Some thoughts on writing a manifesto

I was asked by Scott Robertson from Fifthsyllable to write a “manifesto” for a book of artist manifestos that they will be publishing. Here is what I came up with:


I recall thinking as a young art student that I would never personally experience an art movement like the ones I was learning about in my twentieth century art history class—impressionism, surrealism, futurism, dada, abstract expressionism, conceptualism, that sort of thing. I also assumed, as part of that lack of direct involvement with an art movement, that there would be no need for me to ever consider writing or signing onto a manifesto.

Little did I realize then that I would in fact experience something like an art movement myself in the near future, and would even play a role in its development. I’m referring to what is now known as Art and Social Practice, or just Social Practice. Even though there were many precedents for socially engaged art practices (Mierle Laderman Ukeles, John Malpede and the Los Angeles Poverty Dept, Wendy Ewald, and Rirkrit Tiravanija among many other examples), they were scattered and underrecognized as a coherent movement other than through related (but not great fitting, from my perspective) terms like “community-based art” and “relational aesthetics”. In the case of community-based art, the focus seemed almost entirely on process which led to many handprint murals on school building walls, and alternately, relational aesthetics was based on the work of artists who were mostly functioning in the gallery/museum system and who often treated participants as material rather than as collaborators with agency. In the case of the developing field of Art and Social Practice, process and product are of equal importance and things like crediting, collaboration, audience, context, and making work in non-art spaces are highly valued.

I come from a photography background that focused a lot on the world and people around me. I thought of photographs as a way of pointing to things that I found interesting and wanted other people to see and appreciate. The bridge from that to a non-media based, socially engaged practice was not far for me. I transitioned away from photography while I was in graduate school at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, California, in the early 1990’s. At the same time, I made connections with professors, students, and other related folks who were also interested in expanded approaches to public art and collaborationJon Rubin, Lydia Matthews, Suzanne Lacy, Larry Sultan, Ted Purvis, Mary Tsiongas, and many others—who went on to help formalize Social Practice (or Public Practice, Contextual Practice, etc.) at various academic institutions around the country.

To my knowledge, there hasn’t been a well-known attempt at writing a manifesto for Art and Social Practice. In some ways, doing that might be antithetical to the principles of socially engaged art which tends to be dynamic, multi-authored, and resistant to a single definition. In my mind a manifesto is fixed, authoritative, and exclusive, but maybe it doesn’t have to be that way, maybe it can be seen more as a starting point to base developing ideas onto.

When I think about my own practice, even outside of the framework of social engagement, there are various important elements. Personal enjoyment, intellectual engagement, and having varied new experiences are of greater importance to me than typical art world success—settling on and developing a medium and style, working in a studio, showing in galleries, selling object-based work, receiving appreciation from collectors and critics. I was never interested in perfecting a medium or style and instead have been interested in how my practice can allow me to learn about and experience the world outside of my own normal life conditions. As a result, I prefer an interdisciplinary project-based approach to working that allows me to explore topics, ideas, histories, activities etc., that puts me in the position of learning as I develop work, and in some cases to even become an audience to the projects I have created.

In place of a more prescribed and static version of a manifesto, I would like to instead offer a few suggestions for things to think about while making work as an artist. I’ve decided to limit myself to five topics. Some of the suggestions are specific to doing socially engaged work, others are more general and I think can apply to a broader set of interests. The list is made up of ideas based on what came to mind at the moment for me right now; on a different day I would probably come up with a different set of suggestions:

  1. Make work that actually interests you. This seems obvious but, somehow, based on my experience working with art students for the past several decades I have discovered this common mistake: instead of working on things the person is actually interested in, they will often try to make art that just looks like work they have seen in magazines and in galleries. How do you go about figuring out what you are actually interested in so that your art can engage with those things? Start by thinking about what you do when you are not making art. Do you like to cook, walk, sleep, read, drink beer with friends? Once you have assessed what you like to do without the ulterior motive of making art, then you can use that to create art projects that allow you to engage in and explore those activities and subjects.
  2. Consider context. I think for the most part artists are taught to assume that the ideal place to show their work is a white cube gallery type space. By maintaining that assumption, artists are limiting themselves both in regard to the many other interesting places they can present work, but also by the nature of the work that they make, which is almost unconsciously designed specifically as objects for gallery spaces and the ability to transport those things to collectors houses and museums. Instead, I suggest thinking much more inclusively about all of the possible options for where an artist might present work and what that work might be. That could include schools, libraries, parks, stores, front yards, etc., and might be objects and activities that are ephemeral or totally permanent and not designed for shipping at all. In the situations where a gallery is the most appropriate location (and in some instances, but certainly not all, that might be the case), then it is still useful to evaluate those locations for their specific contextual qualities which include the white cube itself, but also what can be found beyond those walls (the neighborhood and everyday life the gallery is a part of) and to potentially make work that responds accordingly.
  3. Avoid friction. Artists often create obstacles for themselves that make it very difficult to produce the projects they want to make. Sometimes that is about the need for budgets or other resources that aren’t available. Other times it is because they are waiting for approval from a curator or gallerist before making the work. Often the friction is a matter of just coming up with overly complicated, elaborate projects that are laborious to produce. My friend, the artist Charles Goldman, introduced me to the idea of valuing art that is “adequate”. On the one hand that could seem limiting and uninspiring, but there is often a beauty to work that is not trying too hard, that just crosses the threshold of becoming meaningful. When artists can reduce the friction that exterior forces and limited resources create, then projects become much more possible.
  4. Expand parameters. Artists are generally taught to focus exclusively on object making in a studio environment, and not at all on the broader set of elements that surround and support the presentation of that work. In that case the “art” is just the object that has been made and nothing else. Artists can broaden out their practice to include a much wider set of aspects than just object making. That could include audience engagement, ephemera production and distribution, the construction of conceptual frameworks, the additions of participatory activities, etc. By working within a larger field of possibilities, artists can, to a much greater extent, determine and influence the way that their work is perceived and experienced. Think about how a really good restaurant considers not just the food on the plate but the whole environment that customers experience. Artists can similarly think not just about the objects they make, but instead about everything that is related to the presentation of their art to an audience.
  5. Give Credit. Unlike theater, film, music, dance, etc., art has been made to seem like it is a solo activity. Collaboration is discouraged in many ways within art education and the art world, often explicitly on grant and residency applications where only individual artists are allowed to apply. As a result, collaboration and group work practices are rarely seen as an option for emerging artists. At the same time, artists are encouraged to appear to do all their work on their own even though they often work with assistants, fabricators, curators, designers, writers, etc., who are never billed in the way they would be if they were taking part in the production of a film or theater piece. The commercial art system has promoted this misrepresentation to make it seem like the artwork they sell is purely created by just the “hand of the artist.” That unfortunate situation can be changed by artists themselves by insisting on crediting people for the roles they play in the creation of artworks. Demands can be made to arts organization to include collaboration and group work in funding and other opportunities. The art world could become a more supportive environment for non-solo based work, but artists will need to lead the way in the promotion and development of thoughtful crediting if that is ever going to happen.

Experiential Education

Hallie Ford Fellows in the Visual Arts 2017–19
Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art
University of Oregon
Eugene, Oregon
October 3, 2020 to January 10, 2021

Building Community: PSU Art + Design Faculty, Past + Present
Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at Portland State University
Portland State University
Portland, Oregon
March 9, 2021 to May 9, 2021

This project might be a little hard to understand conceptually. I used what I call “retroactive claiming” to go back in time and formalize something I did in the past as a work of art now. I’ve included a description of what exactly I mean by “retroactive claiming” and how it can be employed, not just by me, but by anyone who might find it useful. The work itself is a text piece (enlarged for exhibition) describing the past activity. In the project crediting I did something that I think is probably a stretch—suggesting it is a “collaboration” with someone who is currently dead. Students of mine always seem to want to push the idea of what collaboration can be into areas that I generally think are probably something else (usually just project content) like the idea of collaborating with non-human animals, plants, fictional characters, etc. I don’t have anything against working with those categories of entities (I’m a big plant and animal fan!) but my definition of collaboration includes the idea that all parties must have some kind of agency in the project, and also maybe just as importantly, that all of the collaborators find some value in the collaboration. As far as I can tell non-human animals, plants, fictional characters, and dead people, don’t have any interest in art projects. Even so I felt compelled to include a collaborator in this project who is dead and has no agency in the decision I have made to reclaim the activity that I did with him decades ago as art. I suppose in this case I’m thinking of the collaboration credit more as an honorary status than an active one. It’s a debatable thing to do, but I did it anyway.

A coincidence occurred in regard to the project’s presentation. The first time it was shown was at the JSMA at the University of Oregon which held specific significance because that museum is located across the street from the special collections library that was referenced in the piece, but because of the Covid pandemic I never saw it installed (the museum consulted me remotely about how to produce and present the work) and very few other people were able to experience it either because of museum access restrictions. Soon after the show that the project was a part of came down, I was asked to contribute a piece to another show happening at the newly constructed JSMA at Portland State University (where I teach). Since the first version had a very limited audience, I thought it would be a nice opportunity to try to re-present the project (even though the site-specificity was more removed). As it would happen the pandemic and its restrictions continued through that exhibition as well. So, the same piece was shown at two JSMA’s in less than a year and neither one really had an in-person audience. I guess that’s just the way it goes sometimes, but at least now I can present the work in this mediated form here on this website.

Read the project brochure from the exhibit at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at the University of Oregon.

Experiential Education
Harrell Fletcher with Bill Devall
Arcata, California
1998, 2020 

When I was an undergraduate student at Humboldt State University, I took a class from sociology professor Bill Devall. Devall was well known as the co-author of the book Deep Ecology, but I didn’t know that at the time that I signed up for the class. We met in a typical classroom at the university on the first day of class, but Devall immediately asked us (my recollection was that there were about twenty students) to follow him out the door and onto a trail that led into the redwood forest behind the campus. We wandered for a while and then found a clearing to sit down in. Devall told us that for the rest of the semester we would not be meeting during the class times and that, instead, he wanted us to each choose an outdoor activity to do on our own during those times. He also suggested that we keep a journal about our thoughts and observations. 

I was a bit perplexed but diligently decided to follow Devall’s prompt. Two days a week at the appointed time for the rest of the term I walked from my apartment to the Arcata Bird Sanctuary. There I stepped onto the rail of train tracks and started walking south towards the city of Eureka, balancing in an attempt to not fall off for the full duration of the class (I can’t remember now how long that was, maybe ninety minutes). Soon I could walk on the rails with my eyes closed, run, jump back and forth from one rail to the other, and spin around in a circle, all without slipping off. At the end of each walk I would sit and write down my thoughts in a journal I brought along with me, and then I would head back home. 

At the end of the term we were told to prepare for a two-night campout with the rest of the class. A bus picked us up on campus and drove into the forest somewhere north of Arcata. I expected Devall to ask us to talk about our individual experiences, but he never did. Instead we wound up doing solo silent hikes and other similar activities. He didn’t even ask to see our journals. I remember wondering what the other students had chosen for their outdoor activities and if they actually did them during class, but I don’t remember ever finding that out, and for some reason, even in casual conversation, it didn’t come up. 

Time went by and I transferred to an art school in San Francisco, graduated from there, took a couple of years off to travel and work, went to graduate school, and eventually started to teach at colleges myself. Somehow even now, over thirty years later, Devall’s class (which wasn’t really a class at all in the normal sense) sticks out for me as the one that I learned the most from, and that has shaped my life and work, as an artist and teacher, more than any other. 

At some point I started to wonder what happened to Bill Devall. I did a little online research and realized he had died a few years ago, and that, interestingly, his archive is located at the University of Oregon’s Special Collections at the Knight Library (Devall received his PhD from UO) right across the street from the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art. I scheduled an appointment and spent several hours looking through the boxes of Devall’s papers trying to see if I could find a syllabus for the course that I had taken with him. I wasn’t able to, though there was a lot of other interesting material. I guess it wasn’t that kind of class. 

Retroactive Claiming

Imagine finding some writings or drawings that you had done ten years earlier. At the time that you made them you had no thoughts about publishing or exhibiting the work, but now much later you see value in considering them differently, so you go about formalizing the work for the public to be able to experience the drawing or writings. Similarly, you might have gone through a hard experience at an earlier time in your life that later on you were able to see as educationally valuable, so in your mind you reframe the experience from negative to positive retroactively and you tell people about that change in perspective.

What if you used that retroactive claiming/framing approach to non-material forms of art? You could at any moment go back in time to earlier activities you did and reframe them as artworks, even though at the time you didn’t think of them as art. The possible activities and experiences are endless, but for example let’s just say you walked to work for a week instead of driving a couple of years earlier and still recall that you enjoyed the chance to get some exercise while noticing things that you didn’t see while in a car and had a few unexpected interactions with people along the ways that were interesting as well. You could take that experience and retroactively claim it as an artwork and reframe it by giving it a title, date, location, description and potentially documentation that could be from that time if you happened to take a photo as you walked or through re-constructing the activity by taking a photo now that represented the earlier activity or by making a drawing, re-performing the activity publicly, etc. though documentation (other than a title etc.) of the retroactive project isn’t actually necessary. You could then add that “project” to your resume and website, create publications based on retroactively claimed works, talk about them in lectures, and apply for funding to retroactively reframe more projects or work with others to select and formalize their own retroactive artworks. I can imagine skeptics saying that without initial intention the past activities can’t be reframed as art, but why should we be concerned about when the activities happened, eventually everything becomes a part of the past, and there is still intention it’s just intention to retroactively reframe rather than intention to do something at a future point.

Another variation on this idea is to think about all of the email writing that you have done in the past not as writing emails, but simply as writing, in which case most of us would have already written enough for several books. It’s a way of valuing what you have already done in ways that you may not have previously done, and through that process it might also make you appreciate what you are currently doing or going to do in the future in a different way.

— Harrell Fletcher

(For the University of Oregon exhibit, a Spanish version of the above wall text was created.)

Reclamo retroactivo

Imagínate que encuentras algunas escrituras o dibujos que hiciste hace diez años. En esos momentos cuando los hiciste, no habías pensado en publicar o exhibir el trabajo, pero ahora muchos años después, ves el valor de considerarlos diferente, por lo que te dedicas a formalizar el trabajo para que el público pueda experimentar los dibujos o escrituras. Igualmente, podrías haber tenido una experiencia difícil en tiempos pasados de tu vida que después pudiste ver como algo valioso educativamente, por lo que en tu mente reformulas la experiencia de negativa a positiva retroactivamente y le cuentas a la gente sobre ese cambio de perspectiva.

¿Qué pasa si usas esa perspectiva de reclamo o reformulamiento retroactivo en las formas no materiales del arte? En cualquier momento, podrías retroceder en el tiempo a las actividades del pasado que hiciste y reformulaste como trabajos de arte, aun cuando en ese tiempo no las considerabas como arte. Las posibles actividades y experiencias son infinitas, pero por ejemplo, simplemente digamos que dos años atrás caminaste a tu trabajo por una semana en vez de conducir tu vehículo y que todavía recuerdas haber disfrutado la oportunidad de hacer un poco de ejercicio mientras notabas cosas que no veías cuando estabas en un carro y tuviste algunas interacciones inesperadas con las personas en el camino que también fueron interesantes. Podrías tomar esa experiencia y reclamarla retroactivamente como un trabajo de arte y reformularla para darle un título, fecha, ubicación, descripción y posiblemente una documentación que podría ser de ese tiempo si coincide que tomaste una foto
mientras caminabas, o mediante una reconstrucción de la actividad tomando una foto ahora que represente la actividad pasada o haciendo un dibujo, volviendo a realizar la actividad en público, etc., aunque una documentación (además de un título, etc.) del proyecto retroactivo no es de hecho necesaria. Entonces, podrías agregar ese “proyecto” a tu currículum vitae y sitio web, crear publicaciones en base a los trabajos reclamados retroactivamente, hablar sobre estos en conferencias y solicitar un financiamiento para reformular retroactivamente más proyectos o trabajar con otras personas para seleccionar y formalizar sus propios trabajos de arte retroactivos. Puedo imaginarme a los escépticos diciendo que sin una intención inicial de actividades pasadas no pueden reformularse como arte, pero por qué deberíamos preocuparnos sobre cuándo ocurrieron las actividades, ya que
eventualmente todo se vuelve parte del pasado y todavía hay una intención, simplemente la intención de reformular retroactivamente en vez de la intención de hacer algo en un momento futuro.

Otra variación de esta idea es pensar sobre todos los correos electrónicos que escribiste en el pasado como algo diferente de una escritura de correos electrónicos, en cuyo caso la mayoría de nosotros ya habríamos escrito lo suficiente para varios libros. Es una manera de valorar lo que ya has hecho de maneras que podrías no haber hecho anteriormente, y a través de ese proceso podría ser que apreciaras lo que haces actualmente o harás en el futuro de una manera diferente.

— Harrell Fletcher

Some Thoughts Collected

Since 2014 I’ve been (very periodically) writing small texts mostly related to the topic of Art and Social Practice and posting them on my website under the heading “Some Thoughts.” This PDF version puts them all together in chronological order for anyone who might want to read them that way printed out or on a digital device. My hope was to publish a book of those texts along with other writing I’ve done over the last decade or so, but I keep procrastinating on that project. Hopefully it will still happen in the future. I will also likely add more texts to the website now and then so if you are looking for more at some point you might be able to find them there. 

Harrell 3.22.20

Read the collected texts here


Imagine finding some writings or drawings that you had done ten years earlier. At the time that you made them you had no thoughts about publishing or exhibiting the work, but now much later you see value in considering them differently, so you go about formalizing the work for the public to be able to experience the drawing or writings. Similarly, you might have gone through a hard experience at an earlier time in your life that later on you were able to see as educationally valuable, so in your mind you reframe the experience from negative to positive retroactively and you tell people about that change in perspective.

What if you used that retroactive claiming/framing approach to non-material forms of art? You could at any moment go back in time to earlier activities you did and reframe them as artworks, even though at the time you didn’t think of them as art. The possible activities and experiences are endless, but for example let’s just say you walked to work for a week instead of driving a couple of years earlier and still recall that you enjoyed the chance to get some exercise while noticing things that you didn’t see while in a car and had a few unexpected interactions with people along the ways that were interesting as well. You could take that experience and retroactively claim it as an artwork and reframe it by giving it a title, date, location, description and potentially documentation that could be from that time if you happened to take a photo as you walked or through re-constructing the activity by taking a photo now that represented the earlier activity or by making a drawing, re-performing the activity publicly, etc. though documentation (other than a title etc.) of the retroactive project isn’t actually necessary. You could then add that “project” to your resume and website, create publications based on retroactively claimed works, talk about them in lectures, and apply for funding to retroactively reframe more projects or work with others to select and formalize their own retroactive artworks. I can imagine sceptics saying that without initial intention the past activities can’t be reframed as art, but why should we be concerned about when the activities happened, eventually everything becomes a part of the past, and there is still intention it’s just intention to retroactively reframe rather than intention to do something at a future point.

Another variation on this idea is to think about all of the email writing that you have done in the past not as writing emails, but simply as writing, in which case most of us would have already written enough for several books. It’s a way of valuing what you have already done in ways that you may not have previously done, and through that process it might also make you appreciate what you are currently doing or going to do in the future in a different way.



As soon as I finished writing short descriptions for the first set of terms and topics related to social practice (see the previous post) I immediately started compiling a new list. So here are an additional twenty-two terms and topics with subjective definitions, I’m sure there will be more to come.


The amount of time spent working on a project is one way of looking at the duration of the project, though it could also be referring to how long the project is active too, or both of those two together. There is a sort of knee jerk idea that when it comes to socially engaged work that long duration equates to being better, and that short duration is less good. I’ve always felt that this was not an accurate assumption, and as I have said many times, if a bad project lasts a long time it doesn’t make it better it just means it is bad longer. My feeling instead is that duration is just another factor in determining the best way to approach and develop any given project. Some projects, based on resources available, circumstances, etc. are best when they are very short term. There are ways to avoid the problems that come when an artist is “parachuted” into a project, primarily by setting up the work so that the artist allows local people to present content creating a situation in which the artist becomes an audience to the project that they have conceived of and or facilitated.

Social Justice

There is often a confusion that social practice work inherently needs to be about social justice issues. I don’t think that’s the case, if it were it would be called “Art and Social Justice” not “Art and Social Practice”. Many artists doing socially engaged work are interested in and engaged with social justice issues, and that can of course be the subject and purpose of their work if that is what they want to do, but social practice work could also be about non-political, non-social justice type topics, and or can be indirectly addressing social/political issues in various ways.


Many socially engaged projects have educational components built into them. One of the advantages of project-based work is the opportunity to use the process as a way to learn about topics that the artist is interested in from experiential, direct, and indirect approaches. I like to position myself, when working on a project in a place that I am not familiar with, as the one who is learning from the people who I meet and interact with, often creating project structures that allow those local, and more knowledgeable people to be the ones providing content and leading the educating of me, other outsiders, and each other.

Ideal Situations

Artists have the chance to construct situations in the way that they would like them to be as opposed to the way that they might normally exist. For instance, just because kids are not normally included in the art world, at least not in positions of agency, it is still possible for artists to create projects that allow kids to take those kinds of roles. That same approach can apply to anything else that an artist would like to see happen within the small-scale realm of possibilities that they have control over when producing a project.


In general, it is important to be able to determine how to behave and operate in life so that you are functioning within both personal and societal ethical practices. There are of course constructed laws that we each need to decide if we will follow or not follow and in what ways. This might be partially considered from the point of view of self-interest, familial interests, societal interests, and based on if the laws make sense in any particular situational circumstances or not, though some people prefer to use precedent and generalized moral codes instead of having to make ethical decisions based on each issue and experience that they encounter. There are pluses and minuses for both approaches, but I favor the situational ethics one even though it requires a lot more work.

Artists need to also figure out their own ethical ideas, methods, and value systems and then try to apply them as they do their work. I tend to think that common sense and following basic social contracts of not harming others (or annoying them too much) is the best approach, but it could be that many artists are not aware of the potential harm they might cause through their work and so need to educate themselves to have greater understanding of their own biases, privileges, power etc., so that they can effectively do the work that they want to do in meaningful and useful ways.

I have encountered the idea that social practice artists need to be especially conscious of their ethical responsibilities because of the social nature of their work, but I have always contended that everyone (including studio/gallery artists) should be engaged with understanding their impacts on other people, the environment, wealth distribution, hierarchies, etc. and that artists who are interested in socially engaged practices are generally at least already somewhat aware of these dynamics, whereas non-socially engaged artists often times are less conscious of the ways they are making impacts with their work from ethical perspectives. Also, when faced with this question I often ask for an example of a socially engaged art project that has had a negative ethical social impact and have not yet been given a good suggestion (though I’m sure there are a few out there). Considering a socially engaged project to not be very good from a subjective point of view doesn’t qualify. There is lots and lots of “bad” art being made out there (and because there are a lot more paintings and sculptures than socially engaged projects that means there are also a lot more “bad” paintings and sculptures than there are “bad” socially engaged art projects) but that is no reason for artists to stop doing work, at least not from an ethical point of view.


Many socially engaged projects have featured walking as a primary element (including several of my own). There are many reasons why walking is appreciated from a social practice angle. Walking is something that is free and available to most people in some form or other and does not require special skills to do. It provides an opportunity to get exercise while holding conversations, examining the environment that is being walked through, and providing self-transportation. Walking can easily be combined with other activities like presentations, readings, and performances. I also just really enjoy walking, so when given the opportunity to do any kind of project that I want to do I often choose to include walking as some part of it.


In the US the typical ways that artists fund themselves are through commercial sales, teaching, or arts grants. In reality most people who think of themselves as artists don’t receive any funding at all, and probably most artists don’t even bother trying to get funding for their work. There is a big disparity between the number of artists and the capacity of commercial galleries to show and sell those people’s work, as well as a limited number of art teaching possibilities and arts grant opportunities. Those options are all available to project based socially engaged artists, but there are other ways to fund work as well. Working on commissions from arts and non-arts organizations is one example. Sometimes the commission can be for a project that does not interfere with regular exhibition and other programming at the institution, which makes it more likely and increases the number of possibilities (temporary event-based projects or exhibitions in non-gallery parts of museums like cafes and bookstores for instance). Another approach is to create projects that function as self-initiated institutions or artist residencies within existing organizations like schools, libraries, park systems, or sanitation departments (like Mierle Laderman Ukeles) and to apply for funding that is not normally available to individual artists through those entities. A small business model is another option. It is important to see funding approaches as part of projects and not just as the support system for them.

Variable Practice

There has been a pervasive idea in the past that artists were supposed to pick a medium and develop a style for their art and work on that for the rest of their lives. There has always been lots of deviation from this approach, but it still persists as a concept that is often taught to art students. The primary benefit of artists working in that way is to be able to deliver consistent product for the commercial gallery system and all of the other art world elements that rely on that system. Artists, on the other hand, rarely only want to work with just one medium and style and have to be conditioned into finding value in that approach. Any kind of artist can free themselves from that way of thinking and create a more interesting, varied practice for themselves, but socially engaged artists are particularly well situated to work in that way because they are generally not directly connected to the commercial gallery system, and work on different kinds of projects that can be situationally determined, so that in one case the artist might use photography in an exhibition form, and in another creates participatory sculpture for a public context, or mixes up multiple mediums and styles in one project, anything is possible when the artist has a variable practice.


As I mentioned in the “education” topic, an artist can position themselves as someone who is given an opportunity to learn through the process of creating a project. That could include anything from learning a new media to learning about the culture and history of a project location. The shift is that in normal conditions it is the artist that is supposedly offering up culture and education to the public and in this other scenario the artist is instead learning about existing culture and knowledge from members of the public.


Going to a place where a project will be happening to have a personal experience evaluating the nature of the place and the type of project that would be interesting to develop there based on resources, social dynamics, histories, etc.

Hanging Out Method

A process which can be used during a site visit or during the research phase of any project in which the artist wanders around, talks to local people, and spends time casually observing in the location where they will be developing a project in order to come up with ideas for the concept of the project.


Within a socially engaged art project the artist has the opportunity to be as inclusive as they would like to be in various ways, that could include who the collaborators and participants are, how accessible the project is to local and diverse audiences, and in what ways the project is made available in documentation form, which could include free publications distributed publicly etc. to allow the project to be known by people who might not normally go to a contemporary art venue or presentation.


The art world system is built on status and hierarchy, but artists can deviate from that approach if they want to. That can include not going along with the idea that you can only go up the steps of “art world success” which would dictate that once you move from showing in alternative spaces to commercial galleries, to fancier commercial galleries, to museums, that you cannot move backwards for fear that your stock will go down. Instead, if artists showed their work based on what they actually thought was interesting that could mean that they worked with a whole range of different status level organizations (alternative spaces, Community College galleries, museums, etc.) in different places (not just art world hubs like NYC, and LA) and as part of socially engaged projects that might take place at schools, prisons, hospitals, the list goes on). If artists make it clear that they don’t want to be limited to art world status conventions and hierarchies then the system can change, but examples need to be made by people in power to correct that situation.

Artists can also use their agency to dissolve or diminish hierarchy through collaborating with people who have less art world status (kids, non-artists, artists with little or no art world connections, etc.) and can also alter audience hierarchy by privileging and creating access for local audiences and people who are generally given less value by the art world system.


The use of instructions, prompts, scores, or assignments as part of a participatory art project. In many cases the artist comes up with the instructions and others (who should receive credit for their roles) respond by producing whatever the instructions suggest. This can be used as part of “distance projects” but you really have to be careful about who is on the other end facilitating the instructions, because if they don’t know what they are doing or deviate from the specific instructions without consultation with the artist things can fall apart or turn into something undesirable.


Typically, it is assumed that artists want to primarily show their work as part of exhibitions, but in the case of socially engaged projects exhibitions might not be the best platform for the work. Sometimes an opportunity for an artist is tied to doing an exhibition even if that is not the primary interest of the artist. In that case the exhibition can be seen as a resource for the project that can also include non-exhibition work (workshops, public art, performances, web, publications, etc.) that happen both inside and outside of the exhibiting institution.

Public Art

Public art has typically been thought of as permanent sculptures or mural type projects that are funded by government percent for art programs or corporate entities. There are several alternatives that could also be thought of as public art including non-sanctioned street art of various kinds, temporary public art in the form of fliers, posters, performances, or interventions, and site-specific participatory projects. Over the last couple of decades there has been a slow but promising shift towards using percent for art government funding to support less orthodox ideas of what public art can be considered. Social Practice seems to be included in that development.


A big part of typical art world success is based on the museum and private collections that an artist’s work has been acquired by. But what if as an artist you don’t make objects that are easily bought and sold and shipped? If your work is project based and possibly ephemeral or site-specific it might not be able to be collected in typical manners and that reduces the status (and funding) that an artist can receive. But there are examples of artist’s works that have somehow made their way into art collections while not being object based. Roman Ondak’s piece “Good Feelings in Good Times” which is owned by the Tate Modern in London is a good example. The project is a set of instructions detailing how a group of actors should be hired to stand in a queue line in various locations attracting members of the public to line up behind them until they disperse and reassemble somewhere else to repeat the process. Apparently, the work operates in the collection in a similar way to a painting—it was purchased, it is listed as belonging to the Tate, it can be borrowed by other institutions, etc. So instruction based work is one approach to use for entering into the arena of a museum collection (and you would think the Tate would be very happy with it because of the lack of need for storage when it is not in use) but there are other methods as well. Documentation and artifacts from a socially engaged project can also be collected, and if a curator is open to it a project could be designed by an artist specifically to function as part of the museum’s collection. When artists who have different kinds of practices are treated equitably by art world powers then it will be more likely that artists will be able to choose the ways that they want to work without systemic structural pressure and conditioning determining that for them.

Status Quo

I have realized over the years that much of my work is based on creating alternatives to various status quo situations that I run across in society. You could say that “conceptual twists” use similar dynamics—taking something that has a normal way of operating and then tweaking it into some alternative form so that it breaks from our status quo understanding. This has made me think that it is important to understand and recognize the status quo in various situations so that you can then contemplate deviating from that to create an interesting project. The status quo is not always bad and a twist on the status quo is not always good, so just making an alternative is not necessarily the right thing to do in every situation, but it usually useful to understand the status quo of a given situation and to critically evaluate it for yourself when working on socially engaged projects.

Project Producer

This is the idea that, like a movie producer or other kinds of producers who handle logistics for a director or team of people working on a film etc., there could also be producers for socially engaged art projects that are not the main artist or artists and not a participant of the project, but instead help to produce the project by handling budgets, scheduling, paperwork, brainstorming ideas, etc. It would be interesting if artists took this role for other artists. I have not run across any formalized version of that in the US, but have encountered something like that in Canada and parts of Europe for some public art projects, but in those cases the “producers” were not artists and instead were administrators or curators of one kind or another.

Intimate Projects

This involves making projects that the artist has a personal connection to as a starting point for something that could then be made of interest through participation and other involvements by a wider audience. One of the current students in the PSU Art and Social Practice program, Xi Jie Ng has created several projects that operate in this way, one was based on her interest in her grandmother’s bunions, and another that she is working on now is about the apartment complex where she lives. Xi Jie suggested this term as one that should be added to this list after I described a project that I was working on that had to do with my grandfather and his work as a farm manager at a university in California.


An approach to making work that very literally just renames existing things in the world. That could include existing buildings, streets, geographic areas, monuments, everyday objects, systems, jobs, activities, etc.


I’ve always had a resistance to reading and giving legitimacy to theory in its typically canonized forms. I always found comfort in the supposedly Yogi Berra quote “In theory there is no difference between theory and practice, in practice there is” finding in that assessment a very true statement, from my experience and perspective, that makes it hard for me to value totally abstracted theoretical ideas (in terms of art) that have no applied, concrete elements to them. But it could be that my aversion to theory has also led me towards an unnecessary bias that could be more nuanced and less polarized. I have read and appreciated lots of theory that is related to direct experience on topics including alternative education, farming, politics, ethics, etc. I also realize, especially as I have been writing these term and topic definitions, as well as earlier writing of various kinds, that I have been in some ways creating a kind of theory, but one that is based on my thoughts, conversations, and readings, coupled with applied experiences of producing socially engaged art projects for over half of my life. It could be that like many other examples of redefining for myself what I consider to be valid forms of various things–education, art, history, etc. that I also just need to think of theory differently, allowing it to be another resource that I can tap into, in ways and at times that I find useful.


Each week in the PSU Art and Social Practice MFA program we have an hour of what we call “topical discussion.” During that hour we explore a topic related to art and social practice. Some of the topics are very basic like collaboration, or site-specificity, but there are also terms like “A Touch of Evil” which we heard about as a program when Pedro Reyes explained his understanding of how that idea works in art projects while we were visiting him in Mexico City a couple of years ago. Many of the ideas we discuss are not specific to socially engaged art, but we are looking at them from a socially engaged art perspective. Several of the concepts are ones that I have used in my own work but until recently hadn’t named what they were or how they could be used as strategies when developing a project. Some of these topics are ones I have been already written about in previous versions of these thoughts that are posted here and some of them I have yet to address but hope to at some point in the future in a more substantial way.

It has been interesting to see how these discussions, topics, and terms have been introduced into the ways students talk about work, sometimes seeming to offer explanations for previously difficult to explain decisions and actions. Seeing that happen has made me think that it might be important to make our findings more publicly available in case they might be useful to other people.

I have compiled an ever-growing list of topics and the students are all selecting a couple of them to try to construct descriptions for them. Some of the students asked me to write up my own brief explanations that might be useful for them to develop more fully, others thought that might limit their own approach to the topic (for those in the latter category read no further). At some point when the students have created enough topic descriptions we plan to post them on the PSU Art and Social Practice MFA website (which would hopefully grow over time) and to potentially also publish them in a book of some kind that might be ready to distribute during our 2019 Assembly conference.

Here are the current (though I’m sure I will add more later) set of terms (in no particular order) and my short, subjective descriptions:

Conceptual Twist

In comedy they call this “misdirection.” It’s the element in a project that in some ways breaks from expectation or logic. The whole project can be constructed as a conceptual twist or it can be added in somewhere.

Touch of Evil

I’m just going off of what I understood Pedro to mean by this, but my recollection of what he said is that it is an element in a project that could come across as challenging, negative, edgy, messed up, etc, but adds complexity. There is a critique of social practice that it is about trying to “do good” and in fact many socially engaged projects might have an intention of making some sort of positive impact on society, but if you can throw in a “touch of evil” then it makes the project more complicated and less easy to write off as only trying (most likely unsuccessfully) to do good.


This is the creation of an archive, or the augmentation of an existing archive, as the structure and content of an art project.


As Emily Dickenson said, “tell the truth, but tell it slant” or something like that. Just because it is socially engaged art, doesn’t mean that the work can’t have mystery! It’s just a careful balance because too much enigma can make work inaccessible, but not enough can make it dull.


I got this term in relationship to art from the artist Charles Goldman. The way he explained it to me was the idea of making art that barely passes the threshold of being art. He liked that dynamic of just crossing the line, it is evident in a lot of his work. I’ve expanded that idea when I talk to my students to also include an artist’s whole practice. To consider what you need as opposed to what you might want. Do you need to have art world fame or just neighborhood fame? Do you need to do super elaborate and expensive projects or will more basic ones be satisfactory? It’s a question to pose for each thing that an artist engages in, and what’s interesting is that often the more modest a project or practice the more beautiful.


Or in it’s more explanatory but cumbersome term “system segment replacement.” This is an idea I stumbled on while thinking about a possible project and then realized that it applied to a lot of my past work as well. The way it works is that you take an existing system (any one will do) and you leave the start and end points but take out and replace some part of the middle. In many cases that might mean creating a less efficient system from the point of view of time or costs, but the qualities that can be created are potentially much more interesting.


The process of adding onto something that already exists as a project. That could be an art related institution, event, publication or non-art organization or activity like a library, small business, a festival, etc. The idea is that you are taking something that functions normally and then are adding to that in someway that changes the existing something.


This is the basic Duchamp readymade approach, except it can function not just through re-contextualizing non-art objects into art contexts, but can expand that strategy by suggesting that non-art objects, organizations, activities, etc can be artworks without physically putting them into an art context. Instead, through the use of framing devices, it is possible to achieve the perception that the claimed subject is an artwork. Those devices could include using a title, location, date, etc in a publication, website, lecture, or listing as part of a larger art exhibition.


More precisely this could be called the self-initiated residency model. For this approach the artist creates (generally with approval) an artist in residence position for their self (or others) at an organization that normally doesn’t have an artist in residence program or position. This could be at a school, a business, a library, a park, etc. Once the “residency” is established, (which can be formalized by being listed on the organizations website, through establishing a space for the residency within the organization, through physical signage, business cards, etc) then the artist can work within that context to develop work that is relevant to the people who exist in that place.

Conceptual Art

In this case what I’m talking about, and I wrote more extensively in a previous text about this, is the radical potential of conceptual art. By that I mean the use of conceptual art approaches, which require little or no material resources, in circumstances in which people have limitations that make it hard to create physical art works. The place I’m thinking of in particular is prison because I’m currently leading a conceptual art class at a local prison myself, but it could apply to almost any situation with any potential participants who might feel like material based art making is unappealing or inaccessible and who instead could find conceptual art strategies of interest and use.


Or the “delegated model” where the artist conceives of an idea for a project and then asks a set of other artists (or non-artists) to create an aspect of the project, then when all of the pieces are put together into a single exhibition, event, publication etc, the small delegated parts become a larger whole. It is important in delegated projects, as with all social practice projects, to credit each participant for the role that they have played in the project. The primary artist is likely in this approach creating the structure that the other people are then filling in content into.


The platform is the structure that the project takes place in or on, so that in the case of most object based art work, the platform is a gallery or museum or quasi-version of those things like an alternative space in a garage or a cafe, etc. In the case of social practice projects and other non-object based work the platform can be a school, a library, a food cart, a radio program, the web, clothes, a podcast, etc, etc.


This is in reference to an artist deciding the parameter for a project. In the conventional approach the object (painting, sculpture, photograph, etc) is the artwork that an artist makes and nothing else is art. But in a social practice project the artist can decide that the artwork includes the process as well as various tangential elements including publications, events, posters, documentation, etc. It also allows the artist to collaborate in various ways and to create co-authorship as part of a project.


The idea here is that the artist constructs a project that is to take place remotely from where the artist is living. This could be either done with a site visit to the location where the project is going to take place or potentially without ever going to that place. Instead, the project is produced by people in the location where the project is taking place through instructions that the artist has created for that place. The people on the ground in the project location can be thought of as collaborators and should be credited for their role in the project.


The context is the place that a project is developed and produced in, which includes not just the physical elements of the place, but also its history, current and future dynamics, and emotional/psychological elements.


In regards to social practice projects I like to think in terms of three different audiences, the first are people who actually participate in a project directly and also experience it, the second are people who experience the project directly but didn’t participate in the development or construction of the project, and the tertiary audience are people who experience the project through documentation or any kind of mediation including photographs, video, written description, word of mouth, etc.


The act of discussing, brainstorming and working on the concept of a project with another artist or an organization as an artwork in and of itself. This is related to something that Lee Walton has discussed, the idea of an “artist assist” being something that should be valued and credited in the way that an “assist” in basketball (and maybe some other sports?) give credit to an assist when one player helps another player to score points. It’s interesting that this kind of consulting is highly valued in other occupations, but in art there is no existing form for even acknowledging when an artist assists through consultation.


This is what you do when you come up with a project idea and propose it to a person who has the ability to help facilitate the production of the project. This could be directed to a curator or other art professional, but it could also be a non-art person, someone who works for a city agency, a librarian, a business owner or non-profit director etc. The pitch should be simple and easy to do so that it doesn’t take up much time and energy before and agreement has been made. In most cases an email with a description of the project idea and the potential resources needed. Having some kind of “in” with the person is always helpful, but is not totally necessary. One extra related idea is that when it comes to traditional art venues, a social practice type project proposal can be to do work that takes place not in the galleries (which are less likely to be available) and instead in an unorthodox place like the lobby, cafe, bookstore, or outside but in proximity to the art institution.

Project work

Instead of working on an object the artist works on a project, which most likely would happen outside of a studio and could have multiple elements and not be designed to be purchased in the traditional sense of an object being bought and sold, but could instead be commissioned. In this way instead of the artist making objects and then hoping that they will be sold, the artist is commissioned in advance and then produces work to fill that commission.

Self-healing Projects

This idea is related to using the delegated model but could be done in other ways as well. The way it works is that when designing a project it is constructed in such a way so that if any one (or potentially more than one) part or participant doesn’t work out the rest of the project still happens and is not adversely impacted.

Multiple Points of Access

Having various entry points or interest areas within a project, so that some people might be engaged by one aspect of the project and other people might be engaged in another. This could also apply to how a project functions for a non-art audience in certain ways, but also has elements that might be interesting from an art world perspective as well.


Social practice people seem to really like publications. It makes sense for a few reasons, one of which is that since there are not always objects made for a social practice project publications can function as a tangible thing that can represent the project. Also depending on the way the publication is produced (newspaper printing is a good example) it can be done cheaply and in large number so that it can be given away for free. And again, because objects aren’t always primary in social practice projects documentation is important and publications can serve as one means of doing that.


Because social practice projects don’t always involve objects that can be transported and re-presented and instead might be totally ephemeral or totally permanent and un-moveable, documentation is important for a tertiary audience to experience the work. This can happen in traditional forms like photographs, video, etc and can be shown on the web, in publications, and as part of lectures. But documentation can also be done is less orthodox ways like through re-creations, drawings, rumors, etc.


Because social practice type projects often involve publications, posters, and other design related materials, it can be very useful to either develop good design skills or to cultivate good relationships and collaborations with designers.

Self-initiated Institutions

The creation, as an art project, of an “institution.” It could be ongoing or temporary, for instance a contemporary art museum in school, an artist residency in a prison, a small personal library inside of a college library, etc. Various formalizations can be employed to enhance the sense that the self-initiated institution is real like a website, signage, staff positions, etc.


The use of curatorial strategies as an artwork or art practice, so that the artist may function in some ways like a curator selecting and presenting work, but doing that while still seeing what they do as their work as an artist.

Local Audience Engagement

Constructing projects so that wherever they take place the local audience feels interested and invested in the project. This can be done at both art and non-art venues by exploring who lives, works, hangs out at or near the location that the project is being presented at and to then make work that those people can have a role in or is of interest to them.


The use of various disciplines, medias, and approaches as an artist in any project, as opposed to being an artist who only works in one medium.


Working on a project with more than one person and or designing a project so that other people can participate in it. There is a range of ways that people can collaborate on and participate in social practice projects. If we start with passive viewership as the least involved way that someone can engage in an art work, we then move on to simple interactions where the people involved are not significant as individuals, then into more involved types of participation where the participants are important as individuals, and eventually onto partial collaboration and ending with full collaboration in which the project is totally conceived of, developed, a produced by two or more people. Collaborations can be done with artists and non-artists as well.


Making work that is responsive to the location that the work is being made in including the physical elements of the space, but also the broader contextual elements as well—the history, social dynamics, resources, etc. This could also be called “context-specific” or “circumstance-specific.”

Art Institutions

There are various advantages to working with arts organizations and some downsides. They know about and understand contemporary art and are open to the idea that artist will do unorthodox things and are supportive of that kind of activity. But doing socially engaged project work is sometimes hard to accommodate for organizations that are primarily used to putting on exhibitions. Additionally art organizations (especially smaller ones) tend to attract art audiences, which can be limiting.

Non-art Institutions

There are various advantages to working with non-arts organizations and some downsides. They have access to non-art audiences of various sorts depending on what kind of organization they are and where they are located, and they have resources that are sometimes more interesting than arts organizations have depending on the kind of work that they do. But non-arts organizations are not necessarily familiar with contemporary art and may not be supportive of the weird ideas that artist may want to do with them. They also might have pre-conceived concepts of the ways they think art might be useful to their organization, which may not be of interest to artists.


Making projects that have funny elements is one way of making them more accessible. Personally I like my humor pretty dry.


Like films or plays or music recordings it is also important to credit the people involved with art project, it is also an opportunity to counter the status quo idea that artists need to work solo and in proprietary ways.

Existing Forms

Inhabiting existing forms can sometimes be more effective and efficient than trying to always create new ones. That’s partly why painters continue to use canvas and oil paint over and over again, but when it comes to project based work sometimes there is a sense that the form needs to be different for each project. I don’t think that’s necessarily true, project structures can be reused in different circumstances to create very new content. Also you can use a non-art forms like a cafe, library, making furniture or clothes, offering counseling or education, etc as your art project.


Replicating a preexisting project, event, exhibition, etc as an art project. The re-contextualization of the original project is what makes the new version of interest to do. Crediting the original project and producers of that project are important and if possible asking their approval to do the re-creation.


Constructing a project that shows something that is normally hidden or not focused on, it could be a system, a history, a person’s activities, a place, etc.


Using the action of taking away something that exists somewhere, but in someway making the erasure evident as the art project.



It’s Time To Read Orwell Again

Nashville, TN James Robertson PKWY N/S @ Nissan Stadium, Facing East October – November 2018 I was invited to design a billboard for the For Freedoms project: After hearing about Rudi Giulani’s comment that “truth isn’t truth” I couldn’t help but think about the book 1984 and the Orwellian concept of “Newspeak” where words can mean their opposites. I recall reading 1984 when I was in high school, I think in 1983 which made the book even more ominous. At that time things seemed bad with Regan but now we have entered a whole new almost fictional seeming time with Trump, so I looked up the cover copy of the 1984 that I had read and decided to use the design elements from it for my billboard in an attempt to get people to consider the possibility that we could be heading towards a totalitarian state and that now is the time to do something about it.

A New Path to the Waterfall

Contemporary Art Gallery
Lord Strathcona Elementary School
Vancouver, BC

2017 -2018

Over the course of the 2017-18 school year A New Path to the Waterfall was a collaborative art project that situated a CAG satellite gallery space within MaryAnn Persoon’s grade 6/7 class at Lord Strathcona Elementary School.

In 2015 the Contemporary Art Gallery invited me for a residency at their Burrard Marina Field House. Growing out of that period of research, I proposed a yearlong project in a classroom connected to issues and topics in the school curriculum. The project was conceived to open up new ways for the students to engage with art and the wider world while re-shaping the ways in which we consider contemporary art, gallery spaces and public schools.

Within A New Path to the Waterfall, MaryAnn Persoon’s grade 6/7 class engaged in five projects created and led by six Vancouver-based artists; Justine A. Chambers, Elisa Ferrari, Hannah Jickling, Carmen Papalia, Helen Reed and T’uy’t’tanat Cease Wyss. The students were encouraged to take creative risks and experiment with different ways of making to investigate local ecosystems and issues surrounding accessibility, inclusion, power structures, taste and consumption. Aspects of each project in A New Path to the Waterfall were presented to the public through exhibitions, interventions, performances and public programming at six week intervals on-site at the school and in the surrounding Strathcona neighborhood.



I want to digress a bit from Social Practice and go into a more general topic, or topics—letters of recommendation, and open calls.

I’m often asked to write letters of recommendation for students or past students for everything from small awards to PhD programs and I have grown to question their value. In fact several years ago we removed letters of recommendation from the set of requirements that we ask for in the application for the PSU MFA in Art and Social Practice program. Instead we just request a list of references and their contact information. The reason for this is multifaceted, in most cases from my experience of being on MFA selection committees the letters of recommendation are never read for many of the applicants who have been filtered out in a first round of evaluation based more on their work samples and their own statements, which are generally seen as more significant than letters of recommendation and college transcripts etc. As a result my sense is that there are a lot of people out there (like myself) having to write a lot of these letters that are not actually considered. What we do in our MFA program is once we have settled on a set of reasonable finalists we reach out through email to some of the references that have been listed to ask about particular questions that they might be able to give insights into. From my experience these short, targeted email exchanges are more helpful than generalized letters of recommendation, which are usually positive or they wouldn’t be writing them in the first place. So by eliminating the requirement for letters of recommendation we cut down on the workload for people asked to write the letters, and create a system that is more effective at determining the qualifications of the applicants.

A little side note on the recommendation system is that I also think it might be interesting in both the case of letters of recommendation (since regardless of my little critique they aren’t going away anytime soon) and references is to broaden out who we think of as qualified to provide those services. Instead of relying largely on academics and occasionally arts professionals like curators and public arts administrators, what if we also included a wider set of people who have come in contact with the person being recommended? They might have some useful thoughts in regards to their abilities that otherwise might not be considered. Obviously you would want to avoid people with extreme biases (although it’s not like teachers and curators who have worked closely with artists don’t have personal biases) like parents and friends, but maybe a neighbor or co-worker or fellow student would round things out a bit and make for a more complete perspective on the applicant. Something to think about or perhaps encourage (maybe we will suggest that in the Art and Social Practice MFA application).

The other related, systemically embedded, (but I think should be rethought) process, are open calls for artists. These happen in a myriad of ways for everything from group shows, to awards, public art, residencies, and of course graduate programs. In some cases they may be unavoidable, but can at least be mitigated in various ways. There are a variety of issues I have with the open call procedure. The big issue is that in each instance it creates a lot more losers than winners. Along the way to achieving that unfortunate situation the process of filling out the applications takes up huge amounts of time, energy, and money that could be going towards the actual work that the artists want to be doing as part of their practice. And even though open calls are thought to be “democratic” they are often times very exclusive to the people who are in the know and have the time, energy etc to put towards the application process.

So what should be done about this terrible situation? First of all for people who are currently administrating open calls or who are considering the creation of one stop and think if your objective is really best fulfilled by that particular approach? It might not be, and your program could be better served through using a thoughtfully designed curatorial selection or some other process that eliminates applications.

Again the things that should be avoided are creating extra, unpaid work for artists who already are often suffering from a lack of time and funds, producing more losers than winners (the experience of rejection weighs heavy on sensitive artist people and can create a feeling of defeat that might end up causing them to give up, so not only do they not get the thing they were applying for they are also made to feel like their work is not good and maybe shouldn’t be pursued), and inadvertently limiting the pool of people who are being considered for whatever is being offered.

If the open call is still going to be employed, the extra work and creation of more losers than winners issues can be addressed to some extent by simplifying the application process so that it is much easier to apply (requiring a lot less work and investment), or alternately by making it more complicated in a way that filters out applicants that are unlikely to be successful in the first place. Though we have eliminated reference letters in the PSU Art and Social Practice MFA application we have added the requirement of making three short videos that help us to determine if an applicant would be a good fit with the program, but that also discourages applications from people who are not willing to fulfill somewhat strange unorthodox requests, cutting down on the total number of applications, but increasing the percent that might be desirable for the program.

Additionally, open calls can be structured so that everyone who “applies” can be included in some way (possibly online) and then individuals (or collaborations) can be curated from that set for specific other functions. Years ago I co-created, with Miranda July and Yuri Ono, an online web based participatory project called Learning To Love You More which offered assignments that Miranda and I came up with and the opportunity for anyone to add their results which we called reports. Everyone who followed the instructions and submitted was included on the website, but then from that set (which eventually reached about 8000 participants) we selected certain people who got small grants and or were included in exhibitions that happened at museums and art centers around the world. Of course it was better to get funds or have your work shown in an institution, but those things were not the main point of LTLYM and so for the people who didn’t receive those extras it was unlikely that they felt like they were losers or had put in work that didn’t have a purpose in relationship to the broader project.

In regards to the problem of many open calls not actually being inclusive there are a couple of things that can be done to improve that condition. One approach, which also helps with the workload and loser dynamics, is to use a nomination system, which additionally attempts to spread out the potential for finding people that might normally be left out. I was once asked to be a nominator for a large financial award and exhibition at a museum in NYC. The administrators created a thoughtful selection system–they asked ten artists in different parts of the country (many of which were not art hubs) to each nominate five artists from their region who they thought would benefit from the award. From that set of fifty artists a selection committee picked five artists to receive the award. It still left forty-five people feeling like they had not been given awards (which was bad, but if the award had not been nomination based and were based on an open call instead there could have been hundreds or thousands of people in that position). The artists who were not selected were still all listed (in the catalog, online, and at the exhibition) which was a partial benefit because it was treated as an honor and not as a loss. But the more important feature was that it allowed for a much more diverse set of artists to be placed under consideration. One of the people who I nominated was untrained and had previously had very little experience with the art world, but was still given an award based on the strength of his work.

In general I think it is important for people in positions of power in relationship to the arts community to be thoughtful about what they may be structurally asking artists to do and how that might be impacting them systemically. Status quo approaches are not always the best ones, but they get replicated again and again even when they might be causing more harm than good. Being creative about the structure of a selection process is just as important as being creative when making artworks (it could even be thought of as an artwork under certain conditions).

One other slightly connected side note (that probably should be in a separate writing, but I likely won’t get around to it, so am just going to stick it in here) related to open calls is the way that they often exclude collaboration. Many awards etc are set up specifically to only consider individual artists and that structurally discourages collaboration through offering fewer resources to artists who collaborate, by institutionally devaluing co-authored work, and through causing friction in interpersonal dynamics when one collaborating artist gets an award and another doesn’t while using work that was produced together. I have personally addressed the collaboration exclusion situation with administrators in the case of at least three major grants and awards locally and nationally. Though I was met with resistance in each case, over time two of the organizations have made changes to their policies that are more open to collaboration, my hope is that eventually that will no longer be an issue going forward and that collaboration will be given the support and respect that it deserves.



I’ve been talking with my students lately about the radical potential of conceptual art. Part of what I’m suggesting is that conceptual art or “conceptualism” (the art historical term for that category of work) was radical in the sense that it challenged existing formalism, and attempted to offer alternatives to the status quo commercial system, but quickly became aestheticized and commodified as it gained acceptance in the art world. So both the early work (pre-usage of the term conceptual art) produced by Duchamp, Manzoni, etc and classic work by the artists known as conceptualists like Kosuth and Weiner was “radical” in its departure from formal object based modernist work (impressionists, cubists, etc in the case of Duchamp, and abstract expressionism for the conceptualists) and created an interesting and liberating set of methods for making art, but possibly because in both cases the artists and work found great acceptance in the art world (which is really the commercial art world) those approaches to making art didn’t have a chance to be realized in more politically and socially impactful ways. There are exceptions to this in the strategies that were used by activist groups including Act Up, interventionists like the Yes Men, and artist collectives, notably The Gorilla Girls, all of which employed conceptual devices in the pursuit of revealing hidden information and promoting political agendas. But what I’m finding interesting in regard to conceptual art is how it can become understood and used by people who may not have knowledge of modern art history, people who might want to employ conceptual art methods in their daily lives and circumstances but who are have not been trained as artists. I’m thinking about conceptual art that can be produced in prison, or in a grade school, or any other non-art context and venue by the people who are in those places normally.

I’m currently leading a conceptual art class in a minimum-security prison. We meet every two weeks for an hour. Its part of a larger set of activities the PSU Art and Social Practice MFA program facilitates at the prison. I show examples of past conceptual work and we have seminar style discussions. One of the reasons that I’m interested in introducing conceptual art to a prison context is because unlike other art approaches—sculpture, painting, photography, video, installation, etc. conceptual art requires no materials, no studios, no galleries, or any other resources of that kind. Once conceptual art methods are understood they can be used to produce projects immediately, with no approval, and without any costs.

It has been a slow but very engaging process working through existing ideas of what art can be and what artists can do and offering up broader parameters emphasizing conceptually based approaches. There have been times of revelation and excitement as the process unfolds. People who previously had never considered non-object based ways of making art have come up with thoughtful conceptual project ideas that redefine the physical and psychological context of the prison. One person suggested that we could as a group look out of our classroom window at the people making their way to the yard for a period of time and claim that as a work of art. We discussed formalizing elements for the piece that would help it to be understood as art by adding a title, date, etc. The thought of writing that information up on a label and attaching it to the wall next to the window was contemplated. Finding a way to document the project also provoked various ideas, as well as how it could be added to a CV and other professional materials to potentially be used to apply for funding to support more projects.

An interesting moment happened while discussing conceptual art during one class when one of the people in the group turned to me and said that he liked the ideas but needed another example help him understand things better. I paused for a second and then said that the class we were in was in fact a conceptual art work. The person who asked the question nodded his head, and a knowing murmur arose from the group. I will be curious to see how things develop further.


I brought this topic up with my grad students last Spring. It seems obvious, but I think people can loose track of this for a variety of reasons—the idea of actually enjoying the work you do as an artist. Being an artist is an unorthodox thing to do in society in general with various struggles to overcome, so you would think that if someone was putting in the effort to make that happen they would deeply enjoy whatever artistic activity it was that they practiced. But that doesn’t always happen. The original impulse to be an artist often gets reoriented as things like school, commercial sales, reviews, grant applications, trends, routines, etc start to impact the way that an artist works. Success, though only a problem for a very few people who try to make it as an artist, can also have unexpected negative effects. Pressure from expectations, becoming overly busy, and a need to produce more and more product can take its toll and alter what might have been a hoped for dream into an unpleasant grind.


I asked my students to stop and really consider what aspects of their practice give them pleasure and satisfaction, and what parts become unpleasant and annoying. Sometimes it’s hard to sort out exactly where pleasure ends and unpleasantness starts. Some of the students call this the “fun factor.” I’m a little leery of referring to this condition as merely “fun” because though fun might be part of it, the kind of pleasure that I’m talking about might also include rigorous work, hardcore conceptualization, debate and conflict, addressing difficult topics and various other non-fun sounding activities. That’s because pleasure is very individually defined, so I don’t want to suggest that what I’m talking about is only about superficial fun, unless that’s what you are into and want to be experiencing as part of your practice as an artist (probably some level of fun is important for everyone).


What I am advocating for is an evaluation of each person’s activities as an artist, including all of the effort that goes into supporting the artwork, and to then to determine if there is a priority being placed on the things in life that give each artist pleasure, or if somehow the balance has gotten off and there is more time spent on work that is not enjoyable.


From a social practice point of view it is possible to think very expansively about what kind of work you might want to be doing since that approach is not dependent on spending time in a studio (or quasi studio) and there is no need to make objects that might have a commercial appeal for the gallery system. If it turns out that you really like spending time in an isolated place that you have to pay rent for while trying to make rarified objects that rich people might want to buy then you just have to be one of the 2% (or whatever small number it is) of people trying to do that who actually support themselves that way long term, or get yourself a day job and pursue that type of art making on the side if it really brings you satisfaction. My sense is that most artists don’t really want to function in a strictly studio/gallery model and if freed from that system (which is mostly a matter of psychologically breaking away from the conditioning that society has created to limit the idea of what an artist is and how they get paid for what they do) they will have more options for finding pleasure in their practice. I have discussed that dynamic in other writings so I’ll get back to the main point–what aspects of your work as an artist give you pleasure, and how does your practice as an artist support doing those things?


In my discussions with students this sometimes takes a while to sort out. Originally they might have really liked to spend time drawing or making sculptural objects and that’s what lead them to become an artist, but along the way they realized that they didn’t want to always make drawings or sculptural objects, and the art world system didn’t seem appealing once they were able to experience a taste of it. Luckily artists have incredible freedom and once they realize that they can construct a practice that combines all sorts of interests–maybe a little drawing, research, teaching, walking, sleeping, working in a garden, having discussions with groups of people outside of your friends and family, working with kids, curating, etc–they can creatively choose to do what they really want to do.


Having the freedom and flexibility to construct a diversified practice is a major piece in developing a pleasurable life as an artist. But there is another element that is also pervasive in derailing the ability to achieve that pursuit. It is the idea of success. Artists who are trying to operate in the art world largely have similar ideas about what success looks like. I think that perception primarily comes from social/educational conditioning that is really more about commercial gallery interests than creating satisfying individual artistic practices. Success in those terms means having high-end commercial gallery representation, sales, inclusion in important museum collections and international biennials, reviews in art magazines and newspapers, awards from foundations, residencies, etc. All of that requires lots of travel, time spent in studios with assistants and fabricators, socializing at openings and art fairs, staying current with trends, and often times making work when would rather be doing something else.


From what I’ve experienced and observed the problem is that expectations for success are set too high (based on art world convention) and don’t include individual deviation. My suggestion is for artists to examine their unique needs and desires. It might not be of interest for some people to achieve certain status quo aspects of art world success, and instead there might be more value placed on just being successful enough to have consistent but less prestigious projects happening. The projects could be of a diverse nature and without object production, which would be oppositional to the needs of the commercial gallery system. The projects could be localized and possibly might be produced in partnership with non-art funding organizations. The artist might want to spend only part of their week working in a studio or office and the rest of the time doing other seemingly non-work related activities, which could none the less be useful to the development of their practice. If instead of attempting to be a successful artist in the terms of the art world artists found their own concepts of success for their practice, perhaps they would also find more pleasure and satisfaction in their lives and would create precedents that other artists could follow leading them to greater satisfaction as well.


I’ve been negligent about writing for a year or two, these things happen. I’m going to try to get back into writing regularly again.

Ok, so here is a topic—the potential positive relationship between studio art and artists and projects by artists doing social practice type work. There has always been some level of antagonism between these two groups, and some of it is understandable. From the perspective of the orthodoxy (studio/gallery artists) any new approach can be threatening. As an artist that is invested in a conventional way of working (even if that way isn’t functioning from a support perspective) it can be challenging when artists working in other ways that may seem to involve less labor and hoop jumping receive recognition and support. It’s destabilizing, and frustrating, and all of those things. And from the perspective of the upstart socially engaged artist the dominance of the studio/gallery model seems unfair and marginalizing, and in various ways those dominant conventions sometimes indicate that socially engaged work might not even be art (and its never fun to be told that your art isn’t art). In the end the two approaches don’t really have a lot of overlap, they are about as different as painting is from documentary filmmaking, and in that same way should not be seen as competition to each other.

This is a generalization, but usually studio artists want to primarily show their object-based work in gallery spaces (in galleries, art centers, and museums) where as artists doing social practice often work outside of conventional art spaces, and even when they do make work for art contexts they are frequently more interested in non-gallery locations within the institution or in making work that happens only temporarily in gallery spaces while studio-based art is being displayed. Sometimes that work might be responding to a museum’s collection or the work of an artist being shown in the gallery space. In that sense the social practice work can be seen as an augmentation of what is already being presented adding new perspectives to typical exhibition dynamics.

But there is another way that socially engaged art is sometimes mutually supportive of studio-based work. Some social practice projects are designed to contain studio-based work. For an example I’ll use King School Museum of Contemporary Art (KSMoCA), which is a contemporary art museum located inside of a Portland public school. The project, which I created with Lisa Jarrett and now also includes many other collaborators, was constructed conceptually as a large, expanding, and ongoing social practice project. But inside of that framework is the need and desire to present work by studio-based artists in a variety of ways. The primary and longest standing version of that is a rotating set of exhibitions in which well known studio-based artists show their original work, but also do lectures and workshops with students at the school as well.

We have now engaged numerous studio based artists in the KSMoCA project over the last four years or so and all of them have been excited to have the opportunity to show their work in an unusual context with an audience that they don’t normally reach. They have also enjoyed interacting directly with the students at the school. Generally, studio-based artists are not ever asked to leave their status quo environments for making and showing work, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t respond well to that possibility when it is given. I think there is a lot more room for that sort of thing to happen in all kinds of contexts, giving studio artists many more chances to show their work than in the limited set of traditional galleries and museums that exist in any given location.

The benefit in this symbiotic relationship for the socially engaged artist creating a structure like KSMoCA is that it is necessary to have work to show and artists to engage with inside of the framework that they have created. Obviously, not all socially engaged projects need the content of studio-based artists, many of them work with non-artists or with people who don’t consider themselves artists. But in some cases social engaged artists can function like unconventional curators for studio-based artists, facilitating the presentation of their work in contexts that go way outside of the normal capacity of more traditional curators.

(A side question that might come up then is why don’t socially engaged artists just call themselves curators? The answer from my perspective is that curatorial strategies are just one among many approaches that a socially engaged artist can use in producing a project, so being labeled solely as a curator would be limiting, where as working as an artist (at least in my definition) can include switch around roles, cross lines, and hybridize in ways like almost no other practice.)

This same type of supportive relationship dynamic that I’m describing between socially engaged art and studio-based art can also apply to socially engaged art and performance, film, literature, music, architecture, etc. Basically, conventional artists of all sorts have nothing to fear in regards to socially engaged art, and potentially a lot to gain from it.


Warren Hatch: An Appreciation

In 1995 I came across a seed catalog (The 1995 Ethnobotanical Catalog of Seeds, by J.L Hudson, Seedsman). It had some amazing seed listings and articles (one in particular that I was really interested in challenged the concept of “native plants”) and also included a section of recommended books by various authors as well as, and most intriguing to me, a “video microscope series” by someone named Warren Hatch. The description of Hatch and his videos were fascinating.

Not long after that I found one of Hatch’s videos in a public library somewhere in California. The footage, editing, and voiceover were all amazing to me. I loved the idea of an amateur scientist making his discoveries available to the world through VHS tapes distributed to libraries. Hatch stayed in my mind as an inspiration and someone that I hoped to somehow meet someday.

Many years later I found out that Hatch had moved from Los Angeles where he had made his early videos in his apartment, back to Portland, Oregon where he had grown up. By then I was also living in Portland, and was working on a curatorial project with Jens Hoffmann called the People’s Biennial. Jens and I were conducting research for a traveling exhibition in five cities across the US (including Portland) to find work by interesting people who weren’t already involved in the art world. The show we then created travelled back to all five of the cities. Hatch was at the top of my list as someone I wanted to include. It took some doing, but I eventually tracked him down and he allowed us to present one of his videos Bees and Wasps: An Appreciation in the show.

I knew that I wanted to find another way to get Hatch’s work out to a larger public and the internet seemed like the perfect solution, but when I mentioned the idea to Hatch he didn’t seem particularly interested, so I let it go. Then about six year later he showed up as a substitute teacher in my daughter’s third grade class. I was volunteering in the school library that day and when my daughter’s group came in I asked her what she thought of Mr. Hatch, she said that all of the kids loved him, that he talked about bugs all day, showed them his videos, and talked about his recently self-published book In One Yard: Close to Nature, which documented hundreds of insects, plants, and animals that he found in his backyard.

Hatch seemed happy to see me so I used the opportunity to ask him again if he might be interested in posting some of his videos on YouTube. This time he said that he would like to to, but didn’t want to have to figure out how to do it technically. I told him that I would be happy to help and gave him my contact info.

A few weeks later, Hatch contacted me and said that he was ready to try to post a video. I went over to his house and got a tour of his photography and video set ups and his backyard which was very interesting. He gave me a hard drive with his latest video on it also called In One Yard: Close to Nature which contains similar content as his book and uses his normal text titles and explanations, but does not yet include his distinctive voiceover which all of his previous videos feature, but is still totally great. My assistant Allie Hankins quickly created a Warren A. Hatch channel and posted the first video. Hatch reviewed it and was pleased with the results and allowed us to include four more videos with the potential of additional ones to come from his archive.

I hope that you enjoy Warren A. Hatch’s work as much as I do.

You can view his YouTube channel here.


Martin Luther King Jr. School
4906 NE 6th Ave. 
Portland, OR


KSMoCA (King School Museum of Contemporary Art) is a contemporary art museum within the walls of a functioning preK-8 public school in NE Portland, OR. It is a collaborative project with PSU faculty Lisa Jarrett, students from King elementary school and Portland State University’s College of the Arts. The project creates an unusual pairing between early education and internationally renowned artists and their work.

Students at the school learn through experience about museum practice and careers as they are facilitated through the roles of curators, installers, publicists, copywriters, registrars and docents. KSMoCA re-imagines the way museums, public schools, and universities shape people, culture, and perspectives by cultivating a space for art to educate within and beyond the classroom.

Each rotating exhibition is presented for two months, and permanent projects are being added to the school environment on an ongoing basis.


The Music That Makes Us

Portland, OR

March 13 – April 24, 2016

Exhibition organized with Emma Colburn, Roz Crews, Amanda Leigh Evans, Emily Fitzgerald, Lauren Moran, Anke Schüttler, Renee Sills, and Kimberly Sutherland

With Zahra Ahmed, De La Salle North Catholic High School Choir, Dorian Neira and Daniel “D.J. Max” Lasuncet, Austin Green, Robin Gordon and the Celebration Tabernacle Ministry of Music, Kenton Brass, Kenton Church Choir, Shirley A. Meador, The Obo Addy Legacy Project, Peninsula School in collaboration with Caldera, Heather Perkins, André Roberson, Lisa Schonberg, Norman Sylvester, and The World Famous Kenton Club

Curated by Chiara Giovando

The Music That Makes Us was conceived and organized with the PSU Art and Social Practice MFA Program in collaboration with music related partners from the Kenton neighborhood, where Disjecta is located. Community members with musical practices were invited to collaborate on an exhibition of ephemera that explored the broad range of musical experiences in the neighborhood. The project culminated with a closing reception/festival of performances by the musicians featured in the exhibition, ranging from local church and school choirs to bands and individual artists.




I wrote the following for this year’s group of PSU Art and Social Practice MFA students to consider in an attempt to understand their own intentions for their practice and work. It might be of use to other folks as well:


  1. How would you like to see your practice as a whole function? By that I mean    what do you want to be doing to occupy your time as an artist? For a conventional artist that might mean working in a studio making objects, showing in galleries, spending time doing career administration etc. How do you want your practice to alter or expand from those conventions?


  1. What do you want the work to be that you make as part of your practice? For a standard studio artist the answer might be oil paintings on canvas and lithographic prints or something like that. What kind of work do you want to make as a socially engaged artist?


  1. Who would you like your audience to be? Typically for artists it is assumed that the audience is a generic set of people who attend art world functions and go to galleries and museums. Perhaps the highest value audience would be made up of curators, gallerists, collectors, and arts writers, and maybe other artists. For a social practice artist those people might also be desirable as part of an audience, but maybe they are less important than a local audience that could include non-art oriented people. Some of those audience members also might become participants or collaborators in a social practice type project. Who do you have in mind as your ideal audience for your work?


  1. How is the work distributed? For a studio artist the ideal answer to this question is that a gallery would show, sell, and ship work to collectors and museums. For a social practice artists there might not be any objects to sell and ship in the traditional way, so perhaps distribute isn’t exactly the right word, maybe “deliver” would be better and that includes developing contexts for the work to be made and shown in etc. Basically, how is your audience going to be able encounter and experience your work? This also gets into the topic of primary, secondary, and tertiary audiences. The primary one are people directly involved with the project possibly as participants, the secondary set isn’t personally involved with working one the project but is able to directly experience the completed work, and the tertiary audience only encounters the work in mediated ways—documentation, including publications, web, presentations, and even word of mouth.


  1. Finally, how do you want to be supported to do your work? The standard artist response to this would be sales through a commercial gallery, possibly augmented by teaching, lectures, grants, etc. Though that may be the general hope that artists have very few achieve those things especially enough sales to make a living. As an artist working with social engagement sales may not be an option at all and instead along with teaching, lectures, and grants, you might want to be more innovative about other sources of funding which could include commissions from art and non-art organizations, small business approaches, non-college related educational activities, self initiated artist-in-residencies, etc.


There probably will be lots of crossover within the answers to these questions. The answers will undoubtedly change over time as well, but I think it is useful to consider them as a way to make decisions and actions that can help realize a subjectively desirable practice and support system.

Collective Museum

Public Doors and Windows  
UCSC Institute of the Arts & Sciences 
Santa Cruz, California


I worked with Molly Sherman and Nolan Calisch as part of our collaboration Public Doors and Windows on a project for The Institute of the Arts and Sciences (IAS) at UCSC. We spent two years researching to produce a vast campus-wide “museum” complete with signage, a exhibition dispersed through five university buildings, a museum tour, a catalogue, and a mobile website Collective Museum. The project opened with a temporary exhibition at Sesnon Gallery at Porter College presenting sculptures made by students responding to the significant sites on campus documented by the project.


Gabo Camnitizer asked me to write a text for the show that he curated in Sweden called Meaning Making Meaning, below is what I came up with. 

In 2007 I was given an opportunity to start a new MFA program at Portland State University where I had been teaching for three years. I used a new term for the program, Social Practice, that related to my own art activity, the work of a few of my contemporaries, and various historical precedents. The term had already been put into use for an MFA program by my alma mater the California College of Art in San Francisco two years earlier. My idea for the program was that I would reevaluate and alter all aspects of a traditional studio based MFA and in some ways try to merge that with another educational experience I’d had as an apprentice studying organic agriculture at the University of California in Santa Cruz. The apprenticeship was hands on and applied. The forty apprentices lived in tents on the campus farm and grew and sold the vegetables and fruits we produced through a market stand and a CSA (community supported agriculture) program.

I loved the experiential learning that took place in the farm program and wanted to find ways to adapt that to teaching art. The PSU Art and Social Practice Program has now been in operation for nine years. The students don’t have individual studios and instead share and borrow work and classroom space when it is needed. The emphasis is on collaboration, participation, site and context specificity, interdisciplinary, and often incorporates education, localism, social justice, and environmental concerns. The three-year program includes classes in writing, pedagogy, theory, professional practice, contemporary art history, and various changing topics including privilege, performance, documentary, and ethics. The students also work on both their own public projects and group ones including a participatory conference at the end of each school year. We also take program research trips to places like Los Angeles and Mexico City, and go on campouts and retreats in closer-by locations. All of the graduating students produce a public project of some kind (generally not an exhibition), and edit a book on someone else’s work (including John Malpede, Temporary Services, Pedro Reyes, Wendy Ewald, Luis Camnitzer, Pablo Helguera, and many others) as part of our Reference Points book series. By the time the students leave the program they have had a great deal of exposure to artists, ideas, experiences, and ways of working that go way beyond the typical “studio/gallery” model.

Over the years I have been asked many times if the program is in some ways an art project that I’m doing. If this was the case I would think of the students as collaborators, though it is clear that we have different roles that give me much greater power, the main aspect in that respect being that I am paid by the university while they pay the university. I also have an established career in what is now known as the field of Social Practice, while the students are in the process of trying to develop their careers. Still, these dynamics are not dramatically different from the ones in commissioned projects I have worked on for museums and art centers that were specifically intended as art projects. In those cases I have acted in some ways similar to a paid regional theater director who is considered a professional working with amateur actors, costume makers, set designers, etc. My role, unlike the theater director, is less commonly understood, being defined as an artist working with members of the public in participatory ways. But since I am comfortable with that role and don’t have any personal ethical dilemmas functioning that way, I can also easily see the MFA program that I direct as an artwork as well. There are some advantages to that conceptual framework, for instance it allows me to break from convention with the MFA program as much as I might with my commissioned art works, so there are always new things for me and the students to learn and experience. On the other hand the students themselves might resent being thought of as part of my art project, or the university might object to it for one reason or another. So as with all of my work, I’m not really fixated on calling any particular project art unless there is a benefit to doing that. For the purposes of this current exhibition maybe it is interesting to think of the MFA program as an art project, but in other situations it may not be.

People’s Biennial 2014

Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit


I co-curated the second version of the People’s Biennial with Jens Hoffmann in Detroit. We came up with a system of asking established artists from around the country to each select someone that they thought was doing really interesting work but wasn’t well known in the art world, and to then create a small solo show of that person’s work. Each of the little exhibitions were presented together in a small structures installed in the main gallery at MoCAD. These were the participating artists and their collaborators: Jennifer Allora & Guillermo Calzadilla and Robert Rabin, Carson Ellis and Hank Meloy, Dara Friedman and Ishmael Golden Eagle, Wendy Ewald and Denise Dixon, Lee Walton & Harriet Hoover and Mr. Coopers, Colter Jacobsen and Lance Rivers, Liz Magic Laser and Wendy Osserman, Sharon Lockhart and Fearless Fred, Cary Loren and Jimbo Easter, Rick Lowe and Jonathan the Plant Man, Ken Lum and Orkan Telhan, Jeffry Mitchell and Vic Oblas, Scott Reeder and Xav Leplae, Alec Soth and George Wurtzel, Hank Willis Thomas and Baz Dreisinger, Transformazium and James Kidd, Steven Yazzie and Jonathan Bond.

Buy the catalogue here.


I took a little break from this weekly writing project (like a nine month break or something like that, not sure what happened) but I want to start doing it again, maybe every other week or once a month is more realistic, we will see what happens. Writing is eventually what I really want to be doing, somehow this art stuff happened instead and really got me off course, but I have talked with Publication Studio here in Portland and they have agreed to publish a book of my collected writing from about the last twelve or fifteen years (I think maybe fifty pieces, something like that, probably less than 100 pages in total) and now I’m supposed to be getting those all together so that we can get that to happen by the fall. It will be a good summer project for me since I’m planning to limit my travel and finally really deal with my backyard garden which has been in a state of unrealizedness for many, many years, though with all of the perennials and self seeding plants, and my Ruth Stout style of composting directly into the garden beds resulting in all sorts of things popping up all over the place, there is always something out there to harvest and eat.

But I digress; what I wanted to write about today is the concept and practice of “claiming” in relationship to art and specifically social practice. I’ve always struggled with how much students and artists need to know about art to be able to function effectively as artists, sometimes I’ve felt like it might be better to know very little (so as not to be limited by existing frameworks and models), and when it comes to the MFA that I currently am in charge of I encourage people who don’t have undergrad degrees in art to apply, and we have happily accepted folks with degrees in lots of other disciplines, many of whom went on to make amazing art work. If it were in fact up to me, I’d also potentially accept people with no undergrad degree at all just based on their work and life experience, but the university won’t go for that.

At the same time my own knowledge of art history has been very influential on my practice and informs a lot of the work I do in a wide variety of ways both conceptual and aesthetic. Duchamp’s readymades, and Richard Prince and Sherry Levine’s work using appropriation have been very important to me in developing my own practice and projects. I was thrilled as a young student when I learned about those approaches, so it is always interesting to me how presenting those concepts to my own students can have such emotionally negative reactions, they seem to feel that those artists were cheating, and think that their success somehow undermines the students own skills in more traditional artist techniques. I’ve seen undergrads brought to tears when learning about Duchamp and his status in the world of contemporary art.

Anyway, what I wanted to write about here is the potential use of what I’m going to call “claiming” as an artistic method. What I’m talking about has all sorts of potential applications from ones that are just expansions of readymades and appropriation, which is in many ways what I was doing with my project The American War (though I added in site-specific participatory events as well), to other uses which start to operate further a field partly because they can function outside of the need to create some kind of object that can be bought and sold and displayed in an art world venue. I recall that Fischli and Weiss had a project in the late 90’s as part of the Munster Sculpture Project where they just claimed a community garden as their project and directed people to go see it. Actually, I just looked that up and it turns out it was a garden that they had constructed to look like a community garden and it was temporary just for the exhibition time, so that doesn’t work as an example of claiming in the sense that I’m talking about. (Though it does fit well into another topic I’d like to write about sometime which is how prior to the use of the internet it was sometimes hard to find out accurate details about temporary projects and through the reliance of limited documentation or even just word of mouth artists would often be inspired to create something new based on a misinterpretation or lack of details of something that had happened before. That might be something that is being undermined now by so much digital availability to vast documentation and information on the web.) So let’s just say Fischli and Weiss had not created the garden, but had instead just claimed it, would that be valid? For me it’s no different than a photographer taking a picture of a garden (or any other pre-existing thing) and then presenting the print as their work. Some would say that the formalization of the photograph (composition, technical elements, printing, framing, etc.) are what makes the photograph art, which from my point of view (as a fan of appropriation) isn’t necessary to call something art, its really just the act of calling it art that makes it art, but in the case of an artist claiming a garden (or any other pre-existing thing) as their art, there are still various formalizing aspects to doing that. Let’s once again take the garden as a hypothetical example even though in reality it wasn’t done in the way that I thought it was, but let’s suspend reality and pretend that it was. If that had been the case then the project would have been formalized by its inclusion in the program listing along with the other projects that were a part of the show, it would have been on the map showing where all of the sculpture projects were located, there would be a title, description, etc, it would have been included in the exhibition catalog, it would have been documented and re-presented, basically anything that would have happened to a constructed outdoor sculpture that was included in a major exhibition would also have happened to the pre-existing, site-specific, ongoing garden or whatever.

There is a potential problem with this approach that goes beyond just being valid or not as art. It could also be thought of as an imperialistic approach in that the artist without having actually made anything other than a claim, would be seen as the author of a project that someone else or some other group actually created and maintained. This hits on something I’ve also written about related to crediting, and I think it is applicable not only to conceptual claiming projects, but also to almost anything that involves other peoples un-credited contributions to art projects from assistants, fabricators, silent collaborators, participants, etc. In the case of the garden and projects like that it is simple enough to find out who actually created and maintained the garden and then to get approval from them to use the garden as part of an art project and credit them for their role. If it is possible or desirable to share funding then that can happen as well. My sense is that most people would happily have their garden (etc) included in a major art exhibition, especially if they are getting credit and potentially even payment.

Ok, so what if the claimed pre-existing thing isn’t part of a major art project. It can still work without any validating institutional approval or inclusion (though as with all art, that makes it easier to be seen as significant and valuable). There are still other ways for artists to formalize their claim. They can program their own event related to the site or object, they can document it, title it, etc. and then just put it on a website, make a zine about it, present it at a lecture, etc, etc. It could also be more than a single claim, imagine for instance a series of spots that an artist locates and formalizes to go together, like making a music play list the artist could suggest that people check out a certain tree, talk to a particular person at a store, look at a specific book at a library, eat a suggested item at a food cart, etc. all in a detailed out sequence with potentially added information about each location, sort of like a walking tour of the senses. This selection of claimed spots could be made available in a variety of forms, for instance maybe published in a local weekly newspaper or put up as a flier, or just told to a set of people, and in that way becomes applied and no longer just an idea, then can be listed on a resume, presented in lectures, printed in publications etc, just like any other work of art. A related example that also had a huge impact on me were two works by Robert Smithson, his 1967 photo article A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey, in which he describes in a very conversational tone a set of “monuments” which he observed which were in reality industrial units and piles that he was giving extraordinary significance to, basically treating things like art that weren’t intended as art. In a similar piece, The Hotel Palenque from 1972, (initially presented as a slide lecture, and later published in a Parkett magazine where I first encountered it) Smithson details with photos and more nonchalant but validating language a hotel in Mexico that he stayed at which was undergoing at the same time a process of literal construction and de-construction. The only real difference between the Smithson pieces and what I’m suggesting is the way that an audience can be invited to participate in experiencing the chosen claimed places, objects, sounds, etc.

I think the concept of claiming has all sorts of potential artistic and curatorial applications and would be a welcome addition or even substitution for much of the work produced currently by art students and other artists, who instead continue the largely futile production of studio based objects in the hopes of showing and selling in galleries, which is very unlikely given the high volume of art object production and the scarcity of status quo venues.


Highlander Spring

Public Doors and Windows 

FLEX IT! My Body My Temple
Parthenon Museum
Nashville, TN



Highlander Folk School was an adult education center founded in 1932 that brought together many labor and civil rights activists including Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr, and Pete Seeger. The original site of Highlander was located near Monteagle, Tennessee and included a spring fed pond which was made by Highlander participants. On September 2, 1957, Martin Luther King Jr. gave a speech at Highlander called “A Look to the Future.” During this Labor Day event, people took part in many integrated cultural activities including dancing, dining, swimming in the pond, and drinking from the spring. In his speech, King stated:

“I have been asked to speak from the subject: “A Look to the Future.” In order to look to the future, it is often necessary to get a clear picture of the past. In order to know where we are going, it is often necessary to see from whence we have come.”

Molly Sherman, Nolan Calisch and I (as part of our collaboration Public Doors and Windows) collected 25 gallons of the spring water from the original Highlander site and make it available to museum goers through a water dispenser that is set up in the Flex-it exhibition. Alongside the water dispenser there was a stack of newspapers we create that provide information about the pond, Highlander and it’s cultural and recreational activities. Museum goers will be invited to taste the spring water that Myles Horton, Martin Luther King Jr, and Rosa Parks would have consumed and reflect on Highlander’s influence on the the social and cultural history of Tennessee.


One Mile Loop

Public Doors and Windows

Flex It! My Body My Temple
Parthenon Museum
Nashville, TN


One Mile Loop was a series of public signs and musical performances that I created with Molly Sherman and Nolan Calisch which responded to the routine exercise habits of runners and walkers who regularly use the park’s walking trail. Six signs, placed at intervals along the trail, replicate historical markers, but instead of containing historical information, the markers share information about the current lives, exercise habits, and musical preferences of six Nashville citizens who regularly use the park. A musical performance was organized with six local bands playing songs selected by the runners and walkers, allowing the public to experience a continual live music experience as they make their way around the path.



Book Fair at the Museum

Public Doors and Windows 

Shine A Light 
Portland Art Museum
Portland, OR


Molly Sherman, Nolan Calisch and I (as part of our collaboration Public Doors and Windows) organized a distributed “book fair” that took place in various locations inside of the Portland Are Museum. There were twelve participating book organizations (one of them wasn’t an organization but instead an author, Julie Ault). Each of those participants had a “book station” in which to display and sell their books during the night of Shine A Light (an event created by the PSU Art and Social Practice Program in collaboration with PAM) and the following day. Each of the book stations (for lack of a better term) was designed and built by either a sculpture or architecture undergraduate student from Portland State University. The students consulted with the book entity that they were paired with to find out their interests and needs, while also considering formal and sculpture concerns in regards to what they want to construct. In this way the students who wouldn’t normally have access to showing their work in a museum context had the ability to do that and at the same time fulfilled a functional need. All of the students were been paid a small fee to produce the structures and were credited in the publication that went along with the event as collaborators on the project.




Mt. Hood Walk

On Foot: An Educational Art and Social Practice Journey from Portland to Mt. Hood
Portland State University
Portland, Oregon


This project was constructed as a summer course with Eric Steen to examine various aspects of Oregon’s regional natural history, contemporary urban and rural issues, and the art of walking. Five days were spent with ten students walking, presenting, and camping out on a route from PSU to Timberline Lodge.


The question of whether social practice work belongs in museums has been brought up many times recently, partly as a result of several different museums attempting to include social practice in their programming. There are a variety of approaches to include social practice work going on or in the works at the moment with various museums in the US. I think some examples work better than others, but the idea that social practice should not be in museums seems ridiculous to me. The 20th century is filled with cases of art practices that were at first not considered art at all and in various ways excluded from inclusion in art institutions. A notable example is Impressionism, which during its introduction was totally dismissed, and now of course is considered high art and is popularly appreciated. In other cases the artwork was less easily fit into a traditional form, like painting on canvas, but still made its way into museums and art world acceptance as in the case of performance art. Social practice is no different in that it not only should be included in museum contexts, but will most likely, as in those other cases, even find ways of operating in commercial gallery systems as well. Individual artists may decide not to show work in those places or participate in the commercial art world, but it should be their decision to make (and of course will depend on if they are given that opportunity in the first place). But it is my hope that even when artists doing social practice type work operate in museums that they will continue to also do work in non-art contexts as well. Part of the benefit and in some ways condition of making socially engaged work is being able to site and activate it in whatever the most appropriate locations for the work’s specific qualities are, which might mean a museum but just as likely could be a grocery store, library, park, etc.

One of the interesting developments of social practice is that in many cases the way that it arrives in a museum context is through the education department. I think there are some good things about that, and some problems. Museum education departments are already interested in public participation and interaction in ways that curatorial departments have not been, at least historically, and as a result there is greater value placed on some of the qualities of social practice (site specificity, participation, activity, deemphasizing objects, etc.) that in traditional gallery exhibitions might be thought of as problematic. Exhibitions are usually static and only designed to be viewed, not interacted with or participated in. But education departments are generally thought of as subservient to museum curatorial work and for that reason marginalized, and that can easily rub off on social practice projects commissioned by education departments. Education departments also often have mandates related to quantitative measures of success, numbers of school groups served, etc. etc. For those reasons it can be difficult for a social practice artist working with a museum education department to be taken seriously, and/or can be used instrumentally in detrimental ways. I have talked to many artists who were asked to propose projects for a museum through education departments, which were then not given the same level of support and respect as projects that had come through curatorial. That kind of discrimination is something that can and should change for both museum education departments (who I think can play a much more important role in museums than they have traditionally) and for socially engaged projects that take place in museums.

It is a bit tricky because social practice inherently contains elements that are desirable to museums in regards to creating participatory projects and potentially even addressing problematic museum issues and topics, but social practice artists ultimately need to maintain autonomy and freedom as artists to work on projects that have no obligation to fulfill museum interests. If the conditions that a social practice artist works in becomes too prescribed and determined only by the ways that the projects can serve the museum then it will negatively impact the work. There needs to be choice for social practice artists to determine in what ways and on what topics their work is focused, and that should not be overly directed by institutional concerns. Many times I’ve been told by a museum, especially in association with an education department, that I have total freedom in developing a project and then when I come up with an idea it is shot down or altered to a point that makes it no longer interesting to me because it doesn’t seem to directly address internal museum expectations or goals.

I think there is a great capacity for social practice to be integrated in museums if the work is understood and appreciated appropriately. Because social practice projects often don’t need traditional gallery space and can be done on a different schedule than exhibitions (longer or shorter than a typical exhibition run) makes it easy for a museum to accommodate. The fact that social practice is usually site specific means there are no shipping or storage costs, and in many cases there are no objects at all to have to worry about. Social practice projects can also be commissioned by museums but then primarily take place outside of the museum building creating greater opportunities for engaging with non-traditional audiences. Social practice work is positioned as art, and museums are the most valued institutions in the art world, so it is important that social practice work and artists find ways to be included and appreciated within museum contexts.


When I was a kid, sometimes at night when I was trying to fall asleep lying in bed I would imagine that my legs stretched out away from my body so that my feet were miles away from my head, it was an interesting sensation.

I know that doesn’t have anything to do with social practice, but I’m super busy with grad reviews and preparations for Shine A Light and Assembly at the Portland Art Museum right now, so I’m going to take a week or two off from my normal writings and just leave you with that story.


I’ve often been asked about how to get the ball rolling towards making a living producing art. It’s a tough question. For every artist who somehow figures that question out there are probably a thousand or more who don’t. Imagine if people going to medical school only had a one in a thousand chance of becoming a doctor when they finished? If all of them were attempting to become brain surgeons that might in fact be the case, but thankfully for everyone needing medical attention not involving operations on the brain there are doctors for all sorts of conditions and situations.

I think that analogy, though not perfect, does illustrate the dilemma that artists all attempting to do the same basic thing (become successful in the commercial art system by making and selling consumable objects) are faced with. There are various aspects of concern with that problem, but one of them is the idea that artists need a gallery to represent and exhibit their work. That does largely appear to be true if what you are doing as an artist is following the status quo approach to art making, presentation, and distribution, but if you are not working in that way a representing gallery may not be necessary. When you let go of the idea of needing a gallery you are also released from trying to convince a gallery to show your work, which as many artist know, can be a trying experience. I think it also shapes to a large degree the type of work artists make in their attempt to conform to and please what they see as the required approval of the commercial gallery system. As a result most artists make (relatively) easily transportable objects like paintings and painting like things. (Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate painters, just like I appreciate brain surgeons, but we only need so many of both in this world.)

If you are not making consumable objects then anything else is possible from site based immovable sculptures to ephemeral event based works, and innumerable other options as well. You also don’t need to get consent from a gallery director or curator to make and present your work. You may instead need to get an ok from a library, school, non-profit, supermarket, park, etc. instead, but you will probably have higher odds of acceptance from those places than as one of the many artists trying to all show work in the same small set of commercial galleries.

So, to get back to initial question–the advise that I give people wanting to know how to “make it” as an artist, based on my own limited experience with that, is to create self-initiated public projects that aren’t intended for a commercial gallery context. If you make solid, interesting work and find a way for it to be presented publicly (or find an interesting public place and then make good work for that context which is probably the better sequence) then you will no longer have consumable style art objects piling up waiting for a hoped for, but unlikely, gallery exhibition, and instead will have made work (in some form or other) that has an audience and which can then lead to more opportunities because people are actually aware of its existence. If the work is compelling, engaging, relevant, and publicly accessible it is at least conceivable that eventually self-initiated projects will turn into funded projects that can help make a sustainable career as an artist possible.


An approach to creating projects that I’ve employed many times (other artists have as well) and that I think is an interesting option generally, but is not often used by emerging artists (I’ve rarely run across MFA projects of this sort), is what I’ll call the delegated model. My sense is that because there is such an engrained sense that the “artist” is supposed to do all of the “work” by themselves in a studio (as perpetuated by the studio/gallery market based art system) approaches which seem to counter that approach are largely not considered, even if they make a lot of sense.

So this is what I mean by a delegated model— the artist person or collaborative group comes up with a structure and an intended outcome that necessarily involves contributions by many other people (or organizations, etc) to be produced. There are some obvious advantages to this approach— multiple sources of knowledge and or skills can be included that go beyond the artist’s person ones, the project can be of a larger scale by having many small parts working together to form something bigger, and a variety of people can be involved and invested which also extends to those people’s built-in audiences, increasing the number and variety of people who experience the work.

Any subject matter and set of participants can be addressed and included in a delegated model, and the project can be variable in its scale and context— in other words the approach can be used in any possible situation, just like other methods of making art works like painting or photography or performance.

This might all be a bit too abstract, so let me describe a particular project as an example. I’m currently working as part of a collaborative group called Public Doors and Windows on a project for Shine A Light at the Portland Art Museum. Shine A Light is an annual event where the PSU Art and Social Practice program creates interventions of various sorts in the museum for one evening (this year it will be on June 6th.) The project that Public Doors and Windows is organizing is a distributed “book fair” that will take place in various locations inside of PAM. There are twelve participating book organizations (one of them isn’t an organization but an author, Julie Ault). Each of those participants will have a “book station” in which to display and sell their books during the night of Shine A Light and the following day. Each of the book stations (for lack of a better term) is being designed and built by either a sculpture or architecture undergraduate student from Portland State University. The students have been asked to consult with the book entity that they are paired with to find out their interests and needs, while also considering formal and sculpture concerns in regards to what they want to construct. In this way the students who wouldn’t normally have access to showing their work in a museum context have the ability to do that and at the same time they are fulfilling a functional need. All of the students have been paid a small fee to produce the structures and are being credited in the publication that goes along with the event as collaborators on the project (and are encouraged to list it on their resumes, etc. as well.)

The project is engaging to me because it creates something I’d like to experience in the museum (I’m a major book enthusiast and always like to encounter interesting publications in any context.) It works with the content of a set of mostly local and independent book publishers and sellers (and gives them an opportunity to gain exposure and sell some product), and the project also facilitates the production and display of art works by student/artists who otherwise wouldn’t have made the work or had a venue to display it in. Hopefully the project will also bring in a wide variety of interested people connected to both the book entities and the students, which broadens the audience for the project itself, the larger Shine A Light event, and the museum in general.

The delegated model is not right for every situation and leaves a lot to be desired from certain perspectives (for instance if you as the artist want to actually make an object of some sort by yourself), but it is another good optional approach that can be used effectively if artists and institutions see it as a viable and valid way to work.


Something that I think is often thought of as insignificant or annoying, but which I think actually holds great power and possibility is the artist resume. It is standard that artists follow existing examples of what goes into a resume, often that approach is also taught in professional practice classes in art departments and schools too. I have largely followed that process myself (though some day I hope to tackle my resume as a “project” and make it more reflective of what I’m going to suggest here.)

Conventional resumes reinforce the idea that some activities are valid and others aren’t. Usually the standards are education, exhibitions, grants, awards, and lectures, the more curated (or in academic terms, “refereed”) the better. Art students and emerging artists start with the few examples they have that conform to those categories and attempt to develop from there by pursuing more opportunities that fulfill the expectations (that of course also determines the type of work they make.)

This is what I advocate instead–start with the status quo structure, but go through the categories and see which actually applies to your practice (or your hoped for practice) and which don’t, leave the ones that do, and eliminate or alter the others, and then add in any categories that are missing. One simple example of this that I actually did on my resume was to add “projects” to the place that would normally only say “exhibitions.” By doing that a whole set of work that I’ve done that wasn’t an exhibition has a validated place to go. You could just add a separate “project” area, but by including that with exhibitions or replacing that heading all together you are asserting that non-exhibition work is just as valuable as work that happened in the form of a gallery-style show.

Of course that’s just scratching the surface, I often have students write a “social practice” CV that includes anything that they have done or experienced that they see as applicable to their ability to do social practice work. Self-initiated zines, videos, and event planning are obvious, but odd jobs, volunteer work, sports, choirs, etc. can be validated too. Working one summer at the (no longer existing) Strand Theater on Market Street in San Francisco probably prepared me more for the socially engaged work I do now as an artist than most of my formal education and gallery exhibition history combined.

Once you have liberated yourself from the conventions of traditional resumes you can also realize that “non-refereed” projects can happen anywhere and at anytime (no more waiting for a gallery or curator to confirm that your work is worthwhile enough for a public presentation). You could do projects at a school, in a park, outside of a museum, in a city hall, etc. and even if it was totally self-organized, if there was a public component (at least that’s my requirement) then you can list it on your resume, and include all of the standard points—the year, place, title, etc. So instead of following a set path to resume building, you can use your own agency to do the kind of work you want to do, when and where you want to do it, and then credit yourself (and potentially anyone who takes part) in the form of a resume. By doing that you will be asserting your own values while reshaping the possibilities of how an artist can function in society for everyone else as well.


Something that I think is often thought of as insignificant or annoying, but which I think actually holds great power and possibility is the artist resume. It is standard that artists follow existing examples of what goes into a resume, often that approach is also taught in professional practice classes in art departments and schools too. I have largely followed that process myself (though some day I hope to tackle my resume as a “project” and make it more reflective of what I’m going to suggest here.)

Conventional resumes reinforce the idea that some activities are valid and others aren’t. Usually the standards are education, exhibitions, grants, awards, and lectures, the more curated (or in academic terms, “refereed”) the better. Art students and emerging artists start with the few examples they have that conform to those categories and attempt to develop from there by pursuing more opportunities that fulfill the expectations (that of course also determines the type of work they make.)

This is what I advocate instead–start with the status quo structure, but go through the categories and see which actually applies to your practice (or your hoped for practice) and which don’t, leave the ones that do, and eliminate or alter the others, and then add in any categories that are missing. One simple example of this that I actually did on my resume was to add “projects” to the place that would normally only say “exhibitions.” By doing that a whole set of work that I’ve done that wasn’t an exhibition has a validated place to go. You could just add a separate “project” area, but by including that with exhibitions or replacing that heading all together you are asserting that non-exhibition work is just as valuable as work that happened in the form of a gallery-style show.

Of course that’s just scratching the surface, I often have students write a “social practice” CV that includes anything that they have done or experienced that they see as applicable to their ability to do social practice work. Self-initiated zines, videos, and event planning are obvious, but odd jobs, volunteer work, sports, choirs, etc. can be validated too. Working one summer at the (no longer existing) Strand Theater on Market Street in San Francisco probably prepared me more for the socially engaged work I do now as an artist than most of my formal education and gallery exhibition history combined.

Once you have liberated yourself from the conventions of traditional resumes you can also realize that “non-refereed” projects can happen anywhere and at anytime (no more waiting for a gallery or curator to confirm that your work is worthwhile enough for a public presentation). You could do projects at a school, in a park, outside of a museum, in a city hall, etc. and even if it was totally self-organized, if there was a public component (at least that’s my requirement) then you can list it on your resume, and include all of the standard points—the year, place, title, etc. So instead of following a set path to resume building, you can use your own agency to do the kind of work you want to do, when and where you want to do it, and then credit yourself (and potentially anyone who takes part) in the form of a resume. By doing that you will be asserting your own values while reshaping the possibilities of how an artist can function in society for everyone else as well.


The topic of reproducible project models in social practice has come up a few times recently. Of course the primary characteristic (in my opinion) that is particular to social practice work (as opposed to most studio based work) is that it happens in site and context specific ways, but that doesn’t mean that each project has to be totally unique in form as well. It’s great if there is time and resources available to come up with a totally new project for a given situation, and I’m happy for that to occur when it can, but for a variety of reasons that doesn’t always happen. When I can work in that way I usually start with a site visit of the project location if it is not where I live already or is in a place that I’m familiar with. During that time I wander around, talk to people, read about the history of the place, eat local food, examine the presentation space and its dynamics, and just explore in general. Usually, based on that experience, I can come up with a project that takes into account and works with some of the local people and elements that I’ve encountered to create something new or at least hybridized in a new way.

In other situations there isn’t time or funding for a site visit and the project has to happen during my first visit to a place or sometimes without me being there at all. Doing a project just based on instructions without even going to the place to help realize everything is risky and more often than not I haven’t been totally happy with the results, though I’ve been honing my instruction skills and might have improved that approach for future attempts (I’m happy to give it a try if any institutions out there are up for the experiment). The crucial element with that way of doing things ultimately is not just a great project idea and super clear and simple instructions, but also a local person or team on the ground that is really committed to working out all of the issues and engaging with the local set of participants while staying in touch with me.

On the other hand using a pre-existing structure for participation and being able to at least go to the place to personally implement it has worked many times for me very successfully. Localized collaboration (depending on the type of project) in advance is still really important, but being able to make some decisions and help out on final details in person can make a big difference. 

For other kinds of artists reproducible structures are very normal–painters paint on similar types of canvas structures, use the same paints and brushes over and over again, and show work in predictable venues; photographers use consistent cameras and print and frame their work in similar ways over many different projects; performers use existing standardized forms for the creation of songs and other performances, etc. In the case of site-based project work reproducible project structures are possible too and can still be designed to contain localized and variable content.

There are many examples of these models, but let me just describe a couple from my own practice. For several years I did a project called Hello Friend (based on a project I originally did in Portland with my friend Jess Hilliard) where I would go to a place I wasn’t familiar with, team up with a local person there, and then go on a long meandering walk with them around the area where a project was supposed to be presented (gallery, museum, outdoor projection site, etc). During the walk I would ask my collaborator to select small objects off the ground (leaves, bits of trash, rocks, etc) and to then present the object to me by closing their hand around it and then opening up while I shot a video from over their shoulder. We then repeated that activity sometimes hundreds of times on one or more walks. This process allowed me to get to know a local person and a new place while also producing a project that was about my collaborator’s curatorial selection of particular and telling elements from that environment. Though I repeated that framework and process in a wide variety of places including rural France; Malmo, Sweden; and Queens, NY, each video was created with a different person and documented different objects, ambient sounds, backgrounds, and other characteristics that made it particular to each place.

That project, though fun and very easy to produce with almost no advance work, had limited agency for the collaborators. Another project that I’ve done in a wide variety of settings also involves a walk, but leaves more room for local individuals to fill in a greater amount of content that is already significant to them. In that model there are actually two sets of participants for two different but related elements of the project, the first is usually a set of students since that kind of project has mostly been commissioned by school (VCU, University of Hawaii, Grinnell, USC, University of Michigan, etc) but could happen with any local group of people. That first set of folks is given a geographical area like a college campus or a neighborhood, and then asked to find some location of interest and a person who is related to that place who can speak about what goes on there. The location could be an interesting business, research lab, non-profit, historical site, garden, etc. etc. A day and time, usually a few hours, is designated to then walk as a group from place to place as the local people asked to present take ten or fifteen minutes to discuss what goes on at their location. This distributed walking tour creates (for me at least) very engaging and unpredictable results that once again vary greatly from location to location. The project uses a reproducible and simple structure, but the participants, places, and knowledge that is exchanged is always different.

I like to think of the previously described reproducible models (and many others) as part of my project repertoire, which can be used and adapted to many different locations and situations. I think in general if artists have a set of these kinds of participatory structures, (which can happen quickly, don’t require large budgets, and function both as research and product) it encourages greater possibilities for social practice type work to fit into both traditional art and academic settings and less orthodox ones as well. That said projects that take longer to develop and have more unique structures are also a big part of my practice. In some cases the results of those more involved types of projects create reproducible project models as well that can be incorporated in to my set of options for other opportunities later.



I just returned from a trip to Vancouver, Canada where I presented my work and took part in some discussions at the Purple Thistle and the Contemporary Art Gallery’s Field House with Broken City Lab. Carmen Papalia and Kristin Lantz organized and took part in the events.

One of the participants who came and contributed to all of the presentations was Paige Gratland who I had met years before in Toronto. It’s always nice to reconnect with Canadian friends and to realize that there is so much to learn from them. The US and Canada are both very similar and totally different at the same time. CARFAC is a great example of the difference.

There were many engaging topics of discussion related to Art and Social Practice as part of the events. Paige had an idea that I found intriguing, which was to create a “style guide” for crediting collaborators and participants in art projects. She wants to make a book version, but I encouraged her to also create a website for the project so that more people could use it as a reference. It is similar to an idea I’ve wanted to see happen in the US for a long time, the creation of a website with a set of standard payment amounts for various activities that artists do, but for which there are no current regulations on and as a result, in many cases, unfair disparity occur. I think W.A.G.E may actually be pulling off some way of addressing that issue, so I’m curious to see how that goes. In the case of Paige’s idea, there are existing examples in other fields that would be interesting to draw on including film, music, and theater. In all of those practices there seem to be systems that regulate and normalize crediting, so that it is expected that in a performance’s printed program or at the end of a film everyone who contributed is noted for what they did.

It was suggested in one or our discussions that artists who don’t credit everyone who helped make a project possible are being unethical, but I don’t think that’s actually the case. Systemic conventions are instead largely the reason that people credit or don’t credit. In music, film, and performance there are forms and orthodoxies that make it convenient and standard to credit participants, in conventional studio/gallery art those standards don’t really exist, and since that is largely the model that social practice is coming out of there hasn’t been a convention transfer for crediting. One of the main reasons for not crediting in the case of studio/gallery work is that the commercial system wants to perpetuate the idea that artists work alone and function in romantic, individual genius ways. I think that idea and model should be addressed to reflect reality and signal to artists starting out that going it alone is not necessary unless that’s how they really want to operate. In socially engaged work, without direct commercial forces at play, it should be easier to create a new approach to crediting. Even though I’ve worked in collaborative and participatory ways for over twenty years I’m still sorting out some of these issues and can look back on past projects to see ways that I’ve neglected to credit everyone fairly. I’m now much more conscious than I was in the past, but I think that having a credit guide or guides like the one Paige is proposing would be very helpful for all artists going forward.


This is just a thought, not fully formed at all. I was talking to a professor of psychology the other day; he specifically works with PhD students who do research about the impacts of meditation and “mindfulness activities” on people who experience stress and trauma including police officers. It sounds really interesting in general, but part of what I’m fascinated by is the way that his teaching institution allows him (facilitated by grant money, which has been traditionally more available to science and social science than art) to work with students directly on projects which the students get credit (academic and professional) for doing. He said he doesn’t teach traditional classes anymore except when he feels like it, just to keep his classroom skills honed. I think I need to spend some time observing how this all works and talking to more people about the ways that these sorts of educational structures are implemented. I want to figure out if that model could be applied to art education programs.

Traditionally, MFA programs don’t engage in direct research and practice in which a student would work in a collaborative and credited capacity with a professor on their professional work. A professor might hire a student to work as an uncredited assistant (I was in that position in grad school and I definitely learned a lot more and in a quicker and more enjoyable way than I did in most official classes), but mostly MFA students are limited to doing work on their own studio projects and get occasional feedback, and take fairly normal seminar type classes on theoretical topics.

I’m pretty convinced that existing systems and structures are what determine possibilities and appreciation, and not just with art, but with everything. Bach and Beethoven and the Beatles may have created revolutionary music, but it was able to be valued because it fit into an existing system that allowed it to function—there was an audience, distribution, funding, critical analysis etc, etc. I could list all sorts of “genius” creators and work through a similar examination— and the vast majority will also conform to the status quo structures that support those particular practices. It is harder to identify the people and projects that produced not just interesting work, but which also launched an unorthodox support system at the same time. It is likely (also because of systemic influence) that there are fewer examples (I can’t seem to think of any off the top of my head) of those attempts in general, but really we will never know because part of the problem is that kind of work, when not successful, largely disappears because there was no way to formalize it, so no one knows if it happened or not.

This state of affairs applies to a broad range of activities, but has a lot to do with unusualness of the emergence of Social Practice as a formalized art approach. If the support systems (adapted traditional arts institutions and funding, and totally new approaches including funding and presentation outside of the art world) can form into place in time it may be that Social Practice becomes an example of a type of unorthodox production (still based on precedent, nothing comes out of no where) that operates largely in a different way from the status quo and survives to tell the tale. I’m not going to hold my breath, but it has been an interesting last couple of decades to observe and experience from that perspective.

Now back to the question about MFA programs and collaborative work between students and professors. Could arts education operate to some degree like science and social science advanced degree programs? Is there a way to break from tradition to be able to borrow and adapt a more direct way for students to work with their professors on applied projects and for that to take the place of traditional class or studio credit? One issue is equitable participation. If you had a group of fifteen grad students in a MFA program would all of them need to work with the professor or professors in the same way? That seems doable if the project is designed for a whole class of people with different interests and abilities, but it might not be the most effective way to make good work. Could there also be a place for selection of students based on the appropriateness of a given project? So for instance, if I was working on a commissioned project on a specific subject or in a specific geographical location could I decide to work with a student or small set of students who had experience or interest in those specifics, and not work with the other students? Does that happen with science students? I was watching a documentary with my daughter the other day about orcas and two of the featured researchers were a university professor and one of his grad students. How did that pairing happen and how did it officially relate to the professor’s teaching and the student’s education? I’ve also heard many times about professors sharing credit with grad students for papers that they have written for academic journals, etc. Once again there must have been some kind of selection, because its just one or two grad students who are credited not a whole program or class. So I think some kind of ability and affinity selection takes place in academic science collaboration, and it doesn’t necessarily seem like a bad thing, instead there are many advantages—the partnerships are not forced or obligatory (at least, from what I could tell, not in the case of the orca example), but instead allow students and professors to work together on common interests with mutual benefits.

From my perspective an ideal program situation would be in which a group of arts grad students would work on their own individual and collaborative practices, inclusive class and program projects, and specific credited collaborations (in a variety of ways) with a set of different professors based on their existing work and opportunities, and that the educational institutions would support and value that work by funding professors (for example by giving them release time from teaching regular classes), and students (possibly through tuition remission) while also allowing them to apply that work as credit towards graduation. Its true that not every student would wind up with the same opportunities, but that’s how it works once you get out of school, and its never too soon to start getting used to how that works.

I’ve tried in many different ways over the years to do this kind of work in largely informal ways, but as noted earlier, because there isn’t really a support system to recognize and institutionalize these kinds of practices they are not easily available to function as models to build on. My hope is that as social practice becomes more accepted it will also be understood that new approaches to teaching will be necessary and supported as well.


I’ve been asked many times for a short description for the term Art and Social Practice. There are various reasons why this is hard to produce, but maybe I’ll give it a try. It could be that it’s best to actually come up with a few different options. An aspect of Art and Social Practice, (or Socially Engaged Art, Public Practice, etc. all of which seem to be in the same ballpark) is that the term is used in somewhat different ways by different people and institutions. I’ll just try to describe my own take on it, which isn’t meant to prevent anyone else from having their own interpretation, but might be useful as something to bounce off of or dispute.

In some ways it is almost easiest to describe Social Practice by what it is not, given its minority status within an art world that already is filled with conventions and assumed expectations. But people always complain that describing Social Practice in opposition to the generally accepted studio/gallery model is not a great idea somehow, they see it as negative and implies that there is something wrong with the conventional approach. I don’t see it as any different than using the term non-fiction to describe writing that is essentially created with a very different approach than the dominant form of literary fiction. With that as my justification let me start with the non-studio/gallery description. I think it is useful because so many people (both people in the art world and outside of it) expect art to be made, take the form of, and be presented in very specific and simple terms, something like this: a solo artists works in a solitary studio (this usually isn’t the case once any kind of art world success occurs and real production needs to start happening, then assistants of various sorts are brought in, but art world success of that sort is relatively rare, and even commercial art gallery people are still very invested in the idea of the solo artist concept for sales purposes), objects (mostly paintings) are produced by that artist in the studio, a gallery person then takes the work to a white cube space where people interested in art go to view it, some of them who are collectors buy the objects, magazines write articles and reviews of the artist and the art, the artist is loved or scorned by the public for being brilliant and free thinking or a fraud and scammer. In the non-studio/gallery model artists don’t necessarily use galleries, and instead might do their work in a grade school, hospital, neighborhood, grocery store, or a wide variety of other locations including traditional art spaces, but in that case the gallery might be used as a temporary staging area in advance of a possibly dynamic and participatory exhibition. The “artist” may start as a collaborative team, or could create a temporary collaboration with people local to the site area. There might not be any salable objects produced for the project (though its possible, but usually making the objects for the purpose of selling is not the intention). The work can be displayed or presented in a non-gallery venue, and often times the location where the work was made is also the place where it is shown. Collectors rarely figure into the equation, though funding institutions (art centers, museums, public art organizations, or other non-profits) might have commissioned the project. If the work is reviewed or written about it is often in general publications like local newspapers, or possibly in very specific publications like a school or community center newsletter. Since commercial galleries are deemphasized in that scenario and they are the biggest source of ad revenue for art magazines there tends to be very little focus on non-gallery art projects in those types of publications.

That was a little complicated, so I can understand why someone would want a more concise description. One thought I’ve often had is that I could just use the promotional language of the university that I teach at (Portland State University) and tweak it a bit to fit well as a description for Art and Social Practice:

Art and Social Practice values its identity as an engaged art practice that promotes a reciprocal relationship between the community, artists, and institutions in which knowledge and culture serves society and society contributes to the knowledge and culture of artists and institutions.
Art and Social Practice values partnerships with non-art institutions, professional groups, the business community, and community organizations, and the talents and expertise these partnerships bring to artists and institutions that support art activities. Socially engaged artists embrace the role of being responsible citizens of the city, the state, the region, and the global community and foster actions, programs, and projects that will, hopefully, lead to a sustainable and interesting future.

If anyone wants to compare it to the original you can find that on this page:

It’s not bad for a Social Practice description (especially for institutional and grant funding use), but its maybe a little vague, and probably too positive and community-ish, also a bit redundant here and there with all that reciprocity going on everywhere.

So here are a couple of other options:

Art and Social Practice is an artistic approach that emphasizes collaboration, shared authorship, public participation, site-specificity, and interdisciplinarity, is often presented in non-art locations, and has no media or formal boundaries.

Even that has a couple of negations in it, so some people might not like it, and unless you have some examples it’s still hard to get an exact sense of what that all means. Painters really have it made in that sense, everyone at least knows what paint and canvas and art galleries are.

So I guess I fall back on what I have always done when asked to describe what kind of work that I do, which is to explain a few different projects to give a sense of the possibilities. Sometimes the reaction is that it sounds interesting even if it doesn’t sound like art, which ultimately is fine with me.

But let me take one more shot at it:

Art and Social Practice is a term that can be used to describe projects by artists that happen in public places, involve members of the public, and can take any possible form artistic or otherwise.

That’s still not cutting it.

My daughter goes to a public International Baccalaureate school here in Portland, OR. International Baccalaureate (or IB) is pedagogical approach that seems to share some vague ideals with Art and Social Practice. What if I took their mission statement and altered it:

Art and Social Practice aims to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring artists who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect.

To this end Art and Social Practice works with schools, governments and international organizations to develop challenging programs of local and international engagement with rigorous assessment.

These programs encourage people across the world to become active, compassionate and lifelong learners who understand that other people, with their differences, can also be right.

For the original you can look here:

Somehow the word peace always makes me nervous, also that assessment part is just not going to happen, so I don’t think that description is going to work either.

I can’t help but fall back on this idea:

Artists can work in whatever way they want including making paintings that are shown in galleries as well as organizing participatory walking tours.

It would be nice if that was the generally accepted and supported idea about art in general. If it was there might not be a need for separating out social practice from other more standard art making approaches, but for the time being because of the huge systemic structures that largely accept and support primarily conventional, commercial art I think there is a need for separate development of socially engaged practices.

I’m reminded of a common experience that I’ve had as a vegetarian where I go out to dinner with a group of non-vegetarians and they say of lets just all share, we will make sure to order some vegetarian dishes. But then what happens is that they eat all of the vegetarian and meat dishes and I’m left with less than everyone else. In those situations I now insist on getting my order just for me, even when everyone else is ordering family style. Similarly, I think if Art and Social Practice was just expected to function in the larger art world system it would be absorbed because there are very few structures in place to support its needs. I’m getting a bit off topic here, but I guess that is one of the reasons why it would be good to have a more easily understood description of Art and Social Practice, but unfortunately because of the nature of that kind of work it may be impossible to really come up with a single, short, understandable way to do that. At least I gave it a try.


When I was in graduate school developing my practice I was very interested in the possibilities of social engagement, but had few examples to model my work on. Back then, before the popularization of the internet, it was much harder to locate really current information, especially if it was about subjects outside of the mainstream. So I collected precedents from what I could find in books, magazines, newspapers, and word of mouth. There were various significant people and projects that I ran across including the work of Wendy Ewald, John Malpede, and Larry Sultan. One extremely influential project that I found out about in a very minimal way (I think I saw one small photo and read a brief description) was Group Material’s The People’s Choice exhibition from 1981. A combination of elements in the project were of interest to me, it was done by a collaboration, the process involved working with a local community around a self-initiated gallery, and it was largely structured within a curatorial framework.

All of those different parts seemed to fly in the face of what I’d been told were the ways that artists were supposed to operate–artists worked by themselves in isolated studios, making art on their own and showing it in official galleries with no emphasis on local contexts or people, and they certainly didn’t curate other people’s work. The People’s Choice project broke with all of those conventions. Possibly the most exciting aspect and one that I really hadn’t considered much before was the curatorial approach. I remember at the time thinking that maybe I should be a curator rather than an artist, but somehow (before the proliferation of academic curatorial programs) that seemed even more farfetched than finding a way to sustain myself as an artist. Instead, I decided that I would incorporate “curation” into the set of tools I would use as I exploded all of my previous concepts of how an artist could function. This applied to working with other artists, but more importantly as Group Material had modeled, it could function as a way to include non-art participants as well.

Now after twenty years of various projects in which I have acted both as a lead artist and as a curator, editor, organizer, facilitator, educator, event planner, etc., I realize the advantage to having kept my artist status instead of becoming an official “curator.” Curators, like artists and most job titles, have sets of conventions that often determine what appears to be possible and not possible within in their profession. Traditionally, curators have stayed clear of a line that when crossed could be viewed as placing them on the wrong side of the creative process. There are more examples of this type of almost activist curator these days, who through assignments and commissions and sometimes official collaborations, actively determine what artists make. But that kind of engagement still seems to be discouraged in many ways and most curators feel like they must only select and organize works or artists instead engaging in more direct ways on the production of art works.

On the other hand I have no compunction about using my agency to blur all of the lines in regards to the way that work is made, shown, authored, etc. I guess as an artist I feel like there have been enough precedents of challenging the status quo and working within disputed territory to easily validate my position. Using curatorial methods allows for the opportunity to bring attention and appreciation to interesting people and materials that would otherwise not find a way into an art context. And since there are no established protocols for artists working with curatorial methods it is possible to determine the degree of engagement and collaboration on an individual basis. For example within my own practice there have been situations like with Michael Patterson Carver where I largely just facilitated the exhibition and publication of his drawings, and other cases, for instance with Corentine Senechal, where through my suggestion and facilitation he was able to conceive of and propose a public sculpture and was eventually able to, with my assistance, produce a piece that he otherwise would not have made on his own. Of course I never would have made work like Michael or Corentine either, which in both cases was partly amazing to me because it went beyond what I would or could do myself. So together with a variety of people I have worked with, in our various interdependent roles, have been able to pull off projects that would not have happened without an expanded curatorial and collaborative approach.


There are a few different types of artist residencies that exist out there. One is the classic where artists go out to a natural type area so that they can “get away from it all” and concentrate on their work. Those places are nice, I’ve been to a few of them, but personally I spend most of my time enjoying walking around rather than sitting in a studio trying to make stuff. There are also artist residencies that have a built-in exhibition at the end, making it more difficult to just wander around and space out while you are there. Another approach to the residency idea is where the artist is paired with an organization like a school, hospital, or senior center and makes work that is responsive to that place and the people there. That last one is the model I find most interesting.

In a way I have used that approach of a residency and made it a big part of my practice since I was a student. As an emerging artist I realized that if I made work that was about the context that it was being shown in that local people would feel more engaged and invested in what I was doing. Initially that meant making work that was specific to my own school, neighborhood, and local businesses and other organizations (one of my first projects of that nature was at a bakery and was all about the bakers and what they made, but took the form of an exhibition displayed in the area where customers sat to eat baked goods and drink coffee). As other opportunities occurred (and probably the opportunities were based on the fact that my practice was site-specific) I would spend time in the place where the work was going to be shown (for instance in a suburb of the Bay Area where a collaborator and I were commissioned to make a show for a regional art center we spent a month hanging out in the town and produced all of the work in response to what we encountered there) and then create projects (exhibitions, video projections, poster series, public art projects, events etc.) that were based on direct connections to the people I met, the histories I learned about, and the everyday dynamics that I encountered. I liked the process of discovery and participatory inclusion and the commissioning organizations (schools, public art agencies, art centers, etc all with available funding) were happy that work was being made about their own specific locations and with the people who lived and worked there, often times developing local audiences who ordinarily never came to see more traditional art work.

In my teaching I have also employed this type of residency structure as part of student assignments. For instance something I have done over the years at various times and in various ways is to ask students to research and connect with a department or entity on a given campus that is outside of the art program. That process alone achieves various positive effects from encouraging wandering around observing to interacting with people and disciplines outside of a student’s often normally siloed experience. Once a location of interest has been identified I ask the student to then attempt to become an artist-in-residence for that place. As can be imagined that is a bit of a stretch for both the student and the non-art department or organization and success doesn’t always happen, but there are many cases where interesting collaborations do take place as well. I’ve had students work with Black Studies, the Women’s Resource Center, the campus radio station, the campus newspaper, geology, systems science, conflict resolution, the campus community garden, and various food carts, etc. Sometimes the relationships are short lived, but others have continued on after the academic term has ended and many resulted in positive interactions for both the students and the residency sites and collaborators.

In general this kind of residency model can be used by artists within a wide set of contexts—neighborhoods, parks, businesses, libraries, schools, non-profits, city agencies, etc. etc. It is not necessary for there to be any formal artist-in-residence program in place in advance. Instead, the artist can locate places that are of interest, research and connect with them, and then if a residency relationship seems possible suggest that idea. Many non-art organizations are thrilled that an artist would want to work with them, and sometimes not only make that possible but will find ways to provide resources and even at times funding as well. There are many advantages for an artist to work in this way—a specific context and set of people are identified to work with, and actual outcomes are available for the realization of work. In the status quo approach to art making artists typically work in isolation and have only doubtful hopes that what they produce will ever find an audience. In my opinion, the residency approach gives much greater agency and satisfaction to the artist, who working in that model is able to experience real connections to the public and make contributions to society that go beyond the standard studio/gallery model.


I recently had an idea for a way to attempt to level the playing field a bit between conventional, commercial, studio/gallery art and more socially engaged project based work. The commercial system dominates in so many ways that it makes alternative approaches hard to sometimes seem possible much less sustainable. Most art and artists are known because of their promotion by commercial galleries who have relationships with magazines, collectors, museums, etc. etc. The art world has increasingly run in tandem with art fairs and all of the conventions that they set. There have been many interesting new developments from museums, grants, residencies, and even some art fairs to attempt to be more inclusive to socially engaged work, but mostly those initiatives still reside at the margins and don’t provide enough opportunities and funding for artists to exclusively focus on socially engaged work and survive (I’m specifically talking about dynamics in the US, it could be different in more socialized countries where there is greater public support for artists).

What if there was an equivalent to commercial galleries for socially engaged, project based artists? The basic problem is of course that for the most part socially engaged artists don’t make products to be sold, and if they do make a product it could be totally ephemeral or site-based and permanent or something else that would make it inappropriate for gallery sales and distribution. Often times I look to other disciplines to see how they operate and what might be of use in my own practice. Many creative professionals like writers, actors, musicians, documentary phototgraphers etc, have agents who handle their business interactions. Could something like that also work for socially engaged, project based artists? Currently, it might be difficult because as I said before most institutional opportunities for non-commercial artwork are still minimal and on the periphery. But that could change and more opportunities could be normalized and funded if there was greater awareness about the possible roles that project based artwork and practices could have in society.

What I’m picturing is a commercial gallery without the gallery, but still with all of the other support a gallery provides. It could be a physical office where a set of administrators would work and where artists and interested people could meet, and a website with information about a set (maybe ten) of represented artists. The administrators would do the work to organize and help facilitate projects for the artists. These projects could include work with museums and art centers, but might also involve public art, grants, and commissions for non-art institutions like schools, libraries, hospitals, non-profits, government facilities, even businesses.

Part of the role of the agency administrators would be not only to connect with existing art opportunities, but would also be to create new ones. My personal experience is that often times when non-art organizations are offered the chance to work with artists they are not only often happy to do that, but they also occasionally offer funding that otherwise might have gone to something else. For example the MFA program that I run has recently developed a formalized partnership with a local K-8 public school. The school has not only agreed to give us dedicated free classroom and office space for two years (renewable) but also provides very good funding for an alumni of the program to act as a manager to help facilitate projects between the school and the MFA students.

It would be nice if there were eventually many of these socially engaged agencies co-existing with the gallery-based system while offering something totally different. The work that would be commissioned would be site-specific, participatory, and using a variety of medias and forms. Ideally, since I’m just dreaming here anyway, each agency would have its own specific character and could operate at many different levels from start up with very emerging artists to established with well recognized artists, and mixes of every kind too. An economic model could be that all of the represented artists in a given agency would put a percentage of the funds generated by the projects towards administration costs including salaries for the administrators (maybe just a director and an assistant) and also a collective pool of maybe ten percent that would be redistributed to all of the represented artists, so that even if some of the artists didn’t do as well in a given time period they would still receive some financial support.

I’ve mentioned this agency idea to a few different people over the last six months. Generally, the more involved those people are with the regular art world the more skeptical they are about idea, but people who are less involved, even well known artists, have been very enthusiastic. So if anyone wants to give it a try let me know.



I have very early collaborative impulse memories. I loved drawing on the same piece of paper with someone else and would often do that with my dad. I shared an improvised darkroom with a high school friend and we worked on each other’s prints. In my early years of college, at Humboldt State University, my friend Cleveland and I collaborated on a variety of projects, most notably on something we called Straight Line Walks, where we would identify a distant location, usually a far off tree, and then attempt to walk to it (often several miles) while staying on a straight trajectory regardless of fences, freeways, rivers, etc. When we felt like we absolutely had to deviate from the route we would document that instance with a Polaroid camera, so that the only record of the walk was of the moments where we failed our own set of rules. After doing several of those walks on our own we started inviting guests along and asking them to select the final destination. The project came to an end when we took Les Blank (a documentary film maker from the Bay Area who had a major impact on my life and work) for a walk but he refused to wade through a puddle. The whole thing suddenly seemed absurd and silly to me and I couldn’t get myself to do anymore of them.

In graduate school I started collaborating with another grad student, Jon Rubin, and we worked together for about five years on a huge variety of different socially engaged projects. Miranda July and I collaborated on a participatory web based project called Learning To Love You More that continues to live on in various ways even though we ended its original function many years ago. I’ve collaborated with artist heroes of mine like Larry Sultan, John Malpede, Chris Johanson, Michael Bravo, and Wendy Ewald. I’ve worked on many projects with students and have recently started a new collaborative group called Public Doors and Windows with two former grad students Molly Sherman and Nolan Calisch. In all of those situations there has been great benefit with the activity of brain storming ideas, dividing responsibilities, and just spending time together. In general, though there are some great exceptions (Group Material for instance), the art world (especially the commercial art world) seems to discourage collaboration. I’ve been in the position several times of being asked to recommend an artist for an award or residency and when I suggested a collaboration was told that only individual artist could be considered. I think the acceptance of collaborations is slowly changing, but in general there are still many structural and systemic elements in place that prevent artists from even considering working in collaborative ways.

What I really want to discuss isn’t collaborations between artists, but instead collaborations that involve artists working with people who do not consider themselves artists or who do but who have little or no access to the art world. That is something I also have a lot of experience with over the years. In the past I’ve run into many critical opinions suggesting that the dynamic of artists working with non-artists is fundamentally unethical. My sense is that recently that position too has become less prevalent as more examples occur without any apparent negative power dynamics or other abuses. When faced with those argument in the past one approach I have taken is to suggest looking at other “professionals” who are able to successfully work with “non-professionals” for instance regional theater directors who may be highly trained and paid to do their job, but then work with local, untrained, volunteers as actors, set and costume designers, technicians, etc, etc. Are those willing people somehow harmed by their involvement with the trained theater person or are they in fact advantaged by that person’s knowledge and experience? Can that situation not be of mutual benefit? Similar parallels can be draw with church and community choirs, non-professional sports, amateur archeology and other science related activities, etc. etc.

But why would an artist want to work with a non-artist anyway? I think there are as many reasons as there are possible collaborations, but a couple that are compelling for me are that I want my work to be of interest to a wider public than just the art going one, and because I want to use my projects as a way to learn about aspects of the world that I don’t already know about. By working with non-artists in direct collaborations as well as with participatory models those people and the people they know or who are interested in the topics that they know about will also be invested and engaged with the project, and in that way the work becomes relevant to broader sets of people than just ones who normally go to art venues. Learning can happen in many ways, but for me one of the most effective and satisfying approaches is through direct contact with knowledgeable people in whatever discipline or topical area a given project is examining. I also like to employee some degree of chance in my work, so generally rather than coming up with a specific subject and then finding a person to help me understand it, I generally prefer to allow location and situation to determine what a project focuses on based on who I make contact with and what their existing interests and resources are. These various people who become my collaborators are able to share what they know with me, while I am able to offer them access to institutions, audiences, and sometimes funding. In this sense and in a variety of forms and degrees of collaboration I have worked with people like Albert Keshishian on an exhibition about his rug store in Oakland, CA; Corentine Senechal on a public turtle sculpture in Brittany, France; and Michael Patterson Carver in Portland, OR in regard to promoting and exhibiting his drawings of political protest, among many others. In each situation I felt like I was not only gaining knowledge and experience myself, but bringing cultural appreciation to my collaborators while expanding and (from my perspective) improving the inclusiveness of what can be considered valid in art world contexts.

It is my hope that collaboration models in all forms will continue to develop and be supported in schools, art centers, grants, residencies, museums, and public art programs, so that artists will consider collaboration a normal and viable approach and practice. Working together has many advantages, including personal social connection, and helps to de-emphasis the dominant idea that artists need to work alone to be able to express their “individual genius.”


I have a long list of social practice related topics that I have discussed in class and informal situations for many years. I’ve been wanting to get my ideas about those topics down in writing, so I’m going to try to address them here. For some people these concepts will be very familiar, but for others they may be new and for that reason I’m going to try to take a very simple, explanatory approach.

I’d like to take a look at the idea of “platforms” in relationship to social practice type work. These topics are not discrete so related ideas will wind up overlapping, and sometimes I think it is necessary to back up a bit and examine status quo approaches before introducing the main point that I want to focus on.

In existing dominant and popular conventions the prevailing idea is that artists work in studios or something equivalent to a studio, and then, if they are lucky (which is rare), show the work they produce in galleries. The ideal version of both a studio and a gallery is a white room, which can exist anywhere, making them generic and predictable, similar to the way that large-scale retail stores create consistent contexts for the sale of globalized products. The uniformity of this practice in a way runs counter to the concept that artists are free to do whatever they want. The systemic forces that promote the gallery/studio model actually determine a lot of how an artist works and what they make. The reason for the consistent and neutral contexts is to allow the “art” to standout without any interference from anything that might disrupt or interact with it. A common assumption is that the art is coming from the singular artist, and represents their creativity in a pure, creative way. Artist branding, style uniformity, and rarification of output are seen as necessary aspects of making sales appealing to collectors and institutions.

I could go on about the various details and manifestations of the commercial art system, but instead I will just try to reinforce the idea that typically artists are seen as people who can do anything they want, but what they choose to do with that freedom is spend long hours in isolated locations (unless they are successful enough to have assistants actually making their work) producing products that can be shipped, marketed, displayed, and sold globally. A strange aspect of that situation is that, though the majority of artists are making work to function for those commercial conditions (consciously or unconsciously) the vast majority of artists never actually have the opportunity for their work to enter into that system.

An alternate approach for artists to consider is the use of other platforms besides white box galleries in which art can function. Examples include public libraries, public schools, radio programs, websites, publications, front yards, parks, stores, billboards, building exteriors, city halls, non-art museums, t-shirts, posters, etc. Often times these kinds of platforms are more available than traditional art venues, occasionally come with financial support or other resources, and sometimes have access to very interested, non-art audiences.

In presenting working in this way it becomes natural to think about what exactly the art should be. It is possible of course to just display studio style objects on the walls of non-art locations, as is done commonly with cafes. But what if instead of sticking work that is intended for a gallery context into non-art one, the art was made specifically for the location? Now I guess I’m departing from the platform topic and leaning into the area of site or context specific work. One way of making site-specific art is to just think about the physical features of a location and make work that fits in and uses those dimensions or conditions. Another approach, which I am an advocate of, is to learn about the site from a variety of perspectives—historical, social dynamics and activities, resources, future plans, and to learn about specific individuals and groups who live or work in proximity to the site. By doing that kind of research (not necessarily academic research, but maybe a more casual and situational form of research) connections occur that could lead to collaborative or participatory relationships with members of the local public who might ordinarily only be thought of as potential audience for the work. The resulting process and product might not take the form of a sellable object at all (though it might) and instead could be an intervention, activity, presentation, alteration or removal of something that was normally there, and possibly function in an ephemeral and distributed way or be totally permanent and singular to that place.

One of the many positive aspects of this non-art platform, site-specific approach is that many more possible opportunities to show work are available, another is that by doing projects out in the world people will actually experiencing the work (as opposed to keeping work in storage in a studio or even showing it in an art venue with a very small audience) and one thing may lead to another, so that other situations for making and showing and even funding work may become possible. That was my own experience when I was starting out with my practice while I was still in graduate school in the early 1990’s. By creating self-initiated, collaborative projects in a variety of locations in my own neighborhood in Oakland, CA unexpected and fortuitous connections developed into more legitimized circumstances later on.

To a Lifetime of Meaningful Encounters

Public Doors and Windows
Matisse Museum
Le Cateau-Cambrésis, France



To a Lifetime of Meaningful Encounters (La vie est faite de belles rencontres) was a project I did with Molly Sherman and Nolan Calisch as part of our collaboration Public Doors & Windows, which highlighted the people and land of Le Cateau-Cambrésis, France—the birthplace of Henri Matisse.

Throughout 2014, we engaged the local community through a series of participatory projects. We created a video documenting stories of the births of townspeople who, like Matisse, were born in Le Cateau-Cambresis, titled He came into the world in Le Cateau. Like me. The video was projected outdoors for the duration of the exhibition, Inside the museum we installed twenty “personal museums”—each dedicated to one of the film’s participants, composed of a personalised museum signage system and a curated set of objects that were significant to each participant.

Other participatory projects focused on the farm land surrounding Le Cateau: a local choral group filmed in the fields surrounding the town, and a bilingual book for children illustrating a poem written by a local farmer, A Children’s Book of Farming in Le Cateau-Cambrésis (Onestar Press, Paris).

Artists Anne Daems and Kenneth Andrew Mroczek from Brussels contributed to the encounters with a project titled When the Linden Blooms, which took as its point of departure the 48 linden trees aligned symmetrically in the museum’s garden, the Parc Fénelon, designed on principles introduced by André Le Nôtre (1613–1700). Daems and Mroczek created a cyclical-environmental artwork, to serve as a metaphor for activating and interacting with one’s own landscape, by collaborating with local industry and artisans. They invited a local beekeeper to place beehives on the museum’s balcony in proximity to the trees to produce honey for the duration of the exhibit, and worked with the local artisanal brewery, the Brasserie Historique de l’Abbaye, to produce a special edition “Bière fleurit au tilleul” that combined linden and hop flowers to create a beer to be consumed on linden wood furniture produced by a local manufacturer.



Creating a new website took a long time. There were a number of factors (possibly excuses) at play. Since the last major posting on the old website I’ve become a parent, gone through several family deaths, started a MFA program, etc. etc. I also went through many different ambivalent feelings about my relationship to the art world, and maybe the world in general. Projects kept happening anyway, and documentation of that is what I’m trying to make available now on the new website. Yuri Ono, my trusty friend and web person, has once again made this possible. Crystal Baxley is now also helping me too. I have technology aversions. I admit it. Along with the new website, which we will slowly add content to, I’m also going to try to make some periodic written posts. I like writing and want to find a way to make myself write more often, so maybe this will do that.

Sex and Education

Amherst College
Amherst, MA


Wendy Ewald asked me to work with her and a freshman seminar class she was teaching with Martha Saxton. The class was intended to address issues related to sexual assault on the Amherst campus. It was a daunting challenge. The more I learned the more difficult it became to think of ways to approach the subject in terms of an art project of some sort. We decided to start by having the students interview people on campus to attempt to understand the range of perspectives that existed. The students came up with questions of their own and used some from the list below that I created: What was your first sexual experience? Do you feel like you have ever been sexually assaulted? If so what were the circumstances? Have you ever deflected an unwanted sexual advance? If so how did you do that? What does dating mean to you? At what point in dating someone is it appropriate to engage in sexual activity? What kinds of activities? Do you use safe sex practices? What is safe sex? What constitutes a sexual assault? What should the repercussions be for a student who has been proven to have sexually assaulted another student? Is it possible that someone can be falsely accused of sexual assault? What were the sexual dynamics of pre- agricultural humans? What are the sexual dynamics of other primates? Is monogamy the answer? Is monogamy a problem? What sort of formal sex education have you received? What sort of casual sex education have you received? Reading the interviews left me even more uncertain about how to proceed. I came to campus for a visit (I live in Portland, Oregon). I was given a campus tour with descriptions of the various locations in which sexual assault might occur. I learned about the conflicted history of co-education on campus. Terms like “cuffing” and “hooking up” were explained to me. I still didn’t know what to do in regard to a class project. One of the students mentioned having been on a debate team in high school. It occurred to me that a “debate” of sorts might be a good way to present a variety of the perspectives I’d encountered. There was some resistance to the idea, and concern that it would be too antagonistic. But I liked the way that a debate could involve many people with multiple viewpoints and be presented publicly. So instead of a traditional oppositional debate, we decided to use the debate form but to leave it more open ended, more about presenting different aspects of the same general topic. Along with the public event, which takes place on Dec 9th , 2013, we also created this publication so that everyone on campus could have a copy. We hope that it will increase understand of sexual assault and what might be done to mitigate it in the future.

Sex and Education Newspaper PDF


Hello There Friend

“Moment to Moment” Artist Project Series

The Thing Quarterly x Levi’s Made & Crafted
Los Angeles, CA and Tokyo, Japan


“Hello There Friend” is an ongoing series of works in which I go for a walk in an unfamiliar place with someone. On this walk, my companions collect details of their surroundings and present them to me. The result is a conversation through the often overlooked details of an unfamiliar place. On these walks, I took pictures of the objects which were then turned into billboards in the area that they were created in.

My collaborators in Los Angeles were: Beatrice Red Star Fletcher, Kelly Bishop, and Jenni Stenson.  My collaborators in Tokyo were: Tomoko Yamashita Smith, Leo Smith, Hana Smith, and Beatrice Red Star Fletcher.

Carmen’s Parking Lot

I was asked by Cue  to write a text for a catalog on the work of Carmen Papalia.
The Catalog can be viewed online and below is my text.

Essay for Carmen Papalia: Long Time No See Catalog
Cue Foundation, NYC


A year or so ago I was having a conversation with Carmen about various project ideas. One of the ideas was to take an existing parking lot, or maybe a brand new parking lot, and put “handicapped parking” symbols in all but three or four of the spaces. I love the idea of frustrated motorists driving around in vain searching for a parking space, and that being part of Carmen’s project which seen as a whole is equal parts sculptural, painting, performative and social commentary all in one. I hope there is a public art commission out there that will be willing to actually produce the piece, though even just as a conceptual idea its pretty good.

When Carmen first moved to Portland and was figuring out his way around town he kept bumping into low hanging tree limbs and other obstacles. I would often see him with a new scrape on his face or a black eye. His friend Jason gave him a digital camera so that he could document the obstacles. The pictures he took, when you knew the context they had been created in, were sad and funny at the same time.

Carmen said that in Vancouver there were more sound oriented walk signals at intersections than there were in Portland. Apparently, there is controversy in the “disabled community” about the value of sound oriented walk signals, though I could never understand exactly what the argument against them was, and Carmen seemed at a loss to be able to fully articulate it. Anyway, he had an idea which was for a day to set up along his daily walk route people at each intersection that didn’t already have a sound signal so that when the walk sign went on they would simulate the sound of a sound signal. He would then use the new temporary system to walk around safely for a day. I thought that was an extremely humorous idea, but I don’t think he has yet realized the project.

When Carmen joined the Art and Social Practice MFA that I direct at Portland State University as a student we had to adjust a few of our activities for him, which is something that we do for every student one way or another. We had previously been playing basketball as a group one day a week and realized that probably wouldn’t work for Carmen so we tried a yoga class, but of course if you can’t see the yoga instructor and don’t already know the poses you can’t really participate. Even though that is really very obvious somehow we didn’t think about it in advance and Carmen just went along with the plan even though I think he was dubious from the start. I ended up trying to manually help him move into the various positions myself which was not really successful, but temporarily created an odd partner yoga moment. We then tried blindfolded soccer with the group to see how that worked, but we mostly stood around laughing while we waited for the ball to somehow roll to us. In the end to engage in some sort of physical activity we borrowed a tandem bike and another student, Adam, rode with Carmen which was apparently a positive experience for both of them. The whole situation was very instructive for me in learning about the ways that visual biases are so systemically built into so many parts of society.

Another aspect of the MFA program that was adjusted because of Carmen’s involvement was the use of the term “visual.” I had no problem with the idea of accepting a non-sighted student into the program, but in many ways had no idea how that would function given the emphasis that traditional MFA programs place on visual art. Even though our program is not traditional and I liked to think of it as very inclusive it turned out that there were still remnants of the dominant art culture strewn throughout class titles like “Teaching Visual Culture” our pedagogy class, and within expectations like the practice of having students present power point presentations about the development of their work at the end of each term. Carmen found interesting work arounds to all of the issues we presented him with, which is something he has gotten good at in general having to live in a visually dominated world.

I went through my own set of obstacles when I first arrived at the university and was faced with a systemic “studio” bias. Since the work that I did myself and wanted to teach was not studio based it was awkward being represented as part of the very orthodox “studio art” understanding of what art should be. Eventually, I was able to change the office title of what had been referred to as the general undergrad studio program to “art practice” and to create two tracks in the MFA one for studio practice and the other for social practice which felt more comfortable and reflective of what was going on in a more expansive view of the larger set of possibilities in the art world. There was still a tendency in the department and the public in general to think of everything as visual art. I tried repeatedly to point out that there was already a long history of non-visual audio based art etc, but the visual bias is hard to correct. Carmen has now graduated and we are still working to remove or at least expand on all of the visual biases built into the program.

Though there are various amazing elements within Carmen’s work, one aspect is the way that simply inserting his difference into systems of institutions and society an awareness is created that highlights dominant structures and discriminations. It is all the better in Carmen’s case that because of the nature of his personal attitude and his practice he is able to facilitate that necessary societal irritation in ways that are participatory, engaging, poignant, and often times hilarious as well.

The Best Things in Museums Are the Windows

The Exploratorium
San Francisco, CA


As an Exploratorium Artist-in-Residence I created a project that involved traveling for four days with a group of participants from the end of the museum’s building across the Bay in a sail boat and then walking from Emeryville to the top of Mt Diablo. The trip covered about forty miles. In the group of participants were Exploratorium staff, scientists and members of the public. Each participant and various invited people along the way did presentations on topics related to the areas we were traveling through. Additional members of the public connected with the core group at more than a dozen points along the path. Each day featured several official stops while countless unofficial observations added to the experience. By extending the museum’s curiosity-based learning into the surrounding landscape, the project aimed to transform the everyday world into an open classroom while working toward a greater integration of a cultural institution within its surrounding community.

The Best Things in Museums Are the Windows is a project of the Exploratorium’s Center for Art and Inquiry, an R&D center for the arts within the larger learning laboratory of the Exploratorium.


Harrell Fletcher received his BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute and his MFA from California College of the Arts. He studied organic farming at UCSC and went on to work on a variety of small Community Supported Agriculture farms, which impacted his work as an artist. Fletcher has produced a variety of socially engaged collaborative and interdisciplinary projects since the early 1990’s. His work has been shown at SF MoMA, the de Young Museum, the Berkeley Art Museum, the Wattis Institute, and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in the San Francisco Bay Area, The Drawing Center, Socrates Sculpture Park, The Sculpture Center, The Wrong Gallery, Apex Art, and Smackmellon in NYC, DiverseWorks and Aurora Picture show in Houston, TX, PICA in Portland, OR, CoCA and The Seattle Art Museum in Seattle, WA, Signal in Malmo, Sweden, Domain de Kerguehennec in France, The Tate Modern in London, and the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia. He was a participant in the 2004 Whitney Biennial. Fletcher has work in the collections of MoMA, The Whitney Museum, The New Museum, SFMoMA, The Hammer Museum, The Berkeley Art Museum, The De Young Museum, and The FRAC Brittany, France. From 2002 to 2009 Fletcher co-produced Learning To Love You More, a participatory website with Miranda July. Fletcher is the 2005 recipient of the Alpert Award in Visual Arts. His exhibition The American War originated in 2005 at ArtPace in San Antonio, TX, and traveled to Solvent Space in Richmond, VA, White Columns in NYC, The Center For Advanced Visual Studies MIT in Boston, MA, PICA in Portland, OR, and LAXART in Los Angeles among other locations. Fletcher is a Professor of Art and Social Practice at Portland State University.

Contact: harrell-at-pdx-dot-edu


UCSC, Certification in Ecological Horticulture

California College of Arts and Crafts, MFA, Interdisciplinary

San Francisco Art Institute, BFA, Photography


Vermont Studio School, Faculty
Exploratorium, Artist-in-Residence

UCLA Hammer Museum, Artist-in-Residence
Colorado College, Artist-in-Residence
Otterbein University, Artist-in-Residence
Wattis Institute Capp Street Project, Artist-in-Residence

Civic Engagement Award, Portland State University

Skowhegan School of Art, Faculty

Alpert Award in Visual Art
ArtPace Residency
Domaine de Kerguéhennec Residency

Gunk Grant
Artslink Grant

Creative Capital Grant

Creative Work Fund Grant

Artists and Communities Millennium Grant

Headlands Center For The Arts Residency

Bay Area Award


Crisp-Ellert Art Museum, St. Augustin, FL, “Before and After 1565: A Participatory Exploration of St. Augustin’s Native American History”

IDEA Space, Colorado Springs, CO, “Active Engagement”

NGV, Melbourne, AU, “The Sound We Make Together (Melbourne)”

Art Gallery of Mississauga, Mississauga, Canada “Made in India”

The Power Plant, Toronto, Canada “Born Into Pleasure”

LAXART, Los Angeles, CA, “The American War”

Domaine de Kerguehennec, France, “Where I Lived”
In Situ, Paris, “Some Translations”
White Columns, NYC, “The American War”
Jack Hanley Gallery, Los Angeles, CA, “The Library”
Artpace, San Antonio, TX, “The American War”
Laura Bartlett Gallery, London, “I’ll Follow You”
The Wrong Gallery, NYC, “With Our Own Little Hands”
Apex Art, NYC, “Come Together, (NYC)”
Test Site, Austin, TX, “Come Together, (Austin)”

Christine Burgin, NYC, NY “A Moment Of Doubt”
Jack Hanley Gallery, SF, CA “Maintaining The Jazz”
New Langton Arts, SF, CA, “Happiness Follows Us …”

DiverseWorks, Houston, TX, “The Sound…

Signal Art Center, Malmo, Sweden, “Reread Summerhill”

PICA, Portland, OR, “Everyday Sunshine”
The Soap Factory, Minneapolis, MN, “48 Hours”

The Physics Room, Christchurch, NZ, “Cars and Houses”

Yerba Buena Center For The Arts, SF, “The Boy Mechanic”


Tate Modern, London, “Tate Live Performance Room”
MoMA, NYC, “The Shaping of New Visions”
The Hayward Gallery, London, “Wide Open School”
Henie Onstad Art Centre, Oslo, Norway, “Learning for Life”
International Project Space, Birmingham, England, and Contemporary Art
Gallery, Vancouver, BC, “Children’s Films”
James Cohan Gallery, NYC, “Object Fictions”
Tacoma Art Museum, Tacoma, WA, “The Northwest Biennial”

Laurel Gitlin, NYC, “Roofless Motif”
The PACE Gallery, NYC, “Social Media”
Bielefelder Kunstverein, Waldhof, Luxembourg, “Children’s Films”

SFMoMA, San Francisco, “The More Things Change”
FACT, Liverpool, England, and Edith Russ Site for Media Art, Oldenberg, Germany, “My War”

SF MoMA, SF, “The Art of Participation”
The Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, Victoria, BC, “Assume Nothing”
Brown Gallery, London, “Evading Customs”
Pomona College Museum of Art, Claremont, CA, “The New Normal”
Te Tuhi Centre for the Arts, Pakuranga, Auckland, New Zealand, “Land Wars” Dumbo Brooklyn. Brooklyn, “New York Photo Festival”

The Wattis Institute, SF, “Amateurs”

The 6th Mercosul Biennial, Porte Alegre, Brazil, “Free Zone”
Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington, Seattle, WA, “Come Together”
Cheekwood Installation Gallery, Nashville, TN, “No Place: Artists Explore Utopia”
The International Center for the Arts at San Francisco State University, SF, “Witness to War”
Walter Phillips Gallery, Banff, Alberta, CAN, “Heroes and Amateurs”
PDX Contemporary Art, Portland, OR, “true bearing”
Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, “Memorial to the Iraq War”
Red Dot Gallery, LA, CA, “Glimpses of Utopia”
Bumbershoot, Seattle, WA, “Learning to Love You More”
Edith-Aub-Haus Fur Medieakunst, Oldenburg, Germany, “My Own Private Reality”
The Bertha and Karl Leubsdorf Art Gallery, NYC, “Stealing Time”

Apexart, NYC, “Phantom Captain: Art and Crowdsourcing”

Royal College of Art Gallery, London, “Do Not Interrupt…”

Whitney Museum, NYC, “Whitney Biennial”
Domaine de Kerguéhennec, France, “Near And Far”
Saltworks Gallery, Atlanta, GA, “This is the Future”

The Seattle Art Museum, Seattle, WA, “Baja to Vancouver”
The Drawing Center, NYC, “Street Selections”

ICA at MECA, Portland, ME, “Playground”
Andrew Kreps Gallery, NYC, “Yes, We’re Excerpts”

Berkeley Art Museum, Berkeley, CA “Fast Forward”
SFMOMA, SF, “Of The Moment”

Yerba Buena Center For The Arts, SF, “Above and Beyond”
de Young Museum, SF, “Museum Pieces”


Museum of Craft and Folk Art, SF, “Only Birds…”

PICA, Portland, OR “The People’s Biennial”

PDX Contemporary Art, Portland, OR, “Songs From the Treetops”
Wattis Institute, CCA, SF, CA “Selections From The Life Of Michael Bravo”

White Columns, NYC, “Michael Patterson-Carver”
Laura Bartlett Gallery, London, “Abstract Things”

Christine Burgin, NYC, “Hello There Friend”

SF Art Commission Gallery, “A Love For All Animals”

Southern Exposure, SF, “Survivalist”

YBCA, SF, “Whipper Snapper Nerd”


Portland, OR, Metro, “The Knowledge”

Domaine de Kerguéhennec, France, “Corentine’s Turtle”

Portland, OR, RACC, “More Sunshine”

UofM Art Commission, St. Paul, “Museum of the School of Social Work”
SF Art Commission, “North Beach Parking Garage”

SF Art Commission, “Market Street Art In Transit”

UofW Art Commission, Seattle, WA, “Bus Shelter Posters”


Museum of Modern Art, NYC
UC Hammer Museum, LA
Collection du FRAC Bretagne, France
The Whitney Museum Of American Art, NYC
The New Museum, NYC
de Young Museum, SF
Berkeley Art Museum, University Of California, Berkeley, CA
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, SF


Associate Professor, Portland State University, Portland, OR

Guest Lecturer, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, VA.
Keynote Speaker, Neddy Awards, Cornish College of the Arts, Seattle, WA
Guest Lecturer, Western Washington University, Bellingham, WA
Keynote Speaker, Grinnell College Festival of Humanities, Grinnell, IA
Panelist, The People’s Conference, Haverford College, Haverford, PA
Guest Lecturer, Hammer Museum, LA
Guest Lecturer, Amherst College, Amherst, MA

Artist Talk, Portland Art Museum, Portland, OR
Artist Talk, SAW Gallery, Ottowa, CAN
Guest Lecturer, Evergreen College, Olympia, WA
Guest Lecturer, Pitzer College, Claremont, CA
Guest Lecturer, Otterbein University, Westerville, OH
Guest Lecturer, Saw Gallery, Ottawa, CAN
Guest Lecturer, Colorado College, Colorado Springs, CO
Guest Lecturer, Washington State University, Pullman, WA
Guest Lecturer, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI

Artist Talk, IDEA Space, Colorado Springs, CO
Guest Lecturer, San Francisco Zen Center, SF
Guest Lecturer, Monash University, Melbourne, AU
Guest Lecturer, NGV, Melbourne, AU
Guest Lecturer, Elam School of Fine Art, Auckland, NZ
Panelist, Deschooling Society, Hayward Gallery, London, UK
Guest Lecturer, Oxbow School of Art, Sagatuck, MI

Guest Lecturer, Boise State University, Boise, ID
Guest Lecturer, Herron School of Art, Indianapolis, IN
Panelist, Assume Nothing, University of Victoria, Victoria, BC
Guest Lecturer, Kansas City Art Institute, Kansas City, MO
Guest Lecturer, Banff Center, Banff, CAN
Panelist, Words Without Pictures, LACMA, LA
Guest Lecturer, California College of The Arts, SF
Guest Lecturer, Alfred University, Alfred, NY
Guest Lecturer, University of Victoria, Victoria, BC
Guest Lecturer, The School of The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL
Guest Lecturer, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL
Guest Lecturer, University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, OH
Keynote Speaker, Open Engagement, University of Regina, Regina, CAN
Guest Lecturer, Columbia University, NYC
Guest Lecturer, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, NV
Guest Lecturer, University of Oregon, Eugene, OR
Guest Lecturer, University of Illinois, Chicago, IL
Guest Lecturer, The Power Plant, Toronto, CAN
Guest Lecturer, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM

Artistic Director, The Kitchen Summer Institute, NYC
Guest Lecturer, MIT, Cambridge, MA
Guest Lecturer, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN

Guest Lecturer, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, VA
Guest Lecturer, University of California, Berkeley, CA
Guest Lecturer, Cal Arts, Valencia, CA
Guest Lecturer, University of Southern California, LA
Guest Lecturer, University of Rennes, France

Instructor, Sculpture, Cooper Union, NYC, NY

Instructor, Det fynske Kunstakademi, Odense, Denmark
Instructor, Special Project, Hartford Art School, Hartford, CT
Instructor, Photo and Sculpture, PNCA, Portland, OR
Guest Lecturer, Otis School Of Art And Design, LA, CA
Guest Lecturer, UC Irvine, Irvine, CA

Guest Lecturer, Yale University, New Haven, CT
Guest Lecturer, Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, NY
Instructor, Design Intensive, California College of Art, SF, CA
Instructor, Graduate Intensive, MECA, Portland, ME

Instructor, Graduate Interdisciplinary Seminar, CCAC, SF, CA
Instructor, Based In Real Life, SF Art Institute, SF, CA
Instructor, Generosity, DasArts, Amsterdam, Holland
Guest Lecturer, Rutgers, New Brunswick, NJ
Guest Lecturer, White Chapel Gallery, London, UK

Instructor, Graduate Independent Study, CCAC, SF, CA
Guest Lecturer, Weisman Art Museum, Minneapolis, MN

Instructor, Interdisciplinary Seminar, Stanford University, CA


“The Hammer Yearbook” The Hammer Museum

“Free Speech Zone: Michael Patterson-Carver” Four Corners Books
“The People’s Biennial” Independent Curators International

“Harrell Fletcher: The Sound We Make Together” National Gallery of Victoria

“Between Artists: Harrell Fletcher and Michael Rakowitz” A.R.T Press
“Learning To Love You More” Prestel
“Harrell Fletcher” Domaine de Kerguehennec
“James F. Miles Is A Boyfriend And A Girlfriend” Gallery 16

“The American War” J&L Books

“I’ll Follow You” Laura Bartlett Gallery

“A Moment Of Doubt” Christine Burgin Gallery

“Now It’s A Party” Hartford Art School

“Everyday Sunshine” Portland Institute For Contemporary Art

“The Boy Mechanic” Yerba Buena Center For The Arts

“Whipper Snapper Nerd” Yerba Buena Center For The Arts


das Super Paper, “Harrell Fletcher, Melbourne, and Transience” Carl Scrase
Education: Documents in Contemporary Art, Whitechapel Gallery/MIT Press
Art & Australia, “A Willingness To Be Flexible” Jeff Kahn
(Re) Staging The Art Museum, “The American War” Ane Hjort Guttu
Flash Art, “The People’s Biennial” Alexander Ferrando, Fall 2011

Searching For Art’s New Public, “Tell Me Your Story” Marisa Sanchez
The Age, “The People’s Artist” Liza Power, Sept. 2010

Melbourne Art Journal, “It’s All About You” Alex Baker
The Art of Participation, SF MoMA “Harrell Fletcher, Jon Rubin” Tanya Zimbardo
Frieze, “You and Me” Jens Hoffmann, Oct. 2009

Words Without Pictures, LACMA/Aperature Amateurs, Wattis Institute
Arts Journal, “It Can Change As We Go Along”, Winter 2008 2007
Frieze, “Harrell Fletcher” Jeffrey Ryan, May 2007

The Wrong Times, “Community”
Modern Painters, “The American War” Joshua Mack, Sept 2006
The Oregonian, “An Opposing View of War” DK Row, Sept 2006
NY Times, “The American War” Michael Kimmelman, June 2006
Village Voice, “Absalom, O Absalom” Jerry Saltz, May 2006
BOMB Magazine, “Interview” Allan McCollum, Spring 2006

Parkett, “A Post-Biennial Post-Script” Debra Singer
ReleasePrint, “The Artful Observer” Erica Levin, Nov/Dec 2005
The Wrong Times, “Interview” Jim Drain 2004
Flash Art, “Ouverture” Brian Sholis, July 2004
Domus 870, “El Topo”, May, 2004
NY Times, “Harrell Fletcher” Holland Cotter, May 28, 2004
NY Times, “The Biennial That’s Not at the Biennial”, May 2, 2004 ArtForum, “Harrell Fletcher” Glen Helfand, May 2004
NY Times, “Multiplex” Holland Cotter, Feb. 20, 2004
SF Chronicle, “No Irony, Just Art” Kimberly Chun, Jan. 25, 2004
The Mercury, “And Even More Everyday Sunshine”, Aug. 31, 2003

The New Yorker, “Yes, We’re Excerpts”, Aug. 19, 2002
The Portland Phoenix, “On The Fly” Chris Thompson, Aug. 16, 2002

The Other America

Project for The Past is Present
Curated by Jens Hoffmann
Museum of Contemporary Art, Detroit
Collaboration with Katherine Ball


Katherine Ball and I collaborated on a project in Detroit, this is what she wrote about it:

One of the reasons that Harrell and I chose the MLK speech as a topic for our project is because we both thought it was strange, and perhaps telling, that I went to Grosse Pointe South High School and never heard about MLK’s historic speech there. I only learned about MLK’s speech when Harrell and I met in Detroit to do research on the city for the exhibit. We learned about the speech in conversation with the librarian at the Walter Reuther Library. He told us that it was so dangerous for King to speak in Grosse Pointe, and that the sheriff, oddly enough, sat on King’s lap as they drove across the border from Detroit into Grosse Pointe. Harrell and I left both reeling from that image and headed down Woodward with the smoke billowing up around us from the streets below. Even then, I didn’t realize the full gravity of the situation—I sort of shrugged it off and fell back into my roots of Grosse Pointe privilege—until Harrell turned and said to me, “Martin Luther King certainly didn’t speak at my school.” Since then, I have been wondering why I didn’t grow up knowing about MLK’s speech. Was I asleep in class that day or is it because the GPS High School didn’t put much emphasis put on educating students about the speech? I contacted GPS High School to see if they had contact with anyone who saw the speech, they wrote back to say they sent out a request through the Mother’s Club and had one hit, but the person did not want to be contacted on this as she was embarrassed by the event. This left me wondering, how does the underemphasis, and perhaps intentional overlooking, of this historical event further ingrain the racism and classism that is still extremely present in Grosse Pointe? To extrapolate outwards, how does the underemphasis of African Americans in US history continue to stoke the flames of racism that our country has tended since its inception? I still had many questions about the speech: Who was the sheriff? Was he still alive? What was the Grosse Pointe Human Relations Council that brought King to speak and does such a pro-equality group still exist in Grosse Pointe? And what about Breakthrough, the ultra conservative group that picketed the event? I went to the Burton Historical Collection at the Detroit Public Library to look for answers. King’s file consisted of mainly articles from the Detroit News and Free Press and none of them were on MLK’s speech at GPS. I left not with answers, but with larger questions about the way history is recorded. How much of our history is recorded through biased media reports, rather than retold through the voices of people that actually participated in the events? If we want to redirect the hegemonic trajectory of our country, do we need to be proactive on how we record and retell our history? Luckily the Grosse Pointe Historical Society does have an archive on King’s speech, including an audio recording of the speech, the transcript and the FBI letter that has become the mural.
— Katherine Ball


What We Talk About

 How Do You Mean?: Culture in Translation Symposium
Portland Institute for Contemporary Art


In this special matinee performance of Niicugni, I intermittently “pressed pause” on performer Emily Johnson, adding thoughts and questions about the artist and her work into the staged show.

What Do We Do On Monday?

Learning for Life 
Henie Onstad Art Centre, Oslo, Norway
Collaboration with Ella Aandal


For this project which was commissioned by the Henie Onstad Kunstsenter in Oslo for a show called Learning for Life, I asked that a local child or adolescent lead me on an experiential education tour of the city for several days. I wound up working with an amazing twelve year old named Ella Aandal. We had a great time together, and I learned a lot. Anders Hergum who was assisting on the show also came along part of the time. I casually documented the experience with photos which were later presented at the museum along with the following text that Ella wrote.

Before Harrell arrived I made a list of all the things I wanted to show him:

We went to the Botanical garden, there they have a couple of museums as well. We saw the one with the stuffed animals and the green house.

I took Harrell to see my school, It was the week before the beginning of the semester so it was very quiet. No kids.

Harrell had a book by a Norwegian author, it was called Hunger, by Knut Hamsun. He read from the book for me and Anders. It was a strange book.

We went to see the Munch murals at the dining hall at the chocolate factory. It is not for the general public so I had not seen it before. We were lucky.

I took Harrell to Outland, my favorite place in all of Oslo. Outland is a geeky store where you can buy all kinds of weird crap you don’t have any need for. And of course Manga.

We also went to Keyserløkka, just behind my house, where there is a very cool swing. We tried out different techniques to see who was able to slide the longest. From where the swing stands you get a good view of the city.

I took them to the Library, the one close to me that has a special room on the second floor with only comics. A cartoonrary. We spent some time there.

We took the ferry out to Hovedøya, an island in the Oslo fjord. We ate ice cream and had good apple cider and hung out in the old ruins of the old cloister. We walked along the waters edge and looked at the beaches. We were rock skipping. Harrell and Anders went swimming, but I hadn’t brought my swim trunk so I didn’t.

The next day we went to the Technical Museum, also one of my favorite places. They had things about energy and a display about the brain and the body. They have dummies where you have to try to put all the organs back in the right place and another display about how a fetus grows. There were displays about the development of trains, cars and airplanes. There was also an exhibit about diseases.

I showed Harrell my stand up bass and he asked me to play it for him and I did. Then I showed him my drawings of a house, and some monsters and dragons. Then we played a round of cards. No one won.

The last day we went on a mushroom picking trip – to a secret spot. We found several different kinds of mushrooms I don’t know the English names for, like Kantarell, trakt kantarell and lys piggsopp. But the best was when we found a lot of a rare black trumpet mushroom.

That day the weather was good, so even though we could have gone on finding more mushrooms we stopped and went to a beach. There was a float and we swam over to it. It was pretty far, but I made it. Our friends came too, we had dinner together, pasta salad, and I went swimming some more.

I thought the project was great! It was something I had not tried before. I couldn’t wait to get started, but I was a little nervous too.
–Ella Aandal


An Unknown Number

Project for the 2012 Shanghai Biennial
Shanghai, China

Jens Hoffmann invited me to be a part of the 9th Annual Shanghai Biennial. During a site visit to Shanghai this summer I was given a tour of the building that was being remodeled into the museum for the exhibition. The tour happened during lunch break for the construction workers who were working on the building. I was struck by the way that many of the workers took naps in the midst of the construction debris. It was hot and I’m sure they were very tired, so it made sense to grab a quick rest, but it created a strange contrast between the industrial scene and the very human act of sleeping. I took some photographs of the workers which almost look staged, but they are not. A series of these images are being projected life size as part of my project for the Biennial.

Through an interpreter I talked to a worker and asked him what he thought about working on an art museum building. He said he didn’t realize that the construction was for an art museum. I decided that it might be interesting to find out more about the workers and their thoughts on the building and art. So after I left China I asked Deng Liwen and Han Liya (assistants at the Biennial) to interview some of the workers and make a video so that we could show the results as part of my project.

While I was there I also asked if the workers would be invited to the Biennial exhibition opening. I was told they would not be, that it was likely they they would have moved on to another construction site possibly in another city. Since the labor of the construction workers is so important to making the Biennial possible I thought it would be nice to acknowledge them by listing all of their names as part of my project. I also asked that a special invitation be printed and given to all of the construction workers thanking them for their contribution, and inviting them to the opening of the Biennial.

Before and After 1565: A Participatory Exploration of St. Augustin’s Native American History

Exhibition for Crisp-Ellert Art Museum
St. Augustin, FL.

St. Augustine, Florida is the oldest continuously occupied european settlement in the US. A great deal of focus has been placed on its Spanish colonial development and its more recent resort hotel history, but little is available to the immediate public and visiting tourist population about the cultures that existed before the arrival of European settlers, and about native connections in the area since then. Before and After 1565… enlisted the help of local students, archaeologists, educators and other community outlets in order to further examine this cultural heritage and to provide a resource to the community in which to learn more about this vital part of St. Augustine history.

The project included a museum exhibition, as well as a Trolley Tour of local sites related to St. Augustine’s Indigenous and Native American history, a stand serving indigenous “Black Drink,” and an accompanying newspaper publication.

Before and After… Publication PDF

Where I’m Calling From

Project for the Tate Live Series
Tate Modern, London, UK

Okay, so a couple of curators, Catherine Wood and Kathy Noble, from the Tate Modern in London sent me an email asking if I’d like to take part in a new online performance series that they are organizing. I said sure. The idea is that they select five artists a year for four years to do performances that happen in a small gallery in the museum with just one camera to record what happens. The performances are live and unedited, but the audience is entirely on the web.

The way it worked I only had a few days in London before the performance happened. Generally, what I like to do is collaborate with local people in whatever place I’m showing in rather than doing something that I create on my own. I usually make the structure and organize the project, but local participants fill in the content. I recalled seeing some really amazing buskers (musicians playing for money in public) in the Tube stations the last time I had been in London, there was even a small classical orchestra playing down there one time. So I told the Tate folks that what I would do was wander around in the Tube for a few days and select several buskers to perform at the Tate if they were willing. I kind of had it worked out that there would be one performer in front of each wall of the gallery and that I’d l just turn the camera in the middle of the room after each one completed a song–sort of a live mixed tape curated from the subway. Catherine and Kathy seemed to like the idea.

I got there to London and started doing some serious traveling and hanging out in the Tube. The trouble was that I just wasn’t running across very many buskers and the ones that I did encounter weren’t interesting to me. Then pretty randomly I was heading down an escalator in Liverpool station and I heard some really good sounding singing and guitar-playing coming from down below. The music lead me to Stanley Prospere, and after he finished his first song I knew I’d found what I was looking for. Stanley has a great resonant voice and very solid guitar playing. He was playing some sort of gospel song that seemed familiar to me but different at the same time. Later on he told me that when he saw me staring at him that he thought that I must have been lost and was going to ask him for directions. Instead I told him about the project and asked him if he could come to a rehearsal at the Tate that evening. He agreed.

It turned out that Stanley had moved from St. Lucia in the Caribbean to London eight years earlier to take care of his aging mother. His mother had moved there when he was two as part of a government incentive program that brought in low-wage-workers to the UK from developing countries. She thought she would be there for a short time, but ended up staying for fifty years. Back in St. Lucia Stanley had done a lot of performing and had even recorded a CD with a small band, but when he got to London he worked in a senior care facility until he realized he could make more money and enjoy what he was doing busking in the tube.

The rehearsal went great and I decided that rather than work with several buskers I’d just focus on Stanley and have him perform four songs that represented various aspects of his repetoir—French music, country and western, and gospel. In between the songs I asked him questions from off camera about his life and what is involved with becoming a busker in London (which requires an audition to get a license). Immediately after the performance Stanley and I sat down with Catherine and Kathy to do a short interview about the project that included questions that were sent in from the online audience.

All of that went well, and over the next few days about 50,000 people from around the world viewed Stanley’s archived performance on You Tube. The Tate paid Stanley for his work and he seemed to think that overall it had been worthwhile to participate. After the performance we all went out to dinner along with a friend of Stanley’s. Two days after the performance Stanley came back to the museum to met up with me and Capucine Perrot (an assistant curator at the Tate who was very involved with the organization of the project). Stanley had never heard of the Tate before working with me, so we wanted to give him a tour of the museum to give him a better idea of the organization he had been involved with. He took a lot of pictures in the exhibitions and said that he liked it enough that he would come back again. After that he and Capucine came with me to the Hayward Gallery where I was teaching a week-long course on Art and Social Practice as part of a project there called Wide Open School. At the class Stanley was able to talk about his experience with the project and to learn a little more about my larger practice. At first it seemed odd to him to think of me as an artist because most of his art associations involved paintings and sculptures, but when he thought of me more like a producer then what I did made more sense and he could see the creativity and value in it.

This of course is just one example of many different kinds of projects that I have worked on over the last twenty years or so. For me the great thing about my work is that it takes me out into the world to encounter people and activities that go way beyond my own scope of knowledge and experience. Instead of trying to make art objects in a studio by myself and then offer it out to people through galleries in various locations, I am able to continually learn and highlight the culture that already exists in the places that I work in.

Hayward Class

Project for Wide Open School
Hayward Gallery, London

The class/project focused on Art and Social Practice, a term used to describe site-specific, participatory, interdisciplinary, and publicly accessible art projects and practices. I explained and addressed a variety of topics related to Art and Social Practice, from the perspective of my own and others’ related work.

The first day analysed the differences between Art and Social Practice and more traditional studio/gallery models; the second day focused on site, situation, context specificity, and the idea of artists-in-residence as models for working within specific communities; the third day looked at collaboration, participation, and interaction; the fourth day explored the relationship between art institutions and participatory art works, and the final day was be about the role of education in Art and Social Practice.


Participatory Walking Tour: Grinnell College

Project for Grinnell College
Grinnell, IA.

When asked to go to an unfamiliar place to do a lecture and workshop I often ask local people in that place to organize a walking tour where a set of people each select a location and person at that location to discuss what goes on there, we then walk from place to place as a group.

Only Birds Sing the Music of Heaven in this World

Curated for the Museum of Craft and Folk Art
San Francisco, CA

Exhibition that I curated about the intersection between art and farming. The project included a commissioned public project by John Cerney who makes large scale cut out paintings that are displayed in farm fields in the Salinas Valley and other locations.

Catalog PDF

Robert Smithson’s Hotel Palenque

Project for Laura Gitlen Gallery, New York City. 
Also exhibited at James Cohan Gallery, New York City.

“Now this shows you the roofless motif which I think is very, very handsome. . . .This is really the old hotel and you can see that instead of just tearing it down at once they tear it down partially so that you are not deprived of the wreckage situation. That’s very satisfying actually to me: it’s not often that you see buildings being both ripped down and built up at the same time. . . .”
– Robert Smithson

In three acts of ventriloquism, chaos gives way to formalism. An exhibition of new work by Harrell Fletcher, Corin Hewitt, and Elizabeth McAlpine, Roofless Motifs includes performance, drawings, photographs and video where the spontaneity of performance and the entropic forces of nature push the limits of form. At the same time, the insistence of structuralism and our reliance on language further defines the parameters of each artist’s work.

In 1972, Robert Smithson delivered a slide lecture to the architecture students at the University of Utah on Hotel Palenque, a partially demolished construction project he came across in Mexico. Offhand, and at times droll in its delivery, Smithson recounted the beauty and intrigue of the waterless pools, rebar jutting out of demolished concrete walls, and roofless buildings. Unclear if the lecture mocked academia and its fetishization of these sites or was a genuine recount of his visit, the notorious lecture has become legendary in Smithson’s life and work.

Harrell Fletcher’s video, Robert Smithson: The Hotel Palenque, covers Smithson’s original lecture, delivering its content in a drier and more ambiguous tone. Questioning the distribution of knowledge and its interpretation, Fletcher’s work resists traditional hierarchies, opening up dialogues between and across political structures. The bootlegged and casual nature of his work also suggests an irreverence toward the preciousness of the art world that galvanizes and instantiates the original.



A Walk to Pike’s Peak

Project for UCCS Galleries of Contemporary Art
Colorado Springs, CO
Collaboration with Eric Steen

Three day walk from the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs to the top of Pikes Peak organized with Eric Steen that included students, faculty, and community members. Along the way each participant gave a lecture about an aspect the environment we were walking through from a variety of disciplinary perspectives including geology, botany, history, map making, etc.

Assignment for the Tacoma Art Museum

Project for the The 10th Northwest Biennial
Tacoma Art Museum, Tacoma WA

I gave the Tacoma Art Museum the following assignment to work with local organizations and environmental groups to create a collaborative project:

Locate a local environmental organization and a local realist landscape painting organization that are willing to participate in the project. Have representatives from the two groups meet and learn about what each group does. Have the painters make paintings of the site or sites that the environmental group is working to protect or restore. Exhibit the resulting paintings at the museum with wall labels crediting the artists but also including text by the environmental organization describing the particular sites and issues depicted in the paintings.

Hammer Yearbook

Project for The Hammer Museum
Los Angeles, CA
Collaboration with Adam Moser

The Hammer Yearbook investigates the inner workings of a museum including the visitors that come through it, the artists that provide the motivation to come in the first place, and the staff that make it possible, through the formate of a school yearbook.

photos by Adam Moser and the Hammer Museum

Interviews with Children

Project for Dumbo Feather 

A magazine in Australia called Dumbo Feather asked me to do the back covers for their magazine. They are a quarterly, so I did four of them. At the time and still now I go to a park near my house with my daughter and our dogs on a regular basis. I started taking photos of the my daughter climbing in trees and things like that at the park and I liked the images, so I give them four of those photos to use, one for each issue, and then I conducted an interview with my daughter on various subjects. I did a new interview each time an issue of the magazine would come out. The interviews were posted on the magazine’s website, and other people were encouraged to also submit their own photos and interviews with children to the website. When the project concluded there was a nice set of photos and interviews with children from all over the world.


Harrell: What did you have for lunch today?

Beatrice: Chocolate milk with chocolate cheese and chocolate daisies. (Taking the I-phone away from me that I use for recording our conversations and sticking it in my face) why don’t you tell me how dogs eat?

H: uh, with their mouths, and their teeth and tongues. (Recovering the I-phone) What do you like about ice cream?

B: Colors.

H: What did you see at the beach today?

B: Colors.

H: What happened last night when you called for me when you were in your bed trying to go to sleep?

B: It was too noisy in my room.

H: What was the sound that you heard?

B: My heart beating blood through my body.

H: You could hear your own heart beating? What did it sound like?

B: Marching bands.

H: Did you like that sound?

B: No.

H: How do you know when a dog is healthy?

B: When them have happy eyes. Huuleesh (our Rat Terrier) has happy eyes, but Hazel (our Shepard/Husky mix) has sad eyes.

H: Does that mean Hazel is sick?

B: No, because I don’t hear her coughing.

H: What happens when you go to sleep?

B: Bats.

H: What happens when you wake up?

B: Bats.

H: Bea, you have to answer my questions, I’m interviewing you.

B: Bats, bats, bats.


Harrell: What was it like flying on the airplane?

Beatrice: Does the airplane flap its wings to fly?

H: What do you think?

B: No, I didn’t see it flap its wings. Can we send an email to Grandpa?

H: But you know that Grandpa died in January, so I don’t think an email could reach him.

B: Can we give him a call?

H: I don’t think that will work either. What would you write to him in an email if we were to try to send him one?

B: I would ask him if he has a cat, meow, meow.

H: Interesting. He didn’t have any cats when he was alive, but I guess you never know. He did like animals.

B: Let’s dance with the dogs.

H: The dogs never seem to want to dance with us.

B: Yes, they do. Huuleesh dances with her ears, Hazel dances with her eyes.

H: What was your favorite part of the trip to California? Going to the beach?

B: What does the ocean’s butt look like?

H: I’ve never thought about that. What do you think it looks like?

B: The ocean’s butt is blue and is down below. Its face is on top and splashes come out.

H: (Pointing to a painting that Bea was working on) What color is that?

B: Green. I made it by mixing blue and the color of the sun.

H: Wow, I didn’t know you knew how to mix colors. What do you get when you mix red and yellow?

B: No more answers.


Harrell: You just told me that you think our house is like a snake, why do you say that?

Beatrice: Kind of like a snake.

H: What do you mean?

B: What lives in Alabamo?

H: Do you mean Alabama?

B: Uh huh.

H: Well, people live there, animals.

B: What kind, what kind of animals?

H: Maybe there are alligators there.

B: I think some monkeys and bears would live there.

H: What makes you think that?

B: Silence. (She said the word “silence”)

H: Are you telling me to be silent or are you saying that silence makes monkeys and bears?

B: I’m saying that silence makes monkeys and bears, why does it make monkeys and bears?

H: You’re the one that said that, I don’t know anything about that.

B: But what about a flutterfly?

H: I’ve never heard of a flutterfly. Is it like a butterfly?

B: Yes, but it has wing magic. Our house is kind of like a star.

H: Why is it like a star.

B: Because it is a triangle-zoup.

H: What is a triangle-zoup?

B: A triangle-zoup is when you zoup, and then make a triangle.

H: What do you think about the music on the radio right now?

B: Classical music.

H: Do you like classical music.

B: Five.

H: Five?

B: Classical music makes me think of five.

H: What?

B: Five people resisted, and we are five people, are we five?

H: What do you mean five people resisted?

B: We resisted.

H: Resisted what?

B: I’m just joking.


Beatrice: I want to be a dentist, I mean a hair doctor.

Harrell: What does a hair doctor do?

B: They brush people’s hair and look in there to see if they have any mice in their hair. (She tries to spin my chair around.) You need to do some hip hop.

H: I’ll take that into consideration.

B: My brain doesn’t go away when I go to sleep.

H: What happens when you go to sleep?

B: Get bad dreams, hurt, pain.

H: What kind of bad dreams and pain?

B: About rotting onions and carrots.

H: That was what your bad dream was about?

B: Someone ate a molded carrot.

H: Very scary sounding.

B: Mama is arting in her workroom.

H: Arting?

B: Yeah, making dresses, and watching movies.

H: Do you like flying on airplanes?

B: No, but when we were landing in Nevada everything looked like toys. Toy houses, toy cars, toy everything.

H: Tell me about the turbulence that we felt on the airplane, what was that like?

B: We shook around like a bowl of soup.

H: What do you know about science?

B: Don’t waste gravity.

H: Interesting, what else?

B: Candles are so beautiful they come on like little stars.

H: What are stars made of?

B: A person star, or not a person star?

H: Well, I was thinking of the not a person star, but whatever you want to respond to is fine.

B: I don’t know. When I go to sleep I disappear.

H: You disappear?

B: No, I stay. I’m just wiggling my brain.

H: Anything else you want to say? This is our last interview.

B: Write down my song. (She then sings…) Good bye, good bye, good bye.

Pippi and Theonious

Presented by Gareth Moore as part of his Children’s Films project
November 19, 2011 – January 29, 2012

For his project “Children’s Films” Gareth Moore asked five international artists to produce short films for children. The artists invited, Ulla von Brandenburg (*1974), Keren Cytter (*1977), Geoffrey Farmer (*1967), Julia Feyrer (*1982) and Harrell Fletcher (*1967) were free to focus on any particular topic, shaping the content and form of their respective film. Gareth Moore collated the five contributions into an episodic film and provided it with open and closing credits. In this way, an entertaining children’s film of more than 20 minutes came about. One point of reference for this project was, alongside his own fascination with the formats of popular children’s television, the “Children’s Tapes” (1974) of the American artist Terry Fox.

Learning About the World at the Grocery Store

Saraga Market 
Indianapolis, IN

I was asked by a non-profit art center in Indianapolis, Indiana called Big Car to come up with a project that would happen in conjunction with a city-wide festival which was focusing on food systems. The director of Big Car, Jim Walker, took me around to various neighborhoods that he thought might be good spots for a potential project. The last stop was an older somewhat vacant shopping center that contained in it a thriving international grocery store called Saraga. I was immediately excited by the Saraga environment. Indianapolis is not a place that you normally associate with ethnic diversity, but Saraga was an unexpected exception or maybe just an example of the incorrect assumption that the midwest is only white and homogenous. The grocery store is set up so that most of the aisles are identified by geographical areas–India, Mexico, Venezuela, Iraq, etc., and contain food products from those places. As I walked around the store I observed various shoppers who appeared to connect with the geographical locations named on the aisles. I couldn’t help but think how interesting it would be to hear from them directly talking about various topics related to their countries origin–politics, histories, personal stories, and of course cuisine. Over the years I’ve created a number of projects that allow me to tap into local knowledge in the places where I have been commissioned to do work. I choose to do that primarily to satisfy my own desire to learn about new things, and then I try also to extend that experience to larger publics as well through exhibitions, events, publications, etc.. Reading and watching films offers an important but mediated form of knowledge acquisition, so I really enjoy the opportunity for first hand experience and learning from primary sources. In the case of the Saraga project the way that I set things up was that I worked remotely with the people at Big Car, Jim, Shauta, and Tom, and they found local volunteers to go to Saraga and approach customers and workers to see if they would be willing to make presentations at the store about their country of origin. The volunteers then worked with the participants to create display boards depicting aspects of their countries of origin. We then held an event at Saraga called Learning About the World at the Grocery Store. It took place for several hours on a Saturday afternoon. The participants set up their display boards in a row at the front of the aisles in relationship to the geographical areas that they were representing. The event was advertised, so some people came specifically for it, others were just there shopping and experienced the presentations spontaneously. Many of the participants did cooking demonstrations or had sample foods that they had prepared in advance. After people mulled around and talked casually for about an hour we went down the row and each participant took a turn talking to the crowd about their country of origin. It is amazing how well people do when given the opportunity to present something that they know and care about, and how much can be learned from the people that are all around us.

The Knowledge

A Project for Portland State University 
Portland, OR
Funded in part by the Regional Arts and Cultural Council

This was a percent for art public art project located on a large blank wall at the corner of SW 5th and Hall on the Portland State University campus. I worked with Avalon Kalin on the project and we contacted as many people on the PSU campus–students, faculty, staff, and asked them to recommend a book that they used in their teaching or studies that was available in the PSU library. We then pulled those books off the selves, stacked them up and had them photographed by Motoya Nakamura. The photo was then enlarged by a billboard company and attached to the wall. A plaque is included with all of the names of the people who participated in the project.

The Knowledge was selected as one of Americans for the Arts 2010 Outstanding Public Artworks.



Selections from the Life and Work of Michael Bravo

Curated as part of The Magnificent Seven 
CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Art
San Francisco, CA.

Curated by Harrell Fletcher as part of The Magnificent Seven, this unique, biographical exhibition featured artworks by the artist’s mentor, family member and friend Michael Bravo. Selections From the Life and Work of Michael Bravo presents paintings, drawings, photographs, prints, and sculptures from the artist’s large body of work produced over the past fifty years. The exhibition also highlights a wide range of personal objects that Bravo created for his family including wooden ships, airplanes, and mobiles, as well as family snapshots and other ephemera from the artist’s life and career.

From ArtForum:

I’VE THOUGHT ABOUT CURATING this show for the past five years. Michael Bravo retired from the art department at Humboldt State University––where I studied with him as an undergraduate––in 2004, after thirty-one years of teaching. Coincidentally, that year I began to teach at Portland State University. He was married to my older sister when I was a child, which adds an unusual element to our relationship. I’ve always been inspired by his work, as it is very interdisciplinary and unorthodox. But I’ve also been interested in him as a person and feel that our trajectories have been similar in several important ways.

The show features some objects he made for me when I was a baby, such as a mobile that used to hang over my crib, a toolbox, and wooden ships. I’ve also included a selection of Michael’s art from the past fifty years, as well as ephemera, like family photographs and documents from his life. I interviewed him for a publication that accompanies the show and wrote an exhibition text that describes our relationship and thoughts about his work. The exhibition presents my very particular view of Michael. It’s a very idiosyncratic exhibition, and many people have told me they think it’s the most personal show I’ve done.

I think this exhibition is related to several projects I’ve organized in the past that look at artists who operate on the margins of the art world or who are not involved in the art world at all. I’ve always been drawn to people and places that are peripheral to art-world centers. These are concerns that are central to my practice.

The exhibition is also similar in some ways to my traveling exhibition “The American War,” which began in 2005. In that case, I rephotographed all of the images and texts from the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City and organized events and talks to accompany the show. I think the connection between that project and the current one at the Wattis is that in both cases I create a framework in which to view a set of objects that I didn’t make myself. As a viewer you can look at the work directly or you can consider it from the larger perspective of my relationship to the materials and my motivations for organizing the show.

Michael’s exhibition is part of the Wattis Institute’s program “The Magnificent Seven,” which is spread out over a three-year period. In addition to having a solo show, each participating artist will teach at CCA for a semester and will create a new work as part of a Capp Street Project Residency. (The other artists areAbraham Cruzvillegas, Ryan Gander, Renata Lucas, Kris Martin, Paulina Olowska, and Tino Sehgal.)

Right now I have another project that I’m working on with Wattis director Jens Hoffmann called “The People’s Biennial.” For that traveling exhibition, which is being organized by Independent Curators International, Jens and I will travel to five locations across the US––Portland, Oregon; Rapid City, South Dakota; Scottsdale, Arizona; Winston-Salem, North Carolina; and Haverford, Pennsylvania. We will choose local people’s work in each of the cities to be a part of a group exhibition that travels to art centers in each of the cities that we selected work from. The art itself could be anything from a kid’s science experiment to the work of an artist who for one reason or another hasn’t participated in the art world. We’ll also have roundtable discussions about art and curating in those cities where the exhibitions are held. The show was partially inspired by the artist Michael Patterson-Carver (not to be confused with Michael Bravo), whose career I helped launch. When I first met him he was selling his drawings on a sidewalk in Portland, Oregon, and now he has had shows in galleries and museums in New York, Paris, London, and Brussels. Not that I think there is anything wrong with showing your work on the street, but it is also nice to be able to break down the walls that normally prevent artists like Patterson-Carver from showing in mainstream art venues.

I want to level things out by drawing attention to work being made outside of standard art world circles. I’m not interested in hierarchies or creating distinctions between different kinds of people and the work they make based on where they live or whether or not they have a MFA. I think this kind of expanded view of what qualifies as “art” and who can be called an artist, ultimately makes for a more interesting art world and world in general.

The People’s Biennial

Curated with Jens Hoffmann
Supported by Independent Curators International

People’s Biennial is an exhibition that examines the work of artists who operate outside the sanctioned mainstream art world. As such it recognizes a wide array of artistic expression present in many communities across the United States. Working in cities that are not considered the primary art capitals, the 36 artists in this exhibition present significant contemporary work ranging from documentary photographs of military life in the heartland, to video works focusing on the biological activity in urban ecosystems, and complex, minute marble-like sculptures carved out of soap bars. In covering even the little-known, the overlooked, the marginalized, and the excluded, the exhibition represents a real snapshot of creative practice in America today.

People’s Biennial also proposes an alternative to the standard contemporary art biennial, which mostly focuses on art from a few select cities (New York, Los Angeles, occasionally Chicago, Miami or San Francisco). It questions the often exclusionary and insular process of selecting art that has at times turned the spaces where art is exhibited into privileged havens seemingly detached from the realities of everyday life.

The exhibition is the result of a year of research into the creative communities of five American cities: Portland, Oregon; Rapid City, South Dakota; Winston-Salem, North Carolina; Scottsdale, Arizona; and Haverford, Pennsylvania. In each place, the curators collaborated with an art institution and participated in a series of public events and open-calls, meeting hundreds of artists, which led to the selection of the works on view.


The People’s Biennial Website
The People’s Biennial Catalogue


Songs From The Treetops

Curated for PDX Contemporary Art 
Portland, OR

In these times of economic desperation, (or even just during the desperation of everyday life in general) it is understandable that people would find escape routes into alternate realities. For some people that is as easy to do as turning on the TV or slipping into a haze of web sites. The stereotype of an artist is a person who disappears into their own studio and self on a regular bases to appear later with the resulting art pieces for the general public to appreciate and possible acquire. In my own work I’ve largely eschewed that approach in favor of direct interactions with everyday reality that often times doesn’t result in the production of an object at all. But my past artistic interests come from more traditional cloistered retreats into personal moments of representing imagined worlds. I have a love for that kind of work, and though my appreciation for art in general has diminished over the years there are still examples that stand out to me as remarkable. In these cases I am glad that the artists didn’t make the work solely for themselves and instead in one way or another have shared their unique views with the public including me. In the work presented here at the gallery I have selected artists who have specifically addressed the idea of constructed landscapes in various forms. I feel like I have been enriched by these artist’s endeavors,  and in turn want to share that experience with you.

Exhibited Artists:
Santiago de Paoli
Carson Ellis
Chris Johanson and Johanna Jackson
Kenneth Mroczek
Eduardo Navarro
James Miles
Wendy Red Star

Exhibition Images on PDX Contemporary Art’s website



Made in India

Project for Art Gallery of Mississauga
Mississauga, Canada, 2009
and IDEA Space at Colorado College
Colorado Springs, CO, 2010
Collaboration with Wendy Red Star

In 2007 a living room rug was purchased as a gift from a US home wares company for my house. It was ordered from the Internet. The rug took a while to arrive, but the day after it did another identical rug was also delivered. The second rug was dropped off on the front porch when we weren’t there, so we couldn’t tell the delivery person that a mistake had been made. At first we weren’t sure what to do about the second rug. We considered contacting the company to let them know what had happened, but then we thought we could do something more interesting with the situation. We noticed that the tag on the rug said that it was made in India. This got us thinking about the global economy and the role we played in it as western consumers. We decided to sell the rug for the amount it was sold for in the US, which was $1500, and take that money to the rug factory where the rug was made. We would then “redistribute the wealth” to a factory worker who might have made the rug. That would also give us a chance to see first hand what the environment was like that our rug was made in, and hopefully give us a better idea of the implications involved in the simple purchase of a product made half a world away. The rug and the idea (which included funds for us to travel to India and document the experience) were sold to two art centers, The Art Gallery of Mississauga and Idea Space at Colorado College. The two organizations split the costs and agreed to exhibit the piece (the second rug and video documentation) and to own the work collectively when the project was completed.

We spent the next year doing research about the rug industry in India and related subjects to prepare ourselves for the trip. We also, after a long search, located someone in India who could help us find the factory and help with the project, Ashish Mahajan. Ashish works for an amazing media arts organization in Delhi called Sarai, which we also had an opportunity to visit and learn about, and he is an incredibly knowledgeable and resourceful person. The project could not have happened without him. When we got to India we met with Ashish and he took us around to talk to various people who were able to give us more first hand information about factory work issues and practices in India. We were also able to walk around a “factory slum” with a friend of Ashish’s and see the desperate situation the people living there were in. The factories in that area included many US appliance makers. It was a shocking revelation to realize that our refrigerator was made in a place like that by people living in those conditions. We were told that assembly line dismemberments and fatalities were everyday occurrences for workers at some of those factories.

Eventually, we went to the city of Panipat about three hours outside of Delhi where most rug factories in India are located and visited a factory that we think was the one where our rug was made. After seeing the operations at that particular factory, which were surprisingly less problematic than we had expected, we befriended a worker named Sandeep who showed us where he lived (a small cement room shared with two other works in a compound across the street from the factory) and told us about his life and what it was like to work in the factory. He had come to the factory five years earlier from an area of India that was a days train ride away, and his earnings helped support not only his wife and three kids, but also his large extended family. We ended up explaining our project to him and giving him the $1500, which we had converted into rupees. Coincidentally, $1500 was about the equivalent of the amount of money that Sandeep could earn in one year working at the factory. Ashish gave Sandeep his phone number and said that he would check back in with him at some point to see how he was doing, but we haven’t heard any reports yet.

We continued to use the original rug and have since bought various other products produced in developing countries (though we have thought twice before doing so). The shock and amazement of our visit to India has left a lasting impression on us and we think often about the people and experiences we had there, but some of the extreme feelings have faded, and we are still not exactly sure what to do about our role in the global economy. Our ideals tell us one thing and convenience tells us another. We realize that our tiny “wealth redistribution” project had a very small and limited effect on the larger systemic issues that we were trying to address, but at least for us and hopefully the people we interacted with it created a personal and significant connection within a huge and almost incomprehensible capitalist machine.

Born Out of Pleasure

Exhibition at The Power Plant
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Curated by Senior Curator of Programs, Helena Reckitt
20 September–2 November, 2008
A ten day project (and six week show) with an event series, involving an out of town artist, and various local people, translated into cake form, with photographs, text descriptions.  Another title could have been: It Will Just Lead To Disappointment

Harrell Fletcher , Augusto Bastos, Thomas Brandt, Sean Frey, Hannah Miami Jickling, Alison SM Kobayashi, Helen Reed, Kerri Reid, Kristin Shaw, Swintak, Maiko Tanaka, Amy Wah, and Karen Wielonda, Darren O’Donnell

Harrell Fletcher has always enjoyed making art with other people, especially those outside the art world.  This September, Fletcher invited six Toronto-based artists, who in turn invited six people who don’t identify as artists, to devise an exhibition from scratch together. The group includes a lawyer, a mathematician, a baker, a computer engineer, a puppeteer and clown, and an economist and former Angolan freedom fighter, as well as six artists who work in various media.  Over the course of ten days, participants bicycled, walked and even boated around Toronto, encountering people, places and objects that shaped the exhibition’s form and content.

Creative decisions were reached through a process of discussion, if not always consensus, with group members’ skills and experiences informing the project’s direction.  For instance, Karen Wielonda’s expertise as a baker stimulated the use of cakes as a sculptural element and commemorative device, while the lemon-shaped cake derived from mathematician Kristin Shaw’s lecture about geometry and infinity. An accompanying lecture series presents individuals that the group encountered speaking on a range of subjects from surviving traffic accidents to the study of medical herbalism.

Contrasting with stereotypical ideas about the isolated, introspective artist, the project presents a down-to-earth picture of the artist as outward-looking and sociable, a facilitator rather than an auteur.  For Fletcher, a self-described ‘shy person,’ this way of working diverts attention away from him towards other people whose experiences and accomplishments are generally not celebrated in public.

The title ‘Born out of Pleasure’ (taken from a group member’s account of his conception) captures the project’s emphasis on spontaneity and chance. Treading a fine line between amateurism and professionalism, sentimentality and seriousness, the project values the activities of people from all walks of life and evokes a sense of collective learning and knowledge. Within this context, the creative impulse is less about originality than with adapting existing resources, or, as Fletcher says, “pointing to things that I think are interesting so that other people will notice and appreciate them too.” The world is full of drama, intrigue and complexity, the exhibition suggests, if only we take the time to stop, listen and look.

—Helena Reckitt, Senior Curator of Programs





Veda’s Bibles

Sala Diaz
San Antonio, TX 
Made in collaboration with Veda Epling

In 2005 I was in San Antonio doing an Art Pace residency. I spent a lot of time just walking around, often times with Katrina Moorhead who was also doing a residency. At some point while on one of these walks Katrina pointed out a woman sitting in a doorway of a church downtown highlighting every line of a bible with an array of bright colors. I was curious so I started up a conversation. Her name was Veda Epling,  she said she was homeless and lived there in the doorway of the church. She told us she had highlighted about ten bibles already, she was about a third of the way done with the one she was working on. She said there was a system to the colors she used but it was hard to explain. I asked her if I could commission her to make me a highlighted bible, but Veda said she only gave them away and wouldn’t take money for them. She said that if I got her a bible and some markers she would make one for me when she finished the current one. The next day I came back with a set of makers and a couple of bibles I’d gotten from Half Priced Books. I asked her if there was anything else I could get for her. She reluctantly said that she would like a phone card so she could call her daughter. I went and got her a couple of phone cards.

During the rest of my residency I stopped by and visited Veda almost everyday. She told me a little about her life and asked me about mine. She ended up coming over to Art Pace for a couple of public events I did as part of my show The American War. I took some photos of Veda’s bible and showed them to some people. Everyone thought they were very beautiful. I was having prints made at Hare and Hound Press for my show, and it occurred to me that the bible pages might look good blown up as prints too. I mentioned the idea to Veda and she was interested so I arranged to bring her to Hare and Hound. Janet and Gary worked with her and we made a few variations on the prints, concluding that they looked best with the bible cover included in the image. I asked Veda if she would like to do a show of them and she said she would.

Then I had to leave San Antonio because my residency was over. At some point after that Hills Snyder asked me if I’d like to do a show at Sala Diaz. It seemed like a great opportunity to show some of Veda’s bible page prints. Since I was back in Portland, where I live, I asked Shelby Spaulding to go see Veda and see if she still wanted to do a show. She did and so Shelby borrowed Veda’s bible and took it over to Hare and Hound. Gary and I worked together remotely and selected the pages to scan and print, Veda had requested a few in particular too. Once the prints were done Gary took them over to get framed. Somewhere along the line Veda got a cell phone and we started talking on a fairly regular basis. She was excited about the show. A smaller set of the prints had been sent to France for a show there, but Veda wasn’t able to come out for that. Doing the show in San Antonio was important for me because I wanted Veda to see her work framed and presented in a gallery context. She liked the idea that people saw her bibles as art.

About three weeks before the show was going to open Veda called me and told me that the church where she slept and worked on her bibles had come up with a new rule that no longer allowed her stay there. She said she didn’t want to stay in a homeless shelter because of bad prior experiences, and that she would be fined by the city if she slept in the park. I asked her what she wanted to do and she said she was going to try to save up some money for a bus to Georgia. I told her I’d buy her a ticket if she would consider coming back for the opening of her show. She said she’d like to do that. We agreed to talk once she got to Georgia and would then figure out how to get her back for the show. I told her I’d also put her up in a hotel when she came back to San Antonio. A few days passed and I got a message on my phone from Veda saying things weren’t working out in Georgia as she had planned. She sounded upset. I was really busy with school, I teach at Portland State University, so I didn’t get a chance to call her back right away. When I did her phone was no longer in service. I flew to San Antonio, the framed prints were dropped off at the gallery and I installed them. Shelby and I took a look around the church for Veda but there was no sign of her.

Veda didn’t make it to the show at Sala Diaz, but a curator from the BYU museum, Jeff Lambson, heard about the show and bought all of the pieces for the museum’s collection. The museum paid me, and I then hired one of my grad student Connie Hockaday to contact shelters in Texas to try to find Veda. Eventually she was found and we made arrangements for her to receive the payment. When I talked to Veda on the phone she said she had given 10% of the money to the church near where I’d originally met her. She asked that money be used to buy sleeping bags for people who were homeless.


Where I Lived and What I Lived For

Video for Domaine De Kerguehennec
Brittany, France

I was asked to do a residency at an art center in Brittany, France called Domaine De Kerguehennec that is located on an old estate in the country. I spent about a month every Summer there for about three years. The whole thing concluded with an exhibition in 2006 made up of some of my older work and several new projects that I made specifically for Kerguehennec, including a sculpture for the sculpture park, a newspaper, a calendar, and a video piece. The video is called Where I Lived, and What I Lived For and is based on text from Walden by Henry David Thoreau. As most people in the US know (but as it turned out not so many in France) in the late 1800 Thoreau lived in Concord, Massachusetts, and was very critical of modern society. As a project he moved to the country by a lake called Walden Pond, and built a cabin there that he lived in for a year or so while he thought and wrote. The book Walden is about that experience, with a large dose of his philosophical views added in. During my visits to Kerguehennec living in a little stone cottage for a month at a time, largely cut off from the outside world, I was reminded of Walden. I decided to construct a piece in the same way that I made Blot Out The Sun, a video based on Ulysses by James Joyce that I shot at Jay’s Quick Gas here in Portland a few years ago. In both cases I read the book, highlighted passages that intrigued me and then wrote those pieces of text onto cue cards. I then asked people at the gas station, or in the case of the Walden piece, down by the lake at Kerguehennec, to read the lines while being video taped. I liked the idea that people come to the park at Kerguehennec to get a small dose of removal from society, and might in some small ways relate to the ideas expressed in Walden.


PDF of English translation


A Sincere Attempt at Deception

Published in ARTL!ES
Winter 2006

When I was in grad school, I TA’ed a class for a professor I liked a lot. He and I came up with various projects and field trips for the students. It was a fun class and, for the most part, it went really well, but there was one student—I think her name was Monica—who hated the class. She was always complaining that the assignments we gave and the work we discussed had nothing to do with “art.” She was herself an unremarkable, fairly traditional photographer.

About three-quarters of the way through the semester, Monica presented a new piece during a critique, and the other students were baffled by what she had done. She set out about fifty Dixie Cups on the ground in rows forming a loose triangle next to the corner of a building on campus. The cups were filled with red punch. It seemed oddly interesting to me in a quiet, slightly ridiculous way but the other students all criticized the piece. Monica didn’t say anything, so I came up with some thoughts about why I liked it. We then moved on to another student’s piece.

A couple of weeks later, during a discussion session, Monica announced that her Dixie Cup piece was a fake and that she had made it to expose the absurdity of the class—of me in particular—and that I had taken the bait. She seemed very satisfied with herself.

The professor was furious. He said he couldn’t believe that she had done that to the class—and to me—and walked out of the room. I was left alone with the students, as they all looked at me sort of sorrowfully. I thought the situation through and said to Monica, “Well, in my opinion it is still the best piece you have ever done.” I really meant it too. She was totally deflated. The other students smiled, as if some riddle had just been answered. I went on to suggest that even though Monica had intentionally tried to deceive me, she still had sincere intent and had successfully produced a piece that, at least for me, was complex—both formally and conceptually. Though I myself am not interested in deceiving people or in deception, in life or in my work, in the case of Monica’s piece, somehow, her motivation to deceive me compelled her to make a work that challenged her own boundaries and contained a kind of energy her earlier work lacked.

A few minutes later, the professor walked back into the room and was visibly surprised to see the class happily discussing the ins and outs of intent and honesty in regard to art. Monica looked disgruntled but, at the same time, seemed to realize that she had unintentionally made a very personal and interesting piece of art.