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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.