gutting of the art handlers’ union, the elimination of health insurance and other benefits, and the replacement of full-time skilled workers with temporary unskilled laborers.

Sotheby’s has decided that the handling of priceless artworks is an easy job; that low-paid temporary workers with little training or incentive can manage the constant stream of artifacts into and out of the world’s largest auction house. The 43 locked-out workers who have made art handling their career know this is not true.

There have been no negotiations. Read on.