3.11 / And I Say, It’s All Right

Notes Toward a Non-Anthropocentric Social Practice

By Anthony Marcellini, Matthew David Rana March 14, 2012
Slide from presentation given at "The Social Beyond Anthropocentrism"; panel in conjunction with Göteborg release of Paletten Art Journal #286-287, February 14, 2012, Valand School of Fine Arts, Göteborg, Sweden. Images: Pictures of a first kiss; a lightbulb; a salamander; a cloud. 

This article was originally published in Swedish in PALETTEN ART JOURNAL 286-287, (2012).

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This article seeks to chart a new, or perhaps more expansive, course for an area within the arts called social practice.1 The aim is to open up boundaries that have formed as attempts to delimit, determine, and canonize this area of art increase. Our approach is to apply a non-anthropocentric perspective to social practice in order to move conceptions of the social beyond humans as the only actors and towards inclusion of objects, things, words, memories, dreams, and forces—basically all of the things that make up our social world. Our method of extension may seem a bit weird, absurd, and perhaps even anachronistic to some, but we believe that it has broad potential to allow some unpredictability and potentiality into a field that has become increasingly literal, strict, and didactic.

An (Un)Certain Field: From Contention to Consensus

I wanted to do the thing, but they didn’t have any decaf tea that day. I haven’t had caffeine in three years. I almost did it for art, but I just listened to people talk instead.—Anonymous participant, Free Iced Tea by Josh Green (2000)2

Among several attempts to theorize the social practices of the 1990s, Nicolas Bourriaud’s book, Relational Aesthetics (Les Presses du Reel, 2002), was arguably the most visible.3 Due to its apparent canonization of a new field of artistic production, it placed greater attention on works and practices that take as their “theoretical horizon the realm of human interactions and its social context rather than the assertion of an independent and private symbolic space.”4 Combining avant-garde concerns surrounding arts autonomy and everyday life with a Situationist-style critique of the spectacle, the French curator’s collection of essays offered a framework to view practices emerging inside a postcolonial context of free-market globalization. Within an inflated art market, works by artists such as Rirkrit Tiravanija, Philippe Parreno, and Vanessa Beecroft, who were concerned with human behavior and the production of convivial social spaces, were seen to operate tactically within the commercial apparatus. Bourriaud argued relational art was a reinvestment in artistic practice as a means of learning to inhabit the world in a better way—a redemptive enterprise combating the effects of alienation and commoditization through the creation of temporary micro-utopias and envisioning new models for democratic participation.

More than a decade later, a proliferation of contentious discourse surrounding relational, participatory, or socially engaged work has brought increased focus on social practice, as well as a broadening of the specific terminology used. This process has been further bolstered by a dramatic increase in institutional recognition and support within academia.5 Much of this work has attempted to chart parallel historical lineages for social practice, such as placing it in closer proximity to community arts and new-genre public art. Other attempts have aligned it with Beuysian notions of social sculpture and changes in activist practice brought on by the emergence of the anti-globalization movement and the do-it-yourself ethos of the ’80s and ’90s.6 Others locate it closer to spatial practice, artistic research, experimental geography, performance art, dance, and even theater. Despite widespread contention over its origins, there is a growing consensus that the artistic field of social practice is defined by a focus on working with human subjects.

The Subject/Object Pole: The Story of Right Hand/Left Hand

The story of life is this: static. One hand is always fighting the other hand.—Radio Raheem7

In our investigations into social practice, one thing has become clear to us: its discourses are organized around a binary opposition, which we choose to call the subject/object pole. The effect of this opposition has been to relegate art to one of two sites: the social world or the non-social world. A brief list of the categories for arts production and reception that fall under the subject/object pole might look like the following:

With this formulation, we argue that the non-social world has been separated from the political, the everyday, and emancipation. It has become a space of the elite, of indifference and isolation, and perhaps even of complicity. Even more troubling is that, inside the non-social world, these relationships between commodities, individuals, materials, and institutions are naturalized—presented as though they are not constructed. The social world is its opposite, a realm of emancipation through collective, political, and public engagement. However, once we separate a non-social world from a social one, a series of contradictions clearly emerge. For example, we cannot ignore in this formation that within the art-in-the-social-world pole, antagonism is riven from politics. Moreover, that the institutional could coexist on the same pole as the natural, or that material could somehow be separated from exchange, speaks to the insufficiency by which a binary or subject-only position can give an adequate picture of the social. Similarly, that the constructed could be properly situated on the opposite end of the pole from the cultural suggests not only a fundamental fluidity between categories but indicates as well the arbitrariness of their divisions in the first place.

This subject/object polarity also suggests a culture/nature division, a dominant philosophical understanding of the world employed since Kant, which serves to restrict knowledge to what is constructed by human subjects.8 This kind of polarity also incorrectly leads to the conclusion that the things on one side of the pole can effectively neutralize or explain away the existence of those on the other—in other words, culture can explain or neutralize nature, and vice versa.

To offer a parable, imagine the scene from Spike Lee’s film, Do the Right Thing (1989), in which Radio Raheem tells the story of Right Hand/Left Hand. Bearing brass knuckles, Raheem shows LOVE written on the right fist and HATE on the left. “Left hand is kicking much ass,” Raheem preaches. “I mean, it looks like the right hand, Love, is finished. But hold on, stop the presses, the right hand is coming back. Yeah, he got the left hand on the ropes, now, that’s right. Ooh, it’s a devastating right and Hate is hurt, he’s down. Left-Hand Hate KO’ed by Love.”9 In our version of the story, love / hate is replaced by culture / nature, but both oppositional pairs are still tied to conceptions of good / evil or human / other. When the fists begin to fight, instead of culture conquering nature, Raheem stops and simply states that this fight is futile because both fists are part of the same body.

Slide from "The Social Beyond Anthropocentrism” panel presentation, Valand School of Fine Arts, Göteborg, Sweden. Images: snapshots from a protest; a parade; a party.

Social as Material: Protests, Parties, and Parades

Problems arise, however, when ‘social’ begins to mean a type of material, as if the adjective was roughly comparable to other terms like ‘wooden’, ‘steely’, ‘biological’, ‘economical’, ‘mental’, ‘organizational’, or ‘linguistic’. At that point the meaning of the word breaks down since it now designates two entirely different things: first, a movement during a process of assembling; and second, a specific type of ingredient that is supposed to differ from other materials.—Bruno Latour10

Here, sociologist Bruno Latour describes a fundamental problem with the use of the adjective social in social science. Generally, he says, there is nothing wrong with using the term as long as it describes what is already assembled together. The problem begins, however, when the social is understood as a clearly determined quality rather than a field of action. Latour asserts it is not possible to either properly define the social domain or strictly social phenomena. In other words, the social cannot be used to provide an “explanation for some other state of affairs," such as when sets of social factors are invoked to justify the outcome of an election.11 The social cannot constitute a domain of reality or a particular item, for there is no such thing as a social force; it simply designates a chain of associations between entities.12

While Latour’s reassembling of the social problematized dominant paradigms within the field of sociology, it has remained conspicuously absent within the discourses surrounding the emerging field of social practice. If the constitution of the social is so contentious—and in Latour’s view, misunderstood—within the field of sociology, why hasn’t this problem been adequately addressed within the arts?13 Increasing numbers of artists and curators describe their artistic medium as social, but what social realm does their work project? Is a special quality or a dynamic field of action inherent in the work? If we simply substitute in the above quote medium for materialsculptural for wooden steely, and conceptual formental,organizational, or linguistic, Latour’s argument highlights numerous weaknesses we have sensed in the foundations of social practice. Indeed, the shift taking place in social practice is in the formalism of its argument, which places emphasis on the social as material—from meetings, meals, bike tours, and swap meets, to protests, parties, and parades—treating the social as an artistic media, a clearly defined homogenized thing that can be manipulated and transformed.

When artists, curators, or theorists speak of the social or social practice, they almost always describe strictly human endeavors. For example, in a recent lecture based on her text for the Living as Form catalogue, Maria Lind, a freelance curator and the director of Tensta Konsthall, described social practice as “art that involves more people than objects, in order to produce social and political change.”14 Emphasizing correlations between a project’s form and its efficacy within the world at large, Lind’s comments reflect the urgency for change in the absence of a universalist (leftist) political project. While we are generally sympathetic with this sense of urgency, discussing issues along these lines once again asserts that there is a distinct, even transformative, quality to the social. Furthermore, this social realm is a misrepresentation. As Latour describes it, one impossibility inevitably leads to another, namely, everything existing outside moments of face-to-face contact, inter-subjective exchange, and commingling does not act socially.

Describing socially engaged works either according to their emancipatory potential or as forms defined by groups of people coming together does little to elucidate the complex forces behind the act of congregating. A recent talk by the Creative Time curator Nato Thompson, titled “Socially Engaged Art Outside the Bounds of an Artistic Discipline,” is one example.15 In response to an argument over the definition of social practice, Thompson suggested that the following organizations and events should be considered in order to expand upon this rubric: Project Row Houses, a nonprofit arts and cultural organization in Houston, Texas, launched by the artist Rick Lowe; the Cemeti Art House and Foundation, an art center in Yogyakarta, Indonesia; and the United Indian Health Services, a medical and public-health service for tribes in Arcata, California. To these he added the spontaneous gathering that occurred in Harlem’s streets when Barack Obama was elected president and afterward concluded, “While we are at it, why don’t we just put in Tahrir Square, in Cairo, Egypt?” While lending social practice a political orientation, Thompson nevertheless fails to address the limited concept of agency and the human-centered worldview that it promotes. Other than telling us that groups of people were involved, claims such as these inform us just as little about occurrences in Cairo, Harlem, Arcata, Yogyakarta, or Houston as they do about social practice, whether in or outside the arts.

Slide from "The Social Beyond Anthropocentrism” panel presentation, Valand School of Fine Arts, Göteborg, Sweden. Images: Still from Recreation of the Battle of Orgreave (2001) by Jeremy Deller; illustration of a giant squid; Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost. 

Quarks, Concepts, Commodities, and Crustaceans

But no one has advanced the hypothesis that things may discover us at the same time as we discover them, and that there is a dual relationship in discovery.—Jean Baudrillard16

Any understanding of the social that demonstrates a pronounced anthropocentric tendency inhabits an extreme end of the subject/object pole. By suggesting that humans are the only beings endowed with agency and are capable of effecting meaningful change in the world, this approach privileges subjects rather than objects while excluding non-human actors such as art objects from the arena of the social. To exclusively reduce the social realm to the ways that humans interact with each other, as many social art practitioners tend to do, is to willfully ignore the role that objects—considered here not only in the sense of material things but broadly conceived as any entity with agency, all the way from quarks to concepts, commodities, and crustaceans—play in organizing the forms, affects, and gestures of intersubjective exchange in the first place.

This is not to say that we are against notions of singularity, or that human beings are merely the sum product of external fields of force. On the contrary, we wish to consider a world full of singular objects—of deeply complex entities endowed with an agency that is irreducible to their functionality or external qualities, humans included. As Jean Baudrillard remarked, “The uncertainty of the world lies in the fact that it has no equivalence anywhere; it cannot be exchanged for anything.”17 This is merely to say that the idea that a Nokia 2100 cellular phone somehow has less agency or capacity to mediate the world than an individual giving out free clothing made by artists to passersby in the street seems to us absurd.18 Similarly absurd is the notion that this act, once it is considered an artwork, is assured to obtain increased agency within conditions of flexible labor and uneven development or is guaranteed to ameliorate the effects of xenophobia. This understanding of properly social acts that are more engaged or proactive than works displayed within a white-cube gallery or museum setting lends itself to valorization that is disproportionately based on form. Beyond reinstating artificial form/content divisions, this narrow approach places a focus on a work’s intentionality and not its result. Furthermore, as the sociologist George Simmel suggests, social forms already emanate their own specific content, which is distinct from the intentions that helped shape them.19

Slide from "The Social Beyond Anthropocentrism” panel presentation, Valand School of Fine Arts, Göteborg, Sweden. Images: Album cover from Lady Gaga’s The Fame Monster (2009, Interscope Records); illustration of children performing witchcraft; photograph of Paul Chan giving a lecture.

Emergence of the Social Object

The world is a series of negotiations between a motley armada of forces, humans among them, and such a world cannot be divided cleanly between two pre-existent poles called ‘nature’ and ‘society.’ As Latour puts it: ‘We do not know what forces there are, nor their balance. We do not want to reduce anything to anything else […] What happens when nothing is reduced to anything else? What happens when we suspend our knowledge of what a force is? What happens when we do not know how their way of relating to one another is forever changing?’—Graham Harman20

If subject-object oppositions indicate the problematics of social practice, how do we rethink and reorganize this concept? How can we think of the poles of social and non-social together, rather than uphold divisions that, on the one hand, arbitrarily valorize certain forms and, on the other, undermine our ability to trace the relations that produce them? How can we have a more complex social practice that accounts for multiple forces and agencies, ones that are not transparent or even fully accessible? How can we reconcile Jeremy Deller, Giant Squid, and Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening? How to account for xenophobia, particle accelerators, and social sculpture in the same breath? Is it possible to place Bridget Riley, Brigitte Bardot, and Bridgetown, Barbados, in the same sentence? In what puzzle do Paul Chan, Lady Gaga, and witchcraft fit together?

Latour’s critique is not the only theory that begins to suggest other ways of understanding the social in a broader panorama. Emergent discourses such as object-oriented ontology and thing-power, the reassessments of Deleuzian assemblage theory, human/animal relations, or recent experiments mixing consciousness studies with other disciplines are just some of a number of theories that suggest new ways of reading and understanding human relations with the world. Their cumulative effect forces us to reevaluate not only our assumptions about the social world upon which social practice is based but also our understanding of the objects that it tends to exclude.

Object-oriented ontology, advanced by the philosopher Graham Harman, and thing-power, forwarded by the political scientist and theorist Jane Bennett, are two recent theories that promote a profound reengagement with objects. Harman aims to counter a dominant philosophical understanding employed since Kant, which he says sets up “one kind of relation: the interaction between human and world.”21 Indebted as much to Heidegger as to Latour, Harman advocates for a new type of realism and a return to metaphysics, “in which all objects interact with just as much dignity as human and world, but in which entities also retain some autonomy in their relations with other things.”22

Bennett, on the other hand, encourages a return to materialist thought through what she has termed thing-power. Drawing from thinkers such as Thoreau and Spinoza, her take on materiality is slightly less metaphysical and more ethically and ecologically oriented, associating a renewed focus on objects in philosophy and science as being driven by shifts in our environment.23 For Bennett, “Thing-power materialism” emphasizes the shared material basis, the kinship, of all things, regardless of their status as human, animal, vegetable, or mineral. It does not deny that there are differences between human and nonhuman, though it strives to describe them without succumbing to the temptation to place humans at the ontological center.24

Similarly aligned thinkers, such as the philosopher and feminist theorist Rosi Braidotti and the philosopher Mario Perniola, explore the edges of posthumanity, recasting subjectivity as something nomadic, a continual process of becoming inorganic, or as Perniola puts it, a “thing that feels.”25 In both cases, a kind of nonidentitarian politics of self-shattering is proposed, in which the notion of a coherent “I”—the same “I” that posits the mastery of the subject over the object, of meaning, homogeneity, and closure over contradiction, difference, and uncertainty—is rejected.

Beyond a reassembling and expansion of the social, these thinkers offer us tools to look at objects with the same sense of dignity that we do humans. Indeed, objects, all the way from lightbulbs, clouds, and Two and a Half Men to salamanders and the memory of a first kiss, are just as reality producing as we are. All these things must be understood as social objectsendowed with agencies and allusive powers that we can only apprehend sympathetically, at a distance. In order to approach their effects—and their reality—we would do well to abandon many of the preconceptions that have foreclosed our thoughts (in the form of binaries or the fetishization of the subject and of the social) with what Bennett calls a “naive realism.” Perhaps, then, we can restore a sense of the uncertainty of the world, not simply to extend the boundaries of artistic production but also in order to better grasp the things that affect, surround, resist, reside in, and travel through us.

We would like to acknowledge Malak Helmy, Ted Purves, Laura Mott, and Mårtin Spångberg for their contributions to this essay.

Notes

  1. Social practice (sometimes called socially engaged practice) is a term used in the art world to define artwork that emphasizes encounter or exchange with a public or audience. We are using social practice for two reasons: One, it is arguably the most the most widely used and broadly applicable term. Two, it is the name of a specialized area of concentration in the Master of Fine Arts program at the California College of the Arts, which we both attended from 2007 to 2009.
  2. Ted Purves, ed., What We Want is Free: Generosity and Exchange in Recent Art (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2005), 126.
  3. See: Hal Foster, “Artist as Ethnographer,” The Return of the Real: The Avant-garde at the End of the Century (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995), 171–205; Miwon Kwon, “One Place after Another: Notes on Site Specificity,” October, 80 (Spring 1997): 85–110, and Kwon’s later book expanding on this article, One Place After Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004); Grant Kester, “Aesthetic Evangelists: Conversion and Empowerment in Contemporary Community Art,” Afterimage (January 1995): 5–11, and Kester’s later publication, Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004); Lucy Lippard, The Lure of the Local: The Sense of Place in a Multicultural Society (New York: The New Press, 1997); Erika Suderberg, ed., Space, Site, Intervention: Situating Installation Art (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000). On earlier but related practices, see: Suzanne Lacy, Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1995). These are just some examples; there are of course many more.
  4. Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics (Paris: Les Presses du Reel, 2002), 14.
  5. The establishment in recent years, of specialized graduate programs and academic conferences—best exemplified by the annual Open Engagement Conference on Art and Social Practice held at Portland State University—as well as art-historical canonization via survey exhibitions, such as theanyspacewhatever (2008) at the Guggenheim and Creative Time’s Living as Form, a 2011 exhibition held in conjunction with its annual summit on public practice in New York City, are just a few examples.
  6. “The realized utopianism of relational art—of art as a direct form of non-reified life and community—has made Relational Aesthetics resonate with the sporadic emergence of anti-capitalist movements since the 1990s and the affinities they have achieved in the art world. Relational Aesthetics can be read as the manifesto for a new political art confronting the service economies of informational capitalism—an art of the multitude.” Stewart Martin, “Critique of Relational Aesthetics,” Third Text 21, Issue 4 (July 2007): 371.
  7. Spike Lee, director, Do the Right Thing (1989).
  8. For a deeper analysis, see: Bruno Latour, “One More Turn After the Social Turn…” in The Science Studies Reader, ed. Mario Biagoli, 276–289 (London: Routledge, 1999).
  9. Spike Lee, Do the Right Thing (1989).
  10. Bruno Latour, “Introduction: How to Resume the Task of Tracing Associations,” in Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2005), 1.
  11.  Ibid.
  12. Ibid, 64–65.
  13. With the possible exceptions of Latour’s own writings surrounding the 2005 Making Things Public exhibition, which he curated at the Center for Art and Media Technology, Karlsruhe (ZKM), and Trevor Paglen’s text for the Experimental Geography exhibition catalogue, “Experimental Geography: From Cultural Production to the Production of Space,” in which Paglen discusses his approach to art as a materialist practice “that insists on ‘stuff.’”
  14. Maria Lind, “On Social Practice,” lecture at Valand School of Fine Arts, September 12, 2011.
  15. Nato Thompson, “Socially Engaged Art Outside the Bounds of an Artistic Discipline,” a lecture presented in conjunction with Creative Time’s Living as Form exhibition, at Rose Auditorium, Cooper Union, New York City, August 2, 2011, http://www.creativetime.org/programs/archive/2011/livingasform/talks.htm#!prettyPhoto/2/.
  16.  Jean Baudrillard, Impossible Exchange, trans. Chris Turner (New York: Verso, 2001), 22.
  17.  Ibid, 3.
  18. It Can Change’s exhibition, Clothing Project in Shadow Cabinets in a Bright Country, curated by Ted Purves, at Kunsthall Friedericianum, Kassel, Germany, in 2003.
  19. Georg Simmel, “The Problem of Sociology,” American Journal of Sociology, 15 (1909): 289–320, http://www.brocku.ca/MeadProject/Simmel/Simmel_1909.html.
  20. Graham Harman, Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics (Melbourne: Re.press, 2009), 13–14.
  21. Graham Harman, “Asymmetrical Causation: Influence without Recompense,” Parallax 16, no. 1 (2010): 96.
  22. Ibid, 98.
  23. Peter Gratton, “Interview with Jane Bennett: There is Nothing Simple about Materiality,” http://philosophyinatimeoferror.wordpress.com/2010/04/22/vibrant-matters-an-interview-with-jane-bennett/.
  24. Jane Bennett, “The Force of Things: Steps Toward an Ecology of Matter,” Political Theory 32, no. 3 (June 2004): 359.
  25. Mario Perniola, The Sex Appeal of the Inorganic, trans. Massimo Verdicchio (London: Continuum, 2004), 1.

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