In posts by Deborah Fisher, W. Keith Brown, Brett Cook and others, “our own power” takes many forms: power as agency, power as hubris, discursive power, privilege. Many of us engaged in this conversation wrestle with the dilemma of how much to embrace our own power and how much to reject it because of the problems that the (unequal) ownership of power creates.
Rather than addressing my own privilege, I would rather turn my energy toward disrupting the political, economic, educational, and cultural systems that create privilege and regulate power, many of which are antiquated and some of which are morally corrupt.
How do I do that in my work? Through questioning (assumptions, systems, myself); through listening closely for prophetic voices; through teaching and challenging my own pedagogy; by learning other languages and assuming that when others speak, what I do not understand is my own deficiency; through believing in and seeking out the power that exists in unexpected places; by building alliances; by allowing myself to fall in love.
Many of us got into this field as a way to value difference and to resist dominant cultural and political structures through strategies of our own design. The territory between subverting our own power and using it, between agency and privilege, is an ethical minefield, gloriously murky, more complicated than any one question or category or label permits. Its danger is its power.
This territory is preceded by political and aesthetic movements around the world where citizens needed to be creative to survive. They needed new methods to threaten corrupt authorities. So Gandhi staged spectacular public burnings of British-made textiles and quietly spun his own yarn, and Boal devised ways to encourage citizenship and change laws through theater. Creativity was part of politics. What does it mean that these labels “socially engaged art” or “social practice” are really only used to describe art and social projects in the United States or from an American perspective? Do we Americans crave a container for these ideas because they are too risky for our cultural and political landscape?
Despite the recent and repeated desire to circumscribe it, I think this territory is most fruitful when it remains unnamed and undefined and malleable. I agree with Grant Kester; I don’t know why people want to make this kind of work seem clean and tidy and name it as an “art movement.” To do so reinforces the very power dynamics that many projects have sought to dismantle, critique, or challenge. Plus, when it is good, it is not clean at all. When it is good, we are all implicated.
About the contributor: Eric Gottesman is a photographic artist, teacher and organizer. His first book, Sudden Flowers, based on a fifteen-year collaborative project in one neighborhood in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, will be released in July 2014. He has taught in art schools, university art departments and in collaborative workshops in several countries. EricGottesman.net
Let’s stop for a moment of reflection as encouraged by the Open Engagement blog… with their question for you: Are you a do-gooder? Consider the definition of a do-gooder from the Cambridge online dictionary; “Someone who does things that they think will help other people, although the other people might not findtheiractionshelpful.”
We all make mistakes! There have been times where your actions, although intended to be good, have been met with raised eyebrows and polite silence. You’ve done things either accidentally or through an internal voice that encourages you to do good for others. This voice was schooled by the system we live in, which is racist, patriarchal and phobic of so many people. This flawed patronising, paternal system positions the people it oppresses as needing help, rather than being powerful change agents. This voice encourages do-gooding.
Consider Henry Thoreau’s famous quotation from Walden; “If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life…” Do you like it when other people try and do you good? Did you like it when your parents said it was for your own good? Or when elected politicians argue that it’s for the good of the nation, even if it means going to war, cutting old people’s pensions, or forcibly removing people’s children? Or when others have tried do-gooding within your own communities and excluded the very people who could have provided the needed leadership?
Next time before thinking what good you can do, it is essential that the people and communities impacted (by any situation) need to be at the centre of the solution. This is something you already know and, like all of us, need to constantly remember. Ask yourself who walked through the door first?
You have a natural tendency towards action, to fixing things, to attending meetings, to making art works which raise social issues, that bring people together to try and problem solve those exact issue and sometimes all this doing leaves little space for being.
Consider Midwives, who earlier this week celebrated ‘International Midwives Day.’ In their work any intervention that is not considered life saving and beyond the consent of the birthing person can actually cause harm. You will find a suite of statistics and random control trials that lead even the most disengaged person to see that intervention leads to further intervention, leads to poor heath outcomes for all involved. The concept of being in midwifery means that instead the skilled health practitioner watches, listens, asks questions, provides support physically and emotionally during one of the most grueling, painful and blissful of life’s events. This support is activated by the person at the centre of the birthing experiencing and their consent is paramount.
Lenine, you have had many opportunities to see artists, activists, community people, midwives, children, educators, sex workers, writers, thinkers and Elders share their stories of justice and the ways in which people worked together. It’s a fine line between being a do-gooder and doing nothing from fear of making a mistake or offending others. Being in solidarity might mean reaching out to the people organising things, for their own communities. Asking people what support they need, and actually responding to what has been requested. Through this process of doing some of the on-the-ground work at the direction of those most impacted, relationships grow, and we get to find out what is actually needed.
Other times it is you and your communities that are impacted and then, I have a different letter to write to you.
Good luck in your journey of learning and art making.
With love and kindness,
––Thanks to Sunny Drake for his advice.
About the contributor: Lenine Bourke has a broad range of professional experiences in the arts and cultural sector, nationally and internationally, leading various organisations and projects. She has worked as the Artistic Director of Contact Inc, an arts and cultural organisation committed to social change, and the Executive Director of Young People and the Arts Australia, the national peak body for youth arts. She has led various arts organisations and projects, and worked for peak bodies, local and state government, statutory authorities, educational institutions, galleries, festivals and artists groups. Including, Youth Arts Queensland, Brisbane City Council, Stylin’UP Regional, Ideas Festival, Backbone Youth Arts, Tafe NSW, Office for Youth Affairs, Queensland University of Technology, The Roadside Room (ARI), Public Art Agency, Transit Lounge, Queens Public Girls School (Dunedin). She is a skilled practitioner and arts executive who has deliberately developed a career across a wide variety of art forms, research, policy development, writing and service delivery. She has focused the majority of her work in engaging children and young people, as well as diverse communities. thewalkingneighbourhood.com.au
How do you understand your privilege and how does that affect the work you are doing in specific communities?
Two questions here, related of course, but I’ll address them one at a time.
“How do you understand your privilege?”
I do not understand my privilege entirely, but each day that brings me new understanding of my various privileges is incredibly painful but joyful at the same time. Painful, because I need to face the fact that yet again I have internalized every white supremacist, sexist, heterosexist, ableist, classist, nationalist way of seeing the world that my society has come up with. Joyful, because the act of breaking through these twisted constructs brings with it that particular pleasure of discovery and seeing the world clearly. This combination of pain and joy is itself a kind of privilege, as the kind of knowledge I refer to is knowledge that members of oppressed groups have always had; it’s knowledge born out of personal experience.
I come to understand my privilege through several routes: reading about it, talking with people about it, reflecting on my own life and experience, making artwork about it, and paying attention. The ruling class’s worldview benefits groups in society in different ways, whether they are aware of it or not. Members of privileged groups experience their world as normal, natural, ideal, inevitable, perpetual, and beneficial for everyone. This is why it is so difficult for privileged people to even see or understand privilege: we’ve been told our entire lives that our world is the world, our experience is just “experience.” This becomes clearer when we think about how “the Black experience” is a phrase that is used regularly, but “the white experience” sounds strange. White experience is simply, experience. White people are simply, people. This is a big problem.
I am particularly interested in white privilege. For many years, even as I considered myself “anti-racist,” I still did not take the time to understand myself as a racialized person. I did not really see myself as a member of the white race, connected directly to the history of colonization and white settlement of North America, and continuing to as benefit from the system of white supremacy. But after many years of reading groups and consciousness-raising, I finally experienced a snap. I felt really white, and it was not a good feeling, but I was glad to feel it. My 2013 video, White Lady Diaries, included here, explores some of this experience of whiteness and my personal relationship to it.
“How does that affect the work you are doing in specific communities?”
The truth is that “specific communities” affect the work I am doing, and these specific communities affect my understanding of privilege. The specific communities I’ve worked with over the past several years include Portland, Oregon’s community of people working on police brutality issues, prison issues, and state repression. This brings me in to contact with some people who are a lot like me, and with others whose experiences differ drastically from my own. I have met geniuses in these specific communities who teach me far more than I could ever hope to give them.
White Lady Diaries (video, 5 minutes, 2013)
About the contributor: Julie Perini is a white, middle-class, straight, educated, able-bodied lady living in Portland, Oregon. She creates experimental and documentary videos, films, and installations. In collaboration with Jodi Darby and Erin Yanke, she is creating Safe & Sound?, a video/web project about Portland’s unique history of policing and its rich history of resistance. Originally from Poughkeepsie, NY, Julie has been exploring her immediate surroundings with cameras since age 15 when she discovered a VHS camcorder in her parent’s suburban home. Her work often explores the areas between fact and fiction, staged and improvised, personal and political. Her writing has been published by A.K. Press, Incite! The Journal of Experimental Media and Afterimage: The Journal of Media Arts & Culture. She is on the Board of Directors for Signal Fire, an organization that facilitiates opportunities for artists to engage with the natural world. Her media production skills are largely self-taught, although after spending several years in the 1990s editing VHS tapes using two VCRs, she learned analog video production at PEGASYS Public Access TV in Ithaca, NY. She holds an MFA from the University at Buffalo’s Department of Media Study and a BS from Cornell University. Perini is an Assistant Professor of Art at Portland State University.
Is it possible to have a truly reciprocal partnership with a community?
Documentation of not going shopping, Anthony Luvera, 2013-2014
To ask this question is to acknowledge the power differential between an artist and the community they work with. It calls to my mind a number of considerations and related questions. Starting with: Where do the boundaries lie between a community practice and an artist using, or seducing, a group of people for the production of their artwork? Or to put this another way: Who’s getting what from whom?
Benefits, outcomes, targets, aims, ambitions, evaluations… it is in the elaboration of terms such as these that answers to this kind of questioning is often purportedly found. Elaborations that tell of empowering individuals, improving self-confidence, bettering self-esteem, giving voice or enabling development… all through the ‘transformative power of art’, to use the rhetorical catchphrase of Arts Council England. While I and other artists who work with similar production methodologies will have particular and varying intentions for undertaking the work that we do, I think that too often the well-intentioned ambitions of an artist or partner organization can assume too much or too little of the individuals participating, and not take into full consideration the holistic circumstances of the participant or subject before, during and after engagement with the artist. An incisive question on community art practice once asked by the American critic Patricia C. Phillips resounds: “Does it succeed because good intentions are irreproachable?”
But who is being empowered? Whose voice is amplified? Who is being made visible? What can the participating individual or community group gain by taking part? How does the artist profit? How can the outcome or products of the collaboration be measured, described or otherwise effectively relayed to those not involved in the processes of the making the work?
I believe socially engaged practices can have very powerful impacts on people. I know they have on me. However, I do not undertake the work I do in order to enrich or provide a therapeutic framework for those taking part, even if some of the organizations I’ve worked with have framed my practice in ways that suggest this for the satisfaction of their own particular agendas. It might be said that a community practice can have social benefits, but my primary interest in working in the way I do is more about exploring the potential in presenting the viewpoints of the people I work with alongside my own.
Through experience I have learnt that the good intentions of a facilitating artist or organization and the potential positive impact of undertaking a collaborative practice with a group of people ‘in the community’ can smokescreen any real critical rigor applied to the creation and consideration of the presented work. Good intentions will often inadvertently mask the essentially insurmountable and unequal power balance between the artist and their subject/participant. While a socially engaged practice can have powerful impacts on people, the whole idea of benefits, values or outcomes inferred onto the subjects would really be best answered by the subject/participants themselves. And I don’t mean through the forum of an evaluation exercise, which seems to me, and most often by design, to serve an instrumental purpose of affirming the agenda of the facilitating individuals or organizations paying for the activity.
So in addressing the question – “Is it possible to have a truly reciprocal partnership with a community?” – I believe it is imperative to take into account considerations such as those briefly discussed here. Perhaps most importantly though, it must be inquired: Who is answering this question? And, on whose behalf do they speak?
Collaborative Portrait of Anthony Luvera, from not going shopping, Anthony Luvera, 2013-2014.
About the contributor: Anthony Luvera is an Australian artist, writer and educator based in London. His photographic work has been exhibited widely in galleries, public spaces and festivals, including the British Museum, London Underground’s Art on the Underground, National Portrait Gallery London, Belfast Exposed Photography, Australian Centre for Photography, PhotoIreland and Les Rencontres D’Arles Photographie. His writing appears regularly in a wide range of publications including Photoworks, Source and Photographies. Anthony lectures for a number of institutions including Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, London College of Communication, University for the Creative Arts Farnham and University College Falmouth. He also facilitates workshops and gives lectures for the public education programmes of the National Portrait Gallery, The Photographers’ Gallery, Barbican Art Gallery and various community photography projects across the UK. Anthony is interested in exploring some of the problems of photographic representations of social issues. Since 2002 he has worked on a series of long-term collaborative projects with people who have experienced homelessness living in cities and towns across the United Kingdom, including London, Belfast, Colchester and Brighton. His book Residency was published by Belfast Exposed Photography in 2011. Anthony’s most recent body of work not going shopping, created in collaboration with a group of queer people living in Brighton & Hove over nine months, culminated in February 2014 with a city-wide outdoor poster exhibition, a collaborative blog and 3,000 copies of a newspaper distributed free throughout the city. Through these projects, and the social relationships upon which they are based, he explores the tension between authorship (and artistic control) and the ethics involved in making photographs about other people’s lives. luvera.com
“Can the audience create itself?” – Open Engagement
We are no longer on speaking terms, Adeola Enigbokan (2014).
Dear Open Engagement,
Audiences want to be entertained, titillated, seduced. Art and institutions that serve audiences must, at some level, address these fundamental desires. When an individual titillates herself, we call this masturbation. If people congregated in order to satisfy their desire for self-seduction, then we could refer to such a gathering as a “mass-turbation,” (or “Facebook,” where many encounters with art start and end these days). But this event would not be an audience.
To call an “audience” is to create a situation in which others must observe you, indulge you, hear you out. It is primarily a situation in which they may judge the veracity, earnestness or worth of your speech or presentation. As an event, the audience requires time and the ability to hear. Mark Antony’s cry, “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears!” in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, enshrines the sacredness of the call to listen. In this speech, given at Caesar’s funeral, Antony rouses the mob (in the play), and the crowd (in the theater), turning their hearts once and for all to the service of himself and Caesar. With the help of a few precious objects––Caesar’s last will and testament and the martyr’s bloody corpse––a self-deprecating Antony tenderly strokes borrowed ears, using his audience with the crowd to discredit Caesar’s killers: A pure seduction, which reinforces the power of the state. (The trick is, once you borrow the ears, you never, ever give them back.) Now that’s what you call an audience!
To summarize: No dead Caesar, no funeral. No funeral, no place of gathering. No gathering, no opportunity to be heard. No skilled seducer, no call to the crowd. No call to the crowd, no audience. No convinced audience, no state, no play, no art. I hope that by now you see that an audience does not make itself, nor should it.
I sense that your question is asked in the spirit of moving beyond the restrictive habits that govern the presentation of art to the world. But to ask the audience to create itself is akin to asking people to simply seduce themselves, and what would be the point of that? Seduction has little to do with freedom, or emancipation. The desire to indulge political fantasies––for masses to enrapture themselves in teleologies of their own making––is not at the core of decent social relations.
Instead, I ask:
Upon finding myself caught in an audience, how do I listen fully and then extricate myself, ears intact?
If I no longer find myself part of art’s intended audience (and I don’t), how else might I relate to other people who also care about making and experiencing art?
It could be that your question is pointing us towards a time in which we who care about art no longer want to be entertained, titillated and seduced. I certainly hope so.
About the contributor: Adeola Enigbokan is an artist and writer. Her recent projects include being a founding member of the Institute for Art Scene Studies, which brings together artists and social researchers to interpret the behavioral scripts and performances arising within contemporary art worlds (2012-3); Terrible Karma (2010-2011), a mobile exhibition of video, sound recordings and photographs, exploring the global reverberations of New York’s Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire; The Renters’ Archive (2013), an ongoing collaboration between artists, urbanists and tenants, investigating social and historical experiences of renting homes in the United States, where property ownership remains the unexamined dream; and Body Language: Postcards from the Russian City (2011-2), a collection of archival and contemporary photography of everyday life in a residential district of Moscow. Her work has appeared at Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture and Design (Moscow), Center for Independent Social Research (Saint Petersburg), Van Leer Institute (Jerusalem), El Museo del Barrio (New York), Anthology Film Archives (New York), Royal Geographical Society (London), Royal Institute for British Architects (London), Beijing Normal University, vessel art project (Italy) and Open Engagement (Portland & New York).
How do you plan to make a living as a social practice artist?
This question was originally posed like this: How do you make a living as a social practice artist?
But with the way and rate that institutions have been adopting MFA programs in socially engaged art in the last couple of years, a slightly altered form of this question seemed fitting to pose to students from a variety of those programs across America. Particularly as The Socially Engaged Art Student Summit, formed in 2013, is already coming together in conversation to shed light into who is leading the next wave of socially engaged art; Who are socially engaged art students? What are they doing? Why? What besides debt are they getting from their education?
The answers to this re-imagined blog question gives a small insight into what the next wave of socially engaged art looks like (just check out the expansive and diverse range of practices and projects in each of the links to student works) but also how the students investing in an education of socially engaged art envision their future fiscal lives.
Image by Guestwork, Portland State University Art and Social Practice (PSU)
Right now I’m in school, so I don’t really make a living, I just try to not spend money. I do some freelance design things here and there. I live in my uncle’s basement. I ride a bike, I have financial aid, I cut my own hair, and I try and eat leftovers from tupperware for lunch.
How will I make a living when I graduate?
Adjunct teaching, probably. I like teaching. I’ll do some freelance graphic design projects, probably for other artists as has been my experience in the past. (Artists, need a graphic designer? I like to work with you.) I will hunt for funding and write killer grants.
I’ll hope that I won’t have to go to an office every day, unless it is an office of someone/something that I am really, really into. There are few of those potential offices, but not very many. –– Nicole Lavelle, California College of the Arts Social Practice (CCA)
When I left my office job for art school I decided I wanted “to be the same person all day.” I wouldn’t build walls around certain parts of my brain anymore. Sometimes art will be a source of income and sometimes it won’t. I will pitch ideas to businesses and arts organizations, and get paid to manage other people’s projects and events. I will probably not apply for many grants, but yes, some grants. I might fall back on film production skills. I will write content for online magazines. I will buy and sell real estate. I will work in a bar. I will work with people who I respect and who respect me. I will not work for free. And as I am an artist all day, not just during certain times, anything I do––paid or unpaid––I will do as an artist. –– Erica Thomas, PSU
Professional Development has really come to prominence lately, as evidenced by the growing numbers of professional development workshops around the country: Creative Capital, Bronx AIM, LMCC, PFPCA, amongst others. The goal of professional development programs such as these, is to empower artists to advantageously position themselves within the financial structures that surround them. However, if something is gained in this process, then surely something is lost as well…after all, a move towards something is always a move away from something else. With that said, I don’t mean to say “what is its antithesis?” Just what is lost. Not to say that we should move towards anarchism (antithesis), but by speaking rigidly in terms of “making a living” and professional development, we often don’t ask ourselves certain other questions. Sure, making money allows you to live, and living is “good”. In fact, living is a must, if any of this is to matter at all. With that said, the language of professional development often doesn’t consider questions such as: what if this model of professionalization is in fact, detrimental to my art practice? In a world where making a living can be so difficult, specially as an artist, the rewards of money and success can deter us from exploring alternatives that may prove to be more productive and sustainable. –– Rafael Abreu-Canedo, Carnegie Mellon Contextual Practices (CM)
I plan to make a living by:
1. Pitching projects to institutions early on in their conception, and then executing them collaboratively.
3. Applying to grants
4. Applying to local residencies
5. Developing events and projects that are reproducible and can be commissioned easily by institutions as part of other programs.
6. Eventually finding representation through a conventional gallery for my print-based work.
7. Pressuring my husband to leave the non-profit sector and start a tech company.
Right now and for many years I have approached this question with a Renaissance type mentality. I do many things, among them teaching, developing curriculum, facilitating programs for youth and adults, taking photographs, applying for grants, administrative work for non-profits and working on small paid projects. I am currently working as an environmental educator on an urban farm, doing freelance photography, developing curriculum for an arts organization and relying on loans and grants. In the future I hope to make a living and repay my loans by having the privilege of a consistent stream of engaging, exciting and well paid projects. –– Emily Fitzgerald, PSU
I imagine my “other work” will continue to largely seed the projects with a combination of funds coming from the Van Arsdale Center where I work and smaller community based grants along with sites such as Trust Art providing other types of support at least at first.
It will have to be a very carefully braided array of funding that will continue to impact the choice to use low cost materials. The Workers Art Coalition hopes to set up a little site eventually of worker prints and other items that could be sold to keep the work sustainable.––Barrie Cline, Social Practice Queens (SPQ)
It seems to me, that to make a living as a social practice artist, or as any kind of artist for that matter, you have to know a lot of people. Or rather, they have to know of you. If they know you’re out there, and think you’re doing interesting things, then they will come to you when an opportunity becomes available. Our world is a nepotistic one. I wish it weren’t so, but it is. This is an important point in the conversation about making a living as a social practice artist. ––Zachary Gough, PSU
I don’t know how I will make a living. I do know that graduate school has put me in a difficult financial situation, precisely as I am embarking on my career as a professional artist. The system of lending and the cost of a public education, or any education for that matter is unfair and needs to be fixed. Education should be free. I am lucky to have experience in other fields like educational nonprofits, which at least give me an outlet so am I not only competing for the scarce number of opportunities that exist in art world. –– Betty Marin, PSU
This is a hard one to think about in a pedagogical context as I believe most of us have been making a living in order to do the things we love to do. I would second the idea that I am and plan to continue working in areas that I see as art forms such as education, activism, and organizing.
As a former admission counselor and academic advisor I saw my role as a guide for students pursuing higher education as an art form. There was outreach, getting to know community and their needs, education on the process of pursuing an education as well as guidance once admitted. It was all in the connection of getting to know someone and viewing the journey as a collaboration. –– Mario Mesquita, Otis College of Art and Design Public Practice
I don’t expect my projects to make my living, but I do intend to inject my practice into my livelihood.
If I’m lucky, I will continue to work in the field of Education given my experience and interests, however I hope to expand how my time is commodified from tasks that are instrumentalizing to work that is liberating.
Meanwhile, I am:
– Earnestly seeking to understand my embeddedness in complex systems of power, oppression and privilege.
– Mindfully practicing actions that are large and small (or sometimes still) that rupture, reveal (or sometimes submit) to these systems.
– Interdependently in dialogue with the communities I’m embedded in.
– Precariously aware of how my labor is valued by institutions and how I value the labor of the people I work with.
– Delightfully celebrating and supporting the work of my peers.
– Playfully moving between the center and the periphery of the disciplines of art.
I am not interested in making a living as a “social practice artist”. I see social practice as a field to which I am contributing to in order to shape, grow, critique, tear down and build again. Some of the things I have enjoyed most about my program are our discussions about professionalization amongst the arts, which is something I have only had in decidedly anti-institutional spaces. Personally, I don’t think Social Practice is something that has been fully realized yet, this is a pathway to something else… ––Irina Contreras, CCA
How do artists get remunerated for experience-based work?
I was given the question: “How do artists get remunerated for experience-based work?” via email on April 24th.
I responded with “Thank you for asking me. Yes, I will be happy to do it.” on April 27th.
It is now 12:03am on May 5th, the day my response is due. Off and on I have been struggling to find an answer. I have a day job and I have my art making, I have a solo show coming up very soon, I have a side job for needed extra money and I have my lecture for Open Platform to prepare for. So many balls juggling in the air. Limited time and horrible writing skills….
If I suddenly had the magical power to grant one wish and I could decide how artists get remunerated for experience-based work, I would do it this way:
An artist writes up a brief document explaining the concept for an experience-based artwork and includes listing the amount of time spent planning and writing the document and then sends it to the Art Services Department, which is a service modeled on the WPA’s Federal Art Program initiated during the Great Depression. The concept in the document is not judged on artistic merit, but on feasibility and if not approved the artist is given the right to appeal the decision, if it is approved then the artist performs the work and is remunerated for the time involved in performing the action, I would like there to also be the possibility of allowing documentation of an already performed work for payment. This is just a rough idea, and given in the hope of spurring dialogue. Certainly some potential abuses or contradictions may arise, for instance, the state approving what is and isn’t an experience-based work can alarm some of the more libertarian of us. The original Federal Art Program helped support many artists working in diverse styles who were not popular at the time including Jackson Pollack and Alice Neel. What would the pay rate be? I don’t know.
I believe that we are at a time where good jobs are scarce, we are in a seemingly endless recession or at worst a new depression. Many trade and conventional (traditionally assembly-line) jobs are outsourced or automated, work in print media is changing, the tenure track for professors is largely broken, leaving underpaid adjunct teachers with little job security, and many of the new jobs appearing are low paying service sector jobs. How does this effect artists? A healthy middle-class is important as a support network for artists. Going back to how I started this post––Emerging artists cannot work all day doing other jobs they deem less important and still have time and energy to focus on an art practice. When there is an audience and a large pool of potential benefactors artists have a better chance to survive. In the current climate there few opportunities and new, untried, or unusual art projects cannot get a foothold.
About the contributor: Bernard Klevickas is a sculptor who utillizes industrial processes in an expressionist manner to create objects of meticulous refinement with an interest in exploring the possibilities of surface and form. As an aspiring artist developing his own sculpture over the past 24 years Bernard has at various times fabricated sculpture for the artists Jeff Koons, Louise Bourgeois, Frank Stella, and others. He has a manufacturing certificate in CNC (computer numerical control) machining and manual lathe and mill operation and a Bachelor of Fine Art degree from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. His sculpture has won many awards and has been shown indoor and outdoor in numerous exhibitions in New York City, the New York Hudson Valley, Chicago Illinois, West Palm Beach Florida, Indiana, Michigan, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Dallas Texas, Istanbul Turkey, Venice Italy, and Bermuda. His 2014 residency at Materials For the Arts in Long Island City, New York culminated with the solo exhibition “History of Stuff.” bernardklevickas.com
Why is social practice looking at replicating models from social science & activism?
The politicisation of art manifests or responds to time and place, and to the cultural, social and political systems contemporarily at play. Be it the socialist art theory of William Morris post industrial revolution, the hybrid activist practices of the avant gardes, socialist driven community art responding to Thatcherite pressure on trade unionism, or the fall of the Berlin Wall, artists have proposed or generated alternative social models through practices which commit to social experiment, critique and protest. Their ideological positions and levels of engagement are grounded in different theoretical or practical starting points. In the process of research, experimentation, pragmatism, reflection or evaluation artists are free to bricolage, to borrow, or to stand on the shoulders of whatever giant they deem appropriate or useful for their response. Artists strengths are independence, a capacity to break the rules, to appropriate means and methods without being bound by the rigours of academia, or by the agenda or controllers of an institution. They are free from an obligation to follow protocol or make a contribution to a singular profession.
Why is social practice (in Contemporary Art) looking at replicating models from social science and activism? Why only an emphasis on ‘social science’ or ‘activism’ in this question and let’s exchange the word ‘replicate’ for ‘appropriate’. Contemporary (socially engaged) artists appropriate from much more than these two fields of activity, but for the sake of answering the question perhaps we could state the obvious, we’re concerned with the same subjects: social relations in specific contexts, the power of the market and institutional systems, the redefinition of labour, the movement of capital, networked societies, gentrification of neighborhoods, new methods of food production, gender or ethnic oriented inequality, climate change, the social political moment in advanced capitalist societies coping with neoliberalism under the thumbs of the World Bank, IMF, multinational corporations, GAT, etc, etc.
Is an answer simply that artists are looking at the social sciences because these offer data and sometimes analysis pointing to loci for social practice, e.g., wage stagnation, mass youth unemployment, growing social inequality. The Social Sciences record, document and share theories, research, methods, evaluations and outcomes in a form that is transparent, accessible and thorough. Essentially their work is open source and available for reconfiguration within art practice. (see an example P.34). Similarly perhaps activists help artists in selecting strategies to engage and help communities. For example artists could learn from the history of the Highland Folk School of Tennessee who trained civil rights activists such as Rosa Parks in nonviolence or Saul Alinsky’s ‘Reveille for Radicals’ which continues to be a useful handbook for community organizing. Even the Occupy movement can provide lessons in what to do and what not to do.
At the risk of ending on a cynical note, artists may be frustrated by the failure of the social sciences to answer the right questions or of seeing them being ignored when it does; or may be driven by the lack of success of activists who are unheard (or heard but not feared) by elites, the governing classes, the oligarchs?
About the contributors: Dr. Marilyn Lennon and Prof. Nona Glazer met at Open Engagement 2013, the reply to this question is a collaboration based on an ongoing conversation they’ve been having since…
Marilyn Lennon’s work is both collaborative and interdisciplinary in nature and is situated in an ongoing artistic interest in the contested questions of ownership, autonomy, privatisation, agency or control in public space and place. An engagement in critical spatial practices first emerged in her work in 2004 when invited to act as an artist/advisor on postgraduate summerschools on Interaction Design in public spaces under the European Convivio network, first in Italy, and later in Sweden, Croatia and Romania. Later again, in 2009 she initiated the SpiritStore project, a collaborative project which addressed questions of public ownership through the setting up and development of an autonomous art space amidst the site of a large stalled commercial development in Limerick city centre. SpiritStore became an ongoing project taking diverse approaches to conveying or contesting experiences of the city and the experience of making art for and with public. Over the past year and half she has been working in collaboration with the Knockatallon Ramblers hiking club (Co. Monaghan, Ireland). The collaboration investigates the potential of critical cartography and the act of walking at the border of Ireland and Northern Ireland to address spatial contestation and to offer alternative intimate narratives of place. She is Programme Joint Leader, MA in Social Practice and the Creative Environment (MA SPACE) at Limerick School of Art and Design, Ireland. marilynlennon.net
Nona Glazer is a retired professor of sociology and women’s studies from Portland State University, Portland, Oregon. Nona researched women’s waged and unwaged labor, while doing political and intellectual work as a Marxist-feminist. She retired early to make art full time rather than continuing it as a secret vice, off and on, since childhood. She continues art making while observing how the neoliberal drive to reduce or eliminate wages continues unabated with unwaged labor expanding to draw in men along with women. Her training as a sociologist surfaces also in her lifetime worry about whether art intending to change viewers’ understanding of the social world do so, leading to social justice actions, but especially about what the social and political gains are from art and art-making for communities whose members collaborate with activist artists.
What are the skills I need and where can I get them?
Build your endurance here.
Last year, Jennifer McGregor and I were working on a book chapter about audience and socially engaged artwork. We decided to approach this massive topic by interviewing artists for whom community engagement is an instinctual and integral part of their practice. Some of them began as studio artists, and I am grateful that they shared their experiences about how they developed into artists who work in socially engaged ways. The list of skills below reflects the knowledge shared in those interviews, my experience as an artist and an arts administrator who commissions artists to engage with communities, my experience as an attendee of many lectures and conference panels on this subject, and as a person who encourages people to expand the types of opportunities and resources for artists to be involved in the development of community. This list is not only written for artists who want to work in socially engaged ways. It is for anyone who wants to collaborate in a community.
How to get it
Why is this important?
Break yourself of the habit of thinking you already know the skills and abilities and interests of the people you are working with. Seek out opportunities to learn about their areas of expertise and what they are interested in working on.
Knowledge, experiences, and abilities are the groundwater of collaboration. Divining the knowledge of your collaborators and putting it to use creates agency in the development of the content and form of the project.
There are lots of ways to build endurance for a long haul project, but if you are not used to working collaboratively on projects that can take a long time, consider attending public meetings that are not related to making artwork and see how long it takes for you to check your cell phone. Eventually, you won’t anymore. Try your local City Council; school board; PTA; food bank; church group; environmental, water, or air quality committee; a transportation committee, or citizen’s council.
As you listen and watch what is going on in these groups, think about what would be helpful to your own process, and what could be reinvented. By attending a range of meetings like this and deeply listening, you also can gain a very good understanding of the diversity of issues at stake in a particular community; how people and organizations are connected; and what makes people laugh, cringe, or get agitated.
Get schooled by someone who knows something you don’t know anything about. Or better yet, get schooled in something you think you know a lot about.
People sharing their free time, resources, skills, ideas, connections, and more is a huge gift to any project and collaboration. Developing humility is a way to stay grateful and open to new ideas and opportunities. But it is also a reminder to thank people and ensure that they are engaged and appreciated.
I was lucky to be born very optimistic. Friends who are not naturally optimistic suggest surrounding yourself with people who are and fake it for a while until they rub off on you. Other ideas? Drink only half full glasses of water and wine.
No one wants to work on something they think will never change or lacks interest. If you can’t see the hope in a complicated situation, how can you expect others to want to work with you? Optimism can help in identifying short term and attainable goals and make long-range goals seem possible.
This skill is practiced in the beginning through the process of developing the project and seeking collaborators and resources. But once the project starts moving, tell stories using multiple formats, media, and languages, as well as stories for diverse audiences to add variety to your storytelling skillset.
Getting people to show up and want to participate requires clear and inspiring communication. Socially engaged work can be very complex and being able to tell the story of a project can help bring together collaborators and allies. Telling the story of the project, or different stories of the project for different media, is essential. Sure, develop an elevator speech and a series of good tweets. But also develop ways to share the long, uncut tale through multiple points of view in a compelling way.
About the contributor: Renee Piechocki is an artist and public art administrator living in Pittsburgh, PA. She is part of the collaboration Two Girls Working with Tiffany Ludwig. Their first project Trappings explored the meaning and presentation of power in women’s lives. 600 women from 15 states participated in interview sessions responding to the question: what do you wear that makes you feel powerful? Their current project explores the meaning of value in men’s lives and will be featured in an exhibition in Pittsburgh in fall 2015. She is also the founder of Pittsburgh’s Office of Public Art. You can learn more about her at reneepiechocki.com.
I’m writing to you as I’m guessing that you know what I’m talking about better than most and that, despite any small differences in tactics, ideologies, goals and such, we are of a sort. What “sort” that might be remains to be determined and the unpacking of that is the job, the fun of it, yes? That’s the work and meaning. We are most certainly members of some sort of affinity group, but I’d argue––and possibly you would as well––that we are more importantly members of a public. A public which is many. A public dispersed, disjointed, and constantly at odds, and hence very much a public. My hope in calling this out into the open is that in making our public visible it will assist in helping it crack, break apart and form new terrain for us and others to traverse across together. This should be the wish of us all. Because, as you know well, it is the friction generated through the convergence of bodies on a landscape of experience that helps in forming, not only the landscape we inhabit, but also the new visits to look towards, the new desires to dream about, the new trails to consider moving in the direction of, or possibly even astutely avoid. No matter. It’s this friction that bevels our lens, making the landscape a series of subjects, prismatic, deobjectifying our view of one another.
We exist as members of many publics upon a shared landscape, though not all of us recognize this. It is through the recognition of this shared landscape that our publics form, disparate and nomadic upon a terrain of experience. Here we begin to create (our)selves. This landscape is vast, infinite, and varied. The actions and effects occurring upon it forming a relational ecology. Through our collective (though, importantly, not in the least harmonious) experience we create more fill, more land, more vistas to traverse, and always, ever so slowly shifting tableaus which we gaze upon from varying distances. We exist, relate, and calibrate at a series of distances. This landscape is continuous and infinite when embodied across the multiple histories of experience which affect us, it’s just that sometimes, as we walk about, we enter a fog, or the debris of experience is too vast for us to recognize as anything but an impasse.
You’ve had those feelings of abstract ecstasy that I’ve had, haven’t you? If any public exists which we might call ourselves joint members of I believe it is these types of wordless Noetic moments that bond us, these inarticulate expressions and (mis)understandings of our collective experiences on this shared landscape of ours. It is these experiences in accumulation that align us, which hold us together and create a sort of pragmatism within all this uncertainty. By eviscerating the lines between what we might call life and what we might refer to as work, and insisting, as we do, to energize the surface, however fleetingly, and make these sorts of convergences visible we are engaging in an act of public-making which we can define as publication; dematerialized, disjointed, at odds and in flux.
A publication is a mobile and ephemeral vessel for questioning. It is anarchic and flat. A public which forms through publication is a tool, a means and not an end. A publication is not a repository of knowledge and experience but the energizer of just that. It’s a waystation. A public materialized through publication is an apparatus for seeing, building, surviving.
Inasmuch, a public is different than the public; a body which doesn’t exist and never did exist. It is also decidedly different than a community, which is basically a micro-distillation of the notion of the public. These are two distinctions that purport a false sense of disparate agreement and cohesion and are hence unreal. There is no cohesion. We’re all alone here, but we are alone together if we desire it, and that counts for something when we begin to recognize the space between us as a space of meaning, the energizing point of all our knowledge and experiences. We articulate across this divide between us. It is within this space that publics begin to formulate themselves through shared questions and desires if not, often enough, the same set of answers or actions.
And so, I hope to see you this summer in Minneapolis to work on Henry together so that our varied publics might, as they do from time to time, collide through our shared affections, conjoin ever so briefly, and shatter, forming a bridge between the Midwest Radical Culture Corridor and hazy dreams of your Los Angeles.
Fare forward voyager,
 The “Robby” I am referring to is Robby Herbst. He is an artist, writer, 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 is the co-editor, with Nicole Antebi and Colin Dickey, of “Failure! Experiments in Social and Aesthetic Practices”.
 The term Affinity Group has been attributed to the radical anarchist activist Ben Morea who, along with Ron Hahne established the publication Black Mask. He went on to help found, among other ecstatic and beautifully troubling affinity groups, the Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers and the International Werewolf Conspiracy.
 “Although so similar to states of feeling, mystical states seem to those who experience them to be also states of knowledge. They are states of insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect. They are illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain; and as a rule they carry with them a curious sense of authority for aftertime.” James, William (1902) In Lectures XVI & XVII: Mysticism (pp. 277 – 313) London, England: Longmans, Green & Co.
 “Our aggressive habitation of the surface is the site of the political but our ability to reflect and act is often drowned out by the hum of the everyday. The false notion of The Public and The Statement generates static, a field of disturbances decidedly different than the disturbances––the friction––we generate through willful public making, the act of Publication.” Gould, Sam (2013) Surface Tension (pp. 6)Minneapolis, MN Wooden Leg Press and Print
 “A multi-year distributed action, Henry exists within the intersection of three distinct South Minneapolis neighborhoods utilizing the notion of a Right to the Imagination in parallel to urbanist / activist strategies of a Right to the City. By energizing a continued series of projects, dialogues, and mediated conduits, Henry’s aim is to energize a “city from below” mechanism, attempting to open up space for each and every neighbor to question not only where they live, but their place, autonomy, voice, and responsibilities within their shared landscape over a series of years. Through in-home classes, lending libraries, free media and more, Henry encourages an anarchic collaboration and transparent space for possibilities as a way for individuals and neighbors to relate and govern their own shared lives.” Henry is a five to ten year long initiative facilitated by Red76 within the intersection of three neighborhoods in South Minneapolis, MN: Powderhorn, Central, and Phillips West. Along with Katie Hargrave, Eric Asboe, Katie Bachler, Dylan Gauthier, and others, Robby Herbst will be a visiting resident in the initiatives first year.
About the contributor: Sam Gould is the co-founder and lead facilitator of Red76, a collaborative practice which materialized in Portland, Oregon in the early 2000’s. Red76 often works towards creating publics through the creation of ad-hoc educational structures and discursive media forms. While these frameworks are often situated in what is called “public space,”–– such as street corners, laundromats, taverns, and the like––the pedagogy of their construction is meant to call into question the relationships, codes, and hierarchies embedded within these landscapes.
Gould has taught within the graduate department for Social Practice at the California College of the Arts and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. He has written, as well as lectured extensively within the United States and abroad, on issues of sociality, education, and encountering the political within daily life.
Gould is the editor of Red76’s publication the Journal of Radical Shimming, of which the first fifteen issues were recently acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He is currently at work on a book in conversation form with artist / educator Douglas Ashford to be published in the Between Artists series by Artist Resource Transfer Press in 2014. red76.com