What We Made: Conversations on Art and Social Cooperation

Reviewed by Katie Bachler

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The Social Turn, Relational Aesthetics, Site Specificity and Locational Identity, Participation

Affect, effect, being, feeling, now.

A school, a loaf of bread, homes for people, a parade, the alphabet, a marketplace, the sanitation department.

In my bodywork session this morning we talked about this, an idea of a self in the world of cities and YouTube, Pizza Hut and Prius, Art School and Mexico; signifiers that construct a relational, brand-based identity based on a shifting set of important things, an always-interesting frosting on the core conscious beings that we are. Letting go of things that define. Letting go of object based realities. Creating, if even for a moment, a moment that is only referencing itself, bringing a viewer or pack of viewers deeper into that instant, and also, then, themselves with-in it. The artists speaking in What We Made endeavor to create this: a frame that is the thing that it is framing. And Tom Finkelpearl, the book’s editor/author, frames the frames, in a map of multiplicities.

From happenings in the late 1960s, ACT UP and Suzanne Lacy in the 1980s, to Rirkrit Tiravanija’s curry at 303 Gallery in the ‘90s , the field of participation in art is hardly new. With critics like Grant Kester, Miwon Kwon, Nicholas Bourriaud, and Claire Bishop, a complex discourse has emerged in the past 15 years, along with criteria for judging the success of work that exist outside of the gallery and relies directly on participating bodies. As the observations are authored singly, their words sometimes seem disconnected from the collaboratively authored works they are critiquing. A new language, based on dialogue and out of the art world, is needed to adequately frame and dissect work that engages explicitly non-art audiences.

What We Made brings together the stars of the social practice world Rick Lowe, Tania Bruguera, Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Harrell Fletcher, and more in conversations with urban planners, educators, and each other, to create a fluid and interdisciplinary dialogue about social practice and its complicated, beautiful and necessary implications in the world. There are a slew of questions debated, and a desire to come up with appropriate terms.

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How do we come to know ourselves? Through learning from the places we live in? From people around us? How is community knowledge made visible?

People touch and it is real, we want to believe in change.

How do collaborative artists work? (Finkelpearl calls Social Practice ‘Collaborative Art.’ I like it). Some make work that is still singly authored. Some let a project take on a highly collaborative existence, some work within the institution of art, others build grassroots style from the sidewalk. What happens inevitably in all of the works as the artist lets the projects live in society is a letting go.

Finkelpearl asks lots of questions, and encourages a discussion around terminology. The words agent, catalyst, instigator come up as ways to describe social practitioners. They are no longer artists as sole creators. There is a softness to the language, an acceptance of a shifting definition—and this is a necessity when a major question being grappled with is How do we encourage people to connect in this increasingly object oriented reality? The idea of a soft and subtle way to gesture towards other possible worlds, whether that be Ulysses performed in a mechanic’s shop in SE Portland (Harrell Fletcher as catalyst), or an Arabic alphabet created by youth based on memories and joy, individualities, the invisible made visible, through connecting groups through the visual medium (Wendy Ewald as instigator).

The text is informed by questions, as it takes the form of interviews. Each chapter focuses on a different topic related to social practice, and the controversial and ambiguous nature of social practice as an art form. The question “but is it art?” seems not to matter much at all, as what is revealed through interviews is a desire to create new situations that not only highlight pre-existing assumptions about the world and its workings, but to create new forms of experience that simultaneously critique and inspire. What are the ways to get to a moment of a moment, to let down guards and be present for an activity that directly implicates the multitude of individuals who move around malls and drive cars and check iPhones in bed in the morning as the connections of the day begin. Tania Bruguera’s student-run art school proposes a new set of ethics, what she calls an alter-reality, transreality, parallel reality.

Collection, collaboration, collectivity.

We need to know each other. As an educator I always know when a moment of connection occurs, when the students are participating in an experience, not just passively being filled with knowledge that I have that they don’t. We have been studying law by making up our own laws, and designing paper and logos for our laws too. The whole system. A seeing where we look each other in the eyes and it feels real, and new. Taking a passive structure and making it active by understanding its intricacies. Connecting through knowing the systems we are a part of.

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Mierle Laderman Ukeles says: “Each single shattered morsel in this world is filled with divine light.”

Passion because of a connection to the human condition and to an idea of giving people a voice shifts the passive viewer of a parade and passive student into active creators, like Daniel Joseph Martinez’s Consequences of A Gesture, 1993, through Chicago and Tania Bruguera’s Catedra de Arte Conducta (Behavior Art Department), 2002–2009. There becomes an aesthetics of participation, an aesthetics of the social. To invite participation from the public, artists often adopt and imitate structures with which we are already intimate, like schools or housing projects, parades or markets. If art is taking the form of social institutions, we can also expect the duration to mimic that of those institutions. The process may be slower than say making a drawing of trash cans in a poor neighborhood. It takes time to build relationships and this is crucial for work to be successful. Rick Lowe and Mark J. Stern argue this point in their chapter, Social Vision, Cooperative Community. There is a need to activate and bring awareness to these institutions and social forms that we are not taught to question; a grassroots inquiry into typically top-down organized formats of human interactions. Shake up assumptions, personalize and participate.

The conversation between Harrell Fletcher and urban planner Ethan Setzer felt important because there did become this divide of “oh but I’m not an artist, so…”, though they were really talking about very similar ideas, creating autonomous spaces for people to be and breathe and have a sense of agency in the process of planning spaces. The question of “is it art?” took the back seat in discussions, outside of the idea of using art funding to access specific populations. As the chapters unfolded, it became clear that the most important aspect of this type of work was the experiences, the Joseph Beuysian notion of the social organism AS a work of art. A destabilization of the term art as we know it.

I have been thinking of social practice art as a kind of meditation in a way. There is only a new now. There is no binary between aesthetics and experience, participant and spectator. All are responsible for creating their own experience of the experience. “Truth becomes a verb…”

Finkelpearl ends his book with citing John Dewey’s pragmatism as a way to understand the function of socially cooperative artwork; members of society must be active participants in its creation. We have a social responsibility to be present in the knowing and building of the world. We cannot generalize a city, an audience, a viewer, and perhaps the role of a socially cooperative artwork is to render the city somewhat open, at least in a specific geography for a certain amount of time, there is a sudden subjectivity as a particular aspect, history, or population of the city is made visible through the question being asked.

We have to be open to experiencing it, holding it all at once.

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Tom Finkelpearl, What We Made: Conversations on Art and Social Cooperation, (Duke University Press, 2013) 
Images: Cover and interior of What We Made: Conversations on Art and Social Cooperation

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