Open Engagement: A Social Response
Writing about socially-engaged art is notoriously problematic. This decentered, evolving form feels allergic to criticism and is a minefield for potential critics. One just has to look to a number of recent high-profile examples: the circuitous assessments of Thomas Hirschorn’s Gramsci Monument or the consistent disconnect in reviews (and subsequent comments) of Mary Jane Jacob’s “A Proximity of Consciousness: Art and Social Action” at SAIC in late 2014. Or simply the ongoing critical silence on the majority of socially-engaged projects throughout the United States. Responding to the Gramsci Monument in Afterall, Kari Rittenbach could be summing up the broader context of socially-engaged art when she says that Hirschorn’s “excessive model of production can be both difficult to experience and, significantly, difficult to critique.”
When discussing art writing in relation to socially-engaged practices, it is easy to try to apply the tools we understand from the history of art criticism to this work. Yet, we can quickly laugh off an assessement of the ‘craft’ of social-engagement. We can not be masterful with our material; open exploration is not a goal – engagement is. Imported language from more understood forms is wildly inappropriate, so how do we evolve? Assessment, evaluation, impact, aesthetics, authorship, material, meaning: what are our terms here and should we even define them?
In order to advance criticism of socially-engaged practices, we need an inquiry on our edges. Social engagement is about leaving the edges, abandoning your observership for the precarity of relationship, of community, of transformation with and alongside others. What does it mean for criticism to depart from distance in regard to socially-engaged practice? How must we adapt our craft and our platforms to speak about this evolving form?
Continuing our series of “social responses” to complex projects deserving of a more in-depth consideration than typically given, we will document and discuss the Open Engagement conference through an open-ended exploration consisting of essays and reviews from founders, funders, artists, critics, current participants and others. This survey will consider the conference’s vision, history, and reception, as well as offer a critical response to the 2015 edition, with a goal of exploring a new form of critical writing around socially engaged practices that emphasizes the complex, embedded and decentered dialogues around the work.
Throughout April, this text will be regularly updated with an expansive consideration of a conference that has become emblematic of socially-engaged art. Open Engagement will act as a kind of case study on how we write about this work: Do we embed within it, stand apart, or self-report? Can we simultaneously document and act alongside artists? Can we be both critically and socially engaged?
>>James McAnally, Executive Editor of Temporary Art Review
Openness is at the core of this project and allows for participants not only to help create the structure of Open Engagement, but to input various meanings and create numerous experiences. Since 2007, Open Engagement has become a vital international site for the support and development of socially engaged art. Open Engagement (OE) creates a platform that explores and supports the work of transdisciplinary artists, activists, students, scholars, community members, and organizations. It convenes presenters and attendees from around the world to share current perspectives and approaches to this work. It also brings together museum professionals and MFA programs working in social and public engagement—making it a key meeting point for development and knowledge sharing in these areas. OE has also included ongoing dialogues that are associated with but not exclusive to the conference—blog projects, partnerships, and the newly formed publishing arm, OE in Print.
The conference mission is to expand the dialogue around socially engaged art, as well as the structures and networks of support for artists working within the complex social issues and struggles of our time. This free conference is an essential educational resource that delivers content that provides attendees with skills and tools that support their work in communities and embedded contexts. Open Engagement is a site that expands to define the contours of socially engaged art making, serving as a site of production, as well as reflection. Now seven years into its evolution, Open Engagement is in a critical moment of development. The conference has grown significantly each year, widening its scope and reach, as well as serving as an important site of development and education around socially engaged art in the United States. OE is the only conference on this subject of this scale that operates on an inclusive open call model that supports diverse publics as well as emerging and established artists.
This is an excerpt of Jen Delos Reyes’s response. Please read the full text here.
>>Jen Delos Reyes, Founder and Director of Open Engagement
A Blade of Grass is a co-presenter of Open Engagement and active in framing the discussion around the role of artists in everyday life and the sustainability of socially engaged art. Here, ABOG Executive Director Deborah Fisher considers the way socially engaged artists articulate a value proposition within their own projects, and how this might inform how this emerging field is supported.
The Value Proposition for Socially Engaged Art
Value proposition: a promise of value to be delivered by the seller, and a belief from the buyer that value will be delivered and experienced.
This is an entrepreneurial term that art tends to avoid. A good business plan is anchored by the clear, believable articulation of a value proposition by the entrepreneur. Artists, on the other hand, tend not to perceive themselves as being in control of their value proposition. Art tends to accrue value more passively, by accumulating sufficient market, institutional and curatorial attention.
It’s interesting that socially engaged art projects of the type A Blade of Grass supports—that are partnering directly with communities to enact a specific social change at an ambitious scale—require artists to think through their value proposition, first within the context and micro-economy of their own projects. When a project claims to serve a specific community and is depending on cooperation for both aesthetic and practical outcomes, artists do need to figure out why people would want to invest their time and energy as participants; whether the community wants an artistic intervention; and what compelling need or desire the project is responding to. Time, interest, and energy are usually the resources being exchanged instead of money, but these are straightforward value proposition questions.
For many artists working to enact social change, declaring the value of the project opens new resources and paths to economic sustainability. Many artists are transforming projects into nonprofits; creating projects that act as resources for other artists; getting funding from foundations with a social justice agenda who are more interested in their work as activism and communication; creating more and less sustainable businesses; crowd-funding projects*; thinking through the nuances of corporate sponsorship; and in lots of idiosyncratic ways embedding themselves in more or less supportive and visible contexts through partnerships, jobs, and informal residencies.
“Is our work art? It depends. What kind of grant are we applying for?”
–The Yes Men, at a panel discussion hosted by Vera List Center for Art and Politics
While none of these examples of new resource streams is generating vast wealth, it’s true that each of these examples expands what’s possible, and depends on the artists leveraging their own value proposition instead of waiting for the art world to notice them. This re-positioning of the artist as the one who declares the value proposition is a key source of inspiration here at ABOG HQ. We want to know how much we can re-think how art is supported when artists are actively declaring their own value proposition. Is the role of the arts organization to protect art from having to articulate a value proposition, or is it to partner with artists and leverage each project’s value proposition in an effort to make a bigger shift away from the market and traditional arts philanthropy, which are both serving an increasingly small, white, wealthy audience? Is it possible, or necessary, to do a little bit of both?
*This is problematic.
>>Deborah Fisher, Executive Director of A Blade of Grass
FIELD is a new on-line, peer-reviewed journal devoted to socially engaged art practice launching in Spring 2015. Here, members of the FIELD Editorial Collective reflect on writing about socially engaged art practices in the face of institutionalization and sponsorship ahead of their panel at Open Engagement 2015.
On writing about socially engaged art practices.
Writing about socially engaged art is a continuous exercise of redefinition of the relations between critics, artists, projects, and communities. It involves revisiting the normative roles of critics and their relationships with readers, institutions, and the market. This type of writing has the potential to reclaim different notions of temporality and objectivity from those that scaffold traditional art criticism. The institutionalization of socially engaged art foregrounds inevitable questions regarding the engagement of the public and private funding sectors with local groups. It raises the urgency of close analysis of the role of the critic as mediator in moments of sponsorship and legitimation.
We believe that like any good writing, socially engaged art criticism benefits from clarity, straightforwardness, and a deep engagement with ideas and projects. It is also strengthened through close description of events and attention to conflicts and challenges that emerge in the course of a project. Here, criticism does the work of exploring “what happened” alongside its why or how. Socially engaged art criticism also considers the political and social dimensions of these practices, evaluating not only the implications of its models for broader social and political action but the real dynamics of participation and its impact and value, alongside with its symbolic dimensions. Furthermore, this type of criticism considers how aesthetics is mobilized as an instrument, and evaluates the successes and detriments of this system.
As writers we are concerned with the ways in which our own critical production returns to the social milieu. The socially engaged art critic is a situated subject who should acknowledge and make transparent their position, limitations, and perspectives as subject, participant and observer. This kind of criticism emerges directly from movements in the 1960s and 1970s that opened the art world up to new ways to understand labor, production, and value in art processes. Yet, we see the potential for writing about socially engaged art to be more than a decoding of form, or a rehearsal of critical theory. While drawing from these traditions, it has the potential to challenge the model of the disinterested or detached modernist critic -incorporating subjective accounts, political engagement and a desire to investigate how theory comes out of local and everyday cultural practices.
In addition to the political turn in the arts of the last third of the 20th century, it is key to reconsider the long tradition of philosophical and political thought about the role of intellectuals in society that follows up on more classic formulations characterized by Gramsci and Althusser. Looking back at historical models of the intellectual in society might shine some light on the role of the art critic, and provoke questions about the circulation of new forms, ideas and modes of sociality that emerge from socially engaged art projects. Paying attention to historical practices encourages reflection and self-criticism in our own close reading of whole networks of relations bonding around art.
>>Noni Brynjolson, Paloma Checa-Gismero, Julia Fernandez, and Stephanie Sherman, members of the FIELD Editorial Collective
When did Michelada Think Tank begin? I could say it began with the OE Tally, an intervention at Open Engagement 2014 where we handed out postcards with the racial and gender demographics of presenters at the conference. I could say it began a couple months later when we officially adopted the name and held our first think tank session about creating support structures for people of color in a predominantly white art world. Really though, I think Michelada Think Tank started somewhere between road trips to Tijuana with conversations about the problematic nature of Miley Cyrus’ twerking and thorough dissection of questionable ethics in social practice. Whenever and wherever it started, there was most definitely Tecate involved. As students in the MFA in Public Practice program at Otis College of Art and Design, we were constantly examining both the theory and practice of socially engaged art. But we were all also heavily invested in issues of race, gender, sexuality, and class. Eventually our conversations about art and our talks about social justice naturally collapsed and became one and the same.
The OE Tally intervention at the came about from a simple observation (that the vast majority of the presenters were white) and the question of what we were going to do about it. The tactic was inspired by Micol Hebron’s Gallery Tally project which looks at gender ratios in art galleries. As a racially diverse cohort, we had often joked about how we could be the poster children for multiculturalism in MFA programs. But we also wanted to take a serious look at the barriers keeping people of color out of the art world. If Open Engagement was the prominent gathering place for the field, then it was the perfect place to bring attention to the issue.
Our experience at Open Engagement 2014 brings to mind the following quote by Sarah Ahmed:
We cannot then equate love with justice. Justice is not about learning to love others, let alone loving difference. […] We saw this will the idealization of multiculturalism as a social bond: ethnic minorities and white working class communities fail precisely in their refusal ‘to mix’ more intimately with others. I would argue that the struggle against injustice cannot be transformed into a manual for good relationships, without concealing the very injustice of how ‘relationships’ work by differentiating between others.
The projects and discourse that we experienced at Open Engagement 2014 were heavy on conviviality, but was conviviality the only component necessary in order to push forward goals of justice? How could a field purportedly be devoted to this question of justice, without examining whether or not its demographic makeup and funding structures perpetuated a White Savior mentality and MFA class privilege? Which was more important to the field of social practice, conviviality or justice?
After the conference we returned to Los Angeles and debriefed about what our next steps would be. The guerilla action had led to some great conversations, but dialogical practices that never move beyond talk were exactly what we wanted to critique, not reproduce. Our friend and colleague Darryl Ratcliff had been hosting Margarita Think Tanks in Dallas around issues of art and politics, and this led to the creation of a Michelada Think Tank chapter in Los Angeles that could be a vehicle towards creative change.
Since then, Michelada Think Tank events have included conversations around race issues, a film screening of Dear White People, and continuing the intervention tactic with a racial tally of Otis faculty. It is also worth noting that within this same time frame, Human Resources in Los Angeles hosted three hugely successful Decolonizing the White Box events in response to critiques of the Made in L.A. biennial, and artists who had attended Michelada Think Tank conversations independently initiated a “LA PoC Only Artist Network”. It is clear that there are other artists of color out there who are eager to fix this imbalance, it’s only a matter of bringing people together and starting the revolution.
This year as official participants in the conference we plan to create a space for artists of color to discuss the challenges they face. We have several topics that will be addressed in curated conversations based on our outreach to local Pittsburgh culture workers of color, including topics on “Social Practice” in the PoC World, Building a Home Base, and Resources. Additionally, our hope is that people will continue to use the space throughout the conference outside of the predetermined frameworks. Saturday night we will hold a mixer for people to network and, of course, enjoy a mean michelada. Moving beyond convivial social events that cater to art audiences, Sunday’s culminating think tank session will overview the issues that people bring to the table and we will ideate potential solutions.
Our position is that if artists are going to take on political subjects in their work, taking an activist standpoint creates a more meaningful project than keeping a noncommittal stance, and this includes the work of activists, educators, and organizers whose practices may not be considered within the official field of “social practice.” Any important venue for the field, such as Open Engagement, should strive to highlight these practices and advocate for those that are are often marginalized or ignored because they exist outside of the sub-category of contemporary art that has the privilege of being labeled “social practice.” Too many social practice projects flirt with politics yet do nothing to actually challenge existing power structures. Tania Bruguera once said, “I don’t want to make art that points to a thing; I want to make art that is the thing.” Let’s stop making art that talks about social change, and let’s start making art that enacts it.
>>Noe Gaytan, Mario Mesquita, Carol Zou, Michelada Think Tank
With great thanks to Darryl Ratcliff, Margarita Think Tank organizer and Michelada Think Tank OE2015 organizer.
The conference’s theme, “Place and Revolution” was carried throughout with a series of morning sessions that highlighted a practitioner’s work that connected to this theme. As an independent curator and founder of a non-commercial art space who recently re-transitioned to a larger institution, I was interested in learning about how my peers both in small, artist-run spaces and international institutions were essentializing their practices to focus on giving artists the space and the support to create meaningful work. Megan Johnston, who began her “tell it like it is” biography with a short list of major institutions with which she began her career, presented a powerful solution. Johnston’s philosophy of “slow curating” (think cooking), is rooted in the “three c’s” of community, context and collaboration. Johnston’s personal practice, of putting her relationship with and belief in the artist’s vision ahead of her professional relationship with the institution was a powerful example of how an institution can be molded to fit new ideas. As director of The Model Sligo, a contemporary art center western Ireland, Johnston stressed a open mind to experimentation, allowing artists to see the galleries as an empty slate of support, not an barrier to new ideas. Her introduction of the center to the international artists community was the product of continually questioning why the institution was important, how it could be more interesting and with whom she could engage. As a curator, I found Johnston’s work inspiring, and the conversation that followed opened up many new ideas for myself and how I could help better define my own goals in curatorial projects, avenues of support and the assurance that “yes there are other people working in the world that think like you do.” I do not necessarily consider myself a social practitioner, however, mostly out of the belief that this form of practice should be, if practiced fully, aligned unselfishly with a social cause. My own interests in giving artists the opportunity and the space to experiment their work, engage in dialogues, while consistent with many of the grass-roots artist-run and non-profit spaces represented at Open Engagement has always been, for me, about a different kind of social need.
This is an excerpt of Mary Coyne’s response. Please read the full text here.
>>Mary Coyne, curator
In response to Open Engagement, Gaelyn and Gustavo Aguilar (Tug Collective) wrote the following thought dilation in reaction to some of what they saw, heard, and experienced throughout the conference.
A Thought Dilation
This short reflective essay functions as a kind of synaesthetic means by which to think about the relationship between the self and the body politic. Here the body politic is society writ large, but it is also the individuals and institutions (non-partisan public policy forums, academics, politicians, funders, promoters, presenters, artists, audience members) that influence the politics of representation and thus help to establish trends and set policy agendas that effect art-making. Some of these questions include, but are not limited to: How can we connect artists with the body politic in ways that do not end up incarcerating them in place and time by teaching them, sometimes implicitly and sometimes explicitly, that they must craft themselves and their art to placate to the trends and agendas set by cultural policy makers? If “the self is always a subject-in-progress,” as Ajay Heble (an author and pianist who is involved in improvisation, community and social practice) has pointed out, than how do we assure that this essential quality of slipperiness is germane in the sphere of art practices that are embedded in social and cultural contexts?
In his 2008 publication, Arts, Inc.: How Greed and Neglect Have Destroyed Our Cultural Rights, former NEA Chairman, Bill Ivey, recounts the now-infamous story of the Washington Post writer who was able to convince the violinist, Joshua Bell, to perform during the morning rush hour at one of D.C.’s busiest metro stops. No concert stage was erected. No record-label publicity was done. Instead, without fanfare, Bell performed six classical pieces over the course of 43 minutes. The outcome? Joshua Bell, the classical music superstar who is currently booked to give 9 performances throughout four countries, “was passed by 1,097 commuters. Seven people stopped to listen to the performance, and 27 gave money, ‘most of them on the run’” (Ivey 2008:187). The message behind the story? As Ivey bluntly puts is, “[a]rt doesn’t find its way to audiences by itself.” Creativity needs collaborators “capable of advancing talent in the media and the marketplace” (ibid).
That artists should need to depend on collaborators (gatekeepers, really) ‘to get over’ (“to put some crumbs on the table,” as Charles Mingus used to say) is hardly revelatory. To rephrase a Margaret Atwood quote, artists too must eat, and so choices of all sorts need to be made if not by the artist than by someone else (who, we would add, also must eat). Marian Godfrey (an arts collaborator, herself) speaks candidly about how interventions made by gatekeepers (specifically in the non-profit sector) “have consequences to the production of art and the behavior of arts organizations” (2003:163). The increasing emphasis on value, effectiveness, accountability and results encourages arts organizations to avert risk, however it may be internally defined. Averting risk often translates into making conservative decisions with respect to art making. Factor in the influence of audience interests and desires (or, as Godfrey reminds us, the perception of those interests and desires), and such conservative decision-making ends up reinforcing what Bill Ivey refers to as “the tendencies toward repetition, imitation, and celebration of the already celebrated” (2008:202). If this is true, these tendencies get doubly-reinforced vis-à-vis the grantmaking process whereby the requirements set forth in a grant application end up determining, as Godfrey calls it, “the shape of the gate through which grantseekers may pass” (2003:162).
Our hope is that, as ‘Socially Engaged Art’ becomes an establish trend, it does not mutate into a lucrative enterprise that serves a curatorial agenda or funding requirement. A shout-out to those individuals and organizations, some of whom were present at Open Engagement 2015, who are working to assure that some sense of slipperiness remains.
Godfrey, M. A. 2003. “Funders as Gatekeepers,” in The New Gatekeepers: Emerging Challenges to Free Expression in the Arts. Edited by C. Hawthorne and A. Szántó, pp. 162-168. New York: National Arts Journalism Program.
Ivey, B. 2008. Arts, Inc.: How Greed and Neglect have Destroyed Our Cultural Rights. Berkeley: University of California Press.
>>Gaelyn Aguilar and Gustavo Aguilar (Tug Collective), artists
Last year, at Open Engagement 2014, the conference theme of “life/work” offered up two words that socially-engaged artists were more than ready to tackle. J. Morgan Pruitt and Mierle Laderman Ukeles intimately offered their work-as-life stories, and over the course of a weekend of conversation, I felt the hyper-professionalization of art-making dissolve a tad through the co-witnessing of experimentation and resistance. But that is social practice’s raison d’etre, right? What’s the life and what’s the work, anyway?
This year, “place and revolution” was our theme, but I think we were less prepared to explore it. I departed from the conference Sunday night feeling that place and revolution had been dragged to the table, where they stared silently at the brussels sprouts of social practice, wishing they could be out in the yard – living life, doing work.
In the conference schedule, a presentation’s description was often sure to mention a project’s location or site, that work’s “place.” These place-specificities may actually have reinforced the sense of non-comparability (and thus non-share-ability) that we gather together from so far to unravel, making it even harder to reimagine the idea of “place” than if we had approached it accidentally. Without violating the realness of everyone’s where, I longed to broach the questions that “place,” as a topic, begs. For example: if we are engaging the social domain to make art, where are we really? Where is our “studio?”
This is an excerpt of Maggie Ginestra’s response. Please read the full text here.
>>Maggie Ginestra, artist
This spring was my first time attending Open Engagement. As a faculty member at Carnegie Mellon, I was invited to participate in the selection process, so my introduction to the conference came months before, reading hundreds of proposals. During the conference weekend, I attended the keynote presentations, panels, workshops, participated in other artists’ projects, went to several of the off-site events and hosted two Venezuelan artists in my home. I also worked with one of my classes to make a public print project. While standing in line at Conflict Kitchen, I met some out-of-towners and chatted about panels we’d seen and speakers we liked. We also talked about Pittsburgh, the glorious sunshine, our work, the definition of social practice, clean water and the virtues of falafel. After the weekend there was post-game talk in classes, hallways, coffee shops, the library and while waiting for more falafel, with grad students, other faculty and artists. I got around to reading Open Engagement in Print. I re-read my notes and tried to summarize my experience. This wandering process all contributed to what Open Engagement was – its process, project and the notes it left me with.
Coming from a background in drawing and print, I was deeply inspired, but I also felt like I’d shown up at a costume party dressed for hiking. For all I know, everyone felt that way but this response comes from feeling slightly outside the crowd. Over the course of the weekend, I went to Conflict Kitchen three times and ate a lot of falafel; I made a mildly dissatisfying project with my class; and came away with a better understanding of what social practice is or can be – the marriage of artist, audience and place. It can be communal, collective, contextual, interactional, relational or public. From a critical perspective, the conference and social practice in general seemed to be:
1) A little too serious. The artwork and conversations could be so earnest and humorless at times that it felt like activism and social justice work were using art and spectacle as another platform for progressive politics. While I am a fan of progressive politics, one of the things I like about art is that it can provide a different, indirect, nuanced, absurd, baffling, disturbing entrance point. Sometimes projects felt self-serving for the artist and other times they seemed to be more about the issues and community than art at all. I was left wanting a balance, and on balance more art.
2) Defiant. In the discussions, workshops, Q&As, even in The Questions We Ask Together – OE in Print 001, one participant after another disassembled or poked holes in the questions, rather than answering them. Sometimes it seemed that deconstruction itself was the point. It was hard to talk about institutional structure and funding when the question is being dismantled before the question it is fully formed. At the same time, I appreciated the way some folks were so impatient, engaged, so hungry to take things apart that their work energetically revealed their institutional and socio-economic frameworks to anyone who would look; a bunch of awakened Keanu Reeves ready to show us all the mechanism behind the Matrix. I got more from this twitchy eagerness and edginess than from other projects or conversations I heard described as folksy and charming. A friend remarked that in Europe and Russia, Marxists are snappy dressers, wearing well-cut pants and architectural eyewear, whereas in the US, as a generalisation, Marxists defy fashion trends in favor of the utopic hippy ‘60s or the punk ‘80s. This is not fashion-forward, but while it may be nostalgic, it is not cynical. Defiantly anti-establishment retro-fashion could be interpreted as hope.
3) Too engaging. Walking back from a presentation, I saw a several artists sitting outside the Miller Gallery where more participatory activities were happening. A guy in a white t-shirt and black boots said to the others, “I’m having a social practice overload. I talk to enough people in my own art I don’t want to talk to more people here.”
4) Successful. On Friday I went to the Veteran Artists Movement workshop at SPACE gallery. I went with a friend who is a veteran but who is not an artist and realized that going with him was like bringing a civilian into the art arena that so much of social practice is trying to open up. At the gallery we met Aaron Hughes and he walked us through the Iraq Veterans Against War portfolio. The thick stack of silkscreened and letterpress prints became a vehicle for him to tell us stories about the artists. Afterward we looked at the work in Unloaded, an exhibition organized by Susanne Slavick that explored the availability and impact of guns. While some of the work struck me initially as reductive, my companion found it riveting and powerful and our conversation helped me see the work with fresh eyes. These conversations gave us a walkway, a door, a bridge or any number of metaphors to try to understand another person’s experience.
5) Revolutionary. One of my favorite moments of the conference was during Rick Lowe’s keynote address on Sunday night when he talked about the conference theme: Place and Revolution. A gifted speaker, he described the way we tend to think of revolution as something that happens, once. A shake-up or a shakedown; an uprising; a coup. But Lowe drew out the way that revolution actually is always happening, not just the big explosive events, but constantly. Linguists tell us that words don’t have finite meanings, but are constantly on the move, shifting; perhaps revolution is the best adjective to describe this constant state of change. “Social practice” isn’t static and neither is the language; it both describes the way artists use social space as material and it means nothing at all. It is a phrase you roll around on your tongue, a new flavor that’ll soon become a bit sour and be replaced by something else. But still, for now, it describes art that challenges the conventions of what can be art, who can be an artist, when and how art gets made and does it involve making anything anyway. Maybe social practice is the phrase au courant for the ongoing revolution.
>>Kim Beck, artist
To return now to the beginning: How can we speak of social engagement if we as critics can’t engage? What does it mean to both document an act and act alongside it? Can criticism also be for the community? Can we be both critically and socially engaged? What if our goals were articulated alongside artists, expanding the vocabulary of social engagement to be for and with as critics, which is always, of course, also against certain forms or acts, systems or structures? Are we critical to or critical of these practices?
When discussing art writing in relation to socially-engaged practices, it is easy to try to apply the tools inherited from the history of art criticism to this work. Yet, we can quickly shrug off an assessment of the ‘craft’ of social-engagement. We can not be masterful with our material – and this is where we start. Imported language from another form is wildly inappropriate, yet we don’t know how to build ground up. Are we capable of wandering alongside an artist, of embedding within a practice, prodding it forward, assessing its place in the public, advocating for a conversation, or acting against it, opposing it, protesting it? Can we articulate an end goal? If this end is revolution, or justice, can we articulate revolution, can we discuss justice?
Criticism should be an inquiry on our outside, assessing the edges so that we can leave the edges, abandoning our observership for the precarity of relationship, of community, of transformation with and alongside others – artists, audiences, participants, peers; people. A socially engaged art criticism is one created in context of communities. One that is both critical to those communities and engaged with them.
In recent protest movements in Ferguson or Baltimore, Havana or Oakland, consider the pattern of coverage of traditional media vs livestreamers, which could also be stated as spectators vs participants. The tenor of an evening news truck and the tone of a protester with an iPhone. Which is more honest, which more critical? When I speak of embeddedness in criticism, I am interested in action alongside artists, or the process of media blurring into protestor, not simply as an onlooker or documentarian. Perhaps one can’t maintain critical distance and be socially engaged, but it is possible to act, comment, critique and yet also tell the truth.
Forget the crisis of criticism, where are we as critics within crisis? Are we “of crucial importance in the success, failure, or existence” of something – of art, of anything? Can we carry the crisis with us and perhaps be a decisive act? Can we ourselves be the crisis?
Perhaps we fumble when it comes to socially engaged work because we don’t see enough of ourselves in it. But isn’t criticism another way to create forms of concern and collectivity? When did we stop short of stating that criticism at its best is a political act? That it is also resistance? That it is engaged? After all, to engage is to be “morally committed to a particular cause,” or, taking cues from its machine-informed term, to engage we must “move into position” – to prepare to act as act, to make ready.
And yes, to critique. To assess. To become critical. To “participate or become involved in;” to “occupy or involve.” To “start fighting against.”
As a start – Can criticism also be for the community? Can we be both critically and socially engaged? Are we already? What if our goals were articulated alongside artists, expanding the vocabulary of social engagement to be for and with as critics? Who or what are we committed to? What are we fighting against?
Can we now move into position so that from this place, we can begin to speak of revolution, carrying the crisis with us?
This is an excerpt of James’s response. Please read the full text here.
>>James McAnally, Executive Editor of Temporary Art Review
Open Engagement: A Social Response was an experiment in writing about socially engaged art with essays, excerpts and reviews from funders, participants, artists, and critics as an expanding document of the conference’s history and current incarnation, with a parallel consideration of socially-engaged art’s complex relationship to criticism.