Connective Tissue

9.1 / Public Sense

Connective Tissue

By Ranu Mukherjee December 12, 2017

A short time ago I was sitting in Ted Purves’s hospital room with Amy Balkin, all of us colleagues from California College of the Arts. We talked about the books he was reading, and he shared thoughts on what he was learning through his social interaction with medical staff while navigating treatment. Not surprisingly, he brought his inquisitive and dialogic self to his encounters with the medical system. Sadly, I am guessing he was not able to put those new avenues of discovery into writing. If he had, I think he would have paid homage to the medical staff who helped guide him in maintaining some sense of purpose in the face of a very difficult situation.

He was a colleague and a friend to me, and he also is the reason that I got involved in teaching social practice. I think that the use of this particular term, for a spectrum of socially engaged art practices, also began with Ted in 2005, when he named the first graduate curriculum of its kind in the United States, at CCA. 

In 2009, Ted invited me to teach the Social Practice Workshop for the first time. We had been colleagues for a few years, and we shared a constellation of interests in science fiction, theory, DIY music production, and disobedient artwork. He recognized the me that had co-created a cyberpunk art collective in London to test the boundaries of authorship within a visual art practice, challenge the alienated relationship between intellectual and visceral knowledge, and address the oncoming era of the internet and biotech. He knew I didn’t easily fit into siloed academic or art-historical categories and that I might enjoy the constantly emergent quality of the job.

I associated the idea of social practice with a resolute concreteness

At the same time I was not sure exactly why he had chosen me, why he thought it was something I could, and should, do. There were artists who clearly fit into this category who were out there making work that was much more “social” than mine. While I tend to think in abstract and non-linear terms, I associated the idea of social practice with a resolute concreteness. Many of the conversations I had with Ted began with a very concrete topic around an academic task, and then led to him saying, “This is kind of meta, but....” and leaping into what I came to think of as “Ted’s amazing pedagogy-brain.” His perspective opened the door for me to design a social-practice workshop that reflected my approach, interests, and questions around public practice.

I thank Ted for his many gifts; one is for leading me into ways of thinking about social practice as a force in the world.

* * *

Death never makes sense, but it seems like a particularly strange time to lose Ted. In this precarious historical moment, artists doing work that we might call social practice play an important role in generating and demonstrating new perspectives, models, and ways of imagining different futures.

Ted created the Social Practice Workshop in 2005 as a course for students focusing on socially engaged art. My understanding, based on our conversations, is that he deliberately named it without including “art” in its title because he didn’t want to treat it as a medium aligned with other art-historical movements. He saw it as a set of fugitive practices and potentially liberating challenges to the encroachment of neoliberal capital into all aspects of our lives. He assembled a faculty to bring in different orientations and perspectives rather than setting the agenda solely around his projects. (I have no doubt that if this text were written by any one of my colleagues, it would tell another version of this story.) In addition, we often looked to the interests of the incoming students to guide us in tailoring the curriculum in a given year. Thus the program began, right around the time when the first canonical literature related to social practice as an art movement (the term is also used by social science) was emerging: Miwon Kwon, One Place After Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity, in 2002, Grant Kester, Conversation Pieces, in 2004, and Claire Bishop, Participation, in 2006. At this time there was still very little recognition of the term in the wider art world.

Lynne McCabe. Room to be (Ms.)understood: A Social Sculpture Workshop, 2012; Blaffer Art Museum, University of Houston. Courtesy of the Artist.

In the nascent years of the workshop there was a lot of discussion around the question, “What is social practice?” I think that the students saw themselves as part of the formation of an emergent field and its pedagogy. Later this discussion gave way to pressing ethical questions that revolved around the complexities artists face when working with communities they are not part of, most often on a temporary basis. The deeply problematic notion of considering people/participants as material came up as the field began to have an institutional framework, and then to enter into art history. Students began to come into the program in a different state of mind—wanting to know the body of literature that was building up around the field and to understand its norms. They also brought questions about whose work was being included and whose was not, and some went on to contribute to the continually expanding art-historical framework for social practice. Alumna Lynne McCabe’s project Room to be (Ms.)understood: A Social Sculpture Workshop (2012) at the Blaffer Art Museum, Houston, came out of her MFA thesis, which positioned 1970s feminist performance art, writing, and site-specific intervention as an unrecognized precursor of contemporary social practice. Gilda Posada and Jesus Barraza, each in their own way, interrogated the exclusion of the image-based activist work of the Chicano/x art movement from considerations of lineage and proceeded to write it in.

* * *

Today social practice is known as a term for artwork situated in public or social contexts in which participants become collaborators in the construction or manifestation of the work. It also has institutional representation, funding bodies, a set of common tools, and an ever-expanding body of literature. For the workshop, and, I imagine, for any artist who is deeply engaged in their project, the question of what is, and what is not, social practice quickly becomes exhausted and unproductive. Social practice can’t claim the territory of political or social efficacy for itself alone, especially in this moment. And social practice has too many historical influences to recognize them all in any one account. (Tania Bruguera’s Arte Util Archive catalogs many projects, but this is another term with parameters that are more tightly defined than the broad scope of activity called social practice.) I am not so concerned with the boundaries of social practice as an art form, but rather the way it impacts and flows into many forms of art and cultural production.

"How does art interact with the social world? What does it change?"

In his essay “Throwing Stones in the Sea: Georg Simmel, Social Practice, and the Imagined World” from 2015, Ted Purves wrote, “The questions I began with are the same ones that I still consider, nine years later. How does art interact with the social world? What does it change? How does it work with specific communities, or serve to create them? How are the boundaries of a specific community even determined in a time of escalating globalization? How might the critical language of the arts apply to larger social forms? When does the practice of art bleed so far into other areas of ‘participatory culture’ that it becomes something else?”

I would add to this the question of what the increased visibility and support of social practice in the art world means now, coming at a time of general crisis, when there is a renewed sense of political urgency and we are experiencing so many watershed moments. It feels on some days that the bleed of art into participatory culture and activism, and vice versa, is complete. In terms of pedagogy, studying social practice is a moment in a trajectory, one in which artists can focus on questions inherent to public or social engagement, learn about the building of systems and tools for sustaining longer-term projects, and allow their work to become art and something else.

I think, despite the definitions we now have, that the emergent, renegade, and probing nature of this work has to be allowed to lead into unknown and sometimes unrecognizable territory. The projects I find most awe-inspiring are those that function as catalysts for systemic change, whether on a micro or macro scale. Artists seem to sustain this by creating connective tissue, in many ways and between many people, communities, and economies. Because these projects are often driven by goals for social intervention and transformation, part of the artist’s role involves finding the best means, materials, teams, and processes to make something that works in a generative way. A common feature of these transformative projects is that they have multiple ways of showing up—some aspects being more akin to the way art typically appears, while others not at all. They also tend to shift the locus of the work’s center by organizing around small groups of participant–creator alliances. This means shifting the notion of who is in a position and when, to assess the work’s success or failure and the terms by which the work is evaluated. So often the essential aspects of this work play out in exchanges between people in a way that is not visible to a wider public. Artists, organizers, institutions, and press then must present projects for secondary audiences, ideally in a way that offers an understanding of what the work is doing on a socio-political level.

The meta questions I find myself compelled by at this time revolve around health and sustenance. How to find equanimity, in a context that feels very precarious? How to make time for ourselves, and to cultivate health, with all of the demands on our bodies and our consciousness? How to respond to the urgent need to reconfigure the relationship between humans and the rest of the natural environment? As histories of violence and abuse in relation to white supremacy and misogyny gain mainstream visibility, how to reconcile the simultaneous sense of hope with the evidence of retribution? How to push for wider cultural representation? How to continue to remain sensitized, grounded, and present? How to imagine into different futures? How can art create connective tissue to encourage the repair of sensitivity and public trust?

* * *

Simone Leigh’s The Waiting Room (2016) at the New Museum was, for me, a remarkable example of a work that directly addresses many of these questions. The project focuses on an expanded notion of medicine, and by extension notions of health, highlighting the parallel histories of resistance and care practices in Black communities. I came into The Waiting Room on a humid summer day with a developing migraine, having planned an ambitious day with myself to look at work. I knew that I was not going to be able to take part in any of the care sessions or public programs, and my expectation of the encounter was limited to getting a sense of how Leigh had cast this project from a neighborhood center, Free People’s Medical Clinic (2014), into the museum space. But even without the presence of healers, I found myself in a space where I felt good and where I wanted to be. It appeared to be a meditation room adjacent to another room set up as an apothecary full of jars of herbs. Sandbags were piled up, which immediately brought to mind histories of fortification and revolution. I have been working with a holistic doctor for many years, and it has been an essential support system without which I could not sustain myself (as a working artist, educator, and mother of triplets). I have considered how to take that up in my work, and maybe have done so in small ways—but Leigh’s project did it directly. She brought together a network of existing holistic practitioners who align themselves with social justice and simultaneously made it clear symbolically that health and resistance go together, and are essential for sustenance, resilience, and, in many cases, survival.

Fallen Fruit (David Allen Burns and Austin Young). Stocker Trailhead: Park-To-Playa Trailhead Public Fruit Park, 2017; Los Angeles, California.

As with The Waiting Room and Free People’s Medical Clinic, many of the ongoing projects that most resonate with me are connected to the conditions and work of communities that have been historically less visible on national or international stages. Even through secondary audiences, these projects can exert pressure in a wider socio-political context, arguing for shifting power away from dominant misogynist, racist, and/or colonial frameworks and narratives. Working at a range of scales, some projects that I think of as exemplary are: Borrando la Frontera (Ana Teresa Fernandez), Index of the Disappeared (Chitra Ganesh and Mariam Ghani), Future IDs (Gregory Sale and members of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition), Pre Apocalypse Counseling (Lindsay Tunkl), Tamms Year Ten (TY10), The Feminist Economics Department (Cassie Thornton), and the work of Atis Rezistans and the Ghetto Biennale, Fallen Fruit, Project Row Houses, Postcommodity, Rebuild Foundation, Related Tactics Collective, and Torolab. They offer models for working that involve critical praxis and ways of imagining paths to move forward and to think about who and what we are.

* * *

Though death is considered a universal and leveling force, it seems that the dead behave quite differently depending on location, culture, and social milieu. Many people in the United States say “rest in peace.” The dead are considered to be restful and far away. I have never been sure that they are resting—and even less sure that they are so far away. In Haiti the dead are the opposite—they are restless and demanding, constantly riding their descendants. In India, the dead are adored, adoring, and ever present. The dead occupy space, time, and literature, and they communicate with us in so many ways, wherever they may be.

To quote Ernesto Pujol’s recent essay “The Cult of Creative Failure,” in The Brooklyn Rail, “in order for everyone, artists and civilians, to explore their creative potential, they must patiently spend time with the dead and the wild.”

Even before Ted passed away, I had already begun to think about how we would communicate with him after he was gone. Because he was oriented in dialogue and by gift economies, it seems clear that the exchanges he began will somehow continue to circulate and to be generative. His work has already touched so many, and I have no doubt it is gathering energy to move into the future. As much as I wanted this text to be a dialogue with Ted, I think in some ways it is too early for me to know how to do that. Maybe my dialogue with him needs a new medium, like an album or a comic book or a speculative fiction. I am not sure I know enough yet about what he has left me with specifically, and us with more generally, to be able to speak with him in his new form. I do know that if anyone can figure out how to have a social form across the divide between life and death, it will be Ted.

Comments ShowHide