Byproduct: The Laundromat – Unfolding socially-engaged art practices

It is difficult to pinpoint the origin of socially-engaged art practice.  Perhaps this is because it is rooted in so many different genres, ranging from early twentieth-century Dadaism, to the avant-garde Situationists of the 60’s, to late-80’s “New Genre Public Art”, to many others. One may even argue that socially-engaged art has always existed, but only in the last decade has it been recognized as a distinct art form.  In recent years, Social Practice or “SOPRA” has been absorbed into a variety of MFA programs throughout the United States.  Although I’m hesitant to offer a succinct definition of the practice, Randy Kennedy acknowledges in his recent New York Times article, “Outside the Citadel”, “practitioners [of socially-engaged art] freely blur the lines among object making, performance, political activism, community organizing, environmentalism and investigative journalism, creating a deeply participatory art that often flourishes outside the gallery and museum system.”  Indeed, social practice grants artists the flexibility to flow within and around various practices and disciplines, forming collaborations on a greater scale, and creating cultural access points. As an artist working in this field, I am fascinated by individuals who embrace unexpected outcomes, whose projects exist regardless of institutional support and, in fact, whose work is often far removed from the museums and the self-proclaimed “architects of the cultural landscape” that are found within.

Byproduct: The Laundromat was designed as a 2012 Rocket Grant project.  The Rocket Grant is an Andy Warhol Foundation regional initiative fund administered through the Spencer Museum of Art and the Charlotte Street Foundation. In support of artist-driven, radical practices, Rocket Grants states on their website that they are meant to “specifically encourage work that is inventive and ‘under the radar’, and that engages or benefits an audience OUTSIDE OF established arts venues, museums, theaters, art galleries or arts districts.” For the past four years, the Warhol Regional Initiative has supported the exposure and more widely accepted view of non-traditional art practices throughout the Kansas City area.

In the predominantly painter’s town that is Kansas City, Byproduct: The Laundromat, which launched in early February 2013, aims to cultivate a deeper understanding of socially-engaged art practice in the community. Through small-scale programs, invited conversations, and site-specific projects (during which program attendees actually do their laundry), Byproduct connects audiences that are interested in art that involves the community in unexpected ways: art goers, supporters, artists, and the immediate community of Walnut Place Laundromat. No need to worry about what to wear and finding the time; everyone has dirty laundry and because the programming takes place in a laundromat, you can wear your sweatpants in public if you want.

The Walnut Place Laundromat is located in a mixed-income neighborhood a few blocks from the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, The Kansas City Art Institute, and is directly across the street from the H&R Block Artspace. As one might imagine, there is already an audience of art-interested folk in the area (in fact, it was my laundromat for a couple of years in undergrad). However, there is also a large population of individuals in the area who have never stepped foot in any of the surrounding art institutions.

The space is more than just the humming of machines; the TV is rarely on, a shared waiting area begs for activity, and everyone that enters is warmly welcomed by the owner and operator, Adewale Badejo (aka Walle). Walle is a Nigerian immigrant who holds another job as a clinical pathologist. He has no formal instruction on contemporary art, and speaks English as a second language. He is also one of the most challenging and embracing collaborators to work with. Ever since I met Walle, he has referenced that the world is a two-way street. “The project is good for you, and it will be good for me. A lot of people only think in one-way ways – only about themselves, what they can get, or how they can get more money – but the world is richer than that. The world is a series of collaborations and engagements with people.” When I first started the project, a common remark was, “Of course he wants your project there; it brings him more business.” In discussions with Walle about these comments, he simply laughed. “They don’t understand what it’s really about then. They’re missing the point. This is already a public place…you’re adding another layer to it.”

Walle already has crafted a community around him, and has been sharing his story with launderers since long before I approached him. Socially-engaged art and Social Practice has a tendency to exploit the individuals and communities in which these types of projects take place.  As an artist/practitioner/organizer, I am, however, actively trying to embed myself within this community while also contributing to it with the cross-pollination of audiences that are interested in the programs Byproduct offers.  My hope is that after the course of a year, the project will create a more diverse and dynamic community.  To date, programming has included numerous music performances; a cooking demonstration focused on affordable off-cuts, which was led by a local butcher; a Chicago-based artist and educator who curated the TV; Laundromat Symposiums that explore topics such as experimental programming and alternative spaces; instructional demonstrations on soap-making, homemade detergent, and shaving cream; and a three-day site specific collaborative conversation piece, organized by Invisible Venue from the Bay area.

It is my hope and my intention that Byproduct places “art” in the realm of knowledge, tools, and experience by adopting a “blue collar” aesthetic. I hope the project allows people to come to their own terms with it, just like I hope people come to their own terms with socially-engaged art. Though I do believe in its importance, I see myself moving away from the “SOPRA” talk and socially-engaged art rhetoric; I will leave that to the Academics. I’m personally more interested in the vernaculars of this art practice, the regional hybridizations of culture and identity where the works aren’t being discussed inside the safety of institutional panels, “social practice” conferences, and art spaces. Let us find the regional dialects, vernaculars, and accents of work thereof rather than the model of what it should be. After all, isn’t that culture at its finest?

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