Lebenskünstler

Claire Bishop and Nato Thompson as two sides of the same art worshiping coin – Some notes on a review

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 09/19/2013

Social Works – Sara Marcus

It goes by several names and takes a range of forms, but as with so many protean phenomena, we know it when we see it. Participation-based art, social engagement, social practice: Art that takes relations between people as its medium is currently ascendant, with specialized MFA programs, new social-practice art prizes, and biennials all attesting to its rise. This past spring’s Berlin Biennale, which gave the city’s Occupy activists free rein over an exhibition hall in the Kunst-Werke, is only the latest prominent example. Works like Jeremy Deller’s Battle of Orgreave, 2001, a weekend-long event during which historical reenactors and Yorkshire locals rehashed a 1984 clash between police and striking miners; Phil Collins’s They Shoot Horses, 2004, in which a handful of Palestinian teenagers in Ramallah danced to Western pop hits for eight hours; and any number of arranged social interactions by Tino Sehgal have for some years been staples of museum exhibitions and art-magazine exegeses.

Yet if we’re now several decades and theoretical upheavals too late to still be asking whether or why these projects are art—embedded as they are in the networks, conversations, and institutions that make up the art universe—discussions about how they are art, and what this means, are arriving not a moment too soon. They have surfaced most recently in a pair of divergent yet overlapping books, a quasi exhibition catalogue and a scholarly volume, that illustrate some of the tensions and problems that this kind of work brings up.

[Asking *how* they are art is just another way of sneaking in the question of *whether* they are art. This, of course, is the least interesting question one could ask. The notion of these activities being art-embedded is odd, as the very notion that something is a “project” and not say, a mode of living (living as form), indicates immediately that they are merely art after all.]

The former book, Creative Time’s Living as Form, is a kitchen-sink survey of art and activism, profiling over a hundred social projects, from canonical artworks (Francis Alÿs’s When Faith Moves Mountains, 2002; Suzanne Lacy’s The Roof Is on Fire, 1994) to those whose status is more contested (Women on Waves, a group that sails a mobile abortion clinic around Europe) to, most provocative of all, projects that seem to have never made any bid to be included in such a context: WikiLeaks, Pirate Bay, the Tahrir Square demonstrations. The idea here is not so much to expand what can be considered art as it is to think beyond that category altogether: “If this work is not art,” Nato Thompson, who edited the volume and curated the fall 2011 exhibition of the same name, writes in the title essay, “then what are the methods we can use to understand its effects, affects, and impact?” He has described this project’s approach as a “cattle call” and quotes Donald Rumsfeld: “If you have a problem, make it bigger.” In other words, if artworks that look a lot like activism continue to give some people pause, then, Thompson proposes, we should bring we should bring projects that look even less like art into the mix, and see what happens., and see what happens.

[Thompson is given way too much credit here: “The idea here is not so much to expand what can be considered art as it is to think beyond that category altogether” Living as Form, barely pushes beyond art. When it does, it stretches ever so cautiously into art world comfort zones of activism. So Thompson makes an elitist form of culture making *slightly* more inclusive and for that he gets credit, but he falls far, far short of articulating a vision of cultural production that makes more than a cursory effort to include “projects that look even less like art into the mix, and see what happens.”]

The Living as Form project seems tailor-made, at first glance, to get art critic and scholar Claire Bishop’s eyes rolling. She is an integral participant in the conversations this book seeks to register and advance—in fact, she spoke in the program’s lecture series last year and contributed an essay to the present volume—but her approach differs dramatically from Thompson’s. For while Living as Form is largely celebratory and expansive, preferring to pose enormous questions rather than suggesting how to answer them, Bishop’s new book, Artificial Hells, takes the field to task for a certain critical and aesthetic sloppiness she sees arising from a reluctance to draw aesthetic distinctions, articulate a critical framework, or venture to discuss matters of quality. For the better part of a decade, Bishop has been arguing that a great deal of the art that travels under the label “social practice” (or other related designations) is neither politically efficacious nor aesthetically compelling, yet is given a sort of pass—exempted from critical rigor because its heart is in the right place. “It is . . . crucial,” she wrote in a much-debated Artforum article in 2006, “to discuss, analyze, and compare such work critically as art.” This is a 180-degree turn from Thompson’s gleeful aside in a Living as Form–connected talk he gave last year: “We’ll call them ‘artworks’ for now; we will destroy that as we go.”

An expanded version of Bishop’s Artforum piece serves as the first chapter of Artificial Hells, her bid to introduce precision and skepticism into a conversation that frequently tends toward the impressionistic and the utopian. It’s a capacious book, organized around a general argument that will be familiar to anybody who has read her major critical writings: Discussions about social practice tend to reject individual authorship too reflexively, while overvaluing collectivity and consensus; art that is antagonistic, that provokes difficult feelings (“unease, discomfort or frustration”), often yields a richer experience for viewer-participants than works that solicit cooperation; the failure of much social practice to attend seriously to the aesthetic experience of secondary audiences, who are not present as the work initially unfolds, is a grave liability.

[Bishop though, is especially useless and conservative. She is one of the last great dinosaurs of criticality. You have to respect her, for she is absolutely shameless in seeking to cling to the last vestiges of the academic aristocracy. One of the delicious ironies of her position on social practice, her fetish for antagonism, is that the work that seems to *actually* make her uncomfortable is work that is too nice, friendly, or uncritical. So while she allegedly favors work that provokes “unease, discomfort or frustration,” what she really means is work that provokes those feelings in a comfortable (intellectual) way. She too, it seems, wants to stay within her comfort zone.]

Although Bishop’s and Thompson’s books are plainly in conversation, they also talk past each other, the authors attempting to cast the discussion in their own preferred terms. Living as Form is interested in social and political intent, while Bishop focuses on “participation”—a term that overlaps significantly, but not entirely, with the purview of Living. Bishop wants to talk about durable artistic “results” over ephemeral “process,” while Thompson is invested in how to change the world—the less said about art qua art, the better.

In Artificial Hells—the title comes from Andre Breton and refers to the difficult works Bishop favors—she develops her argument against an “ethical turn” in art criticism, in which artworks are judged based on how much they involve and empower non-artist “participants.” Empowering participants sounds far less stirring than changing the world, and her choice of the former wording highlights what she identifies as a constrained, NGO-ish cast to discussions about social practice. Such discussions, she argues, too often reflect the positivism of impact statements and grant proposals, social sciences and community development—angles that are not necessarily compatible with memorable art or radical social change. Bishop’s approach draws on the work of philosopher Jacques Rancière, particularly The Politics of Aesthetics, in arguing that since the realm of the aesthetic is inherently political, it’s misguided to think art must be directly topical or model inclusive democratic activity in order to be engaged in politics. Throughout Artificial Hells, she offers a welcome dose of theoretical seriousness to the field. But her rhetoric occasionally distracts from her argument. At times, she frames issues in a way that nobody could agree with without sounding naive—she suggests, for instance, that certain (unnamed) politically minded artists are “upholding an unproblematised equation between artistic and political inclusion.”

Would the guilty artists please stand up? Those readers who already find social practice wishy-washy or tedious will likely nod in assent, but anybody who needs convincing—which will no doubt include much of this book’s audience—may be as skeptical as Grant Kester was of Bishop’s 2006 article on social practice, to which he retorted, “One would be hard pressed to find many contemporary artists or critics involved with politically engaged practice who would espouse such a simplistic position.” Yet in the best-case scenario, this approach will goad people who believe in social practice and its transformative possibilities into clarifying their own views, if only to free themselves from the positions Bishop sets out for them.

[This reading of Bishop takes us deep into the theoretical funhouse. Here we have Bishop using Rancière to argue about the inherent political nature of the aesthetic – fair enough. But most of the force of Bishop’s position rests on the inverse – failure to recognize the inherent aesthetic properties of the political. She also fails to see that meeting her demands with regard to aesthetic properties therefore forecloses certain types of political possibilities. That is certainly “an unproblematised equation!”]

In Artificial Hells, she pieces together a history of twentieth-century artworks that have employed participation for a variety of purposes: support of state socialism in the public pageants of the Soviet Union, proto-Fascist bellicosity in Italian Futurism, the promotion of individual experiences of privatized consumption in later Communist bloc settings, dramatizations of autocracy in Argentina under military dictatorship. She aims to show that participation and democracy are not eternally linked, and furthermore that feel-good social art is not the only option. But to claim that participation is a valuable way to make progressive art, as many advocates do, is hardly to deny that it could find a place in other projects across the political spectrum. Still, such a prying apart and opening up of concepts and conventions is undeniably helpful, and the history Hells traces is an interesting, if only seldom galvanizing, patchwork of projects. Proposing that participation-based art has periodic heydays at times of political crisis and transformation, Bishop focuses on three such moments: 1917, the lead-up to 1968, and the aftermath of 1989. Her examples range from the well known (Dada, Happenings) to the more specialized (confrontational art events in Argentina, whimsical street art in Paris) and extend to recent formations such as the Artist Placement Group and the community arts movement in the UK.

Bishop’s overall schema opposes “a realm of useful, ameliorative and ultimately modest gestures,” preferring “singular acts that leave behind them a troubling wake.” (Who, after all, would opt for art that could be described the same way as flossing one’s teeth?) Confrontational art, Bishop argues—such as Christoph Schlingensief’s 2000 Please Love Austria, in which detained asylum seekers were boxed up in a shipping container, broadcast via webcam, and voted out of the country in pairs—does valuable work by making abstract oppressive social and political forces immediate. Moreover, she asserts convincingly, the tooth-flossing stuff is easily folded into the Western status quo, since art that aspires toward social problem-solving risks simply “mopping up the shortfalls of a dwindling welfare infrastructure”; and the network-based, volunteer-dependent character of this art reflects, rather than challenges, contemporary capitalism, which feeds us precarity dressed up as freedom.

[“Who, after all, would opt for art that could be described the same way as flossing one’s teeth?” – Well, I would. And so would Allan Kaprow. See: Art Which Can’t Be Art.
And maybe I’m reading a different Bishop, but it seems like she once again smuggles in a position to support her point of view that, if applied to her own position, actually undermines it. She faults social practice for reflecting rather than challenging capitalism, but surely in all the time she spends in the library she must have stumbled across at least one article/book detailing the relationship between ideas of the avant garde and capitalism. Isn’t guerrilla marketing’s raison d’être in capitalist society to create “singular acts that leave behind them a troubling wake?” Or, shock and awe anyone?]

Self-styled progressive art is an inadvertent running dog of the neoliberal state? These are fighting words, and one might have hoped Living as Form would come out swinging. But that’s not what the Creative Time book is up to. Primarily it’s a sourcebook, a starting point for further research, and a snapshot of critical conversation about the field. Its optimism can be infectious—look at how many different ways there are to do this stuff!—yet it’s a compromised vehicle. Many of the project descriptions that constitute the bulk of the book speak in vague grant-proposal language about mission (“doual’art invites contemporary artists to engage with the city of Douala in order to mold its identity and to bridge the gap between the community and contemporary art production”); often we must read between the lines to get a sense of what relations, or forms of living, come out of this work.

Meanwhile, the book’s images—which occupy nearly half the real estate in the “Projects” section—run the gamut. Some canonical works, such as Deller’s Battle of Orgreave and Alÿs’s When Faith Moves Mountains, are represented with expertly shot photographs of striking acts; at the other extreme, photos of Tania Bruguera’s Immigrant Movement International, 2011–, merely show a sign hanging by some elevated subway tracks, dim placards on an indoor clothesline, a clutch of people standing near a table. Allora and Calzadilla’s Tiza (Lima), 1998–2006, falls somewhere in the middle: In the photographs of the massive sticks of chalk placed by the artist duo outside the Peruvian Municipal Palace of Lima, of the political messages people marked on the plaza, and of the impromptu protest that arose, we can see something of the openness and expressivity of the action. Yet the photos carry little aesthetic charge.

They’re not meant to, of course. Much social practice is geared toward resisting a hypertrophied art market that commodifies everything it touches, and these artists rarely seem to prioritize the visual impact of the documentary traces their activities leave behind. Still, when Bishop laments that the open-endedness of innovative participatory exhibitions “is frequently experienced by the viewing public as a loss, since the process that forms the central meaning of this work is rarely made visible and explicit,” one can’t help but see her point. Living as Form supports her proposition that as social practice enters the world of exhibitions, books, and documentary websites, the question of how to communicate its essence to secondary audiences needs to be more seriously considered.

[As mentioned above with regard to embeddedness, social practice (art) does not enter “the world of exhibitions, books, and documentary websites.” It arises *with* them. It seems clear that Marcus is only talking about social practice (art), not social practice more generally (or what I might call social poiesis). In this sense then, social practice is no different than any other art genre. What Living as Form *could* have “seriously considered,” but failed to, was what would a truly expansive idea of social practice look like? What would it mean to *actually* “destroy” social practice as an art genre?]

Commenting on this year’s politically minded Berlin Biennale, its curator, Artur Żmijewski, wrote of his hope “for a situation in which artists’ actions would become not only art, but could also reveal a political truth—something with the potential to change selected aspects of our shared reality, so that art would possess the power of politics but not its fear, opportunism, and cynicism.” This characterization of politics as a besmirched domain recalls Bishop’s astute observation in Artificial Hells that the rise of political art bespeaks “a lack of faith both in the intrinsic value of art as a de-alienating human endeavour (since art today is so intertwined with market systems globally) and in democratic political processes (in whose name so many injustices and barbarities are conducted).” Politics and art are two realms that largely need their constituents to believe in them, and Bishop rightly allows for the importance of continuing to revise these categories in light of such crises of faith. Her call for reconstituting the boundary between them may raise eyebrows among certain radical stakeholders, such as Thompson, who aims to eliminate that boundary entirely. Bishop argues that such an obliteration would leave us barren of evaluative standards, but it could also be argued that her approach limits the possibilities of what the relation between politics and art can be. What we need is a conversation about art and politics that is both rigorous and expansive. Bishop and Thompson each take us only part of the way.

[I would again note that Bishop wants to eliminate the border between aesthetics and politics when it suits her, but indeed wishes to police it vociferously when it sullies her position. A boundary that actually needs clarification though is the one between art and aesthetics. They are often used interchangeably, but dislodging art’s stranglehold on aesthetics dissolves much of the force of many of these “debates.” Thompson is not nearly the “radical” Marcus imagines, or maybe we mean something entirely different when using that word. A more radical exhibition would not have even been one. At the very least, the full title might have been changed from Living as Form: Socially Engaged Art from 1991-2011 to something likeLiving as Form: Strategies for Meaning Making in Everyday Lives. In the latter, art is not Art, not merely a profession, but a widely available and employed endeavor of collective human activity. Social practice then is not just more grist for the art historical and curatorial mill, but a vital, imaginative field. One practiced not just by activists, academics, and artists, but by bankers, moms, and mechanics. So yes, Bishop and Thompson take us part of the way, but one wonders if it is the right direction?]

Addendum to: Who counts, or should count, as a “meaning maker?” – The problem with “cultural production.”

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 11/14/2012

Socially engaged art at UCSD provides food for thought in La Jolla – Will Bowen

The article above is quite timely given my recent post – Who counts, or should count, as a “meaning maker?” – The problem with “cultural production.” It illustrates some of the issues I raised in that post (and many others) and might be interesting to break down. I will acknowledge at the outset that this article no doubt presents a caricature of surely more nuanced and complicated thinking by the people cited. The quotes presented though are in no way outliers – there is an academic orthodoxy around social practice (and art in general) and this material is emblematic.

First we have Michelle Hyun offering her definition of socially engaged art:

“Art that is made from the social mediation of social relations. It’s closer to real-life experience than regular art and often has a protest or politic aspect to it.”

The first part of the definition is puzzling in that all art involves the mediation of social relations. So it must be that it is social mediation of those relations that is essential, but I’m not particularly clear on what that even means. In the second part, she makes a claim that it is also “closer” to real life than “regular” art and this begs the questions – does painting or sculpture exist in real life? closer in content? closer in form? and what is “regular” art?

Next we have the author of the article providing a definition:

“…socially engaged art is work that has a social meaning, purpose, or motivation, and is meant to call attention to some facts about society or encourage a change in perspective or behavior. Socially engaged art can be anything from text, poetics, image, performance, theater, film, activity or demonstration, etc.”

This really doesn’t clear much up – As we still can’t seem to eliminate painting, or at least, didactic painting given that socially engaged art can be “image” and given that painting certainly has “social meaning” and “purpose, or motivation.” If we leave it here, socially engaged art is starting to sound like a new name for activist, or political art.

Next up is Mariana Wardwell:

“Socially-engaged art is inbred by a political-economic condition and it acts to intervene in, displace, and dislocate the political environment where it is produced.”

I love this definition as it embodies many of the clichés of contemporary art education. As I mentioned in the above linked post, in many corners of academe we find an incessant call to do things like “intervene in, displace, and dislocate.” The hegemonic noose is tightening around the definition of socially engaged art (or social practice) with every new paragraph in the article.

Ricardo Dominguez:

“To be effective, socially-engaged art must have a bit of ‘toxicity’ about it, meaning that it cannot be easily digested, assimilated, or appropriated by the dominant political structures. It must make them a little sick!”

Now that its aims have been sufficiently circumscribed, we move on to having its methods penned in as well. The only way to be “effective” is apparently to re-employ the strategies of the avant garde, something which was supposed to be out of fashion and or/critiqued into oblivion. Few artists and critics today openly advocate a return to that model of art making, yet it permeates much of what they say and do – their rhetoric betrays them. Notice here though that we find the ambition scaled back and maybe this is the thing that distinguishes the contemporary sensibility from the old avant garde. No longer is the aim to shock but merely “make them a little sick.”

In using the ideas offered so far, it appears that art projects cannot be “socially engaged” if they: are convivial, lack overt political content, disdain critique, embrace “the political environment where it is produced,” or otherwise fail to be properly radical in ambition.

Here, the author is quoting Nato Thompson:

“Living as Form (The Nomadic Version) is an opportunity to cast a wide net and ask: How do we make sense of this work? and in turn, How do we make sense of the world we find ourselves in? ‘Living as Form (The Nomadic Version)’ will provide a broad look at a vast array of practices that appear with increasing regularity in fields ranging from theater to activism, and urban planning to visual art.

Again as I point out in Who counts, or should count, as a “meaning maker?” – The problem with “cultural production.”, there are indeed a “vast array of practices” out in the world, but they are not to be found exclusively in art or its academic cousins. The fields cited here fall pretty neatly within the confines of the education industrial complex and leave out diverse practices and constituencies. It would be instructive to find out who the “we” is mentioned in the two questions above – especially this question –  “How do we make sense of the world we find ourselves in?” It appears the “we” speaks of activists/intellectuals/artists of a particular stripe which is fine, but for a field with such grandiose ambition, it seems important to make sure to acknowledge that this is a very small, and rarefied “we.”

I’ll return to yet another post for another angle on this – Common Culture – Paul Willis Some key quotes in case you don’t care to follow the link:

“In general the arts establishment connives to keep alive the myth of the special, creative individual artist holding out against  passive mass consumerism, so helping to maintain a self-interested view of elite creativity…Against this we insist that there is a vibrant symbolic life and symbolic creativity in everyday life, everyday activity and expression – even if it is sometimes invisible, looked down on or spurned.”

“There can be a final unwillingness and limit even in subversive or alternative movements towards an arts democracy. They may have escaped the physical institutions and academies, but not always their conventionswe don’t want to start where ‘art’ thinks is ‘here’, from within its perspectives, definitions and institutions.[emphasis mine]“

“Ordinary people have not needed an avant-gardism to remind them of rupture. What they have needed but never received is better and freer materials for building security and coherence in their lives.”