All art is Social Practice rang out as some of the last words of this year’s symposium, spoken by Saul Ostrow, curator and co-founder of SculptureX.
The event’s ninth year iteration, titled Igniting Change, took place over two days at the Toledo Museum of Art and Bowling Green State University. The focus was on the concept of Social Practice, a way of working in art that often gets traced back to the 1990’s. During his talk, Ostrow pointed out that the emergence of Social Practice began as early as 1913 with the Russian Constructivists (with the rejection of autonomous art) and can be seen later in the 1930’s with Social Realism (in work by artists such as Diego Riveria and Dorothea Lange).
Despite discrepancies regarding its origins, Social Practice is rising in popularity, both in art and academia. Taking this into account the question of whether or not artists can make an impact arises. Is the whole notion of Social Practice just exploitation hidden behind cheap spectacle and a jumble of buzzwords that don’t do anything besides raise awareness? Or can artistic intervention actually accomplish meaningful change?
The works of the keynote speakers, Mel Chin and Laurie Jo Reynolds, provide proof of the latter. Both their works give power back to the communities they engage with. The gesture of giving back – a statement that is always found somewhere in the script of activism – is a sincere one. An actual exchange of power and a shifting of dynamics takes place within how these two help facilitate resources to those who need it – whether it’s victims of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan or individuals dealing with the damaging effects of solitary confinement in prisons or criminal registries and their stigma.
Why do you, an artist, understand our struggles but others don’t?
A question shared by Chin during his gallery talk; asked to him by his translator while he was working on The Saharan Sand Dollar Exchange Machine, a project considered an extension of the Fundred Dollar Bill project.
Are artists more empathetic to the plights of others? This idea does play into the cliche of the artist as an emotional, in-tune being that is keenly aware and sensitive to the world around them. Many of the artists who spoke at the symposium were careful to consider their positions and privilege to figure out how they can best serve the communities in which they were engaging. This act provides a stark contrast to the other side of Social Practice, where communities are exploited and their tragedies are used to create art. An act of taking rather than one of exchange.
Chin spoke of people within the communities he visited and their concerns: asking him how an artist can help them with their problems and telling him he’d never be back once his “work” was done. Projects like Flint Fit and The Fundred Dollar Bill project return the power to the communities Chin works with by giving them ownership over parts, if not most, of the project.
In addition to the keynote lectures, there were two panels during the second day that covered a wide spectrum of socially engaged art. From talks on publicly disruptive installations to running a political campaign, the artists presenting revealed that the umbrella of Social Practice is far reaching.
Ideas of Disruption, a panel featuring artists Jimmy Kuehnle, Lauran Samman, and Jova Lynne spoke to the idea of artists stirring things up and using their power to dispense information and provoke interaction. Kuehnle’s work asks forgiveness rather than permission. The artist works in installation and sculpture utilizing colorful inflatables. He talked about wanting to have fun in life and that’s reflected in his space-invading installations and fantastic spectacles that include group-powered bicycles that invite public participation.
Identity and myth were the main topics during Jova Lynne’s talk. Specifically that of the black superwoman, a myth that alienates African American women by painting them as monolithic, seemingly non-emotional care-givers. Lynne finds strength within softness in her work and constructs sites of power through collaboration with women from her familial home of Jamaica. Lauran Samman shared about her process of collecting data and presenting it to an audience to tell a story and allow them to process it as they wish. Her work is currently dealing with environmental issues, specifically those brought on by the production of palm oil.
Without Boundaries, the second panel discussion, featured Lisa Austin, who is also a co-founder of SculptureX. Through her work with the CIVITAS initiative, Austin, along with others, stage functional interventions in public spaces. She spoke about their ongoing campaign to save the McBride Viaduct, a structure crucial to the safe passage of suburban commuters to the waterfront in Erie, Pennsylvania. Austin’s work in social sculpture can also be viewed as performance as she recently ran for mayor of Erie, PA due to her work with CIVITAS.
Kate Levy presented clips from her documentary films, a way she uses her affluent background and privilege to show different communities’ plights. Levy talked about the closing down of schools in Detroit, as well as the water issues effecting there and Flint, showing the devastating consequences it has on the children and parents of the community. Her films highlight the absurdity and hypocrisy coming from those in power.
Shanna Merola acts as a witness to protests in places such as Ferguson and the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. Merola is not only an artist but an educator, holding workshops to inform people of their rights as witnesses and documentarians of such events. Like Levy, she takes an active step back and allows people and communities to speak for themselves.
With more and more educational institutions creating courses and programs centered around socially engaged art, there is a concern that must be addressed: what does it mean to teach and promote Social Practice within a system that perpetuates similar hierarchies and power dynamics that many socially engaged artists strive to protest and change?
What does it accomplish to operate within existing systems? Does it do more harm than good? Many of the artists that spoke create work that uses existing systems for subversion in order to enact change. Can institutionalizing Social Practice – creating a curriculum, crafting rubrics, assigning a grade, etc – make a difference or does it bring into reality some of the skeptical sentiments of the communities artists insert themselves within?
This issue wasn’t addressed formally at the event – it was discussed in one of many conversations that occurred after the day’s activities were done. This highlights the lack of questions and critical dialogue during the panels, an issue that was mentioned by Ostrow in the closing talk.
Without exchange there is no useful dialogue and without challenging conversations there is no moving forward. Socially engaged practices are built on that foundation and without that act of exchange and empathy, Social Practice just ends up being another empty gesture that is more about appearances and less about meaningful action.
SculptureX 2018 was a great introduction to the variety of processes that exist within Social Practice and without a doubt sent the attendees – and even the presenters – away with a lot to consider.
Information regarding SculptureX 2019 will be coming soon. For more information on this years’ symposium and participating artists visit http://www.catoledo.org/sculpturex or http://www.sculpturecenter.org/about-sculpturex/