Seeing Social Practice

The Creative Time Summit and subsequent Living As Form extravaganza, which is still unfolding and which you must make time for, have left me with so much to say that on Sunday I had a hard time nailing down any one thing to focus on. This morning my desk is all scraps of paper and my screen is a jumble of questions and notes to myself and I am still confused. Up early. Staring into space and wondering what I saw, and what I am to do with all this mental byproduct.

I want art to mess with me like this. I want to wrestle with art and I want it to infect me, so I consider this weekend a smashing success. I feel sufficiently art-ed upon.

And I am interested in how I acquired the feeling that art happened to me, because the biggest problems with social practice are problems of transmission and whether or not it’s art. Social practice has a number of audiences, each with very different needs, and educated art audiences tend to be indulgent. Anything can be art, so it’s easy to set aside the idea that the artistic quality of these projects either gets communicated or it doesn’t. And since this is a mode of artmaking that obsessively listens and collaborates, relying on Duchamp and artistic fiat feels like a missed opportunity. In social practice, is collaborating with and considering the art audience as important as considering and collaborating with the “real world” communities under purview?

How does an artist or curator working in social practice consider the art audience and communicate the art in a mobile clinic, legislation or housing project? When art audiences get it, what is it that they get?

Haircuts by Children
Haircuts By Children, by Mammalian Diving Reflex

Words always helped me get it. The Summit, a day of short talks, was an almost ideal format for seeing this work as art. When the artist was consistently there to present the project in time, the formal language and the role of beauty in social practice floated up to the surface. Patterns emerged. Most projects seemed to identify a problem in the world, and attempted to address the problem concretely and poetically. The resulting “art product” or transmission was a slice of poetic oral history—the story and image of a collective in Canada teaching kids how to cut hair for real. Or a Czech village where an artist convinced everyone to stick to the same schedule for a whole day. Or a giant penis painted on a drawbridge in seconds flat, in front of the cops, by a group of delightfully insane Russian activists.

In eight minutes most of these artists could could effectively state their poem, and these poems tended to have similar stanzas:

State the problem
Craft a collaboration that upends the problem
Describe execution, mostly in terms of listening, often in terms of the artist’s accountability to both collaborators and problem

What was abundantly clear by the end of the day is that while this work upends a number of your basic notions about what art is, such as the need for an art object, its uselessness, the privileged position of the artist as author and so on… there is an interesting aesthetic operating here. I left the Summit feeling almost like this work is about beauty.

So the interesting paradox here is that the Living As Form exhibition space could not present a more different experience. Hundreds of poems are not unfolding in front of you. Instead, taking in the space feels like browsing the stacks at the local library.

This happens all the time, of course. The Francis Alys shows this summer were these beautiful video poems punctuating reams and reams of research and documentation, the purpose of which, I guess, is to demonstrate that these things really happened.

I wonder how that part of working with reality is going to evolve.

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