Fixers Collective NYC at Proteus Gowanus, Brooklyn. Photo by: Vincent Lai
That environmentalist credo turned bumper sticker wisdom has, in decades past and again in recent times, created a bandwagon trend towards a community-oriented focus, making “local” a buzzword. Eating local, buying local, and even localized political activism, like OWS, are for a certain urbane population, lifestyle priorities. Culturally, it would seem that local is where it’s at – wherever it is.
But then there’s the art world, where a context like “local” might conjure cringe-worthy visions of derivative still life painting that seems unaware of the art historical progress made since, say, early Modernism. Because geographic positioning in the art world means something, right?
There has been – and probably always will be – a great flight towards the center in the art world. At this point it’s axiomatic that eventually the cream of the crop will end up in the tractor beam of the art world’s few magnetic, central powers, and the rest, somehow out of touch with, or unaware of, “the dialog” will be left to languish on the margins.
But I want to stop there before this gets too whiny, and clarify that I’m not necessarily leading into a discussion about regionalism – where artists beyond art world centers make work that often goes ignored because it’s in a kind of aesthetic flyover zone, outside of the sphere of central influence – but rather, I’m interested in work that makes the “local” a priority. In continuing to define my working thesis on the trajectory of self-taught art, its relationship to social art, and the widening of “the dialog” to embrace such an intersection, the idea of “local” again brings the conversation back to the function of a project: what it does and for whom.
Art work that is in some sense local as I understand it, takes its actual location – its context – as its starting point, is grounded in lived experience, and its tangible, immediate conditions. Social art and self-taught art, might find common ground in this kind of site-specificity, taking localized concerns as a place to pick up and start making something. For both, context can be a medium and a message. Both kinds of work can also claim responsibility to a specific place, community, or issue (and not just for the standard duration of a biennial exhibition), and create a self-determined criteria of value, which is to say, the significance of the work is held in direct relationship to those who participate in it or with it.
Take the Fixers Collective NYC for example, who define themselves as, “a group of folks dedicated to working together to fix things – encouraging improvisational fixing and mending and fighting planned obsolescence.” The group states that it “also encourages participants to take liberties with designated forms and purposes, resulting in mended objects that may exist both as art and within a more limited, utilitarian context.” Building a local community with both practical and creative aims, Fixers Collective responds to not only to everyday concerns or needs brought on by participants – like broken lamps or computers – but also serves as a locus for self-directed creative activity that is specific to each fixing session. And, as Fixers Collective depends on its community of participants to define and sustain its activity, it reciprocates by facilitating greater individual agency, encouraging participants to become actively aware of and involved in their own surroundings. It really doesn’t get more local than that.
This way of thinking might even begin to extend our understanding of the well-known work of Henry Darger, a so-called self-taught artist who has been framed as the ultimate “outsider” (cue exasperated groan). Darger was an avid collector of stuff, and known to have scavenged raw materials from the trash in his Lincoln Park, Chicago neighborhood. From this trove of found source material – including newspapers, magazines, coloring books, and comics – he then selected images to transpose into his scrolling compositions using an evolved, self-made process of collage-drawing (including carbon tracing and photomechanical reproduction). While it may seem that Darger’s work, In the Realms of the Unreal, is more related to a fantasy experience, where young girls do battle with men often nude, and with the help of winged creatures called “Blengins,” there are, to my eye, similarities with socially engaged art – one being its locality.
Henry Darger’s Home c.1970s. Photo by Nathan Lerner and David Berglund.
Instead of turning inward, Darger actively looked to the world around him to inform his work, and through his collecting habits, cited the media consumption of his neighbors and his own extended interactions with, and mediation of, a particular place and time. Consequently, an understanding of his work can’t be fully realized without his site-specific, local, experience of looking and compiling, selecting, and ultimately responding to his immediate material circumstance.