Bad at Sports

Interview with Pablo Helguera

By Bad at Sports October 4, 2011

Bad At Sports is a weekly podcast about contemporary art. Founded in 2005, the series focuses on presenting the practices of artists, curators, critics, dealers, various other arts professionals through an online audio format.

Image: Puerto Williams, Chile; The School of Panamerican Unrest, 2003–2006. Courtesy of the Artist.

The following is an abridged transcript from an interview at the Open Engagement conference, which took place from May 13 to 15, 2011, at Portland State University (PSU). Open Engagement is an initiative of PSU’s Art and Social Practice MFA program that encourages discussion on various perspectives in social practice. In this conversation, Bad at Sports contributors Bryce Dwyer, Christine Hill, Abigail Satinsky, Duncan MacKenzie, and Brian Andrews speak with Pablo Helguera, who was a featured presenter at this year’s conference.

This presentation of the interview is part of the ongoing collaboration between Bad at Sports and Art Practical. You can listen to the full conversation on an upcoming episode of Bad at Sports.


Bryce Dwyer: I’m here with Pablo Helguera, who is one of the keynote speakers at Open Engagement this year and is an artist and arts educator. Welcome. I’ll just start off with a question. Interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary exists as this ideal for a social practice artist, but the actual qualities of the disciplines from which artists are approaching [social practice] get lost in this concept of being involved in all of them. The qualities of each specialization get lost in the idea of the artist who has a hand in everything. So maybe you could talk generally to begin with about this idea of the interdisciplinary as it relates to teaching artists how to be good MFAs in social practice.

Pablo Helguera: It’s actually very easy to see that this issue has always been present in the arts, and it’s been present in debates around reconfiguration of the art school curriculum. Because what you have historically is the academy model, which relies on a set of skills that you teach to people. Plaster casting and doing a nice still life and the human anatomy and all that. Then comes the Bauhaus model, which really relies on the whole notion of technique, but not simply maintaining some nineteenth-century model of craft. It’s craft in a more expanded sense. Technology as the craft.

Then we have the new reconfigured model, which is criticized as basically dismantling everything else, and then supposedly it doesn’t make you a specialist in anything. The difficulty with the programs that emphasize knowledge of a particular craft is that there’s a problem with development of a particular craft. Maybe you have heard this famous phrase by Malcolm Gladwell that it takes ten thousand hours to become an expert in anything.

The problem with art is that when you become such a specialist in a particular thing, you become a purist—let’s say, of photography or in bookmaking—and you start having a difficult critical distance from that particular medium. A photographic purist will say to an artist working with photography, but not a photographer by training, “You know nothing about photography. Under my standards, you’re nothing.”

BD: Like a virtuoso model.

PH: Yeah, like classical music, it applies very specifically because there is this form of art making that relies heavily on virtuosity. But in art, it’s a combination of being able to understand how a medium works and maintain a critical detachment to it. So the solution is not simply to emphasize a craft of any kind, but in my view, to teach the ways in which a variety of crafts or disciplines function. An architect is not required to understand all the specifics of plumbing or be an expert in welding. An orchestra conductor does not play all the instruments of the orchestra, or at least not play them as a virtuoso. There are many disciplines that don’t require you to completely master them in order to gain a certain kind of understanding of how they work.

This is where social practice finds itself right now. Where you are engaging with a variety of topics or areas of knowledge, and your challenge is to really understand how they behave to a certain extent and understand how people behave. There are disciplines that are particularly relevant to what we do, and it’s very useful to gain understanding of their tools and mechanisms. That doesn’t mean that we’re going to become professional sociologists or ethnographers or anthropologists to do what we do, but these kinds of expertise that we are developing [provide] some understanding of how they behave in the social realm, and how to utilize them. It’s like becoming a good orchestrator of these particular things that are constantly moving.

BD: In your talk, you staged that amateur position, not as a pejorative, but as something to be valued. The ability of the amateur to see a discipline in a different light than a practitioner.

PH: Paolo Freire said, “I’m an expert at not being an expert. I’m not claiming an expertise.” Meaning that for him, the core of education was to acknowledge a degree of ignorance in a variety of things, and that degree of ignorance was an acknowledgement of humanity. But I do know this amount of stuff, and I can communicate that. I can create a structure and you can come to the realization of your own knowledge. When I say I am a professor or a teacher, I’m not claiming that I know who you are or I know what you are, but I’m actually providing the tools for you to come to your own realizations about who you are. And there is a term, conscientization, which just means awareness when you reached that kind of knowledge. So it’s a combination of acknowledging your own limitations, but at the same time, acknowledging your responsibility in structuring a space where you can allow others to attain those awarenesses or realizations.

BD: I’ve been reading this book called Arts of Living [by Kurt Spellmeyer] that critiques what’s happened to the humanities since the Second World War, in which they’ve become more about specialization, in becoming an expert in whatever obscure text and reading it in a close and theoretical way. The argument of the book is that the humanities should be the space between all the other disciplines, the position from which you can view all the different relationships between the disciplines. It should also try and find a way to be more relevant to ordinary life in general, in the same way that philosophy shouldn’t just be solving analytical problems, but give ordinary people some way to navigate their way through their everyday lives. It seems that art as social practice is in certain situations aiming to be at this vantage point, where you can see all these different things and make the connections between them, and use expertise from these different fields to comment on all of them.


Calle 9 de julio, Ushuaia, Argentina; The School of Panamerican Unrest, 2003–2006. Courtesy of the Artist.

PH: You know, in truth, it’s not a new thing that social practice suddenly discovered. What I think is happening is an extreme reaction against modern and postmodern notions of the artist as this demigod who comes and reveals the truth to the world and becomes this kind of cult figure. So many people who are working in this realm of socially based work renounced that to the extent that nothing associated with that idea can possibly be admissible.

But this is what I was going to say: What happened is that we started treating social practice as something that’s not even art. Now, we don’t even say the word art. We say, “I’m a social practitioner.” I think it’s very meaningful that we have done that. We are trying to detach from the whole thing. We’re trying to turn it into a technique or maybe into a profession.

That’s a very contradictory thing, because on the one hand, we’re saying we’re amateurs, and on the other hand, we’re saying we’re professionals. The problem is that art just can’t be professionalized that way. Because art has a degree of ambiguity that cannot possibly be pinned down, ever.

PH (con't): Whatever you do, what’s powerful about art is that it’s ambiguous. It’s something that has multiple values in different moments and contexts. I always remember what Matthew Barney said once, that “everything that I do, there’s a degree that I don’t want to know about.” I always leave a blank section of questionable aspects of the work that even I don’t understand—that viable room for not making it completely didactic, or completely spelling out exactly what it is.

And that’s a very important thing to preserve, and that is the one thing that no other scientific disciplines have. You don’t do physics just for free expression! The scientific approach is trying to prove something and going through these processes, but in art, you can just say, “I'm going to do this crazy stuff, and nobody knows what it means and it’s okay.”

Christine Hill: I think people keep going around and around a familiar problem, which is that nobody wants to have an MFA in Futility. I think sometimes it's as if everyone is trying to find a way to feel useful, or that what they’re doing has use.

PH: I don’t know how this applies in Europe, but I feel that in American education, we still have a very consumerist approach, in which we feel that we are purchasing an education as a consumer. We don’t put ourselves in the role of “I’m constructing something for myself,” but more like, “I’m the buyer, and this is product, and you have to fill me with knowledge, and if I don’t have a real product coming out of it then this was a scam.” The most common MFA questions are, “Am I going to get in a gallery? Am I going to survive in the art world? Am I going to sell the artwork after I get this diploma?” They want to see concrete products out of these things.

CH: Look at how websites of some of the best art schools look. Who is the consumer—the student or the parent? They inundate you with pictures of techy looking labs and stuff that looks like your child is going to learn some hardcore stuff here. That’s not accidental.

PH: Yes, they’re selling. They’re definitely presenting themselves as businesses. Selling it like some sort of experience or that afterward, you’re going to become a member of an elite club with rewards.

Abigal Satinsky: I thought it was interesting when you laid out in your talk the uncomfortable position in which social practice artists now exist, that they’re struggling over the idea of authorship. So if we’re talking about how we’re not making things in particular, then what is it that we’re actually producing? This is the conundrum that everyone’s struggling with. I’d like to hear you talk more about that complex authorship position, maybe through The School of Panamerican Unrest, as well as about your own methodology, about the position in which you’re approaching your community, the position in which you’re negotiating with institutions, and how all these things come to be, and where you’ve placed yourself as an artist. You mentioned this idea of a stealth art practice.

PH: What I said about authorship is that essentially, among the many artists that do social practice, some create this sense they are not really doing it—that they are not being anything other than a facilitator. They are disowning themselves to create a situation and let it exist on its own. I say that’s impossible. I say an artist can never really disappear by the same principle that you alter anything that you actually come into, just by nature of entering it. You have to acknowledge that, and by the same token, you cannot renounce authorship away. We’re not talking about authorship in the sense of coming to sign the landscape; it is about assuming the accountability of what you are actually doing.

And also, it’s not very productive to demonize the art market when you are making a project, because, let’s be honest, we exist within the art market, even if you are not selling anything. There are other kinds of economies. There’s a reputational economy. Maybe you’ll give everyone a gift, and that’s your project, and then that’s a piece. You can say that it’s not an artwork because [you] didn’t sell anything, but no, it was actually an investment in your reputation. Because then, you are famous because you gave everybody a gift. That’s why I like very ambiguous things that are not really discussed. You might as well acknowledge that they exist and then see how you operate within them in an integral and decent way.

In doing the School of Panamerican Unrest project, I never really thought about what it was going to be. I’m still not sure what it should be in its final product. I think it’s going to be an archive. [These collages] emerged from the project that were personal and like a diary, but could be sold and collected or whatever. I don’t see any conflict with that and doing a social practice project.

You might call this accessorizing, and there are issues within that, but it’s not intrinsically a conflict by definition. I think it is possible to create a work as an artist that might have the components of sociability or ephemerality, and at the same time do something else that exists in a more conventional form.


Pablo Helguera, The School of Panamerican Unrest, 2003–2006. Courtesy of the Artist.

BD: I found your talk incredibly refreshing, in part because you dealt with questions such as responsibility for authorship, and noted that when we do these things, we are actually accountable to them and we are ethically responsible. You were sketching out a position that [acknowledges] the social practice side of things always wants to see itself as somehow off to the side, as not participating in your dirty money scene. People like Dave Hickey sketch out a far more cynical way of looking at it, which is to say that, “No, you are; you’re just making yourself available through a museum and not directly to the collector. This is just an alternative art economy, and it actually works really well for the museum, because the museum needs to collect things that collectors can’t collect by themselves.”

PH: Yes, tell me of a single recognized artist who does this kind of work who has not had any relationships with museums or foundations that have funded their work. Practically everybody who is here has done major projects for museums, for biennials, for foundations. They have received grants. You simply become a different kind of agent in the same system. There are biennial artists, there are gallery artists, there are public art artists who just create public sculptures for parks, and that’s how they make a living. Performance artists exist in another circuit of performance venues.

BD: I want to drag that back to ethical responsibility. Because it’s one of the things that you highlighted in your talk, and it was one of the things that I left last year’s conference with really mixed emotions about: the role social practice takes on ethically, and what ethics does it really represent.

PH: Well, that’s very hairy territory, you know? As you might have already guessed. You can get into really deep extremes. You can get righteous and have to ask everyone’s permission to do everything and you have to really go to all lengths—if you did that, probably nothing would ever get done. Because art by consensus is like death by committee, you know? Let’s just make the most boring art possible so that no one will be offended, and that is really the kiss of death for an artist. And that’s exactly what you see in most public art. Because when you actually propose a public art project for the city of New York or for [wherever], it has to go through committees of people who know nothing about art, whose concerns are so remote from what a possible art project may be that you end up presenting completely bland, horrible projects. They’re better not to be done than done the way that they are done.

So we must not forget that there has to be a degree of respect that also includes a level of challenging the audience. This is another thing I’ve learned from education; again, if you consider education as this service thing—educate me, give me this, give me that, as if you were a fast food restaurant. It does not work that way. The way it works is saying, “Yes, I’ll give you this, but you have to also reply to me.” It’s a dialogue. It’s an exchange situation. So audiences get something, but they also have to give something back, and that implies a kind of engagement that can be challenging. To me, any great art has the ability of giving you something, but at the same time hurting you a little bit. Like pissing you off a little bit, or putting you in a very strange place that maybe is not that comfortable.

We need to learn how to figure out a way to retain a certain degree of integrity in the way that we make works, but without becoming subservient to any sort of regulations that anyone might impose on us. That’s an unworkable situation. You cannot do it. Or you do it, and you will end up doing those community murals that are very pleasing and nice to the eye.



Pablo Helguera was born in Mexico City in 1971. He is a New York–based artist working with installation, sculpture, photography, drawing, and performance. Helguera’s work focuses on a variety of topics ranging from history, pedagogy, sociolinguistics, ethnography, memory and the absurd, in formats that are widely varied including the lecture, museum display strategies, musical performances, and written fiction.

His work as an educator intersected his interest as an artist, and his work often reflects on issues of interpretation, dialogue, and the role of contemporary culture in a global reality. This intersection is best exemplified in his project The School of Panamerican Unrest, a nomadic think tank that physically crossed the continent by car from Anchorage, Alaska, to Tierra del Fuego, making forty stops in between. Covering almost twenty thousand miles, it is considered one of the most extensive public art projects on record.

In 2008 he was awarded the John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship and also was the recipient of a 2005 Creative Capital Grant. Since 2007, he has been Director of Adult and Academic programs at The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

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