Sights

See: Mel Chin @ Queens Museum / Read: On Chin’s Prefigurative Politics

Rainwear garments made of recycled bottles, designed by Tracy Reese and sewed by a women's empowerment organization in Detroit. Mel Chin, “Flint Fit,” (2018-ongoing). // Photo: CWY.

Rainwear garments made of recycled water bottles, designed by Tracy Reese and sewed by a women’s empowerment organization in Flint. Mel Chin, “Flint Fit,” (2018-ongoing). // Photo: CWY.

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”.[1] Prefigurativism is the attempt to enact prefigurative politics.

Standard
Research

Interdependence and politics

Over the past year as I’ve been working on Ways and Means, I’ve been thinking about interdependence, stewardship, and agency. I’ve been mulling how becoming accountable to a shared space and ethos is an intentional act, and how it’s similar to citizenship and being accountable as a political being. On Election Day, an article exploring the relationship between neighborliness and politics seemed especially salient to me, both as an artist and a voter.

Joshua Rothman’s “Enemy Next Door” (New Yorker, November 7, 2016; appears online as “Red Neighbor, Blue Neighbor”) is worth reading in its entirety; here’s what struck me.

Like many, I’ve struggled to stay engaged and optimistic about democracy and fellow citizens’ judgment. Rothman perfectly describes the sense of delimitation I’ve been seeking in response, as well as past feelings about being an activist simultaneously with being an artist.

Politics matters enormously; it’s right to care, to feel alarmed, and to argue. … And yet politics can become a poisonous influence in our lives. … It fills us with unwanted passionate intensity. Perhaps, somewhere in the territory of the self, a border marks the place where our lives as citizens end and our sovereignty as individuals begins.

What qualities contribute to interdependence and collaboration? Acceptance and open-mindedness.

Throughout American history, [author of Good Neighbors Nancy] Rosenblum finds, … good neighbors are “decent folk.” Decency, here, is a circumspect sort of virtue. Being decent doesn’t necessarily mean being good. It means accepting the flaws in others and returning, despite disruptions and disappointments, to the predictable rhythms of reciprocity.

I’m interested in self-initiated acts of agency and mutualism, because the empowerment and optimism that follows are compelling. It feels nice to move forward to an ideal, rather than merely pushing back against an existing system.

When politics turns against us—when we can’t trust Congress, the courts, or the police—we still look to neighborliness as a source of “democratic hope untethered to public political institutions.”

I’d venture that many social practice projects have similar rationales—that an aesthetic interpersonal gesture might temporarily reconfigure social and political relations.

…these moments of neighborly kindness aren’t, strictly speaking, political. In fact, they are anti-political. They come about because neighbors insist on relating to one another as individuals, rather than as members of parties or groups….

If temporarily reconfiguring political relations through a social practice project is anti-political, so be it. But Rosenblum warns against equating neighborliness with citizenship, through theories of holism versus pluralism:

…the implication was that, by tapping into a reservoir of neighborly good will, we might arrest the slide into polarized dysfunction. This is a comforting idea. As individual voters, we can do very little to reform our broken political system, or to change the apocalyptic tenor of today’s political campaigns. But, as neighbors and friends, we can redeem politics through ordinary human decency.

Rosenblum is skeptical of this theory. She describes it as a species of “social and political holism.” Instead, she argues, American life is characterized by “pluralism.” … We are, simultaneously, citizens, workers, neighbors, parents, lovers, [and artists, activists] and souls; in each of these spheres, we observe and uphold different rules and values. … Our values aren’t conveniently unified. They’re discontinuous.

If we can accept this contradictory nature of our selves, it seems, then we can accept our fellow citizens.

…It’s tempting to commit a kind of moral synecdoche—to take a part (e.g., voting for Trump) for a whole (being a bad person). [“The reverse is true, too, of course. Our “good” political beliefs don’t make us good people all the time,” Rothman added in a later passage.] To the extent that we avoid this, it’s by adopting a pluralistic view of the people around us. … In its strongest form, pluralism is a theory of selfhood. American democracy, Rosenblum thinks, is founded on this theory. We have in common the understanding that we contain multitudes. Reconciling ourselves to the contradictions of pluralism is what makes it possible for us to unite as a people.

Finally, the best way to make political change is to make political change.

After the election, the return of neighborliness will be reassuring. It shouldn’t be. The political stream is still tumbling along out there, as turbulent as ever.

 

Standard
Make Things (Happen)

Making Hospitable Democracy Happen: An Interview with Lexa Walsh

On February 7, Oakland-based artist Lexa Walsh brought together twelve individuals for a home-cooked meal and recipe exchange to facilitate conversation and community. Called Meal Ticket, the public event was held in conjunction with Make Things (Happen), an exhibition I organized featuring 45 artist-created activity sheets, which is currently on view at Interface Gallery through March 1. Afterwards, I was inspired to ask Lexa more about her practice.

 

Participants at Meal Ticket with Lexa Walsh (standing) at Interface Gallery, Oakland, CA. Photo: Amanda Eicher.

Participants at Meal Ticket with Lexa Walsh (standing) at Interface Gallery, Oakland, CA. Photo: Amanda Eicher.

 

Christine Wong Yap: At the start of Meal Ticket, you mentioned a key concept of your practice. Can you describe “hospitable democracy,” and how it came about?

Lexa Walsh: A few years ago, I took a great class with Havana-born, New York-based artist Tania Bruguera for Portland State University’s (PSU) Art and Social Practice grad program. She insisted we all find key words to describe our practice that would be new word combinations in the end, like her use of  “Useful Art” (Arte Útil). I searched for something that could describe my diverse practice. In the end, I realized most of my projects try to be hospitable and make democratic spaces for participation and collaboration—for amateurs and experts, artists and laypeople—in the form of conversation, songwriting, critique, meal sharing, resource sharing, etc. Voila: Hospitable Democracy.

 

A Meal Ticket recipe card told and recorded by participants Smitty and Elizabeth. Photo: Lexa Walsh.

A Meal Ticket recipe card told and recorded by participants Smitty and Elizabeth. Photo: Lexa Walsh.

 

CWY: When I think about my experience of Meal Ticket, I realize I came away with three things: beautiful food, an uncommon exchange and dialogue with a stranger, and ephemera (a recipe book and a screen printed placemat). What is the significance of each of these elements to you?

LW: Each Meal Ticket differs depending on the context. In this case, it was pretty simple: the joy and essence of sharing a nice meal, the role of the host as curator of an experience (both sensorially with the food and experientially with the conversation), and then the recipe exchange as a conversation starter. Through the discussion of recipes—a set of instructions—we discuss our cultures, families, and belief systems. I propose we are all equals and become a community in the temporary utopia of a luncheon, and through the cookbook. Community cookbooks have a long legacy as collective memoirs of place and culture that help identify and celebrate communities. They have given voices to voiceless individuals; they published many women for the first and only times in their lives. For Meal Ticket, the cookbook is mainly for the primary audience: the diners. When I do a series of meals, all participants become part of that community.

It gets really interesting where the context is more political, with seating charts and recipes spanning social, cultural, and financial boundaries. Two examples are at Portland Art Museum—a series of 12 meals with all levels of staff sharing meals in the boardroom—and in New Smyrna Beach, FL—12 meals that had to be moved around to accommodate a racially diverse but segregated town. Meal Ticket is most effective in contexts where barriers need to be broken down.

As for the placemats: I am trying to make stuff again after a five-year hiatus from making objects!

 

Placemat by Lexa Walsh, screen printed as an Artist in Residence at Kala Art Institute. Photo: Christine Wong Yap.

Placemat by Lexa Walsh, screen printed as an Artist in Residence at Kala Art Institute. Photo: Christine Wong Yap.

 

CWY: You’re currently an Artist in Residence at Kala Art Institute in Berkeley. It was once a fairly traditional printmaking studio; now it welcomes many media and practices. What inspired you to make objects—and specifically, prints—again?

LW: I stopped making objects after an amazing 2009 studio visit with Nashville-based artist Mel Ziegler, who suggested my objects were “accessorizing” the real essence of my work. I have a background in sculpture and performance, so I had no problem challenging myself to a “year without objects.” That turned into five years, until I realized my practice consisted of emails and meetings. I wanted to get back to that feeling of making. Since I’d mostly been outsourcing printed ephemera, I thought it would be fun to get into the craft of making multiples. I’ve been having a really hard time, though! What does it mean to make an image or an object? Why bother? What are the stakes when dealing with craftsmanship? These are questions running through my head now, as I am simultaneously enjoying making objects.

 

CWY: The placemat bears something like an epigraph for the meal. It ends by affirming that “failure is always an option.” What do you hope to convey?

LW: I love failure! Failure is a place from which to move forward, to learn, to experiment, and to get sidetracked in potentially interesting ways. I have gained a lot from failing. I know a lot of artists and others who fear it, but I think we should embrace it.

 

CWY: In addition to being an artist, you work as a chef. These skills clearly help with your food-related projects. In what other ways does being a chef parallel artistic activity—say, as a facilitator of socially-related projects? Yet providing food is also related to providing a service, suggesting a different type of relationship to participants. How do you think about these parallels and relationships?

LW: It’s funny because I refused to combine food and art until my second year of graduate school. They just were separate for me. I had a great Graduate Assistantship as Program Caterer. Everyone wondered why I wouldn’t start incorporating food into my practice. The first Meal Ticket was born from that pressure.

It is so true that chef skills are useful, because as a social practitioner, I basically plan events as my practice. It’s good to have skills such as organization, time management, hospitality, etc. Service is always a part of my practice, but so is facilitating and curating.

 

CWY: You, as well as others, recommended several PSU alum for the expanded version of the project in Oakland: Ariana Jacob, Betty Marín, Hannah Jickling and Helen Reed, for example. I’m curious about what seems like a small world of social practitioners. In what ways is this emergent field establishing conventions? What do you see as the most exciting frontiers?

LW: I’m not sure there’s anything unconventional or new from this ‘emerging’ field—there’s so much tied into both art history and the practices of a variety of fields, into which we dip our hands, such as Allan Kaprow’s Happenings, Mierle Ladermen Ukeles’ Maintenance Works, Adrian Piper’s Calling Cards, Joseph Beuys, Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece, Fluxus, Group Material, Allison Knowles’ Salad, Gordon Matta-Clark’s Food, and the contemporary Erwin Wurm. There are many people I look back to for my own practice, as well as to envision the larger field.

What seems interesting is when or when not to call it art. What are the benefits? What avenues can be traversed by calling it art and vice versa? I think artists are doing great projects in fields like disability/accessibility, museum education, and activism. For example, Vancouver-based Carmen Papalia, another PSU cohort member, addresses accessibility in museums with a tour in which participants describe the work to him (he is visually impaired). Projects by Los Angeles-based collective Machine Project and Portland Art Museum’s Shine a Light program inject the once-unthinkable into museums: scholarly play, dancing, cheers, music, debates, wrestling, sleepovers, plant babysitting, orienteering, celebrating immigrant labor, and more. I think it also gets interesting when artists collaborate with people from other fields. Some of the most exciting artists are those who have worked in other fields before identifying as artists.

 

Lexa Walsh’s Make Things (Happen) contribution is an activity sheet that describes the Meal Ticket process. You can download it or pick one up at Interface Gallery through March 1.

how to participate: take an activity sheet. make things happen. make things. share your results. #mkthngshppn

Standard
Han­nah Jick­ling, Helen Reed and grade 6 students, Your Lupines or Your Life // Source: reheardregalement.com

Han­nah Jick­ling, Helen Reed and grade 6 students, Your Lupines or Your Life, floral bouquets as ‘Abject Awards,’ made from surplus furnerary arrangements // Source: reheardregalement.com

Works

Han­nah Jick­ling, Helen Reed, and grade 6 students, Your Lupines or Your Life

Image
Meta-Practice, Research

words on social practice and creativity

Christoph Büchel’s Piccadilly Community Centre: an exciting example of social practice.

J.J. Charlesworth’s “Hidden Intentions,” (Art Review, December 2011) introduced me to this brilliant intervention transforming the tony Central London Hauser & Wirth location (formerly a bank) into a working social centre, and not just for in-the-know art students, but for the public—senior citizens, yoga practitioners and so on. Piccadilly Circus is a popular tourist’s nexus like Times Square, where simply winding through crowds, dodging street salesmen, and finding a restroom can be exhausting. So Büchel’s gesture of turning an exclusive, expensive, private space into a rambunctious, free, public one is quite satisfying. I was also intrigued to read that

much was made of whether Büchel’s project was a comment on David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’

I find Büchel’s responsiveness commendable.

On irony, and bridging the divide between art and life

“Hidden Intentions” is not an exhibition review, but a speculative essay. Charlesworth also examines Matthew Darbyshire’s faux loft ads at Herald Street, writing that it

is interesting because, like Büchel’s community centre, it points backwards to interrogate the capacity of the viewer to recognise the gesture as ironic. Because irony always implies a ‘double’ audience—those who accept the gesture at face value and those who realise the gesture is simulated intentionally—it also implies a form of superiority, which is often couched in terms of criticism of another….

This is art that writes itself into the fabric of everyday life with only the fading trace of the artist as proof of its reality as a sort of ironic gesture, and in which the work’s audience is made complicity with the artist’s manipulation of the world of others…. Of course, it still needs the institutional frame of the artworld to allow it to happen, but in doing so, it takes to an extreme the postmedium scope of current artistic possibility, where in the end, the only thing that is distinguishable is the discursive setup of the artworld itself.

Conflict aids creativity?

So argues Jonah Lehrer in “Group Think: The Brainstorming Myth” (The New Yorker, January 20, 2o12). He presents evidence contrary to the widely-accepted prohibition against criticism in brainstorming:

According to [psychology professor Charlan] Nemeth, … “…debate… will always be more productive. True creativity requires some trade-offs.”

To Lehrer and Nemeth, I’d respond with a constructively critical, “Yes, but…”

Positive Sign #1, 2011, glitter and fluorescent pen with holographic foil print on gridded vellum, 8.5 × 11 in / 21.5 × 28 cm

Consider Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi‘s five stages of the creative process: preparation, incubation, insight, evaluation, and elaboration. I would think that debate is productive in some stages (such as evaluation and elaboration) and not others (such as preparation, incubation, and insight).

Perhaps more even-handed: sociologist Brian Uzzi analyzed musicals to find correspondences between social intimacy among creators and box office and critical success.

“The best Broadway teams, by far, were those with a mix of relationships,” Uzzi says. “These teams had some old friends, but they also had newbies. This mixture meant that artists could interact efficiently—they had a familiar structure to fall back on—but they also managed to incorporate some new ideas. They were comfortable, but not too comfortable.”

For artists considering creative and professional collaborators, choose carefully.

Lehrer also makes an exemplar of the MIT “rad lab”—where a disused building became home to divergent departments, creating spillover, and presumably, lending interdisciplinary gusto to the work of Chompsky, Bose, and other paradigm shifters. Lehrer concludes

The lesson of Building 20 is that when the composition is right—enough people with different perspectives running into on another in unpredictable ways—the group dynamic will take care of itself…. The most creative spaces are those which hurl us together.

I cringed when I read that last sentence, after my experiences in open-plan studios in graduate school. Unwanted intrusions can make focusing attention seem like a Herculean task. Being hurled together say, when you’re reading or trying to resolve an artwork, with someone taking a phone call or playing music, is not creative, but torturous. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt points out that humans can adapt to many things, but we never adapt to intermittent noise:

Research shows that people who must adapt to new and chronic sources of noise … never fully adapt, and even studies find some adaptation still find evidence of impairment on cognitive tasks. Noise, especially noise that is variable or intermittent, interferes with concentration and increases stress. It’s worth striving to remove sources of noise in your life.

Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis, New York: Basic Books (2006) 92.
Standard