Social Practice as the Ethics of Paradise – A Profound Embrace of This World – Or why when I read many “radical” critics, I see the Crucifix

Posted in Uncategorized by dilettanteventures on 11/26/2012

‘This present paradise’ – Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker

Paradise, we realized, was the dominant image of early Christian sanctuaries. And to our surprise and delight, we discovered that early Christian paradise was something other than “heaven” or the afterlife. In the early church, paradise—first and foremost—was this world, permeated and blessed by the Spirit of God. Images of paradise in Rome and Ravenna captured the craggy, scruffy pastoral landscape, the orchards, the clear night skies, and teeming waters of the Mediterranean world, as if they were lit by a power from within. Sparkling mosaics in vivid colors captured the world’s luminosity. The images filled the walls of spaces in which liturgies fostered aesthetic, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual experiences of life in the present, in a world created as good and delightful.

Nearly everything we had previously understood about Christian history, theology, and ritual began to shift as we delved deeper into the meaning of paradise. Our new book, Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire, reaches back nearly four thousand years to explore how the ancient people of West Asia imagined paradise. It shows how the Bible’s Hebrew prophets invoked the Garden of Eden to challenge the exploitation and carnage of empires. It shows how Jesus’s teachings and the practices of the early church affirmed life in this world as the place of salvation. Within their church communities, Christians in the first millennium sought to help life flourish in the face of imperial power, violence, and death.

The beautiful feast of life returned the senses to an open, joyous experience of the world; it was an encounter with divine presence infusing physical life. The Eucharist thus bound humanity to the glory of divine life in “this present paradise,” and through its Eucharists, the church cultivated responsiveness to the power of holy presence in the world. Its beauty was a spiritual path that opened the heart.

With the advent of Crucifixion-centered theologies, paradise was lost. It was no longer tasted and felt as a spiritual realm to be entered in this life. It was postponed to the hereafter, or secularized, as a land to be conquered. When Christopher Columbus set sail, he was looking for paradise for its fabled gold and jewels. Colonization, with its exploitation of peoples and lands, evolved from the loss of paradise. Materialism filled the spiritual void. We live now—within the dominant culture of the West—in the aftermath of the closing of paradise. We live with the legacy of militarism, racism, and exploitation of the earth and its peoples that has put paradise at risk.

And yet there is some whiff of paradise that still reaches us. Walking through the woods in the early morning, we catch glimpses of it. Singing in church, we hear strains of its harmonies. Cooking supper for friends, garlic and basil simmering in olive oil, the fragrance of paradise touches our senses. We lift a child into our arms and dance. In our twirling we feel paradise in our limbs.

Rediscovering paradise and recommitting ourselves to the ethics of paradise is just what we need now. Western culture needs to stand again at the open doors of paradise and find its way to re-enter this world as a sacred site, as holy ground. The Universalist part of our Unitarian Universalist heritage can help show the way.

Universalism tells us that we can come to know the world as paradise when our hearts and souls are reborn through the arduous and tender task of living rightly with one another and the earth. Generosity, nonviolence, and care for one another are the pathways into transformed awareness. Knowing that paradise is here and now is a gift that comes to those who practice the ethics of paradise. This way of living is not Utopian. It does not spring simply from the imagination of a better world but from a profound embrace of this world. It does not begin with knowledge or hope. It begins with love.

Paradise is human life restored to its divinely infused dignity and capacity, and it is a place of struggle with evil and injustice, requiring the development of wisdom, love, nonviolence, and responsible uses of power. Power can be experienced as spiritual illumination of the heart, mind, and senses felt in moments of religious ecstasy, and it can be known in ordinary life lived with reverence and responsibility. Paradise is not a place free from suffering or conflict, but it is a place in which Spirit is present and love is possible.

Entering paradise in this life is not an individual achievement but is the gift of communities that train perception and teach ethical grace. Paradise provides deep reservoirs for resistance and joy. It calls us to embrace life’s aching tragedies and persistent beauties, to labor for justice and peace, to honor one another’s dignity, and to root our lives in the soil of this good and difficult earth.

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

Posted in Uncategorized by dilettanteventures 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.”

Who counts, or should count, as a “meaning maker?” – The problem with “cultural production.” – One side of of a facebook conversation on art and culture

Posted in Uncategorized by dilettanteventures on 11/12/2012

An addendum to this post is now here.

[The following is my end of a multi-participant and mutli-themed conversation. I did not include the names or comments of others (save for a few unattributed quotations) as I did not ask for their permission. The content is essentially unedited.]

*** – The language I prefer to use in describing what you call “antiquated infrastructure” is more in line with Sholette (and Baudrillard). Perhaps art is an exploded star (maybe in the 60s) and like astronomical ones, what we are seeing now is just the last light to reach us from that “long gone” event…

“the madness of making things matter” is a really lovely phrase although I wonder a bit about who you see engaged in such a thing. As you probably know I am quite skeptical about folks that utilize the label “cultural producers” being engaged much in making things matter. Or rather to whom and for whom does it matter?

I feel like despite your half-hearted attempt to leave art behind (at least as you hint at in the comments here), you still want to reserve a place for some sort of special individual (or collective). Someone who stands out as a “meaning maker” or “cultural producer,” thus merely shifting the dynastic reigns to a newly labelled vanguard.

Oh ***, I know you don’t care one whit what my “point” is, but I appreciate you pretending to. It is true that a certain kind of skepticism is my disposition, and that skepticism generally finds its manifestation at (perceived) claims of specialness, elitism, etc. I support radically democratic culture making (pretty sure you do too) and thus find the term ‘cultural producers’ a bit weird. Who is *not* a cultural producer? Who *doesn’t* “make meaning?” I guess radical inclusivity is my point and thus the idea that critics (radical or otherwise) should be writing about activist art true enough, but why do we keep limiting ourselves to the most obvious forms of meaning making, and while obvious, also the least accessible to vast segments of the population?

So again when you say:
“That is why I use the phrase “cultural producers” only as a way to imply forms of culture making outside the tight constraints of an art infrastructure.”

I have to wonder why, given your curatorial history, it seems you want to look outside the art *infrastructure*, but not outside *art* (or activism when you stretch a bit). It gives the distinct impression that “cultural producer” is just a euphemism for smart art/activist types, but does not appear to include car customizers, church knitting circles and the like. I mean if we’re really looking at culture, not *intellectual* culture, not *urban* culture, not *activist* culture, etc. Why does everything done in the name of cultural production feel so constrained?

There is indeed an “entire other universe” being ignored (but not necessarily the one you speak of) and my “point” is to be vigilant in calling that out.

I am certainly not against being interested in one thing over another either. The reason I spout off (aside from having no life) on these issues periodically is that there is a HUGE disconnect in the art world between what people say they support and what they *actually* support. I mean your **** show didn’t cast a wide net (at least from where I sit). It explored a well worn groove, an interesting one, but very few surprises (of course I’m also guilty of considering the title too literally – wanting something beyond its aim, hoping to have seen an exhibition of people living creatively, whose lives explore the art of living more than the art of living (as art)). Time and again, curators claim to be interested in everyday life, the ordinary, cultural production, etc. – yet whenever they put an event together art/activist types are almost all they include (unless one of the artist/activist types brings in some non-art person). So if the statement were everyday life – as interpreted by artist intellectuals, or cultural production as generated by artist intellectuals or others they deem interesting, or *** – as practiced by art/activist types, then it would at least be honest…

So, what *do* I want?

…more grandmothers, more South Dakotans, more gearheads, more fan fiction writers, more karaoke queens, more street performers, more Sunday painters, more NASCAR fans, more tailgating, more collectors (of barf bags, not art), more gardeners (not “radical” ones), more lipdub dreamers, more Civil War re-enactors, more whirlygig makers, more surfers, more conservatives, more stand-up comics, more DJs (not Spooky!!!!), more roadside Americana, more people who have never been to college, more fiddlers, more people who have never left their hometown, more taxidermists, more people who don’t give a shit about art aside from liking pretty pictures, more of all the crazy, delightful people making (and doing things) that mean something, more folks engaged in, as you put it, “the madness of making things matter.”

Not only would critics of art from other disciplines be interesting so too would artists. One of the reasons I gave up on undergraduate art education was that everybody was busy making stuff without any foundation to drive it – except art. They were all living in an art school bubble (not unlike a Fox News bubble). Making art completely within the framework of art and only questioning it within its own terms.

Sure there were other courses than studio ones, but they were those dumbed down “math for artists” sorts of classes. I would love an art world in which there was no such thing as an undergraduate art degree. Art created from a vantage point of something in the world other than art would be so much healthier and relevant than the inbred mess we have now.

And don’t bother telling me how art education has changed, how people read from urban planning, architecture, etc. The professionalization of art, the specialization, still has a very tight grip. Look at how successful Claire Bishop has been at having people take seriously her efforts to reign in social practice, to bring it back to the fold, to let all the old ideas and frameworks be the starting point – criticality being the greatest bugaboo. Oh how the art world LOVES its criticality! Looking to other academic disiciplines, is fine (as **** suggests) but let’s not confine ourselves to academia.

Surely we can hope for a more interesting and diverse art world than one dependent on academic experts, one that includes pleasure (not “jouissance”), one that thrives in places like Galveston, TX, or Butte, MT, one that thrives outside cities, one that ordinary people (ordinary people are the sort of people that wouldn’t ask “what is an *ordinary* person?”) want to see, one that doesn’t always have to interrogate, deconstruct, critique, or examine, one that is radically inclusive, democratic, local, and in which critics are one, very small part.

Edward Mooney – Lost Intimacy in American Thought [Part I]

Posted in Uncategorized by dilettanteventures on 11/08/2012

Lost Intimacy in American Thought – Edward Mooney

[Thoreau and Bugbee] write ‘salvations’ that raise life from decline; they are philosophers who write intimately, personally, for love of the world.

He [Bugbee] proposed that philosophy was “a walking meditation of the place.”…a philosophy that brings life to things, a lyrical philosophy that finds plenitudes in them.

To test a world by theory, we retreat from the-world-to-be-theorized and size it up in terms of that theory. Thus the detachment of theory is the detachment of the theorizer from an intimate immersion in the world…this stance of ‘looking at’ (rather than beholding) destroys the wider intimacy that a religious sensibility seeks and sometimes finds…To know a sunset intimately is in part to bask in its presence, which is to find ourselves basking – not theorizing.

His [Thoreau’s] walking is an exercise in weaving the world, weaving the self, weaving contacts that occur as revelations of the world as a place overflowing with meaning – even holy, so deep is its significance.

…philosophy becomes identified less with a saving journey, and more with a cognitive grasp attained through abstract products – explanatory or critical schemes…thinking theoretically vaults one above or outside the fray in an aspiration to motionless onlooking that freezes that onlooker in a narrow slice of the significant range of life’s wider plenitudes. To cut back from the immersions and submersions, passional and practical, that are the tissue of life is to cut adrift from opportunities for self-knowledge. A knowing contact with oneself cannot come about through distancing oneself from vital contacts.

…One travels, with baggage, passions, and commitments. Sometimes the wondrous is not in the remote valley or mountain top, or distant heavens but in the local. One finds the astonishing as one moves with and around parochial passions, promises, and practices. Then philosophy [or social practice] can become a quasi-religious journey toward the intimate knowledge of the ins and outs of  family or neighborhood life, of rock-climbing and cooking, of the ups and downs of walking a friend through cancer, or of swimming away from catastrophe.

…the uninterrupted ‘eternal’ standpoint of theory, or of the benefits of impersonal theory-production, a detached stalling that occludes our particular immersions in local pains and delights, family ties and occupational demands…his [Bugbee] condition clarified, not by argument or theory but by moving ever deeper into his condition.

Some social practice thinking out loud inspired by Edward Mooney and first posted on facebook

Posted in Uncategorized by dilettanteventures on 11/01/2012

This is just a quick reaction to reading Edward Mooney’s Lost Intimacy in American Thought. Mooney is actually writing mostly about philosophy but it is easy to extrapolate his thinking to art. The quotes below are from him (except the Cavell). Extensive notes from Lost Intimacy will find their way into subsequent posts soon-ish and I might even riff on it and social practice a bit more…

Social practice fails, or undermines its potency precisely to the degree that is a public gesture and thus Claire Bishop is right that such practices are inadequate, but wrong to think that it can succeed in the terms she sets for it…it is the ability to enter convivial relationships that give social practices their power and that ability will not be found in DISCOURSE, but “…in a heartfelt acknowledgement of multiple and mutual dependencies enacted in intimate contexts of exchange far from public forums of legalistic or philosophical debate.”

Perhaps social practice needs to embrace “pushing back poetically” against critics like Bishop, those cynical skeptics…while it is certainly possible (and easy) to critique and engage the conceptual shortcomings of her work, you simply can’t argue your way to victory…the skeptic’s failure is not a failure of knowledge or argumentation (although it sort of is with Bishop), but a failure “of affirmation, or acknowledgment – a failure of love.” At some point you either take a leap of faith or you don’t.

“To live in the face of doubt, eyes happily shut, would be to fall in love with the world. For if there is a correct blindness, only love has it. And if you find that you have fallen in love with the world, then you would be ill-advised to offer an argument of its worth.” – Stanley Cavell

Perhaps rather than refute, one should simply set aside. “Pushing back poetically is not pushing with argument or doctrine but with simple lines and longer narratives.” To this I would also add pushing with embodiment, experience, and ecstasy.

This is a much more hyperbolic approach to the same theme.

Introduction to 127 Prince – The journal that never really was

Posted in Uncategorized by dilettanteventures on 09/12/2012

[As I mentioned before, 127 Prince was a journal intended to deal with “the art of social practice and the social practice of art.” It had some amazing content, but never really got rolling. The domain has now been usurped by a porn site, but it is still viewable here. This is the introduction I wrote for it.]

“Try to see it my way, Only time will tell if I am right or I am wrong.
While you see it your way”
-The Beatles

In all honesty, I find journals, in the academic sense, mostly boring. If by calling this thing a journal we mean a peer reviewed and scholarly contribution to the professional field of art, count me out. Or maybe I mean if that is all it is, if the only sense of journal we embody is the academic one, then like Bartleby, I would prefer not to…

If however, we mean by journal a record of observations, a place for inquiry, a venue for conversation, or what the art set now calls a “platform,” then by all means, please include me. My dear friend Ben Schaafsma (now deceased) had a blog called Center for Working Things Out. That economically describes my ambitions for this enterprise.

So what is it I’d like to be working out? First, I’d like to release aesthetics from the stranglehold of art discourse and philosophy, to explore as widely as possible, and to think about what a truly inclusive, democratic approach to aesthetics might look like. To take advantage of the tools Katya Mandoki and Yuriko Saito have provided for coming to terms with everyday aesthetics. It is worth quoting from Mandoki’s Everyday Aesthetics at length to give a richer sense of my ambition:

“We will consequently have to veer 180 degrees the traditional approach to aesthetics by focusing not on the aesthetic effects of social practices such as art, fashion, or design, but on the social effects of aesthetic practices performed throughout a wide array of social institutions such as the family, the school, religion, the State, prison. The nature of specific aesthetic practices within each of these institutions is precisely the question that prosaics [her word for the aesthetics of daily life] will have to answer. The purpose is, thus, to study aesthetics not as the effect of art and beauty, but as constitutive of social effects.”

Secondly, I’d love to keep the messiness of the human condition front and center, not the sort of messiness proponents of agonistic models of art and community champion, but the simple messiness of embodied human experience. I’d especially like to challenge what I call the theoretical fundamentalists and those who worship at the altar of intellectual criticality, and the aforementioned agonistes to loosen up, to have some fun, to remember that they eat, have sex, laugh, and cry. These things are rooted in the body, but so are the soaring scholastic temples they build in the intellectual aether, and forgetting that repeats the follies of Cartesianism that so many feminist scholars have pointed out. This isn’t about being anti-intellectual, or against criticality per se, it’s about trying to find some balance in a field that is mercilessly anti-sentimental, and seemingly obsessed with critical forms of avant-garde-ism that try to adopt the coolest pose possible, to avoid, as Carl Wilson puts it, being taken in and missing that this often means refusing an invitation out. I’d like to think about the benefits and drawbacks of cultural criticism based not in revealing hidden complicity or finding theoretical flaws and inconsistencies, but that begin, quoting Grant Kester, “with a passionate attachment to a thing: a sense that the practice you’re writing about matters in some way and isn’t just a specimen awaiting dissection on the examination table of your intellect.”

Finally, I want to put love and “common” aspirations back in the mix. I would love for my mom to be able to read this journal, but given the field we’re staking out, I realize this is probably not realistic. The very language I’m utilizing to champion the vernacular and the everyday is not a language she speaks. So maybe this journal is not for my mom [to read], but it is for her. It’s my salvo in appreciation of my mom and the members of her garden club that have staked out (literally) a piece of the world for conversing, sharing, and creating. They are engaged in something very much like what the art world calls “social practice” and yet also something very different. What they do might not be as “cool” as Rirkit Tiravinija’s The Land, but I think what they do is awesome, So, yes, let’s be a little less cool and a little more awesome, or let’s at least create a space for both. Let’s try to find a mode for working things out.

Another Social Practice Project That Isn’t One – Art, Life, and Community in VT

Posted in Uncategorized by dilettanteventures on 09/10/2012

Art, community and agriculture are one at Fable Farm – Sally Pollak [A snapshot of the holistic approach to art, life, and community, here in Vermont]

Every philosophy graduate student should be required to weed.

“I noticed that people would come from their days jobs, whatever they did to make money,” White said. “And they entered the theater and shook that off and proceeded to the collaborative arts. … I was going back to a farm, to a beautiful landscape, to cooking with a fire, and all the rest.”

The separation, the boundaries, troubled him. This began conversations with the Pianas about a different kind of approach, and what kind of projects might unfold on the farm that would represent a kind of whole.

“We go to the grocery store to get food,” White said. “We go to the psychologist to get our head straight. We go to the gym to work out, and you pay for it every step of the way — in more ways than one. As opposed to right here: I’m getting the food I need. I’m with my friends. I’m working my body and doing yoga in the field. There’s no separation between sustenance and health and happiness.”

“If you want to align yourself with what you think the world ought to be, there are no jobs — yet,” McHugh said. “So you have to make your own jobs and wait for the world to catch up. These guys feel it. They see it. They want to be part of it. …“We’re here to celebrate the fact that these guys are creating the center of the community. The town needs a heart. The town needs a place where people can feel connected. You couldn’t have orchestrated a better gang to do this. You could’ve gone to Hollywood and said: ‘Central casting, I want some heartful, soulful, intentional people.’ If you got this group, it would’ve been a home run.”

Claire Bishop – The Humpty Dumpty Approach to Aesthetics and Ethics

Posted in Uncategorized by dilettanteventures on 08/25/2012

Art for Politics’ Sake Claire Bishop on Social Practice – Corinne Segal

Claire Bishop (I know, I know, I really thought I would never write another word about her, but the interview above found its way into my RSS feed reader) desperately needs to read Marcia Eaton, the Pragmatists, and/or the Greeks – hell, even re-reading Foucault would help. Of course, if she did, her critical house of cards might come tumbling down. This is because her whole schtick regarding social practice rests on the (false) separation of the aesthetic and the ethical. Now I know she tries to qualify it a bit and even calls for a “double analysis” and tries to employ Rancière, but the pattern is clear – art is for aesthetics and aesthetics is for art. The “regime” of the aesthetic is far more broad than the narrow slice of experience she wants to chain it to (art).

I do agree with her though about the “blind spot” of social practice, although it is important to be careful with wording. She claims social practice denies its “artistic character” and she also claims that  it does “not want to be conceived as visual art.” I would argue that these are two distinctly different things. Kaprow’s use of “artlike” and “lifelike” is useful here. Something may be lifelike art or artlike art, but also artlike non-art. So social practice may indeed have an “artistic character” without being “visual art.” To deny one needn’t entail denying the other.

Throughout the interview the worship of criticality reveals itself (and also her infatuation with strategies of agonism, opposition and “radicality” – all the good old avant-garde stuff). It is a symptom of this era in art education/theory. I’ve commented elsewhere that we moved from art for art’s sake to criticality for criticality’s sake and we are no better for it. It is funny to me that the one thing intellectuals don’t seem to care to be critical of is criticality itself. When Bishop speaks of the aesthetic, it appears to mean a critical/intellectual position regarding art and not a holistic human experience. So when she criticizes social practice for having an “allergy to the aesthetic,”  she may be right, but only vis–à–vis a very specific employment of the notion of the aesthetic. Her woefully hollow idea of it certainly gives me hives.

Putting the social back in socialism – Erik Olin Wright – Why a truly “social” practice needn’t be anything other

Posted in Uncategorized by dilettanteventures on 08/23/2012

Taking the Social in Socialism Seriously – Erik Olin Wright

Lots to extrapolate here in terms of seeking justice and equality not necessarily through (explicit) political activism, but through strengthening civil institutions/society or being a good neighbor (Neighborhood Power! as Karl Hess would say). Long, somewhat pedantic, but worth a slog:

Civil Society is the sphere of social interaction in which people voluntarily form associations of different sorts for various purposes. Some of these associations have the character of formal organizations with well-defined membership and objectives. Clubs, political parties, labor unions, churches, and neighborhood associations would be examples. Others are looser associations, in the limiting case more like social networks than bounded organizations. The idea of a “community”, when it means something more than simply the aggregation of individuals living in a place, can also be viewed as a kind informal association within civil society. Power in civil society depends on capacities for collective action through such voluntary association, and can accordingly be referred to as “associational power” or “social power.”

The idea of “democracy”, in these terms, can be thought of as a specific way of linking social power and state power: in the ideal of democracy, state power is fully subordinated to and accountable to social power. The expression “rule by the people” does not really mean, “rule by the atomized aggregation of the separate individuals of the society taken as isolated persons,” but rather, rule by the people collectively organized into associations in various ways: parties, communities, unions, etc. Democracy is thus, inherently, a deeply socialist principle. If “Democracy” is the label for the subordination of state power to social power, “socialism” is the term for the subordination of economic power to social power.

The potential scope for the social economy could be enhanced if the state, through its capacity to tax, provided funding for a wide range of socially-organized non-market production. One way of doing this is through the institution of an unconditional basic income. By partially delinking income from employment earnings, if an unconditional basic income existed voluntary associations of all sorts would be able to create new forms of meaningful and productive work in the social economy…

…the idea of extensive and robust economic democracy through creating conditions in which social power, organized through the active participation and empowerment of ordinary people in civil society, exerts direct and indirect democratic control over the economy. Taken individually, movement along one or another of these pathways might not pose much of a challenge to capitalism, but substantial movement along all of them taken together would constitute a fundamental transformation of capitalism’s class relations and the structures of power and privilege rooted in them. Capitalism might still remain a component in the hybrid configuration of power relations governing economic activity, but it would be a subordinated capitalism heavily constrained within limits set by the deepened democratization of both state and economy. This would not automatically insure that the radical democratic egalitarian ideals of social and political justice would be accomplished, but if we were somehow to successfully move along these pathways to such a hybrid form of social organization, we would be in a much better position to struggle for a radical democratic egalitarian vision of social and political justice.

Interview conducted with Sean Dockray for 127 Prince – The journal that never really was

Posted in Uncategorized by dilettanteventures on 08/09/2012

[127 Prince was a journal intended to deal with “social practice.” It had some amazing content, but never really got rolling. The domain has now been usurped by a porn site, but it is still viewable here. I thought I would re-post this 2009 interview with Sean Dockray…to release it from, er…bondage so to speak.]


Editor’s Note:

This interview was conducted over 18 months ago. Sean and I (R. Szott) agreed early on that we would exert an extremely light editorial touch in order to allow our conversation to avoid being too polished. There are many things we might have said differently if we took the usual editorial scalpel to things. This is especially true now that so much time has passed between the exchange and its publication. It is also quite long due to its unexpurgated nature. I hope that the patient reader will find it as rewarding to follow Sean’s thoughts as I found it…

Randall Szott: There’s never really an ideal place to start an interview, but maybe my “discovery” of some things you’re up to will work. I stumbled my way into AAAARG.ORG and Telic Arts Exchange and then into The Public School before I realized that you were connected to each of them! There’s an obvious self-organizing/pedagogical thread to those enterprises and a concern with thinking in interesting ways about publics and how to organize, exchange with, or challenge them. This seems to extend across your practice as a whole. I was wondering if you could place these things in their context (as you imagine it) or say whether you see them as intersecting with broader, or even narrower, concerns from other elements in your life and work.

Sean Dockray: You’re right, there is a self-organizing/ pedagogical thread there but with those projects I have been motivated much more by selfishness than by wanting to spread education or knowledge or something like that. What I mean is that I want to be part of a social context in which people are talking and thinking about things, trying to figure out the world we’re in, what we’re doing, why we’re doing what we’re doing, what else we could do, and who we are when I say “we.”  Although AAAARG.ORG is about 2 years old, I see it as connected to its previous incarnation aaaarg.e-rat.org and then before that, 9 years ago, Zine.E-Rat.Org. They’re all quite different from one another but I think they’re connected by a desire to get people together online around short pieces of criticism and theory with the hope that we could put those little pieces together into a plan or a big idea or a way forward.

To me, “getting people together” also means trying to find strategies to overcome disciplinary boundaries like art, history, engineering, architecture, design, politics, philosophy, science, etc. This probably comes from my own promiscuity – I’ve gone from mathematics to mechanical engineering to civil engineering to architecture to computer programming to writing to art. Regardless, I discovered that I am rarely as interested in interdisciplinary collaborations (like an artist and a scientist do something and learn something from each other in the process) as in trying my best to ignore the idea of disciplines altogether. For example, the names AAAARG.ORG and The Public School don’t tell you who you have to be to participate. Also, when the conversation revolves around the idea of disciplines, it remains academic regardless of the conclusion.  This seems to me another good reason for ignoring them.

I want to also say that these projects aren’t for everyone, but I do want them to be accessible to everyone. In other words, the projects are never changed to make them more appealing, more fun, or more friendly, but I spend a great deal of time trying to make sure that if someone has the attention span that they know what is involved, how they can participate, how the project functions, and so on. The Public School makes transparency of process a central part of its operation. For me, bars, bedrooms, and basements are the best places for conversations about ideas – not university seminar rooms.

Large, ostensibly product-less websites like Facebook, YouTube, and Google fascinate me because they have had such a real cultural impact in a short period of time and they use the labor of millions of people. I think its worthwhile to experiment with similar forms, or platforms, in order to demonstrate alternatives because for all the insidious data mining and lifestyle marketing, these things have an enormous amount of potential for those of us in the world of cultural production.

One more thing: I studied architecture in college and I remember being paralyzed by the realization that 98% of all new construction – or something like that – in this country is not designed by architects. And at the same time, we were relentlessly driven to arrive at a building at the conclusion of every project. It was very frustrating because it seemed like architecture was all about transforming the material world but then we were making drawings and models of stuff that would never get built. Since then, I’ve become more interested in working outside of architecture on a 1:1 scale, producing models that exist and function in the world, and that hopefully transform the context they’re put into.

RS: The first thing that jumps out at me in your answer is the crucial distinction you draw between creating “something for everyone” vs. “open to everyone. “I find that people can be critical of something like AAAARG.ORG because the texts and conversations there tend to be extremely academic and a very particular type of academic thinking as well. In fact, I made that criticism to you. But nothing in its structure dictates that it must be that way. So critics, including myself, have the opportunity to post other things, and start other kinds of conversations. If we pass on that opportunity, that’s our responsibility. Or do you think you should take a more active role in “steering” things?

SD: Everything you say is true but although anyone could post anything, that doesn’t happen, as you’ve noticed. Some people tend to conform to the existing context and other people are just not interested by it, period. Social networking websites usually seem to be for everyone – the whole point is that you will define your own territory with other people like you somewhere within the site. Any exclusions are explicit (spelled out in the terms of service) but exclusion is not really in the spirit of those things, so what exclusions there are can be blamed on the users. Any “open-system” is never entirely open. There are always rules (explicit and implicit) and customs and initial conditions and the general look of things.

A few notes about AAAARG.ORG: there are practically no instructions anywhere; it really is not user friendly; I do respond to emails explaining over and over how to contribute texts, if someone writes to ask; I have uploaded some of the texts, people I have personally pulled onto the site have uploaded some others, and total strangers account for the rest. I think it’s important to mention what I mean when I say I “pull” people on to the site. When I was younger, I had good friends in several different contexts but those contexts never really overlapped. Nevertheless, I had always maintained this hope that at some point we would all be living together, which was probably selfish and naive. Similarly, I often now find myself involved in some temporary social formation – a simple friendship, a collaborative project, an exhibition that I am organizing, teaching a studio class, a staff member at a university hired to help the grad students, etc. – and somehow we all get to talking about ideas in relation to short non-fiction texts. I want to read what other people are excited about and also to give what I find useful. But more than that, I want those different parts of my life to join together somehow. So I always push AAAARG.ORG on just about everyone I meet that I think would appreciate it and hope that it grows into something.

Your distinction between letting positive feedback drive something into homogeneity versus “steering things” is extremely important. Although I probably have a more optimistic view than you of the variety of thought on AAAARG.ORG, I do wince when a few very academic things come in. With The Public School we probably strike a better balance between the two.  Nonetheless, I think it’s absolutely worthwhile to wrestle the type of writing that tends to be on AAAARG.ORG away from the academy (by which I mean institutionalized education). Yes, a lot of the irritating habits, terminologies, and funny jokes are products of that institution but I feel as if a certain mode of critical thought was given over to the academy at some point (or they hijacked it) where I don’t find it terribly alive.

RS: When you mention “bars, bedrooms, and basements,” it immediately brings to mind something I quote far too often from the philosopher Richard Shusterman: “After the conference papers are over, we go slumming in their bars.” This resonates directly with your sensibility in that he’s critiquing the institutions of academe for being unable to recognize the value of the various informal settings and practices that contribute to intellectual and social life. What I find so appealing in your projects is the various ways you try to square the circle, so to speak, of creating a structure that both makes a conversation more than just a conversation but also just a conversation. Does this make sense to you? You mentioned “transparency of process” with regard to The Public School but I guess what I’m getting at is do you think about transparency of apparatus as well? Would you like for the way the platform stages things to fade into the background? Or is part of what interests you foregrounding how these “social contexts” shape the possibilities of community and learning?

I would think architecture offers an interesting perspective on disciplinarity. It is its own discipline, of course, but it is quite broadly constructed as a discipline. One of the things that always appealed to me about art is the invitation “to ignore the idea of disciplines altogether” as you put it. Unfortunately, not enough artists take up this invitation and we end up with a lot of those insipid collaborations you mention. Florian Waldvogel makes some useful distinctions between multidisciplinarity, interdisciplinarity, and transdisciplinarity. Basically, the first is disciplines working along side one another around a common issue, the next is an exchange of concepts and methods and the last, which I think is what you’re getting at, approaches problems independently of specific disciplinary methods and creates disciplinary mongrels in which ideas dictate method/form rather than the reverse.

Finally, your thoughts on the ways you’ve decided to employ architecture toward ends other than buildings are touched on in a piece you co-wrote titled Building Sound: An Alternative Medium for Architectural Research. The summary of the piece on your website describes it as thinking about “…using radio as a platform for broadcasting architecture.” It is much more than that – it’s really a riff on how to utilize architecture, or architectural thinking, to construct things in the broadest possible sense of “construct” and “things.” Could you say a bit more about how that essay came to be written, and where you are now relative to it?

SD: I am very interested in how context shapes our social relations and knowledge.  And I am also very interested in the staging being apparent because among other things it is often a good conversational device. But, as you put it, it should be “just a conversation” at a certain point which I take to mean that it should work, it should be functional. Sometimes critique seems pointless because it has a certain “no shit” quality to it (thank you for pointing out what we already know, now what?) At the same time there seems to be a cultural desire to be beyond critique, which is dangerous. I’d like to have it both ways.

Architecture’s perspective on disciplinarity is definitely a God’s-eye-view. Vitruvius begins his Ten Books on Architecture with, “The architect should be equipped with knowledge of many branches of study and varied kinds of learning, for it is by his judgment that all work done by the other arts is put to test.” Anyway, you are probably right that I would align myself more with the last of those three choices. But I am also tempted to say that no matter how we rearrange our relationship to the disciplines, it never ceases being academic when we think about it in those terms. Are these different mutations of disciplinarity primarily invested in rehabilitating the academy?

There was a symposium in 2004 at UCLA’s architecture department called “Media, Messages, and Modes” which I think was formed to acknowledge the rise of architecture magazines and monographs as places where architectural research was happening and to question the point of an architecture PhD and how the dissertation might become more culturally relevant. At the time, Fiona Whitton (my partner and co-director of Telic), Tom Pilla, and I were producing a monthly radio program within an organization called the Institute for Advanced Architecture (IAA), and one of the symposium organizers asked me to give a presentation about this radio project. We (with another member of the IAA) wrote Building Sound, which is not very acceptable academic writing. When presenting, I showed slides and held up a radio to a microphone while Fiona broadcasted the Building Sound text from the school’s exhibition space – it was totally ignored for the rest of the symposium. I thought we did something really special because in the process of broadcasting our talk, we were also broadcasting to thousands of people who would have driven through the signal on the nearby 405 freeway. Sure, it was a literal way to break beyond the walls of the institution but it seemed like the symposium was asking for these kinds of provocations; instead discussion was focused around papers that encroached ever closer to the vernacular (dissertations about malls and suburban houses, for example). It was an experience that demonstrated to me that quirky subject matter alone doesn’t democratize something.

I actually just re-read our essay again for the first time in two years because of your question. One thing that immediately jumped out at me is from the “On The Expanded Audience” section which concludes, “This may not be a radio of mass-appeal but it should be a radio of mass-availability” which obviously resonates with what we were discussing above with the “for everyone” vs “open to everyone.”  From my perspective, the piece basically argued that architects are missing the boat by carrying on myopically about buildings, and pictures of buildings ,when there are so many other games out there, so many ways to be designing the world, which is ostensibly the goal of the profession. Radio was the subject of the Building Sound essay but it hopefully gestured towards media and communication networks in general, things we were thinking about while producing the show. I think that may have been one of the first projects where I wasn’t working at model scale or representing something and so the essay has an undercurrent of coming to terms with that.  Since then, I’ve been pulled more towards the art discourse – not because I was so enamored with art but because I thought a lot of art’s “to scale” experimentations were exciting in a way that I wished architecture would be.  I’m thinking about lots of things – an unordered tip of the iceberg could be the inflatables fad in the early 70s, Tim Hawkinson’s Uberorgan, Andrea Fraser’s tours, Vito Acconci performances, the Center for Land Use Interpretation and its neighbor the Museum of Jurassic Technology, etc. The creation of informal, temporary spaces, worlds, experiences, institutions, and so on seemed to me what architects could be doing but generally weren’t, or if they were they didn’t always identify as architects anymore.

RS: I’m going to resist the temptation to respond point by point and zero in on your mention of how you came to art as a field of operation. I’ve talked and written a bit about people who are in art not because of some love for art itself but because of the pragmatic/experimental possibilities it offers. Another quote I use too often comes from the collective IC-98:

“…the world of contemporary art has proved to be the most flexible environment for diverse projects, being a free zone of experimentation within the society at large…the projects are labeled art only for strategic reasons – the strategy works as long as the concepts of art do not come to dominate the discourse…you call yourself artist, just because it is institutionally convenient…”

So I’m wondering if this resonates with you. If so, I’m wondering how, or if, you try to insure that your “to scale” experiments don’t become bogged down in the disciplinary baggage of art. Or do I have it all wrong? Are you interested in what framing things as art brings to the table?

SD: Running Telic Arts Exchange for a few years was interesting for me – before that I assumed galleries just bracketed off Art from the Life outside. It wasn’t long before I began thinking that galleries weren’t so special after all. They looked like art… barren and bright and unusual but, in the end, they were plain old shops just like everything else in the world. Then I thought that maybe what our gallery could do is be more like the world but at the same time be clearly something different, something not in the world. So I found myself interested in establishing a real boundary between art and life but this could be more of a mental boundary than a physical one. That is the framing I’m most interested in and I would lose interest in a project once that frame disappears.

I feel as though it is fashionable at the moment to say that we can “take advantage” of art’s networks of distribution to extend, expand, and connect projects, although it is certainly true to an extent. Maybe I’m a pessimist but I think capital will do this (extend, expand, and circulate) to us and our projectsto us and our projects regardless, whether or not we’re being strategic. Certainly we could insist on making our projects invisible so they continue to function primarily locally but I don’t see that as being inherently any better.

None of this really has to do with art history or disciplinarity. I suppose I don’t care very much about those things. I am attracted to art because some of the people are interesting to talk to and listen to (of course there are loads of bores too).

Although I run AAAARG.ORG, a theory text-sharing website, I feel embarrassed when I mention a theorist but there are a few times where a tiny little passage will plague me for years and so I talk about that passage a lot.  Lately, it has been this one interview with Michel Foucault, called “Friendship as a way of life” where Foucault describes the relationship between men as something without a pre-existing model or institution and therefore something that requires constant invention. To me this perfectly sums up the spirit of what I would like out of my own life and projects.

RS: I’m in a bind here. Your answer is a good stopping point for the interview since you end with a summing up but I really feel like there’s a lot to take issue with.

It seems like you’re imagining a scenario where you can have it both ways, or several ways: gallery as just a shop, gallery as frame but somehow not the frame of art history, and you’d lose interest in a project without the frame? Then it is the frame that interests you and not the project which I find weird. And isn’t there a huge range of possibilities between using an art frame and making the project “invisible?” I’m also wondering where it’s fashionable to talk about using art networks tactically because I’ve rarely heard it said aloud.

As for your statement, “None of this really has to do with art history or disciplinarity. I suppose I don’t care very much about those things. I am attracted to art because some of the people are interesting to talk to and listen to (of course there are loads of bores too).” Isn’t this attitude exactly what I was alluding to in my question? This seems to indicate that operating in art is an entirely practical decision, i.e. a good place to find interesting people. This doesn’t seem to square with your more disicpline specific interest in framing experience.

SD: I feel like it’s barely started! We can’t end yet…

I think your email is so incredibly perceptive and right on it makes me feel a little naked. But there are a couple points I think I should respond to. The bigger thing is that I didn’t actually read your question in relation to our prior conversation and so my position to art comes off as even more schizo than usual. Concerning the scenario where I want to have it both ways: for some of the projects I was talking about (Telic Arts Exchange, The Public School) the project is the frame. One day we were having a lecture and I asked myself what the difference would be if it weren’t a lecture but a class. I think the difference is substantial. People generally come expecting to put themselves into it: they will prepare in advance, they will carry on relationships afterward, people even intuitively assign a different economic value to the two experiences. I am interested in framing – not for institutional legitimization but for the way the frame changes the way we treat the world (I’m sure this overlaps with the claims of aesthetics or art history but I’m just pretty ignorant about all of that.)

Anyway, I am interested in the projects, I swear! I consider the frame to be more about sensibility, enthusiasm, and energy than about territory, if that makes sense. And yes, I’ve failed in my explanation if I haven’t expressed a position of exploring the possibilities between using an art frame and making the project “invisible.” It was stupid to send my response so quickly. Fatherhood has me doing a lot things in some kind of hazy delirium.

I’ve heard talk about using art networks tactically in a couple panels and in discussions at the public school! I realize “fashionable” is a judgmental word but I am interested in these discussions and am currently trying to enact them to a certain extent (“franchising” the public school). I think we should stay conscious of the fact that our “tactical use” of these networks satisfies the needs of international culture industry and maybe we’re not always as in control as we think we are (especially when using macho terminology like tactical and strategic).

Yes and I totally agree with what you’re alluding to. I never really saw art as discipline specific, so much as just plain reflective. For example, I think our government should have more accountability and discussion about why we’re doing what we’re doing and what other possibilities there are. I don’t think of this as particularly art historical, although I do see your point that art history has institutionalized this kind of self-reflection.

I just can’t stop! More on this…

“So I’m wondering if this resonates with you. If so, I’m wondering how, or if, you try to insure that your “to scale” experiments don’t become bogged down in the disciplinary baggage of art. Or do I have it all wrong? Are you interested in what framing things as art brings to the table?”

One of these experiments might have been the video game that Fiona and I made, called PACK-MAN, which was just a hack of PAC-MAN so that five people controlled the character instead of just one (rather than moving him, it was more like you were voting on where he should move and that was being tabulated in real time in a pretty fun/ frustrating way). After making the game, we invited people from the internet to make new games for the video game console that we had engineered and then had a “screening” of sorts with those games, which came in from all over the world. The disciplinary baggage of art just never came up. The game was extremely visceral – it would make you squirm in your seat and yell at your neighbor. But it’s not as if art was somehow holding the game back from being something more interesting. There wasn’t really any art interest in it to speak of. To be honest it was the same thing with Telic – we did fantastic things and many people enjoyed them but there was just not much friction or dialogue with art collectors, writers, curators, tastemakers, etc. (with few exceptions). My investment scheme, the fundraising show, and AAAARG.ORG are all the same story.

So any answer I could give is really pretty speculative. What I can answer is why I’m even hanging out in this part of town at all:

– I like people that I’ve found within the context of art. There are people who try and create other ways of living, working, coexisting, and so on.

– An analogy: when I was younger I only ate meat and starches. I became a vegetarian at some later point. There were many meals in which I couldn’t participate or partake, or I’d limit myself to the “sandwiches” section of the menu. Now, I will try anything you serve me and I look at the whole menu which makes me feel so much happier.

– The fact is there are networks of publicity, distribution, sharing, exhibition, etc. in place that change what’s possible with a project and who it can reach. I’m skeptical of my ability to “use” these networks and still smell clean but it’s something to consider, especially because it links up with the first point.

So, maybe one of the good things about not being very successful at art is that I end up being fairly oblivious to the real weight of that disciplinary baggage you’re talking about.

The “framing” part of your question brings up definition and territoriality that I tried to address previously, mainly by appealing to another possibility for framing which is more about a philosophy than drawing lines in the sand. Obviously there is some line-drawing involved but I think it is less about making pronouncements (“this is art”) than it is about being a part of a bigger conspiracy (its an arts context because the people I referenced in my first point act as if it were true). Honestly, Randall, I feel stupid writing too much about framing as art and non-art because I don’t feel like I have much to offer because I can’t tell where the answers get us.

Anyway, this all seems to be winding down. I’m a little sad about it because I enjoy corresponding with you and (obviously judging from the last paragraph) there is a certain self-assessment that your questions have given which has been rewarding and helpful for me.

RS: It’s funny how this interview has sprawled into a messier conversation. I was concerned with it being a bit formulaic but happy that it had stayed a manageable edit and now it has taken on a real life, “something that requires constant invention.” So I’m going to abandon specifying what is and is not part of the sanctioned dialog and really plunge in now. This is difficult though as I am out at sea and this makes concentrating difficult.

I guess my concern is that the way the frame changes perceptions is often a distraction. My go-to example is eating curry in a gallery. If you want to think about what it means to eat curry in a gallery or as art, then framing it in an art context obviously makes sense. But if your interest is in curry, or creating convivial relationships, then maybe eating it at home with your friends is the way to go. I personally couldn’t care less what it means to eat/make curry as art!

Now the idea of frame-as-sensibility is interesting but I wonder if creating that sensibility in a new context, other than an art one might not be more potent. I’m feeling like I give the art context too much power and you give it too little.

As for fatherhood causing you to do a lot of things “in some kind of hazy delirium,” welcome to the club!

Art has certainly tried to take ownership of a certain kind of reflexive thinking and art history has done its bit to chronicle the lineage of that thinking. What concerns me is that art as a method is too coupled with art as a discipline. I think this is what Kaprow was dealing with for years with his notion of the unartist. How do we create and experience things in complex multi-faceted ways without always getting bogged down in an art historical dialog? To use a loaded example, how do I experience for myself what it is like to play chess with a nude woman without having to talk about Duchamp? Or to be less loaded, with a nude man? The point being the “experience” is often usurped into a historical-critical artlike (to further evoke Kaprow) art conversation. The genius of Kaprow in my estimation is that he saw this so clearly and laid out a road map, an escape route. I lament that so few people appear to have really taken the plunge.

As for being tactical and strategic, yes, well I’m a very macho guy which is why I want to play chess with a naked woman!  I use the term tactical because it has such currency but often substitute practical/pragmatic. Yes, I completely agree about the complications involved in tactical use of art networks which is why I’m always harping on the art baggage associated with choosing to operate that way. I was puritanical for several years about this and at that time would not have even engaged in this interview/conversation but have since decided that the trade-offs are in fact worth it at times.

I’ll try to get into a bit more later but I have to go make some brownies. Man, we’ve really flipped the script! If you’re up for it, I think it could be nice to publish two versions of the interview – the formal, edited version; and the raw material (including even this proposal). We could have links to both and people could see which was more useful, boring or otherwise…

SD: I agree with the broad strokes of what you wrote but I don’t see what I’m doing as making curry. To go back to the radio show paper we talked about earlier, this gesture of domesticating the world by bringing it in to architectural discourse (writing an academic paper about non-academic topics) or into the gallery (curry) is less interesting to me than in what I think is the opposite motion.

What complicates this for me is that three of the projects I’m talking about are galleries. Maybe the analogy breaks down a little (it’s not bringing a gallery into the gallery) but at the same time, why do they have to be galleries? Why can’t they be ___? And here I have to admit that I’m relying on the idea of the gallery as something that people (not only art people!) get.

A recent one is the Distributed Gallery, which is basically an arrangement I made with a few business owners in my neighborhood (where Telic Arts Exchange is and where I have lived for the past four years) to put video monitors in their businesses, without obstructing normal business. They are a restaurant called Via Cafe, an antiques and other cultural objects store named Fong’s, and an art clothes and bookstore, Ooga Booga. Oh, there is a fourth monitor in The Public School.

Even The Public School isn’t bringing a school into the gallery. Rather, we had a gallery (Telic Arts Exchange) for a few years and eventually decided that a school made a more interesting model for promoting, distributing, talking about, and attracting the kinds of practices and ways of thinking that we were interested in. So, we changed the gallery into a school.

All that aside, I agree with the spirit of your analogy except that I don’t always want to do things with friends (eating curry, maybe). I enjoy having public spaces for our differences and disagreements to play out. In a way, this conversation is a tiny version of that. How do we sustain that kind of playing field? Because I do value it. I guess I’m returning to the idea of “frame.” Maybe the word itself is a little rigid and too much about carving out space, about insides and outsides. If that’s what an arts context is then it will always be problematic in ways that you’ve been convincingly describing.

Yes! Can you elaborate more on this paragraph?

“Now the idea of frame-as-sensibility is interesting, but I wonder if creating that sensibility in a new context, other than an art one might not be more potent. I’m feeling like I give the art context too much power and you give it too little.”

I think I agree with you wholeheartedly, even if our misaligned perceptions are written into it.

Each morning, I wake up thinking what did I write last night? Even these emails are written in between episodes of dancing, making sausage rolls, eating dinner, filling the bath, sending an email for work. The partial attention is frustrating but of course I wouldn’t change it for anything.

I’m conflicted because I feel like I agree with you and Kaprow here, but…I like talking about things, Duchamp included! And I don’t think experience is just some raw, primal pure moment, but something that is accompanied by talking, wondering, doubting, remembering. It doesn’t bother me that people talk about Duchamp, even in the midst of an interesting experience, I just think it’s a shame if the conversation starts and ends there.

What are the trade-offs that you see?

RS: As has been duly noted by legions of folks the gallery is something people “get” because it has a specific history as a form. Why not a community center? Or, my favorite, a public library? Both of those seem more flexible as sites for bringing various publics together. Public libraries have meeting spaces that can be used for video screenings, board meetings, birthday parties, book signings, etc. Sure, it too has an institutional history but unlike a gallery it isn’t circumscribed by basically one disciplinary form. What does the gallery provide? Seemingly the precise thing you want to ignore…

The public library is one of the last great civic institutions and one well suited to address your desire for “public spaces for our differences and disagreements to play out.” And it also has the potential to draw a far more diverse group of people. I’d also offer the Lyceum and Chautauqua movements from the 19th century as forms to modify and utilize. To some degree, I think the Public School might be an example, but there is a vast history that seems barely tapped from those movements.

Maybe this addresses the “new context” you asked me to speak more about? Or maybe you wanted me to say more about our divergent takes on the frame…

Of course I’m not interested in some idea of pure, or primal experience, or what some might call “authenticity.” There is however, a qualitative difference in experience that is historicized or art historicized and one that is not. There is a difference in intellectualizing experience and surrendering to somatic sensation, too. I am bored with, and frustrated by, the incessant drive of many art worlders to bring everything into the intellectual/historical/critical/curatorial fold. Sometimes a conversation is better suited as just that – a conversation and not some parsed meta-conversational performance, something to be framed, examined, interrogated, deconstructed, etc. This leads to the obligatory Zen reference – Don’t confuse the finger pointing to the moon with the moon itself. And yeah, I know “the moon itself” is a complicated notion, especially to the kinds of people that write for exhibition catalogs. To them I say (doing my best Nietzsche): relax your crooked soul, have a glass of wine, and enjoy the moonlight. There will be plenty of time tomorrow for your zeal, your seriousness, and the fury your academic analysis!

“What are the trade offs that you see?”

Hey, who’s interviewing who here? I think the trade offs for me were simple – continue with the art of living as I imagined it and have a few, deep conversations/experiences with people in my immediate circle. Or tap into a much larger network and open things up all the while having to be in evasion mode and spending an inordinate amount of time explaining why art is not particularly relevant to what I’m interested in doing, or rather explaining what unart is. The art world is filled with interesting people, to be sure, but it’s also filled with myopic snobs and interminable bores. I basically decided that it was worth dealing with those folks to get to the interesting ones.

To get back to Kaprow and Duchamp: I decided I would skip a step and drop out immediately rather than build a career or credibility and then drop out as they did. Eight years of doing nothing, but doing a very particular kind of nothing, was enough. At the end of that time I had my purity but I missed out on a bigger conversation and came to see my hyper-localism as potentially selfish, hermetic. So here I am now able to think through things with someone like you. It is well worth the trouble.

SD: Well some of the shop owners who are hosting televisions for the Distributed Gallery get a gallery and, even if they think it’s an odd form for a gallery to take, they are more receptive to working with me on hosting the monitors because they see it as a part of something bigger.  And it also helps when I try and get people to choose videos to put onto those televisions every month. I think I see what you’re saying but I maintain that the form of the gallery can be put into action in interesting ways, particularly in our neighborhood where the split between Chinatown tourism and contemporary art is fairly even.

Maybe this is really the wrong project for me to be bringing up because it doesn’t really aspire to “bringing publics together” in the way you’re describing. It is much more personal – I am having these ongoing relationships with friends/ business-owners in the neighborhood I rarely leave. It’s alarmingly intimate! And then, we don’t do any press releases or curatorial texts for the exhibitions. I just have a long conversation with whoever chose/ made the work for that month. I mean, I do sincerely hope that the patrons of these different businesses goes to the other shops but the scale and nature of discussion is much different than a local library. For example, an artist wants to show something pornographic and then I have to figure out how to handle the expectations for creative freedom that contemporary art instills with the totally understandable objections that someone with opinions and a business might have. It’s a bunch of very small interactions but I find them exciting, even if they occur under the rubric of a gallery.

I mean, I like some art too! And there are artists that I want to support. I do kind of think that a gallery is often the worst thing for an artist but not always. I guess my way of thinking is very American – if I don’t like it then do something about it. I mean, we got rid of our gallery and replaced it with The Public School. I am not sure I could agree with you any more (except for starting two new galleries immediately afterwards).

Maybe this addresses the “new context” you asked me to speak more about? Or maybe you wanted me to say more about our divergent takes on the frame… I’ve been overthinking things as long as I can remember. Long before I knew about any folds!  I feel as though you’re setting up these oppositions that I can’t choose between. On the one hand, I completely buy what you are saying in your critique of intellectualizing experience but at the same time I am personally incapable of having a conversation without having a conversation about the conversation at the same time, and this started years before I’d ever seen a piece of art from the 20th century.  As you can imagine, I am irritating at a party but this doesn’t have to have anything to do with art.

In spite of your claims for dropping out or disappearing or doing nothing, you’ve left quite a formidable trail of thought over the last few years on the internet, much of it very critical writing about art. Maybe this is all very cohesive for you but there is an ambivalence between leaving it all behind and wrestling with it, occasionally on its own terms (maybe the archival nature of the internet skews my perception and sense of time a little though? But it does seem like you’ve built up some credibility!)

So after eight years is there any conflict for you or is that my own projection and has it really become as transactional as you’ve described?  By that I mean a trade-off, where you know what you want and you know what you need to do to get what you want. I am fascinated that you’ve spent so long doing “nothing” and that you’re maybe pulling an appearance act. But I guess what I’m wondering is there a risk for you? In what way do you expect to be transformed in this process (conflict) or do you not expect to be (transaction)?

Yes, I did also want you to write more about this “feeling like I give the art context too much power and you give it too little” comment because I think it is central to some of what we’re discussing. Does “too little” mean that I don’t acknowledge the decisions or values or ways of working that it foists on us? And “too much” means that you attribute almost magical capabilities for it to govern our practice, with little hope for us to evade it? I like to imagine that I am thoughtful about this but you still are probably right. But could you explain what you really meant if I’m wrong?

Anyway, your point was that it might be more potent to operate (frame-as-sensibility) in a different context. For me, this returns to a centrifugal desire (art dispersing outwards) as opposed to a centripetal one (the world selectively brought in to be “dealt with” by art). What I want to think about is how the things that I value (the people, the conversation, the occasional thoughtfulness, the experimentation, the disagreement, etc) continue to function through this movement.

You’ve written a couple of times about the tendency to over-think, over-analyze, over-historicize, over-frame within art discourse. And I do agree with you except that I think there is not enough thinking and talking going on. A lot of that energy has been corralled into artist statements and thesis papers and monographs and formula lectures and so on. These circulate easily but in my mind they are distinct from a thinking and talking that doesn’t resolve easily into a format, that is as undefined and self-contradictory as the world itself, that becomes something else and something else again, that doesn’t stand up to time, that doesn’t respond to the compulsion to do, that… etc. I’m sleepy again.

I’m not sure how long you imagine this conversation continuing but I want you to know that I will keep going until it exhausts itself, or you pull the plug!

RS: Wow, you really hit your stride in the last message!

You’re absolutely correct in seeing me as deeply conflicted. It’s like a bad relationship I just can’t end! Or I could try to dress it up in this Kaprow quote: “Nonart advocates, according to this description, are those who consistently, or at one time or other, have chosen to operate outside the pale of art establishments–that is, in their heads or in the daily or natural domain. At all times, however, they  have informed the art establishment of their activities, to set into motion the uncertainties without which their acts would have no meaning.” I’m conflicted about that too as I’m not convinced the acts would have no meaning.

I have built up visibility or “an appearance act” as you term it, and others can judge whether that translates into credibility.

It’s funny because I am familiar with the term “transaction” in John Dewey’s sense. That sense is more like the way you employ “conflict.” For Dewey a social transaction involves the co-transformation of participants. It is a process based epistemology that seeks to avoid the usual dualisms of subject/object, mind/body etc. So yes, I very much hope that my relationship with the art world and the world generally is transactional, in my [Dewey’s] sense.

I think you have this right concerning me: being polemical is a nasty habit of mine and therefore I tend to veer towards “almost magical” attributions too often. I know that you are thoughtful, deeply so, about your projects, but in the course of our conversation it seems like you’ve consistently dismissed any potentially negative effects of art framing. I think another possible explanation lies in our own histories. I have consistently claimed that the things I do/have done are not art and that seems to invite people to disprove it. So I’ve had far too many conversations about why something is art. Since the frame is a given in your endeavors, in a funny way it is less visible as such. For instance, in describing the PACK-MAN piece you noted the idea of art never came up. So maybe we each need to reverse positions!

I’m pretty sure we are in agreement. My complaint is not with thinking, per se, but with the highly specialized and insular form of thinking that seems to dominate certain segments of the art world. And I love the notion of art discourse corralling thought. That metaphor resonates with my concern for making things projects, pieces, works, etc. It puts experience into a pen, chases it down, ties it up…The range of what is thinkable in the art world suffers from its narrowly conceived theoretical canon. There are so many forms of thoughtfulness and intelligence (especially emotional intelligence) that get swept aside in the embrace of what I feel is “theoretical fundamentalism.” Compassion, empathy, sympathy, love, pleasure, fun, etc. all bow down before the high theoretical altar and are approved only after proving that they’re not “just” fun or “just” tender but have a whole theoretical/intellectual armature beneath them that make it okay. I think you’re right to point out that a good deal of art world conversation ends up as a formulaic enactment, one that too often tends to “resolve easily into a format.” Ultimately I just wish that there were more at stake than what amounts to artsy thought experiments. Haven’t we basically shifted from art for art’s sake to academic criticality for academic criticality’s sake? And what have we gained in the process? Not much, if you ask me – thinner and thinner slices of experience parsed by narrower and more specialized tools yet cloaked in the banner of openness and diversity. Feels a bit like greenwashing…

SD:Wow, that Kaprow quote is an interesting one. There is a part of Bourriaud’s book Postproduction where he writes (I’m not going to bother looking this up, so I could very well be wrong here) that the exhibition space could operate as a kind of “basecamp” for art explorations afield. These guys are so far apart in so many ways but Kaprow’s quote does seem structurally similar here – art is the thing we always have to report back to. I haven’t thought this through before but it seems like describing having a computer but not a network connection. You can play games, write essays, make pictures and movies on your computer, but you just don’t have the same people around, the same system of distribution, and the “reporting” kind of keeps your connection active. One very well can cut the cord and do what they do and it still has meaning, of course, just not in the same way with the same people.

I mean the network analogy, although terrible in certain respects, is fun to think about with Dewey’s transactions: i.e., to think about the ways that writing, making videos, etc. changes when we’re doing it in tandem with a lot of other people (shooting a home movie to put on YouTube vs shooting a home movie to watch whenever you feel like setting up the projector in your place). Have things gotten to the point that a book we’ve read has no meaning unless we report on it to our friends or the public in some online forum? I don’t know if this is appropriate – sorry to shift art-specific discussion to culture in general but I feel as though these are all connected.  After all, our very specific discussion is being conducted at a distance in solitude but through the Internet, the very thing that even made us aware of each other in the first place.

I have lately been referencing this one passage in Ernest Laclau and Chantal Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy about “articulation”, which I’ve remembered to broadly refer to that same transaction (although they are writing more about how groups with uncommon causes create chains of equivalence to form some kind of political movement). I’ve mainly been interested in talking about collaboration not as finding common ground – or each doing what we’re good at to get something done that we couldn’t do individually – but as working to a vaguely common goal with the understanding that we’ll each be transformed in the process (the first two are premised on a pretty stable sense of identity, unlike the latter). Anyways, I’d like to read more Dewey. I had a passing affair with pragmatism that I wouldn’t mind rekindling.

I recently had a discussion with someone who works on projects that I think are quite similar in motivation and spirit to what I do. He says that he does not call himself an artist but that in conversation with someone from the arts, it usually ends up at the reverse position, with that person saying, “You actually are an artist!”  And I thought, my experience is the opposite. When asked “Are you an artist?” I will respond “yes.” But by the end of the conversation the person usually has their doubts. I think I prefer that!

I think focusing on the crossing in and out of the art frame – on one’s position with respect to the art frame – focuses attention on the art frame and makes it all mostly about the art frame. This is the art frame that generates all of those conversations about “Is it art? Or is it not art?”  Those very conversations seem to be one of the most negative effects of art framing! That’s not to say there aren’t others though – maybe we could be more specific about what they are? It used to be that commodification was one, right? (I take the position that absolutely anything can be bought and sold if someone wants to buy it badly enough, so maybe it’s an obsolete concern.) I think limiting of the people who tend to be involved is another that you’ve brought up. I don’t want to totally evade your question but I think I need to know more of what you have in mind.

Even a week later, I am still taking this in: “to ‘resolve easily into a format.’ Ultimately I just wish that there were more at stake than what amounts to artsy thought experiments. Haven’t we basically shifted from art for art’s sake to academic criticality for academic criticality’s sake? And what have we gained in the process? Not much, if you ask me – thinner and thinner slices of experience parsed by narrower and and more specialized tools yet cloaked in the banner of openness and diversity. Feels a bit like greenwashing…”

RS: I wonder where you’ve gone with my “artsy thought experiments” comment. I also wonder where we are with our conversation and if you’ve imagined what might come of it beyond being an interview…

SD: Well you wanted more at stake than artsy thought experiments. Who can disagree with that? I’m a little torn though because I think there is a widespread, popular hostility to theory that attracts me to it. The thing is maybe to distinguish between theory and artsy thought experiments. Am I completely missing the point here?

Because of the sputtering last couple weeks, I feel a little as though our conversation is a land mass that’s still identifiable but lost its detail (writing to you makes me picture myself on a boat).

Well, quite obviously I hope that we stay in touch. I’d like to think it already went a little beyond being an interview, but I might be flattering myself to say that. I honestly feel privileged that you’ve taken the time to ask some very difficult questions and help me see things that might be limiting what I do, or choices I’ve accepted rather than made. In a way I don’t feel like it’s my place to imagine any more because I’m certain I probably got more out of this conversation than you did.

RS: Well the hostility to theory is not from the inside, is it? In my experience, it is only non-art people who have a (mostly well placed) aversion to theory precisely because it’s so hard to distinguish it from artsy gobbledy-gook.

The sentiment you’re expressing in your last statement is, well, NUTS. This conversation was so enriching and I’m so glad you agreed to it. I believe we’ve definitely move from “friends” to friends. That might be a good title?

SD: Oh, I wasn’t even thinking of artists using theory so much as the social practice of thinking in general. I understand that “theory” is now an umbrella term for all sorts of postmodern academic styles of writing and discussion that end up like inbreeding for ideas. I want to be clear that I am not defending this (whether in art or higher level education in general) even if I am using the term. Rather than taking up a position on the inside or on the outside, I like the idea of a parallel existence. I think young people do that with music. The idea of successive generations toppling each other like dominos makes less sense to me than the mutations that happen when things get done wrong and become really persuasive and amazing ideas. Although I don’t always have the self-discipline to do it. Thinking positively and keeping moving, when in an argument, always seems to lead to a more fulfilling place rather than taking a position of conflict (baggage).

It’s obviously nostalgia but I’m fascinated by a number of individuals who were alive in the 19th century doing things that seem radically disjunctive now, i.e. philosopher-businessmen-scientist types. You mentioned the Lyceums and Chautauqua, which I hadn’t heard of but I’ve looked them up and they’re definitely part of this same context. It seems as if life hadn’t been separated into the categories we find dominant now. I feel like we’re in a similar moment of cultural transformation where we really just don’t understand the world we live in. Theory should be a practice of thinking that helps us make that world better (unfortunately, it is the language of specialized academic discourse).


Sean Dockary is an artist in Los Angeles. He is a co-director of Telic Arts Exchange (http://telic.info) and has initiated a handful of collaborative projects including a school (The Public School), a theory text-sharing website (AAAARG.ORG), and an architecture radio show (Building Sound). He has contributed writing to X-TRA, Bidoun, Fillip, Volume, and Cabinet magazines, and his video and sculptural work have been exhibited at Gigantic Art Space, ESL, the Cheekwood Museum, the Turtle Bay Museum, and the Armory Center for the Arts. “The Public School (for Architecture)” in New York, a project in partnership with the architecture group, common room, was recently awarded a fellowship from the Van Alen Institute. With fellow collaborators in The Public School, Caleb Waldorf and Fiona Whitton, Sean organized a 13-day seminar at various sites throughout Berlin in July, called “There is nothing less passive than the act of fleeing,” which discussed the promises, pitfalls, and possibilities for extra-institutionality.

Ted Purves – Aesthetics – Social Practice – Personal Economies

Posted in Uncategorized by dilettanteventures on 05/25/2012

Summer of Utopia: Interview with Ted Purves

We’ve been working from another starting point: the position of economies in people’s lives and how exchange functions.  Even though we tend to think of ourselves as living in this highly capitalist market economy, we actually live within several different economic systems all at the same time.  Getting paid and going shopping is participating in a larger capital economy, but giving a friend a lift to the store is a different, casual kind of economy.  Not all of our relationships are of cliency and payment.  We are interested in the way people are negotiating between competing or overlapping economies within their own lives, and creating a way to see that there are different ways to view your own personal economy.

I feel like a project is successful if we have had substantive encounters with people, if we have created spaces where a kind of exchange—whether it’s family history, or talking about why something should or shouldn’t be in an art museum, or sometimes it’s just swapping recipes—some form of animated or engaged dialogue comes out, or some sort of story emerges.  It means we learn something, a story can be brought forward from that, that’s when things are successful.  Another high-five moment comes when there is something compelling to look at.  A lot of times when you see a social practice show, it’s either a room full of crap to read, or it looks like a place where they had a party and you didn’t get to go.  I’ve been to a lot of those, and they’re not satisfying!  You either wish they had just printed a book you could take home and read in your own chair—because it’s not very comfortable to sit in a museum—or you wish that you’d been at the party [emphasis mine].  When we did Lemon Everlasting Backyard Battery we had hundreds of jars of lemons on this table, and it was beautiful.

Open Engagement 2012, or a drop out drops in

Posted in Uncategorized by dilettanteventures on 05/22/2012

What follows is a wholly incomplete account of my time in Portland during the Open Engagement conference. It may or may not be accurate or completely truthful. It is dedicated to my fellow travelers, and is especially dedicated to Abby (it may not be poetry per se, but still…):


Public sculpture near lecture hall.


eclipse watchers on the sidewalks

early dusk hummingbird escape

a graceful old farmhouse scratched by divorce and chicken feet

yakuza drinks with a Port Townsend farmer I swear keeps talking about gynecology (but is not)

an old friend rant, like falling from a bar stool – “ham and cheese sandwiches in my pocket!”

Cheerful Tortoise

beards and spectacles

aggressively unfashionable lesbians

fashionably unaggressive  straight dudes

bloody mary truth serum

portable wardrobe sidewalk disintegration

confiscated fake id with threats of boyfriend reprisal

tales of mutton served to unsuspecting family members

Grain and Gristle

red velvet cake with herbaceous Italian dessert wine

crazy i-talian farmstand bitches

Native American salmon fisherman breaking down his catch over beer (I open one for him as his hands are slimy from the work)


opening remarks missed due to hangover

pickled beets greens mint soft boiled egg

bamboo mat is magic carpet then hiding place

alka seltzer + alka seltzer plus cold medicine

they talk and talk of social practice yet the farmer’s market overshadows

Woodsman Tavern

stacking veggie filled Rubbermaid totes for Gathering Together Farm

iced coffee in the rain

old haunts with new friends

new haunts with old friends

honey basil tequila lime

driving a Toyota Tacoma

lunch in the grass

radicchio feta hazelnuts

crows by the dozen carrying on as crows do

pea shoots and potatoes

drunk Florida women yelling from a car (see also i-talians)

deviled egg w/anchovy

anchovy butter w/cauliflower

cauliflower w/smoked almonds

almonds coated in salty sweet cocoa

Obama classmate from Hawaii describes him in a way that makes me like him

Robo Taco throat slash confusion

Ted Purves as phantom limb

Stephen Wright as mushroom shaman

who is sleeping with their grad students/who is not?

much note taking and unasked questions

I left it all with a heavy heart and a French goodbye (thanks Sal)…

The Art of Participation – Randall Szott – Social Practice West

Posted in Uncategorized by dilettanteventures on 01/26/2009

I’m going to be on a panel at SFMOMA (2/07/09) called Social Practice West. It’s part of the events programing for The Art of Participation which purports to survey “how artists have engaged members of the public as essential collaborators in the art-making process.”

The panel will discuss the rise of  Social Practice MFA programs on the west coast. Students from those programs will give presentations from their perspective and panelists will act as respondents. I am especially eager to discuss the impact of professionalization on these practices.

I really feel sorry for the person who had to provide a legitimate sounding title for me and I can only imagine the trepidation around presenting my bio in its usual form. According to SFMOMA I’m a “writer.” Who knew?

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