The Questions We Ask Together

Tom Finkelpearl sharing some of the questions generated at the final event of Open Engagement 2013. Photo: John Muse.

For the closing event of Open Engagement 2013 we set out to collect 100 questions generated by the assembled group of conference attendees to further get a sense of what is emerging, what people are thinking, and where this conversation is going. This was inspired by Sister Corita’s “quantity assignments,” to generate 100 questions before embarking on intensive work and research. The format was that each of our six panelists joined one of six seated groups that each had about 40 chairs, and we then had about 35 minutes to work together and for each group to write 17 questions and then we reconvened and the panelists shared the group work.

It was the hope that after the conference we could then reflect on this list of the questions we are currently asking ourselves about socially engaged art. This series of blog posts sets out to do just that.

In the lead up to OE 2014 we are launching a blog that will have 100 contributors from the field reflecting on these 100 collectively generated questions. Each contributor has been assigned one question to write about.

These blog posts are not intended to answer the questions necessarily, but possibly to address why it is being asked? Why it matters or doesn’t matter? These blog posts will provide an important venue before the conference to deepen our shared exploration of the ideas and questions that socially engaged art provokes.

Thank you to all of the contributors at Open Engagement 2013 who participated in this process. We hope that highlighting these questions will help to continue to push forward the conversations and work. We look forward to continuing this generative conversation in May in New York!

Jen Delos Reyes
Founder and Director, Open Engagement

100 Questions Blog Project is edited by: Gemma-Rose Turnbull, with support from Jen Delos Reyes and Arianna Jacob.

01: Jen Delos Reyes

What happens when the artist leaves?

“Everyone…becomes a listener.” – John Cage


About the contributor: Jen Delos Reyes is an artist originally from Winnipeg, MB, Canada. Her research interests include the history of socially engaged art, artist-run culture, group work, band dynamics, folk music, and artists’ social roles. Jen is the founder and director of Open Engagement, an international conference on socially engaged art. She is currently an Assistant Professor at Portland State University where she teaches in the Art and Social Practice program.

02: J. Morgan Puett

How do we find moments of solitude?


Solitude is such a personal topic. I hardly know how I could offer any notion of it, being a single mother, with a project in my home. In this small society (of both the human and non human) at Mildred’s Lane, certain times a year there are surges of activity that make it impossible to have any solitude. It can be overwhelming social engagement; even at sleep a mind is active in a wildish place. But other times a year, I am there with my son, sort of alone; but that does not mean I have any solitude. I see all the repairs that are needed, all the flaws of its becoming, and a never ending list of to do’s not only in the buildings, outbuildings and landscape; even in the town, in the studio where there are endless lists to accomplish.

Perhaps our most natural state of solitude is in a nomadic state; the flaneur, the wanderer, the traveler––where solitude and deep thought can exist in the interstitial spaces between engagements––twixt here and there, in motion. But, as artists, work is our life, therefore we must weave our life through it, creating events out of every action, every banal chore, and particularly thinking with creative domesticating at every turn; I call this workstyles. There may be solitude found in such spaces that a few Excerpts from the Glossary of the User’s Guide to Mildred’s Lane* might enlighten:

as you go
az yoō gō
1. to gather, glean and collect multiple things at once: We learn as we go. 2. doing several things at once along the course of any given time or task; Take the compost as you go to the garden to weed and plant. Do as you go, rest as you go.

1. the quality of being kind and generous : We are overwhelmed by the generosity of friends and colleagues. 2. the quality or fact of being plentiful or large : Fellows certainly cannot complain about the generosity of portions. Origin: late Middle English (denoting nobility of birth): from Latin generositas, from generosus ‘magnanimous’ (see generous). Current senses date from the 17th cent. 

hoosh 1
verb or noun (hooshing)
1. a practice of (conceptually charged) styling, cleaning. 2. the stylistic activation and conceptual engagement with one’s environment. 3. other origins: Early American slang use for anything that needs an aesthetic extension. Neologism of Mildred’s Lane, Pa. c. late 20c.  I had a hoosh of a night. Did you see how hooshed up she was? Hoosh up your room! Nice hoosh!

hoosh 2
1. trans. To force or turn or drive (an animal, etc.) off (or out, etc.) 2. also intr., to move (rapidly). Origin:(from the OED:)Cf. also quot. 1943.1908 Athenæum 11 Apr. 450/1, I hooshed them, hooshed them all into the shed. 1928 A. A. MILNE House at Pooh Cornervi. 100 ‘Well done, Pooh… That was a good idea of ours… Hooshing you to the bank like that.’ ‘Hooshing me?’ said Eeyore in surprise. ‘Hooshing me? You didn’t think I was hooshed, did you? I dived. Pooh dropped a large stone on me, and so as not to be struck heavily on the chest, I dived and swam to the bank.’ 1933 L. A. G. STRONG Sea Wall xvii. 283 We could hoosh the whole lot of them off of the line, and the train could go by. 1934 A. RUSSELL Tramp-Royal in Wild Australia iii. 27, I untied my camel, ‘hooshed’ it down and mounted it. 1936 A. THIRKELL August Folly ix. 283 Oh, she’s dressing, and Aunt Palmer hooshed me out. 1939 JOYCE Finnegans Wake 112 Trust her to propagate the species and hoosh her fluffballs safe through din and danger! 1943 HUNT & PRINGLE Service Slang 39 Hooshing, purely an R.A.F. word, which means landing at great speed. 1956 ‘A. BRIDGE’ Lighthearted Quest ii. 37 Why do you go hooshing off to find him in this completely wild-cat way?

noun or wander around from place to place. Origin: late 16th cent. from Latin peregrinat- ‘traveled abroad,’ from the verb peregrinari, from peregrinus ‘foreign, traveling.’

1. a condition of body and mind such as that which typically recurs for several hours every night, in which the nervous system is relatively inactive, the eyes closed, the postural muscles relaxed, and consciousness practically suspended: I was on the verge of sleep | [ in sing. ] : a good night’s sleep.

• chiefly literary a state compared to or resembling sleep, such as death or complete silence or stillness: a photograph of the poet in his last sleep. Have a good sleep in a well-hooshed bed, swaddled with crisp cotton sheets and heavy layers of blankets.

2. a gummy or gritty secretion found in the corners of the eyes after sleep: she sat up, rubbing the sleep from her eyes.

all of the above
often attributive
1. The embodiment of any practitioners work-live-research environment as a developed and rigorous engagement with every aspect of life. 2. Interpersonal and intrapersonal everyday connections between researching, working, making, cooking and living centered on new modes of being in the world and are negotiated daily through the rethinking of one’s involvements with food, shopping, making, styling, gaming, sleeping, reading, thinking and doing. (see comportment)(see systems thinking)(see system aesthetics). Origin: neologism of Mildred’s Lane, Pa. c. late 20c.  a response to Bruce Mau’s redefining lifestyles. Gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art– life.  (see The Discipline of DE, William Burroughs; Gus Van Sant 1982,)

* From The Comportment Manual: Excerpts from the Glossary of the User’s Guide to Mildred’s Lane is an ongoing aggregate work, gleaning and reassembling terms and references which include notes from; personal accounts, early American slang, the English Oxford Dictionary, environmental activism, Wikipedia, and theoretical citations from fables, film, philosophy, biology, art, architecture, fashion, sociology, economics, and much more.

About the contributor: J. Morgan Puett, Ambassador of Entanglement, Mildred’s Lane, was born in Hahira, Georgia in 1957. She received her MFA in sculpture and experimental filmmaking from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1985. Puett is a trans-disciplinary creative producer with accomplished work in the areas of installation art practices, clothing and furniture design, architecture, fine art, film, and more––rearranging these intersections by applying conceptual tools of research-based methods in history, biology, new economies, design, craft and collaboration. Morgan’s early work forged new territory by intervening into the fashion system with a series of storefront installations and clothing/dwelling projects in Manhattan in the eighties and nineties, then produced a long series of research installations on the histories of the needle trade systems in museums around the world. More recently tagged, her work has been innovative in the realm of ‘social engagement’ and the Mildred’s Lane Project continues to forge new ground, citing that being is profoundly a social and political practice. She is the recipient of The John and Marva Warnock award 2014,the United States Artists Simon Fellow Award 2011, the Smithsonian Institution Artist Research Fellowship 2009, the Anonymous Was A Woman Award 2005, the PEW Charitable Trust in Philadelphia 2005 amongst others and was one of the 2014 keynote speakers for Open Engagement at the Queens Museum.

Though her practice can be itinerant in nature, Puett currently is living, working, learning and teaching in Pennsylvania at Mildred’s Lane and The Mildred Complex(ity) that she founded and co-directs with Mark Dion.


03: Tania Bruguera

When is being cynical or perverse useful?


Gemma-Rose Turnbull: This is sort of a tricky question. But I think perhaps it sounds more challenging than it is.

Tania Bruguera: I’m not sure that the outcome cynicism can provide is always useful in art; instead, to be perverse is definitely very useful. The weakness I see in cynicism is that in order to be understood and fully enjoyed, it should be done mostly for those who already think closer to the statement you are addressing cynically, otherwise the point is lost, or it automatically becomes perverse. Cynicism is more preaching to the chorus that it wants to admit and it creates a sort of complicit association that is not very productive, so I’m not so sure how empowered a cynical attitude is in general––for me it is a little passive. Instead, when art is perverse you are talking to the uninitiated and pushing the ones that are on the other side of the issue.

I always prefer the honesty illegal gestures carry, the questioning of our behavior and the space that is created around things people do not understand and have to cope with. We need to do an art also that engages with the enemy, we need to enter their territory because they are very comfortable entering ours (academia, art distribution and legitimation, art history, museums, public art, art magazines, TV, newspapers, etc.), they are setting the etiquette and we need to show them that art is a place where they will be rendered accountable. We need to challenge what they are saying, and instead trying to look at what they are doing, we need to take their masks off, we need to corner them on their real purposes. I’m talking about some gallerists, fairs, curators, collectors and politicians, and yes, some artists as well. Those who are helping the establishment and favoring a conformist status quo; where the artists are dependent from a very big mechanism of control through distribution and legitimation that is made desirable and therefore dependable.

But what seems unavoidable now in art is not its aesthetic tactics or its linguistic strategies, but the imminence of giving some new sense to its existence, a new role. We need to think now about what art is for? And what would be its role in these times, when society is changing towards new dilemmas, which are very different from the ones that generated most of the art in the format we see it around. We need new forms in art because art needs to respond to new issues.

We need to bring an alternative to the formalization (or should I say banalization) of arguments (social and political) that is very often found while discussing about contemporary art in mainstream circumstances, as if they were purely formal elements instead of social urgencies people who are artists are worried about. In some places art is still one of the few spaces of social tolerance. This is important because the space for legitimation is becoming disengaged from the alternative and the underground culture. We are living in the mainstreamization era in the arts.

The second element that presses to think about is the ways in which art connects and relates with untrained/uninformed art audiences. As many have said before, especially Kaprow, the audience has to disappear. For that to happen art has to be useful for the people who approach it or who are approached, because the models of  ‘participation,’ ‘interaction,’ ‘relation,’ ‘collaboration,’ ‘co-authorship,’ are not working anymore––they have not erased the barrier of the ‘expert’ who stays and the ‘temporary visitor’ those audiences become. The audiences have to transform into permanent relationships, art has to become (finally) part of their everyday life. It is not about everybody being an artist (sorry Joseph), it is about art becoming a condition of life. We need to enter the conversation with those audiences from a space where they also have something to say, where they are as ‘experts’ or more than the artist and that is respected, not as a collection of data for the artist to work with, but as the establishing of an ecology of ethics where results are not necessary but where the process is the result, actually where the culture of expert is eliminated. Once we have an art that is used as a responsible civic tool finally the concept of the audience will be eliminated.

GRT: Are you cynical?

TB: I’m not cynical at all, I’m brutally honest.

GRT: So I guess the antithesis of “cynical” is “earnest”. I wonder if you see that it is more useful to be an earnest artist?

TB: Absolutely. I think people take refuge too quickly on cynicism because there is too much fear, too much fear of feeling, and too much fear of truth. Artists and art are precisely where the sense of truth can be examined and challenged, where one cannot be paralyzed by fear but battle fear.

GRT: Looking at the history of your art making, you often do things that are outside of what we would consider standard, or expected (which is the actual meaning of the word “perverse”). And perhaps that is one of the most interesting ways you entice people to read the messages you present.

TB: I work based on what it is in the human, social and/or political arena and those are areas where things function by rules other than the art’s. Where metaphors are generated and put in motion very differently. To be honest I never think something is going to be shocking I just honor the honesty of what I’m doing and of my vision. I’m very clear about what my goals are.

I see art as research, and artists as researchers, not as makers or products. So in that sense it is almost like the research is going to go deeper and deeper and that’s where I go into new areas where maybe people feel that what I do is not “expected”. But if you see the development of my ideas about art and society it is natural and coherent––nothing is unexpected, it is a progression of an idea. But also people in the arts look too much at visual clues for coherence and in my work the clues are not visual, they are experiential, they are in the development of the conversation.

GRT: Are people confronted by the works that you produce?

TB: People are confronted with stages of a thought and a conversation they may not want to be part of because in order to enter you have to get rid of any learned behavior, to de-educate themselves so they can actually be open to engage.

So they can actually be open to the message, and try to find new responses to the same thing that has been seen over and over. Especially the political issues, and social issues cannot be questioned if one is not in a space of doubt and questioning, and that can only happen when you are not your social self. In a way I feel like an outsider and the work is too.

In Arte Útil, I find in some ways it solves the problem of audiences who are not trained to be artistic audiences, and people who are experts. It is a way in which both audiences coincide and can be completely satisfied. And that, for me, is maybe the key. I think it is very important. I think most people who are using social engagement [as a tool for art making] are bumping into this wall: “Well, you know you do it for the masses, the aesthetics suffer.” I think in Arte Útil there is a perfect balance.

GRT: Arte Útil literally translates to useful art?

TB: Yeah. In Spanish, “útil ” has two meanings. It is the tool that provides the uses, and also the act and process to be useful.

GRT: How do you see that Arte Útil fits into challenging those accepted norms or standards?

TB: Oh a lot! Because it is trying to challenge the status quo. But also trying to challenge the idea that art is entertainment or evasion. Arte Útil tries to use art as a responsible civic tool.

About the contributor: Tania Bruguera has eaten dirthung a dead lamb from her neck and served trays of cocaine to a gallery audience, all in the name of art. She is the initiator of Immigrant Movement International, a long-term art project in the form of an artist-initiated socio-political movement. Bruguera began the project by spending a year operating a flexible community space in the multinational and transnational neighborhood of Corona, Queens, which served as the movement’s first headquarters. She researches ways in which art can be applied to the everyday political life; focusing on the transformation of the condition of “viewer” onto one of active “citizenry” and of social affect into political effectiveness. Her long-term projects have been intensive interventions on the institutional structure of collective memory, education and politics. To define her practice she created and uses the terms Arte Útil, “Arte de Conducta” (Conduct/Behavior Art), and “Political Timing Specific” (a work method in which the piece is linked to and depends of the political circumstances existing in the moment it is made or exhibited).

04: Marc Mayer

Are trivial forms of participation better than no participation at all?


When I received this single question to answer for the 100 questions project, my brain kept rephrasing the question. I came up with multiple variations, like:

  • Are minimal forms of participation better than no participation?
  • Are limited forms of participation better than no participation?
  • Are disingenuous forms of participation better than no participation?

I spent hours thinking about these alternate versions of the question, which yielded different so many more questions. Does an artist’s insincerity or cynicism result in “inauthentic” responses or participation? Does limited participation mean limited thought? Can minimal participation still have profound impact on the participant or the work? I built “yes” arguments and “no” arguments around these different versions. I then checked the question again, “Are trivial forms of participation better than no participation at all?” Through all of my thinking, from diagramming my ideas to investigating both institutional and individual points of view to answer these question variations, why had I subconsciously and consistently replaced the word trivial?

To understand my avoidance of the term, it was time to define it.  A simple online query yielded multiple definitions of trivial, all of which orbit around being, “of little value or importance.” Synonyms included banal, inconsequential, trite, nonessential, petty, marginal, and frivolous. I considered how these words have been used, for example

  • The government plans to cut “non-essential” curricular offerings including music and art activities in public schools.
  • Sexuality is the frivolous fodder of fashion and lifestyle.

I realized I had a history with these words, many of which are used to challenge my ideas, perspectives, and subjectivities as an art educator, contemporary art aficionado, and student of queer and ethnic studies.  I see these words employed to pathologize artists on a regular basis. I think being skeptical of triviality is healthy.  I am still left with a question, what are the trivial forms of participation?  What can we learn from those modes of action? Are the results of such participation, trivial as well?

Oliver Herring’s TASK provides a real and complex look into many of these questions around the banal, trivial and frivolous forms of participation.  The premise of TASK is simple, assemble a space, people, and materials. Each participant writes a task on a piece of paper, then selects a task from the pile, interprets it, and executes with the materials and people in the space. When the task is complete, the participant writes a new task as a replacement for the completed task.

Almost reaching its ten-year anniversary, TASK has taken place across the country in museums, classrooms, community centers, and parks, both with and without the artist. What I find interesting is the way the project has been described in the press. In 2006, Blake Gopnik described the upcoming TASK event in the Washington Post.

“On Saturday at the Hirshhorn, New Yorker Oliver Herring will be making a live artwork called “Task” that pushes the domain of art into the trivial and everyday.”

What Gopnik writes is true, the project pushes art into the trivial and everyday by seeing how a task might be able to generate a sense of community, but what he doesn’t capture is the openness participants are able to cultivate through participation. They make themselves vulnerable to a world of possibility and each other.  TASK transforms the ordinary into something a bit more extraordinary. There is a bit of magic in it.

My favorite coverage is this gem of incendiary criticism written by Regina Hackett for the Seattle Pi, titled “Oliver Herring’s Improv Event Suffers Fools Gladly.” The author writes,

“I more or less loathe the idea. It has roots in hypnotist stage shows, getting people from the audience to cluck like chickens or dance with imaginary dogs, and also in the trust exercises corporations made mandatory for employees in the 1980s…”Task” is voluntary. Come see a person with toilet paper under his nose. Gee, no thanks. Let me be my own fool of my own making, but I’m not going to do it to entertain others.”

What could be more frivolous than a hypnotist stage show? Why TASK, of course! Hackett will not participate in this ridiculous project, which has little to no value for her. The article reads more like comedy than arts journalism.

While I don’t think TASK could be deemed a form of trivial participation, I hope one could understand my skepticism around the term and its use to denigrate people, art, and culture. Perhaps it is time to lift the cover and show the “trivial” and “marginal” crevices of life where culture is developed, incubated, and still resides.

About the contributor: Marc Mayer works in the public programs department at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco where he focuses on inserting contemporary art programming and performance into the context of historical, ethnically-specific museum. He initiated the Artists Drawing Club in 2013, an on-going program series which invites local artists to use the museum as a project platform to draw connections between ideas, art, culture, and time. Previously he has worked at Art21, the New Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art.

05: Gemma-Rose Turnbull

Who cares?


So I have this dog, Rufus. Technically he is my sister’s dog, or even my nephew’s dog, but I was complicit in the acquisition of him, and as it turns out, he has chosen me to be the subject of his singular doggy gaze. I’m Australian, so my analogy for the intensity of his adoration is that if I had a pouch, like a Kangaroo, he would never, ever leave it.

I’ve always been a cat person, so becoming the “owner” of a neurotic pooch took quite some getting used to––feline aloofness is so much more appealing. I curse him at least half a dozen times a day as I trip over his body, which is always positioned a little too close to mine, but mostly I let him pad behind me without too much protest.

Actually, that’s a lie. I’ve come to like it––really like it. I like having him curled up on the chair while I work. I like the comfort of his little nose on my cheek. I like how he dances for me––leaping and wagging, a huge smile on his face––when I return home. I like how I can take him to parties with me (much to the bemusement of friends). I want to have him with me all the time. Or almost all (despite my indulgence I draw the line at sharing a bed).

But it is more than that. He had kind of a rough start. He’s a retriever, and while he wasn’t horribly neglected per se, he was left alone for very long hours, when he was too young. And anyone who knows anything about retrievers knows that they’d prefer a pat from their owner than to eat the nice duck they’ve fetched from where you shot it down. Basically, they want and need people. I feel bad for him, and like my indulgence can somehow make up for his crappy puppyhood, so I encourage the incessant company.

This year I am living in America, so I left him with my sister, and my nephew, and they’re great, but they’re not me, and he got anxious. Rip-up-the-carpet, scratch-the-doors, refuse-food anxious. Turns out that my caring, my “making up for the Very Bad Beginning,” wasn’t helpful in the long term (though it was lovely in the short). I wrapped him up in my abundant “caring,” and it made me feel good (and purposeful) to be his carer. It seemed like win-win. It wasn’t.

That is a rather long-winded way of getting to the question––Who cares? There are many ways to tackle it; Who gives a shit? comes with a probable answer––probably we should just get on with it, stiff upper lip, and stop all this hand-clasping; or, Who is it that cares?, that could come with a catalogue of demographics––breaking down who exactly is doing all this caring; or, more existentially, How is it that we come to care? which would take a far greater philosopher than I to tackle.

What the question Who cares? raises for me is not any of these things, but How do we care?, or even, What impact does our ‘caring’ have on the people we deem need ‘care’? The Rufus-analogy is not really fair, because it just serves to illustrate intentions gone wrong. And that kind of good/bad dichotomy lacks the nuance this conversation needs in relation to socially engaged art practices and the hierarchies, demographics and people-centered outcomes of “caring” and “cared-for.” (And let me note here that prefacing talking about socially engaged art practices with an analogy about me being a terrible dog owner is extremely problematic––my dear friend Erica pointed me in the direction of a great quote from When Harry Met Sally: “Is one of us supposed to be the DOG in this scenario?” Here, no one is the dog. Except Rufus.)

My impulse is to rush in and “save”­­––I’m an accomplished buoy thrower­­­––and “kindness” is something I have never resisted indulging in. I don’t think it is useful to deconstruct my self, or my practice, to totally eradicate that impulse and end up in a state of paralysis. But, like Lenine Bourke  so elegantly stated in a letter to herself about being a “do-gooder,” there is some necessity to examine that impulse to caring, which inevitably leads to wanting to fix, without necessarily having determined if your caring/fixing is in anyone’s best interest––least of all the person (or dog) being cared for/fixed.

It’s a rush of course––the feel-good-ness of it all. The vision of swooping in and rescuing. Even if sometimes there is the hangover­­––the regret of extending beyond your own capacity. Years ago, when I was a newspaper photographer, I photographed the four families of kids who’d been killed in a car accident. It was completely horrific walking into homes suddenly empty of their teenage boys, and my heart barely stood it. My face mirrored their sadness, and one of the boy’s grandparents fixed on it and me, and months later they’d call and we would cry on the phone, both helpless and immobile with grief. I couldn’t extract myself from what was mine, and what was theirs (it is no exaggeration to mark that “job” as the end of my newspaper career). Again, in a really different way, the immediate gain and the long-term pain.

Perhaps this ‘going beyond the care of duty’ is peculiar to me, but mostly I think that people who use their art practice as visual activism genuinely give a shit about other people. Regardless of whether that is naïve, the natural extension of How do we care? is How do we care in ways that support our own needs as people (who happen to make art with other people) and that support the needs of the people we make art with?

Were it in my powers I’d furnish everyone with the kind of polished caring skills that allow the perfect balance; the ability to finish a project without being totally emotionally and physically exhausted, and caring the right amount in the right direction––asking first and foremost: “Do the people I want to ‘care for’ actually need ‘caring for’?” Lacking those kinds of super powers I will just wish that we’d all take a moment, before that deep breath where we launch in. Not to undermine that part on the inside that cares with everything––expansively, unabashedly and exhaustively––but to mediate our inner “rescuer” with some firm advice; “If you don’t care to question your caring, you’re not caring.”

About the contributor: Gemma-Rose Turnbull instigates collaborative photographic projects that examine ways in which the integration of collaborative strategies and de-authored practice can catalyse social change agendas and policies through image making and sharing. She has collaborated with street-based sex workers, elderly people who have suffered from abuse, and children. She is currently doing a practice-based PhD at The University of Queensland, Australia and is a Scholar in Residence in the Art and Social Practice program at Portland State University. /

06: Mierle Laderman Ukeles

How do we move past judging the processes of social practice and talk about the reception of the work by audiences and its effects?


There are “audiences” and “audiences.” People used to ask me, “Who’s your audience?” I never understood that question, and I never knew what to say. What are you talking about? Everyone and anyone is my audience. Especially if you locate yourself in the public domain, the ESSENCE of the public domain is that it belongs to everyone. Everyone is already there and is an owner. The audience is present. That’s what I like about it. That’s its value.

Now, of course between you and me, while they could, yet they often don’t show up, right? That’s a problem. And also some of them ask the dumbest questions too, right? So infuriating. I actually wish that the “effects” of public works became a central concern to critics and curators. So we would have responses to public work with highly articulated thinking, writing, talking. That’s a big after-effect with a lot of public work: bland, uncritical responses to the artist’s strategy and strategic thinking, quality of concept, justice sensitivity, impact, aesthetics, methods, meanings. And often not careful enough paying deep attention to what the artist is doing or what the art is aiming to do. Also responding midway through a work then all along the work’s spooling out––that’s critical too.

Are you expecting me to say we can change peoples’ lives and change the world? Yes! Though pretty battle scarred, there are zones where a lot of fundamental shifts can occur. I personally think I have had an impact on wedging Western culture open to think about, see, worry about maintenance, service work and workers, infrastructure, continuity, sustainability, human worth, wrecking the planet.

Let’s shift gears. Let’s talk about the future. We are creating a force field of social _____ art. You fill in the blank. I often call this wave that is certainly becoming / is already an art movement: “social shmocial art.” It is here and it is powerful. And most important, a lot of artists are creating these works like crazy. This kind of work is painfully heavy in paper and plotting and planning and talking, hoping, proposing, projecting, strategizing––although not enough strategizing. A lot of the creativity in the work is sitting inside all this stuff. Then there’s the work that happens. And then there’s cleaning up and then there’s after effects. Often the whole overall “work” has multiple shapes and forms and can take even years to come about. What will happen to all this knowledge, effort, accomplishment, failure, sinking, trying, lifting up, trying again, giving up and then trying again?

Where will it reside?

So I want to encourage all of us to create an ARCHIVES! We need an ARCHIVES! Many artists, certainly of my generation, who are “public domain lifers” lay awake at night worrying about this. What’s in these archives? Where is it housed? Who will have access to it? And who will maintain it?

Will all this gorgeous gracious generous human effort and accomplishment blow away? Become compost?

About the contributor: Mierle Laderman Ukeles is a defining artist in the history of performance, feminist, and socially engaged art and has been the official artist in residence with New York City’s Department of Sanitation for over three decades. Her work models possibilities of how an artist can create long-term, sustainable alternative contexts within which to situate and create their work.

07: Stephanie Parrish

Has medium inspecificity killed gallery art?


“The arts, then, have been hunted back to their mediums, and there they have been isolated, concentrated and defined. It is by virtue of its medium that each art is unique and strictly itself. To restore the identity of an art the opacity of its medium must be emphasized.” – Clement Greenberg, Towards a Newer Laocoon, 1940

“All media are mixed media…Materials and technologies go into a medium, but so do skills, habits, social spaces, institutions, and markets. The notion of “medium-specificity,” then, is never derived from a singular, elemental essence. It is more like the specificity associated with recipes in cooking: many ingredients, combined in a specific order in specific proportions, mixed in particular ways, and cooked at specific temperatures for a specific amount of time.” – W.J.T. Mitchell, There Are No Visual Media, 2008

Let me take a moment to acknowledge my affinity for W.J.T. Mitchell. In my opinion, “medium specificity” as defined by Clement Greenberg never really existed. As such, there is no way for me to discuss the how’s and why’s of “medium (in)specificity killing gallery art.” Frankly, I am not even sure what to make of the term “gallery art” which qualifies the question, but that’s a topic for another day.

My first reaction is to ask what on earth does it mean to talk about anything “medium-specific” in 2014, but in particular on the eve of an annual conference dedicated to socially engaged art practices? Are artists (regardless of their mediums), art historians, educators, curators, critics and culture watchers really still debating this and related terms like “formalism”? Hasn’t the wake of late 20th-century Postmodernism hunted Modernist “medium specific” theorists like Clement Greenberg back to the 18th- century? This is not to say that Clement Greenberg isn’t without his theoretical charms of persuasion. I rather like the old goat for having an opinion and sticking to it, but his mid-twentieth century arguments for the primacy of abstract painting and the holiness of “medium specificity” have always been a story of mythic proportions to me, and a story that’s as much about how theories and critical frameworks/discourses of art are constructed within particular historical moments, as they are the specific theories themselves. In Greenberg’s case, when we read now classic texts like Avant-Garde and Kitsch (1939), Towards a Newer Laocoon (1940), or Modernist Painting (1960-65), we are also revisiting the complexities of a post WWII art world newly rooted in the United States (specifically New York City), and brimming with communities of artists in exile, or those passing through from all corners of the globe. We know as close observers of this history that the framework/discourse of “medium specificity” found a vocal champion in the body of Clement Greenberg, but we also know that while his voice was loud and listened to by a powerful ecosystem of gallery owners, artists, institutions of higher education (i.e. art schools and art history departments), and even mainstream media, his theories reflected a tiny slice of what was actually happening on the ground. Yes, he dismissed or simply ignored artists who didn’t fit within his disciplined framework of media purity. In other words, he was silent on the likes of Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, and Allan Kaprow. So be it. His loss. Water under the bridge.

In the highly readable essay There Are No Visual Media (2008), W.J.T. Mitchell argues that all media are mixed media…”the very notion of a medium and of mediation already entails some mixture of sensory, perceptual, and semiotic elements.” He reminds us that it was the cultural theorist Raymond Williams who further defined medium in the mid-1970s as a “material social practice,” not a specifiable essence dictated by some elemental materiality (paint, stone, metal) or by technique or technology. In our historic moment, I appreciate it when Mitchell goes on to smartly suggest that it may be more useful to think of “medium specificity” within more open structures, structures not dissimilar to recipes for cooking where we acknowledge the range of possibilities among specific ingredients, proportions, and time.

So, where do ruminations and reminders on “medium (in)specificity” leave us as we consider the universe of socially engaged practices today? How might we continue to define, refine, and enact mediums of the social? I, for one, welcome recipes that call for a little of this and a little of that, but do so with purpose and a deep understanding of ingredients and where they come from. As a relative newbie to thinking and communicating about these expanded fields (and as an art museum staffer), I am in a constant state of curiosity, wonder and learning. I continue to have more questions than answers but I like being in this kitchen and mixing it up alongside some very talented chefs.

About the contributor: Stephanie Parrish is the Associate Director of Education & Public Programs at the Portland Art Museum where she currently oversees the Museum’s annual Shine a Light collaboration with students in the MFA in Art & Social Practice at Portland State University. She has presented on museums and socially engaged practices at numerous conferences including the National Art Education Association (NAEA), American Alliance of Museums (AAM), and Open Engagement. She earned a BA from New York University and an MA from Washington University in St. Louis both in Art History.

08: Robby Herbst

How do we sustain an attitude of defamiliarization?


3d image

Today, in the era of the complete triumph of the spectacle, what can be reaped from the heritage of Debord? It is clear that the spectacle is language, the very communicativity or linguistic being of humans. This means that a fuller Marxian analysis should deal with the fact that capitalism (or any other name one wants to give the process that today dominated world history) was directed not only toward the expropriation of productive activity, but also and principally toward the alienation of language itself, of the very linguistic and communicative nature of humans, of that logos which one of Heraclitus’ fragments identified as the Common. The extreme form of this expropriation of the Common is the spectacle, that is, the politics we live in. But this also means that in the spectacle of our own linguistic nature comes back to us inverted. This is why (precisely because what is being expropriated is the very possibility of common good) the violence of the spectacle is so destructive; but for the same reason the spectacle remains something like a positive possibility that can be used against it.
-Giorgio Agamben

Needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted. Industrial societies turn their citizens into image-junkies; it is the most irresistible form of mental pollution.
-Susan Sontag

The first de­ter­rence, nu­clear de­ter­rence, is presently being su­per­seded by the sec­ond de­ter­rence: a type of de­ter­rence based on what I call ‘the in­for­ma­tion bomb’ as­so­ci­ated with the new weaponry of in­for­ma­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tions tech­nolo­gies. Thus, in the very near fu­ture, and I stress this im­por­tant point, it will no longer be war that is the con­tin­u­a­tion of pol­i­tics by other means, it will be what I have dubbed ‘the in­te­gral accident’ that is the con­tin­u­a­tion of pol­i­tics by other means.
-Paul Virilio

About the contributor: Robby Herbst is an interdisciplinarian broadly interested in socio-political formations; behavioral architecture, languages of dissent and counter cultures. He is a writer, artist, teacher, and something other. He co-founded, and is former editor, of the Journal of Aesthetics & Protest, and currently instigates the Llano Del Rio Collective’s guides to Los Angeles. He has history involved in alternative media. He is the co-editor, with Nicole Antebi and Colin Dickey, of “Failure! Experiments in Social and Aesthetic Practices”. He’s contributed to catalog essays for artist Katie Grinnan and Fritz Haeg, and entries in other arts and activist publications including: Afterall,Proximity, ClamorArtus, and Arthur. He has lectured widely and taught contemporary art at USC, Otis College of Art, and Goddard College. He is a recipient of a Warhol Foundation Arts Writer’s Grant for essays exploring the phenomenology of social practice art and protest.

09: Kemi Ilesanmi

How do I reconcile the expectations of different stakeholders?


Here are just some of the stakeholders that come to mind when I consider The Laundromat Project’s work: artists, program participants, laundromat owners, institutional partners, community members, workshop leaders, staff, board, consultants, institutional funders, and individual donors.

Depending on the day, the activity or the existential question, they might move up and down the scale of prioritization. Our only constants are our organizational values. In spring 2013, we concluded a vigorous and collective process of self-examination and self-redefinition (also known as strategic planning) and came up with seven core values that animate our mission to amplify the power of creativity by connecting artists and everyday people in New York City neighborhoods. We thus define ourselves as creative catalysts, community-centered, neighborly, people-powered, active listeners and learners, collaborative and cross-pollinating by design, and propelled by love.

Since 2012, we’ve also been working with the amazing Ebony Noelle Golden, who has helped us ground our work in the principles of cultural organizing, especially that of deep listening and remaining accountable to the communities we serve. Cultural organizing can be defined in many ways, often foregrounding asking, listening, reflecting, and listening some more.

So, on those days when the staff and I are trying to figure out the best ways to serve our artists, engage our participants or partners, respond to funder directives, our fallback plan is to ask if this action reconciles with our values as an organization as well as being sure to check in with most affected by our decision for their input? How hard could that be, right?

Well, when running up against time (everything is due now!) and other factors, intention can be casualty if one is not vigilant. Early this year, we started a new commissions program that allows us to support the socially engaged practice of our professional development Fellows alumni. Our program director Petrushka Bazin Larsen and I came up with the idea during a subway ride and we would need to launch within just a few weeks. We quickly mapped it out and got really excited at the possibilities of investing in our Fellows and the larger social practice field. And then we remembered to take the time to listen. We held three phone conferences with alumni and chatted up the idea with them individually over lunches and drinks. We learned so much and quickly made the program more flexible (across NYC, not just our three anchor neighborhoods), inclusive (defining community flexibly), and relevant (allowing for networking and community support throughout), just by asking, “How would you make this better?” In a couple of weeks, we’ll be announcing our first two fabulous Fellow commission projects, and we are pleased as punch to have learned from them how best to serve them.

We are now in the midst of a strategic planning process solely around our arts education work. We are holding roundtables and one-to-one interviews and making sure we hear from students, parents, funders, teaching artists, colleagues in the field, and many more. The process is not as speedy as we might like, but it is thorough, invigorating, challenging, and grounded in all of our values. So, in short, we reconcile the expectations of our stakeholders by staying true to who we are in the most generous and open-minded way we can manage. It’s an ongoing practice, perfection is not the goal, and we are learning always.

About the contributor: Kemi Ilesanmi is the Executive Director of The Laundromat Project. With over 16 years experience in the cultural arena, she is inspired by the immense possibilities for joy and positive change at the intersection of arts and community. Prior to joining The LP, she was Director of Grants and Services at Creative Capital Foundation where she supported the work of American artists making adventurous new work. From 1998-2004, she was a visual arts curator at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. While there, she organized several exhibitions, including The Squared Circle: Boxing in Contemporary Art, and ran the visual arts residency program. An alumna of Coro Leadership NY, she also holds a MPA from New York University and BA from Smith College.