Like so many others who attended SITUATED on Monday, I returned to the mayhem of other responsibilities, but I found myself returning again and again to the ideas shared and questions explored. Here are some of my reflections, and I would love to hear what is preoccupying you.
Expanded Art Inside Artistic Silos or “How many people can you make love you” (Theaster Gates): So this is an ARC theme, and we found it again in the world of socially-engaged art. While so many of us make or support engaged work that “crosses” art forms, we are situated in different art worlds that define that crossing. Who reviews? Who commissions? Who grants? Who collects? (And do you aspire to be collectible?) Whether you are inside such ecologies, avoid such ecologies, or make alternative use of such ecologies, the techniques, histories, terms, and goals of a practice will be differently understood. They structure our perception of what is rigorous or redundant, didactic or abstract, an intervention or an appropriation. For some, time-based work is a break with an inherited form—others have been working durationally all along even if they never used the term. They affect our relations with authors, with collaborators, and with “signatures” –— and whether we care about such relations in the first place.
Organization or “Patience with Bureaucracy” (Debra Walker): Organizations are also having to re-skill in order to support such work, and some people have to create new organizations to get things off the ground. Hybrid, socially-engaged work challenges traditional divisions of labor between curatorial, producer, educational, outreach, PR, and technical departments of an organization. That re-skilling gets compounded when artists work with civic organizations whose language and processes create new opportunities and new hurdles. Meanwhile, perhaps those of us in the arts and humanities have cultivated a bit too much “impatience” with bureaucracy in our students. Perhaps we can use that legacy of what Benjamin called the “organizing function” of artist-producers to re-imagine the aesthetics of organization for our current moment (one that seems to need a slightly different mix than either the models of community art or institutional critique seem to offer).
Self-Reflexivity or “Inner Battles” (Allison Smith): More than I realized we were going to, our Monday was filled with reflection about how individual artists “situate” themselves as individuals in their practice, psychically and materially. Allison Smith shared the ambivalence of being on the “wrong” side of Civil War battles; Theaster Gates talked about wanting to be “redeemed;” Sean San Jose reflected on what it means to re-situate himself from the Mission to 5M; and Marc Bamuthi tries to resist the impulse to subject himself to a “purity test.” Meanwhile, Michael John Garcés delicately but deliberately asked us all to situate ourselves reflexively; his “story circle” exercises vacillated between the privately emotional and the systemically political in a way that challenged the division between these scales.
Social Re-skilling or “Sorcery School” (Joel Tan): What kinds of skills do artists need to navigate the social? Let’s remember that, in addition to a patience with bureaucracy, other fields in public health, social work, critical pedagogy, and community organizing have developed models for talking, listening, gathering, and teaching. What might it mean to reimagine artistic training with these skill sets in mind? Meanwhile, let’s think in reverse. How can artistic imagining jostle the orthodoxies and routinized processes of other social sectors? What does it mean to develop what Joel called the “artist’s quiver” as a set of tools to extend to other social and governmental sectors?
Social Content or “Content needs to be sweating and breathing” (Bamuthi): So there has been much debate and ink spilled on this topic, but the fact remains that this kind of work challenges binaries that we thought were over but that still persist—the lines that divide form and content, art and apparatus, theme and structure, foreground and background, medium and support. What looks like form to some reads like content to others—sometimes too much content to be artful. All the speakers spoke clearly about the need to create structures that propose questions rather than assuming answers in advance. Projects refused stable oppositions between good guys and bad guys. But many of us know that the interrogative impulse can get us into trouble with civic or activist partners who want art-making to advance us toward a pre-determined goal. Meanwhile, while I appreciated that each speaker responded to my question about how their art has “expanded” to address social content, I also appreciated moments that took us in the other direction. Rather than framing art as something that has to expand to incorporate the social, project after project asked us to remember that “the social” already occupies the interior of art practice.