What is at stake when we use the term “social practice”? Is “social practice” the best name?
I have to admit to some ambivalence about the rush to identify a “best name” for this area of art practice. The fact that it hasn’t yet been definitively named is, in my view, not entirely a bad thing. The proliferation of candidates (socially-engaged art, social practice, activist art, participatory art, relational art) is symptomatic of the diversity of a field shouldn’t necessarily be homogenized. The anodyne term “social practice” seems to have caught on recently, perhaps because it sheds what some apparently consider the déclassé connotations of “activism” or “engagement”. It’s interesting that none of these terms involve an “ism,” and all of them, with the notable exception of “social practice,” deploy verbs as nouns (participate, relate, engage). This is a significant difference, which suggests the fluidity of the practice itself. Bill Kelley Jr. and I just finished compiling an anthology of writings by art collectives that have been working in Latin America over the last twenty years. It represents the work of over thirty artists and collectives active in ten different countries. What is particularly striking in all their reflections is the absence of any soul searching about what to call their practice. This concern with naming seems especially pronounced in the U.S. The desire to name and codify is, I suspect, linked to the remarkable speed with which socially engaged art, or whatever we chose to call it, is being institutionalized in this country (evident in the proliferation of dedicated MFA programs). This development has both positive and negative consequences for the kinds of work being produced today. It also reflects a degree of self-consciousness about the status of this work as “art” that is understandable, but also problematic. Why is it necessary for us to add a predicate that marks this work as a deviation from some perceived norm? Perhaps its due in part to the disdain that this work has so often elicited in the context of American and European criticism. The result of all these qualifying terms (social, engaged, participatory) is to naturalize a concept of (unqualified) “art” against which this deviation must justify itself.
The issue of nomenclature raises a deeper question. Does this area of work simply mark the formalization of yet another new ‘genre’ of art, which will dutifully take its place within the orderly progression of painting, sculpture, installation, performance, new media, etc.? Or does it entail a more profound re-ordering of the discursive system that underlies most existing modes of artistic production? Of course history will eventually decide this question, and probably bestow a label that none of us can anticipate, and which no one involved with the work itself will probably like. I suppose, given the institutional pressures of graduate programs, museums, funders, and the discourse of art history itself (in which I am complicit), that some branding will occur, but I think our time would be better spent in trying to simply describe what this work does, in all its diversity. How do these practices actually function to transform an individual consciousness or a public space? What effects, and affects, do they produce? What forms of agency do they catalyze, or preclude? And what are the operational and infrastructural differences among and between various forms of practice globally? We could use a bit of Plumpes Denken before we worry too much about applying a fixed label to a field that is far broader and more recalcitrant than most of us realize. There are plenty of important questions to ask but I wonder if satisfying answers will emerge from the culture of blog entries and Pecha Kucha blipverts that has characterized much of the recent conversation in the US. Perhaps we should try ten questions in one hundred days or even better, one really good question with one hundred different answers.
About the contributor: Grant Kester is Professor of Art History in the Visual Arts department at the University of California, San Diego. His publications include Art, Activism and Oppositionality: Essays from Afterimage (Duke University Press, 1997, editor), Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art (University of California Press, 2004) and The One and the Many: Contemporary Collaborative Art in a Global Context (Duke University Press, 2011). He’s recently finished work on Collective Situations: Dialogues in Contemporary Latin American Art 1995-2010, edited with Bill Kelley, Jr. grantkester.net