Hmmm… I was ready for an argument with Ben Davis, so I am a bit disappointed to be agreeing! I am especially sympathetic with his post-Hurricane Sandy musings.

Sandy brought a lot into focus. Forced out of our home for a prolonged period, my family and I witnessed how a wide range of people and institutions responded — both in Lower Manhattan where we reside most of the time and in Rockaway where we also have a place. Like Davis, we saw the immediate grassroots response in Rockaway by Occupy Sandy, as well as the women at Shore Soup, the crew at Rockaway Surf Club, neighbors, and even our friends in Corona, Queens who (like the Manhattanites mobilized by Klaus Biesenbach at MoMA) filled a truck with supplies in a show of  solidarity with the flood survivors. At the Queens Museum, we threw together a benefit for Rockaway Waterfront Alliance (RWA) and very quickly we rounded up around $60 thousand. This helped RWA to mobilize volunteers and continue in their advocacy for long-term (green) urban design initiatives and environmental education for kids. All good. The problem is that to address the devastation of Sandy, the region needed $60 billion, not $60 thousand, so at the rate we were raising money at the museum, it would have taken 2,740 years with a benefit every single day to garner the resources the federal government assembled in two months. Let’s be honest, Occupy Sandy did not clear the rubble on the Rockaway peninsula. As far as things have been cleaned up, and there is a lot left to do, the lion’s share has been accomplished by union guys operating heavy-duty earth movers, paid by the government. I agree Ben: local activists, certainly including social practice artists, need to understand that #WeDON’THaveThis.

Shore Soup Project in the Rockaways.

Still, I believe that the grassroots response to Sandy was worthwhile. First of all, in Rockaway there was an undeniable psychological effect. Locals were dazed, literally in shock. Even if you had not lost your home, you almost certainly lost your car and were living with no heat, electricity, phone, or subway service. All of a sudden a group of energetic, idealistic people appeared on your front  porch wanting to help you dig out. This should not be minimized. The government response was a couple of months away, and people needed the support immediately. Second, like Katrina, the storm and the response brought a spotlight onto conditions in Far Rockaway. Yes, this is New York, but it is a part of the city many had chosen to overlook. I believe there were seeds of future action in the countless personal inter-actions that occurred those weeks, and in the media images that shocked the nation. And third, Sandy mobilized community leaders to be creative in imagining rebuilding — especially in the wake of climate change. Local activists are louder than ever, demanding a voice in the future of their environment, and the effective expenditure of their portion of the $60 billion in rebuilding funds. I have never seen such in-depth discussion in Rockaway about the intricacies of beach erosion, rock jetties, sea walls, artificial reefs, natural dune-based barriers, and so on. The vocabulary has changed because of the shocking nature of the storm, but also due to the contributions of newcomers to the local discourse mobilized in those early days.  The question is how to keep this energy moving forward, how to not return to business as usual, how to mobilize locally while thinking globally, to invoke a very apt cliché.

So, is the response to Sandy by Occupy and others akin to what Rick Lowe has set in motion at Project Rowe Houses in Houston or what Tania Bruguera has done at Immigrant Movement in Corona, Queens? I believe it is. It would take a much longer post to make this argument in depth, but I would argue that, like activists in Rockaway, both projects have psychological value in their communities, bring outside attention, and offer creative alternatives to traditional activist approaches.  While both Lowe and Bruguera live in the communities of their projects, they started to some degree as outsiders, and this can have value — helping folks wake up, bringing new energy, stepping in more nimbly than the government is willing or able to do. They have focused attention on the local issues, brought media attention and have brought new sorts of thinking to the table relative to local problems. Maria Canela, a frequent participant from Corona once told me that Immigrant Movement is the “free space” in the community, both because all the workshops are free of charge and because anything can happen there — it is free of constraints. This might lead us off to a discussion of the aesthetics of social interaction, the different sorts of opportunities that present themselves if you call something art, but, again, there is not space for that discussion here.

Rally on International Migrants Day, December 18, 2012. Immigrant Movement International, a project by Tania Bruguera in partnership with Creative Time and the Queens Museum of Art.

I do not think that either Project Row Houses or Immigrant Movement  claims “#WeGotThis,” nor do I see danger (identified by Davis) in their substituting for non-artistic activism. In fact, from what I have seen, both projects are well-integrated into the local activist communities. But as artists they have a latitude for openness in their approach that can be not better, not a substitute for, but often more flexible than immediate campaign-based actions. In general, then, I agree with most of what Ben Davis is saying, but feel his target is perhaps too broad. There is such a range of work under the heading of Social Practice, much of which is relatively uninteresting and ineffective (just like there is a lot of uninteresting and ineffective abstract painting). But there are social art projects that complement local activism while keeping a clear eye on their own limitations.


Read more from Growing Dialogue: What is the Effectiveness of Socially Engaged Art?

“What is the Effectiveness of Socially Engaged Art?” – September 18, 2013

“Ben Davis Responds” by Ben Davis – September 18, 2013

“Spaces of Possibility” by Nato Thompson – September 23, 2013

“#DoWeHaveThis?” by Tom Finkelpearl – September 24, 2013

“Working Towards Justice” by Rick Lowe – September 24, 2013

“On Bullshit” by Deborah Fisher – September 26, 2013

“Round 2: The Ontological Question” by Ben Davis – October 21, 2013

“The Ethically Neutral Dilemma of SEA” by Nato Thompson – October 23, 2013

“A Belated Conclusion” by Ben Davis – November 26, 2013

“The Name Game” by Louisa McCall – January 11, 2014

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Growing Dialogue: EffectivenessTom Finkelpearl
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