I want to thank E.C. Feiss and Stephen Pritchard for placing the issue of social change at the center of this ongoing discussion and thereby helping specify how discussions of “the new” may contribute to our assessment of claims made on behalf of socially engaged art. By distinguishing between innovation and change Pritchard shifts the stress from the newness of a practice to its participatory character, situated perspective, and productive dissonance. “Socially engaged art is about working with people,” he writes, “about spaces and places; about dissensus, tension, oscillations.” Feiss aligns socially engaged art with questions of justice “tied to the specifics of a certain problematic.” The aim is to produce “concrete or measurable social change.” This emphasis on actions undertaken in particular places, with others, and focused on specific problems leads to a question I find particularly challenging within the context of socially engaged art: how do we resist or frustrate the tendency within art to distance form and process or method (e.g. participation and collectivity) from specific social contradictions? Perhaps another way of stating this is how do we avoid having the notion of “change” in the abstract become the new “new”?
As “social practice” education, publishing and exhibiting are institutionalized through curricula, designated funding streams, and curatorial innovations, will it be possible to resist the return of our well-rehearsed relations of production and systems of judgment and evaluation, such as the privileged authorship of the artist and the positive value assigned to surprising, creative, virtuosic, and new forms of representation? Establishing prizes for socially engaged art seems especially risky for, as Feiss notes, they place projects of justice in competition with each other and authorize juries to set standards by which socially engaged practices may be evaluated and ranked. How long before the tail of recognition and reward begins wagging the dog? The paradox may well be that our ardent commitment to change is predicated on having things stay the same.
In my experience, efforts at social change are most usefully evaluated using criteria specific to the contradictions around which a struggle is organized. This is especially the case if evaluations are part of repeated, iterative cycles of reflection, analysis and action undertaken by those constituencies with the greatest stake in a particular struggle. But this requires a long-term, situated undertaking, which is far from the norm in creative work. If the evaluation and its agents are not specific to the struggle, what criteria will we then use? At the heart of my concern is how, in Pritchard’s language, “instrumentalized participatory art” mediates between art and its “publics”? Is socially engaged art fundamentally shifting the relationship between artists, art objects, art institutions and the publics repeatedly reference as the beneficiaries of all this effort, or are we simply witnessing another, a new internal revision to the art world in the form of spectacles of participation that reproduce the established cultural economy?
Feiss notes that justice is “foremost a historical project” for it entails recognizing historic lineages as the foundation from which to project futures. Although the current “social practice” trend appears to be, is claimed to be, and is experienced by many as new(ish) within the context of art, it has a rich and diverse lineage. As a trip to the Interference Archive in Brooklyn or another number of allied collections will confirm, “social practice” is integral to the long history of radical education, community organizing, and other political projects. And the labors of art making and reception have played and continue to play central roles in these movements and constituency-specific practices albeit with an aesthetic rigor that may not have reflected the criteria of interest in the academy or conservatory at the time. In the 1960s, Freedom Schools, popular education, militant research and Participatory Action Research, the Theatre of the Oppressed, Third Cinema, and experiments in participatory democracy, offered alternatives to the professionalized division of labor that organized aesthetic relations. Artistic considerations were not limited to an object that mediates an initial relation between artist and spectator. Rather, aesthetic objects were tools to be employed in the multiple phases of long-term struggle, helping to codify investigations and re-organizing the choreography of reception, which is to say, disaggregating the “public” into constituencies with markedly different investments. Questions regarding reception brought the politics of feminism, anti-racism, post-colonial struggle, class struggle and anti-fascism, and many other concerns into art schools and other art world institutions. Artists and activists, often one in the same, formed strong alliances and articulated robust and influential projects in support of struggles against oppression. This is what I learned from my years within HIV/AIDS movements as those most affected produced the principles and technologies of harm reduction. We refer to these as “intraventions,” the changes in social practice that are rooted in the lived experience, analysis and solidarity across constituencies with the greatest stake in the struggle. What art brought to these efforts was the recognition of the critical importance of practices of materialization, the making of change, as sites for democratic struggle. This is a strategy worth remembering.
“Relational aesthetics” proposed to carry this knowledge forward. Yet, the great debates about relational art are now taught alongside those of other movements that once threatened to dismantle the very assumptions of aesthetic judgment and its author functions. Indeed, the texts on relationality we are most likely to find in classrooms today reaffirm one of art’s most conservative conventions, the stability of the position of the artist relative to her audience. Accounts of relational practices, which may range from convivial to antagonist, begin with the artist and end with (and, among) the audience without much consideration for what might flow from audience to artist. This formulation inevitably diminishes the specificity of place and struggle established by a process of meaningful dialogue. Nicolas Bourriaud illustrates this diminishment in the first essay in his highly regarded and influential book, Relational Aesthetics, where he attributes relational aesthetics to the notion of Aleatory Materialism outlined by Louis Althusser in “The Underground Current of the Philosophy of the Encounter.” In this posthumously published essay, Althusser works to understand how a political conjunction around an investment or demand might endure to constitute a movement. This attempt to theorize political organizing had a very determined stake for Althusser, namely, a final attempt to explain a materialism for a communist movement soon to slip into the historical irrelevance of Eurocommunism and Democratic Socialism. In adapting the notion of the encounter for the field of relational aesthetics, Bourriaud neutralizes the investment. That is, he evacuates the form so that it may hold the unspecified desires of the artist, which may encounter those of a once again undifferentiated public. We return then to the question of what are the terms of the new or change that actually organize the encounter? This is not to say that one resolves the problems of social practice by turning to “the political” or, by doing “political critique.” We have more than enough examples of how the appearance of the political in art discourse often signifies a considerable distance separating the art practitioner from the organization of political movements in their tumultuous collectivity. For this reason, the unsettled relationship between the fields of art and politics signaled by desires for the new underscores the problematic itself and is, as such, a theme to be investigated rather than an argument to be settled.
Interference Archive, Brooklyn, NY. Image courtesy of Hyperallergic.
 Louis Althusser, “The Underground Current of the Materialism of the Encounter,” Philosophy of the Encounter, Later Writings, 1978-1987, translated by G.M. Goshgarian. New York: Verso, 2006 , pp. 163-207.
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Growing Dialogue is a series of moderated online debates among thought leaders in social practice.