Sean Starowitz at the Walnut Place Laundromat

I’m not an artist.  I’m a public librarian.  Recently I had the honor of being asked to participate in a project called Byproduct: The Laundromat, which is a piece of “socially engaged” artwork organized by Sean Starowitz.  I immediately saw parallels between the mission of our library and the goal of the program: to make it easier for people to engage intellectually with the world around them.  What follows is my attempt to explain why I, a non-artist, think that social practice artwork is both compelling and important.

But first, I’m gonna digress for a second.  My day job is to conceive and execute projects, both inside and outside the library, that will hopefully cause people to become interested in using our resources.  In other words, outreach and programming.  If it gets people interested in reading, I’ll do it, even if it means butchering a pig in the library (a real, actual thing we did to get people interested in reading) — anything that makes a person want to crack open a book and try to get a little smarter.

Which, if you believe the doomsayers, is pretty well a waste of time.  It’s common for cultural critics to lament the increasing lack of legitimate community building within American society.  Facebook (or Instagram, or your Walkman, or whatever) is supposedly chipping away at our ability to meaningfully interact with the world around us.  Longer and longer workdays are robbing families of the opportunity to bond over bland casseroles.  A splintering popular culture has left us without the touchstones of yesteryear; we have no Sam and Diane for whom to collectively root.  Solitary bowlers roam the lonely highways in increasing numbers.

If those critics turn out to be right, it’s going to be pretty depressing.  They envision a future where we all wander through life with our phones out in front of us, compulsively photographing the least uninteresting thing in our field of vision, tweeting our thoughts as rapidly as they occur to us (which will not be often), and desperately avoiding any human interaction thanks to the crippling social anxieties that we will have developed thanks to the atrophication of our primal instinct to socialize.  We will all withdraw from this world and meet again in the virtual, and society will fade away under the pale glow of a billion LED screens.  Are you depressed yet?

Well don’t be, because here’s where we come to the point:  that line of thinking is obviously complete bullshit to anyone with two original ideas to rub together.  And you can frequently find such individuals at projects like Byproduct.

Byproduct is a series of events that take place in a Laundromat, and range from film screenings to jazz shows to conversations with artists and activists.  All the events are highly engaging and participatory and everyone who comes to them is encouraged to do their laundry during the performances (which are specifically timed to line up with the wash/dry cycles).

At one event, in which I participated, attendees were asked to discuss the idea of experimental programming.  The crowd included artists, curators, community activists, administrators, students, and even one nurse.  This group’s thoroughly diverse points of view made for a thoughtful, enlightening discussion of the topic.  At another event, more than one hundred people gathered (remember, this is a laundromat, on a Friday night) to listen to live music.  The space was so packed that people started climbing on top of the big industrial washing machines to get a better view.

I gather that “social practice” artwork, to which “socially engaged” artwork may be related, is somewhat controversial in the art world, but I can’t for the life of me imagine why.  As a public librarian, I admit to being largely ignorant of the main arguments taking place in the arena of art criticism (assuming you’ve all moved on from Derrida, who I dimly remember from college and I congratulate you on freeing yourself from if you’ve managed to do so).  I think that to bring art, or any kind of intellectual engagement, into a space where “normal” people (herein defined as people who go to the laundromat at night instead of, say, a panel discussion at a university) tend to go as part of their routine is commendable in the extreme.

Librarians are trying to cultivate intellectual engagement all the time, when we aren’t trying to stop people from masturbating at public computers.  To be quite frank, librarians have long felt as if we’re fighting the good fight all alone, constantly working against entrenched political and cultural foes, diligently striving to shine even the tiniest ray of light into the dim lives of ordinary people (we are a melodramatic bunch).  That other disciplines are also trying to do this is extremely heartening.  To hear this work questioned by the art establishment is bewildering.

Again, to the layperson, it would seem that art benefits from a large, knowledgeable audience.  Just as libraries promote literacy and provide programs to help people further engage with the works we have on our shelves, one would think it is extremely smart for artists to get out and engage their audience.  Not only does social practice provide the opportunity for direct communication between the artist and the community, but it raises the profile of art itself (I suspect that artists, like librarians, may occasionally forget that the rest of the world sometimes has other priorities) and increases the audience for future projects.  Just like creating readers increases library use, creating people who take an interest in art will help ensure that the public maintains its appetite for art projects.  And hell, it’s not like the public schools are doing it anymore.

In fairness, a friend of mine wondered whether projects like these run the risk of alienating the same people they’re designed to reach?  What about the poor schmucks who just want to do their laundry in peace without having to deal with a hundred bozos listening to experimental jazz?  Good luck trying to talk to those people about art next time.  Isn’t it a bit presumptuous to think that whatever is on offer is going to improve their night?

My response to those perfectly reasonable concerns is hey, fuck it.  You have to try something, and fortune favors the bold.  The worst case scenario is that it’ll all be over in an hour and their laundry will be just as clean.  The best case scenario is that art will have made a new friend, and maybe you’ll have something to brag about to that asshole cousin of yours who makes fun of you for going to art school instead of doing something “useful.”

All of which is to say that Byproduct: The Laundromat is a very good idea and very well executed.  Art for people, people for art.  Do yourself and the community at large a favor and go check it out.

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