Introduction to Public Sense

9.1 / Public Sense

Introduction to Public Sense

By Kara Q. Smith December 12, 2017

From 1991 to 2001, the artist and California College of the Arts and Crafts professor Suzanne Lacy partnered with artists and communities in Oakland to develop multiple projects with teens that addressed policy, race, and injustice. One project, Youth, Cops, and Videotape (1995), developed in collaboration with Oakland police and artist Chris Johnson, among others, put teenagers who had cited conflicts with police as a primary concern in the same room with police officers, and videotaped the ensuing dialogue. The video was then used in police training. The resulting impact of the exchanges brought about mixed responses from both teenagers and officers, but the project itself is iconic within the field of social practice for the way artists (and institutions) can partner in communities as artistic practice. Twenty-two years later, artists continue to transform the way that creative practices can bring together publics around issues, to make work that tries to raise social consciousness and is politically pointed. Issues such as police brutality have become more visible to the mainstream, while artists and activists have been engaging with the issue for countless years. In the nine years Art Practical has been publishing, “police brutality” has been discussed in regard to the work of Sanford Biggers, Keith Haring, and Dread Scott. It’s also mentioned as a key part of the 2013 Undocuqueer movement, among many other contextualizations that exemplify how artists have been working in communities—or engaging them—before there was a field of practice defining this work.

Dee Hibbert-Jones and Nomi Talisman. Living Condition, work-in-progress (still); drawings and video animation. Courtesy of the Artists.

How does art operate in the midst of our current social and political climate, which sees the rise of free-speech repression, a head-in-sand approach to climate change, threats of war, plights of natural disasters used as political folly, the emphasis on divisiveness over unity, and the rise of white supremacy? And specifically when citizen activism is on the rise and exposure to long-standing crises is starting to shift from the margins to center stage? Our two recent issues, “Art + Citizenship” and “Art can’t do anything if we don’t.,” examined artistic practices that overlap, engage, and inform civic and activist practices. With Issue 9.1, we are considering artists with public practices, a term we are using to loosely corral those who work with and for specific communities and publics. Often these works are time based or temporary, do not fit into the traditional gallery or exhibition models, and take forms that are not easily legible for art-viewing audiences because change and the amplification of social and political perspectives are not always tidy or easily consumed.

Jerome Reyes. Pharos (Still a Nice Neighborhood), 2016; ellipsoidal stage lights, light stands, projected text, outdoor building (3 language versions); 20 x 15 x 15 ft. in various locations South of Market area, San Francisco. Courtesy of the Artist. Photo: Jeremy Keith Villaluz.

The San Francisco Bay Area has a long legacy of this sort of practice, in connection with communities, audiences, social issues, academic programs, activism, and civil disobedience.  Our three-year partnership with Yerba Buena Center for the Arts engaged this history by selecting artists who look beyond traditional practices, who partner with communities, and are interested in developing new ways of showcasing unexpected collaborations and work. The partnership resulted in shared institutional support of the artists Dee Hibbert-Jones and Nomi Talisman, Chris Vargas, and Jerome Reyes.

With this issue, we are looking for overlaps and disconnects with politically engaged object-making practices, social practice and its pedagogy, and public-facing and audience-engaging practices. Can art help communities redefine social economies, or create meaningful exchanges between disparate groups? We are asserting that something new is needed to establish and make legible practices that may be overlooked by not being executed with pedagogical underpinnings or institutional support, as well as recognizing that many categorical visual-art practices intersect with engagement/action in very meaningful ways—and have for a long time. 

Susanne Cockrell picks lemons in the backyard of a home in Oakland, California, in January 2006 as part of Temescal Amity Works (2004–2007). Courtesy of the Artists.

Ted Purves—a dear mentor, colleague, and trailblazer in the field of social practice—and his partner Susanne Cockrell’s Temescal Amity Works project (2004–2007) consisted of the artists harvesting food from their backyard and offering it for free at a temporary storefront. They invited others to contribute from their own gardens. Of the project, Purves said, “Obviously the canned fruit isn’t going to be a work of art,but the narrative might turn into something that creates unintended consequences.”1 How can we talk about these unintended consequences? Practices like Cockrell and Purves’s blur the lines between art practice, food making, and community service. It is within this blurriness that we look to find exciting new practitioners and ways of talking about and making meaning of how art intersects with community.

Centering this line of inquiry in just one broadly defined field of practice is a way of breaking it open, inviting artists and writers to create discourse, ask questions, and create scholarship around what they feel is prescient—not what we as a magazine dictate. We’ve decided to dedicate six months to this endeavor and will be publishing new content each month on a rolling basis, giving the issue the opportunity to be flexible, responsive, and experimental. Newly commissioned essays will reflect on and probe the pedagogy and commercial market for public practices, will bring forth under-recognized practitioners, will look to institutional platforms that support socially engaged projects, and will bring to light new perspectives we have yet to know. On our AP Audio channel, we will be releasing a series of recorded conversations about artistic practice, place, and publics that confront socio-political concerns, participation, and social histories. AP Programs will include events and partnerships that extend the conversation of the issue into public spaces, including through our Wikipedia edit-a-thon series, which will seek to publish new articles on artists and projects in the digital public realm of Wikipedia.

Dread Scott. Burning the U.S. Constitution, 2011; three pigment prints; 26 x 20 in. each. Courtesy of the Artist.

As is evident just from the penning of this introduction, over the last nine years, Art Practical contributors have been grappling regularly with the intersection of art and public practice regularly. Thus, we have decided to collect some of these past essays in the issue in order to situate new conversations within a broader and ongoing dialogue. A recent feature by Elia Rita discusses Escuela de Arte Útil, a pedagogical project organized by Tania Bruguera earlier this year in San Francisco, examining facets of accessibility, utility, and curriculum surrounding socially engaged practices, while a review from 2010 analyzes social-practice artist Harrell Fletcher’s decision to utilize the exhibition space of CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts to show the work of an under-recognized printmaker, Michael Bravo. The breadth of these discussions offers a compelling discursive framework for this issue. Each of the dynamic selections from our archive can be found under “Columns” and “Reviews” on this issue page.

We’ve chosen to use the term “public practice” to create space to contend with an evolving field and methodology for art making and engagement. Our interest is to unmoor the language of the field to account for histories of community arts, legacies of activist art, and other methods of engagement that sit within our own blind spots, areas that may not always be written into the history of the canon. We hope that by using a term that is not popularly connected to academic departments or art history, we may better engage those who do not have equitable access to them, whether that be through systemic obstacles or by choice. Inevitably, when we build a framework, our contributors break right through it; the writers will draw as many conclusions as questions. They will expand definitions and complicate narratives. We invite you to participate as a reader, program participant, or social media engager in their offerings.


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