In Defense of the Possible at Open Engagement
A circle of twelve was asked to consider a chair in the center of the room. We were to reinvent the purpose of the chair through performing a new relationship to our body. Anything but “chair” is fair game. One guy put it around his neck [necklace], a woman swung it at an invisible ball [baseball bat]. Which was all fine and fun, but tension arose when we talked about what exactly we were doing to the chair. What was the role of creativity in this exercise? A woman said, “We are using the qualities of the chair in unlikely ways.”
“No,” someone responded. “The chair can be anything! That’s the beauty of the exercise, the freedom of creativity.” One of the leaders of the workshop expanded: “Sometimes in our lives, it may be necessary to think of a person’s race, or gender, or orientation as something completely other. How can a chair not be a chair at all, but a blanket?”
The woman insisted, “No, sorry to be a stickler on this point, but the chair cannot be anything and I think that’s important. It taps into this basic idea we have about creativity. Creativity can be seen in two different ways. On the one hand, we see ourselves as these boundless creators who fabricate something from nothing. On the other hand, there’s this sense that we are always co-opting and rearranging existing materials. The creator who sees what the chair offers and plays to its strengths is a stronger innovator, because they acknowledge the real. With regards to political re-framings, of issues like race, gender, sexual orientation, this distinction becomes important. The fact of the matter is, we are not starting from scratch and to pretend we are weakens our position.” We can pretend that the world doesn’t exist when making art, or we can acknowledge that it does, and the latter approach may in fact be the more radically creative act.
The argument took place at a Theater of the Oppressed NYC workshop on May 18th at the Open Engagement Conference in Corona Park, a three day extravaganza investigating the nuanced challenges of social practice in fine art. I thought the chair discussion did an interesting job of contextualizing the bodies of work of the two keynote speakers at the conference: Mierle Laderman Ukeles in her nitty-gritty trials with the sanitation department of NYC, and J Morgan Puett with her reclusive, quasi-utopian environment of Mildred’s Lane set physically and psychologically apart from the outside world.
Claiming that the chair can be anything at all if you put your mind to it might look like deciding to build a residency and ending up with Puett’s sixteen-year-old project tucked into a rural area of Northeastern Pennsylvania. Mildred’s Lane may be called a residency, but your run-of-the-mill applicant will be hard pressed to find any of the usual trappings, like an art studio, free time, or group critiques. Instead Mildred’s Lane boasts an impressive list of visiting artists and collaborators who have designed incredibly singular programming. This year’s focuses include the ethics and politics of attention in relation to works of art, ideas of the underworld, and subjective specificity in the face of mass media and industrial manufacture. Puett had some very enthused fans in the audience at Open Engagement; some ten to fifteen audience members whose testimonials could be summarized as “it’s hard to explain but it’s amazing and there’s nothing like it.”
However, the residency is only accessible at an exorbitant cost. Apply, and get accepted, and you’re dishing out $1000 for every week of Puett and crew’s company. Which isn’t to say that a residency has to be cheap, or that expensiveness means exclusiveness (given the possibility of scholarships and aid), but when asked about the tuition’s effects on diversity and access, Puett’s response called the organization into question. “If you look at the tuition,” she said, “it really breaks down to $143 a day. Which isn’t so much when you consider what you’re getting.” There are hot water bottles in the morning. They sleep on three-hundred count sheets. They eat three gourmet meals a day. “I don’t believe in martyrdom,” she added.
Coming from Puett, who self-identified as socialist and aligned her project with the Occupy movement, this response seemed disjointed from the overall mission and energy of Mildred’s Lane. Another audience member asked, “You mentioned at the start of your talk that you have many fans and many critics in the audience, and you asked us to be gentle. I was curious about your relationship to critique, and how you would seek to invite it in order to grow as an organization?”
“We need to move on from that,” Puett responded. “Experience is brewing.” Old models of critique do not apply, she argued, and she takes issue with those who would seek to impose them on the institution. She invites anyone with a bone to pick to visit Mildred’s Lane and see for themselves why it is important and how it works.
This type of response seemed to close off conversation: those who would like to form an opinion in the absence of a visit are out of luck, which only puts further pressure onto the expense of participation in Puett’s project. Are only the wealthy granted permission to critique? There seemed to be an insurmountable wall, a basic unwillingness to speak a language outside of the one of her own invention.
Enter Mierle Laderman Ukeles, a self-titled “maintenance artist” whose decades-long relationship with the sanitation department in New York City tinkers with the distribution of power from ground level. In “Touch Sanitation,” Ukeles shook the hands of over eight thousand sanitation men, seeking the worker’s stories of humiliation and isolation. Her work questions the sanitation worker’s public perception, which she compared to her own role as a maintenance worker, as a mother and keeper of a home.
Where Puett harnesses her energies to create an ideal site, Ukeles fiddles with existing ones. Those alterations become the site of creativity, rather than stepping stones towards some finalized form. Ukeles’s work acknowledges the chair for what it is. The initial temptation to laud Ukeles as more “selfless” and engaged than Puett is misguided. The projects are in a sense unrelated, as their priorities are completely independent, and a world without one or the other would probably be worse off for different reasons. A workshop that educates kids about the merits of cooking organic may be undeniably constructive, but it does not take the place of an excellent organic restaurant that sources locally, price be damned.
That said, some of the merits of Ukeles’s work comments directly on the pitfalls of Puett’s. In hedging critique, Puett’s work starts to look like the romance of a brilliant artist in a vacuum. The very idea of social practice could challenge these traditional notions of artists as sole creative powerhouses, but the tuition and the inscrutable language of Mildred’s Lane cuts off conversation. The work starts to rely on the mystery and the aura around Puett herself, which underserves what seems to be a fascinating endeavor to play with the possible at Mildred’s Lane. The presentation seemed limited not by its content, but the dialogue around it: a sort of preciousness of language, and an unwillingness to play in the same ballpark with other ideas.
Photos courtesy of the author.