3.16 / Nomadic Tendencies

Survey as Form

By Christina Linden May 31, 2012

Image: Ben Kinmont. Moveable type no Documenta, 2002-present (still); Documenta 11, Kassel, Germany, 2002; archive begun 2002. Courtesy of the Artist.

Untruth is inherently a side effect of generalization, which in turn is inherently a side effect of the survey. At the same time, as a curator and writer who engages with social-practice projects, I have a desire to name the key stakes and tensions at play for individual works and for the field in general. In a nutshell, I would name these stakes and tensions in light of the inherent contradiction between expanding the definition of art in an attempt to reach a wider audience and an expansion of art beyond a commonly understood definition of art. This combines with complicated ethics around authorship and representation in participatory and project-based art, the potential conflict between documentation and primary experience, and the difficulty of re-presentation that usually relies on heavy textual explanation.

But while the endeavor to produce a clear and bordered path has its own appeal and logic, I prefer to avoid spouting untruths about the landmarks I’ve passed along the way. It’s true that, sometimes, we can’t see the forest for the trees. But the opposite also holds. In attempting to gain a vantage point of the forest canopy, it can be difficult to keep sight of individual stands of trees, much less the obstacles and paths concealed among them. Like being in a forest, the deeper one gets into research, and the more familiar with details and theories, the more overwhelming, absurd, or impossible it can seem to provide a rundown of a field. I’ve written previously about the current condition of social practice and have given much thought to bodies of work that take this label. I propose this essay to resist canonizing tendencies, in service of keeping the field open. In the midst of a longer research project and a group of relevant curatorial projects, I’ve recently finished intense work with one particularly germane exhibition. I will use its structure and some examples of the works it includes to guide us through this discussion. And in the end, I admit that this approach might also be the only way I can forge through the thick of it, for now.

Living as Form, an exhibition whose original version Creative Time’s chief curator, Nato Thompson, organized in New York last fall, intends to operate as a survey of recent socially engaged projects. Thompson included world events such as Tahrir Square (2011) and São Paulo’s Gay Pride Parade (ongoing) along with undertakings more readily identifiable as social practice or project artworks. Living as Form began as a research project of international scope, with twenty-five consulting curators from around the world suggesting projects for inclusion. It took form as a series of annual summits, an online social-practice archive with 366 entries, a catalog, and an exhibition in the Essex Street Market on New York’s Lower East Side.


Fernando García-Dory. A World Gathering of Nomadic Peoples,  2005—2007 (still); video interview produced by the Kadist Art Foundation, San Francisco, for Living as Form (The Nomadic Version), 2012. Courtesy of the Kadist Art Foundation, San Francisco.

Living as Form (The Nomadic Version) is a traveling exhibition organized on a small hard drive by Independent Curators International (ICI) in conjunction with Creative Time. Each venue that accepts the traveling show is invited to add up to fifteen works for possible use at future venues. The Kadist Foundation San Francisco was the first venue to present The Nomadic Version, and as the curator of the initial iteration, I had just ICI’s core selection of fifty-one works from which to cull. Over the weeks it took to view all of the included works and read the accompanying project descriptions, both myopia and oversight came to mind. Many of the projects on the hard drive were represented by documentary material that couldn’t stand on its own, and in a good number of cases, additional reading still didn’t fully convey what must have been compelling about the projects to viewers who experienced them firsthand or who were more familiar with the contexts they inhabited. In any individual case, it may have been possible to locate and provide supporting material to complete the presentation. But in an exhibition of potentially fifty or more works, that quantity of text and video would create such an information overload as to preclude the possibility of any real engagement. So I set out to feature a few of the included projects that seemed best suited to the event-oriented audience that Kadist has developed in San Francisco and to add a number of artworks that presented themselves as good candidates for filling in gaps: projects that recognize indeterminacy, have an aporetic effect, or take stock of the difficulties that arise around representation, authorship, and agency, as well as those that involve the direct political action and sustained infrastructure-building favored by Thompson. Here, I discuss a few of these newly added projects along with a few of the fifty-one original projects that we chose to feature.

In a review for Frieze magazine, Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts director Jens Hoffman identifies the strongpoints and sinking spots of forging through the thick:

Living as Form ultimately did not provide a conclusive statement about what social practice is. In many ways it did the opposite, not really clarifying anything. But it was disorientating in the best possible sense, open to artistic practices that try to tackle the urgent issues of today. Its intentionally and inherently open-ended nature, resisting traditional norms and forms of art making, ironically becomes its weakness when its practitioners try to reach out to those they most want to be talking to. The dilemma, therefore, was the one of form—or, rather, the absence of form, since the impossibility of applying aesthetic criteria to social practice often makes it difficult to fully assess a project or coherently communicate it to a larger audience, beyond that of specialists.1

I find both points to be true: openness is a worthy goal, but it works best, ironically, for a specialist audience. Missing in the set of projects included in the core form of the traveling exhibition were any projects that addressed this dilemma directly. In Ben Kinmont’s Moveable type no Documenta (2002–ongoing), I found an artwork that took each point as a working element for its own production.

Kinmont has been producing conversation-based works since the late ’80s. He describes these as inhabiting a “third-space,” located somewhere between Joseph Beuy’s “social sculpture” and conceptual or thinking art, between the self and the other, and in an open, flexible space between people and their surroundings. When invited by Okwui Enwezor to make a contribution to Documenta 11, Kinmont proposed a set of conversations with inhabitants of Kassel, exactly the members of the non-specialist audience Hoffman names as both the people to whom practitioners of social practice most often want to speak and those whose attention and understanding can be the most elusive. He spoke with schoolteachers and school children, mothers who worked at home, an anesthesiologist, and a churchgoer, among others. His project was “to ask people whether their activities could (and should) be thought of as art.”2


Fernando García-Dory. A World Gathering of Nomadic Peoples,  2005—2007 (still); video interview produced by the Kadist Art Foundation, San Francisco, for Living as Form (The Nomadic Version), 2012. Courtesy of the Kadist Art Foundation, San Francisco.

With a starting point that asked people to consider what was most meaningful in their own lives and an ending point that asked them to compare this meaning to what they found in the Fridericianum, Kinmont directly requested participants to consider the differences between life and art, as well as between extra-institutional production and what is displayed in appointed art spaces. This consideration was given the most weight in the neighborhoods he visited for his interviews, where he posted flyers summarizing the conversations after editing them with the interviewees. Kinmont freely admits the subsequent distribution of these flyers within Documenta was a concession to curatorial demands and not an aspect of the project that was meaningful to him. His carefully considered archive of material related to the production of this project, including the flyers as well as the computer and printer he used to make them, provides the possibility for subsequent exhibition of the project, along with a print-on-demand publication available through his own Antinomian Press.

A similar set of documents relating to the process of production accompanies the presentation of a video by Katerina Sedá about her 2003 project, There is Nothing There. Sedá distributed questionnaires around the village of Ponetovice in the Czech Republic to ask about inhabitants’ typical Saturday activities. In the exhibition, these questionnaires are displayed along with the schedule of the

average activities, which Sedá choreographed as part of a game for the entire village to enact on one Saturday, as well as one of the bills she posted around town, which urged concerned residents to meet with her to assuage their fears about being scrutinized or becoming subjects of ridicule as the project developed. I found this bill to be the most telling of all the exhibited materials: in an attempt to turn the nothing referred to in the title—that was, really, the something of peoples’ quotidian activities—into an artwork, the artist made the participants feel objectified until she made a serious and repeated effort to include them in a conversation about the meaning and mechanism of the piece.

Like the village, Sedá’s video (produced as part of the project) is quiet for most of its duration. We see people filmed from a distance, coming back from synchronized grocery shopping or sweeping their front walks, as the rules of Sedá’s game scroll across the screen. The footage becomes revealing when we reach the afternoon’s scheduled activity: drinking in the beer garden. Everyone gathers and talks to each other and to the camera about their experiences as participants. The artist managed to capture responses that feel considered and relevant but not overly composed. The artist managed to capture responses that feel considered and relevant but not overly composed, and the aesthetic considerations involved in creating the documentation don't seem to have upstaged the primary experience of taking part in the project.

Documentation of project art doesn’t always work out this well. As Jeanne Gerrity pointed out in her review of The Nomadic Version in Art Practical 3.12, such documentation can be hard to find. Gerrity ties this elusiveness primarily to the fact the projects are largely ephemeral, but even where plenty of objects and media exist to support the events or interactions that are usually central to the work’s premise, descriptions are generally long and heavily dependent on explanatory text. In order to diminish the cacophonous tendency of group exhibitions of this type of work, I strategized to display only one project at a time in the Kadist space.


Theaster Gates. Dorchester Project, 2009-present (still);  video interview produced by the Kadist Art Foundation, San Francisco, for Living as Form (The Nomadic Version), 2012. Courtesy of the Kadist Art Foundation, San Francisco.

I found that visitors generally wanted to hear my verbal explanation of the pieces on view rather than read posted project descriptions, suggesting that an exhibition of social practice necessitates a social exchange in the exhibition setting, rather than just a reception of the work, in order to succeed. Since visitors also often didn’t have enough time to watch the available video documentation in its entirety, my spoken summaries carried the weight of representing the work. This reveals the difficulties of a survey show about social practice, where works that don’t include compelling documentation are easily overlooked, especially in an exhibition dependent on digital files meant to travel around the world and be curated by individuals who might have little or no prior knowledge about the work and are unlikely to have any contact with the artists or individuals who made the projects.

This does not imply that works whose organization and function supersede aesthetic interest in re-presentation after direct experience aren’t worth consideration, but rather that considered presentation is also essential. To add to the exhibition hard drive, Kadist produced two video interviews with artists whose represented projects didn’t already include their own documentation. Through his earlier projects with shepherds in the Pyrenees, Fernando García-Dory discovered that local and regional organizations of nomadic pastoralists existed around the world. In organizing a World Gathering of Nomadic Peoples near Madrid in 2007, García-Dory became host, administrator, and advocate to three hundred representatives from forty-four different countries. But he was so busy assembling delegates to brainstorm cross-regionally about problems and challenges, draft resolutions, and changes to United Nations desertification policy on nomadic herding rights that he ran out of time to take any pictures. While visiting the Bay Area to install an exhibition of his work at the David Brower Center in Berkeley, García-Dory talked with us about the Gathering and about the footage produced by a local television station, which had previously been one of the only documents of the event.

For the second interview, during an uncharacteristically calm afternoon for the artist Theaster Gates, I toured with him around the Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood of southern Chicago, where he has been conducting Dorchester Project since 2009. The project began with an endeavor to turn a former candy store into a living space using recycled materials. While living in the store, Gates acquired the abandoned building next door, which has now been turned into a library and archive. More recently, new projects have been initiated to transform an abandoned house across the street into a home for Black cinema, a multi-unit housing project around the corner into artists’ homes, and an old bank on the nearest thoroughfare into a soul-food restaurant and meeting place. The project redirects resources made available by Gates’s studio practice into his work as an urban developer, allowing him to create cultural opportunities for his neighbors. With the local video maker Courtney Prokopas, we captured a conversation with Gates about the multivalent nature of the project, how it has changed as it has spread during its short life, and the risks and hopes of gentrification and neighborhood renewal.

In Gates’s case, his studio practice that produces sculpture often made from some of the same recycled building materials that he uses in his work as a developer relieves him of a challenge that frequently plagues artists who work in the social realm, especially in dealing with under-resourced and under-represented populations. In a world where markets, institutions, and the general public still expect artwork to take a tangible or visible form, a demand for documentation that includes the representation of participants often adds to the already complicated questions about authorship (such as, “Why is my neighborhood your art project?”) the complicated questions about participant objectification.


Suzanne Lacy/TEAM. The Roof Is On Fire, 1994 (performance still); 120:00. Courtesy of Independent Curators International, New York.

Ai Weiwei’s Fairytale: 1001 Chinese Visitors (2007) consisted of an invitation for 1001 Chinese citizens to travel to Kassel, Germany, as part of the artist’s participation in Documenta 12. Giving preference to applicants who might not otherwise have had the opportunity to travel, including dissidents and undocumented farmers from remote rural locations, the artist and his team helped arrange the documents necessary for securing visas and flew all of the visitors with custom-designed luggage to stay in a specially appointed warehouse/hostel in Kassel, complete with Chinese cooks who were also flown in to prepare food for the giant group. The colossal project budget, organized through the artist’s Swiss gallery, included funds for the production of an elaborate film documenting many of the visitors’ journeys, from the first steps of applying through the process of securing papers for travel and to their time in Kassel. The gravity of this opportunity to travel, and the hope that it seemed to represent for many of those who applied, carries the viewer in an almost poetic trance through the first part of the film. An awkward objectification of the participants becomes pronounced, however, in the last half hour of the two-and-a-half-hour film. At this point, the Chinese visitors are in Kassel, and the project’s cinematographers begin shooting interviews with residents of the city and with cultural tourists visiting the exhibition. There are moments at which both the visitors exploring this foreign place and the narrow-minded local onlookers start to appear a bit like unfortunate puppets on display.

The Roof is On Fire, produced in 1994 by Suzanne Lacy, Chris Johnson, and a group of collaborators referred to as TEAM, is often considered a seminal work of dialogical practice. As in Fairytale, a carefully calculated use of participants’ images is both the backbone of the work and a potential point of contention. Television news, Lacy and her collaborators pointed out, was full of negative reports of Oakland teens. The group very deliberately flipped this attention around, using it to give the same teens a public platform on which to air their concerns in their own voices. The project was wildly successful in terms of media attention, and the primary documentation remains a news program made by the local KRON television station. But in arranging the students in cars on the rooftop of a downtown Oakland parking garage and inviting media and onlookers alike to listen in, Lacy and her cohorts didn’t just facilitate conversation but also clearly objectified the participants’ bodies as well as their speech. When the project is exhibited or written about today, Lacy’s close collaborators in organizing the piece are rarely credited by name. For Johnson, however, who was able to come and speak at Kadist about his experience of working on The Roof is On Fire, the project was an impetus to broaden his own practice and especially informed the conception of his recent collaborative project, Question Bridge: Black Males, which uses a dialogical format but moves all representation of participants to a video-mediated format.

These few projects represent not only a fraction of the works on display in Living as Form but also a tiny sample of the sorts of projects we might use as examples of the challenges and considerations of documenting or exhibiting social practice. Nonetheless, they fairly represent the key concerns of authorship, the ethics of representation involved in participatory projects, and the complicated relationship between textual explanation, documentation, and primary experience made more complicated by later exhibition and distribution for a wider, non-specialist audience. They offer a vantage point, even if we’re not quite out of the weeds.



1. Jens Hoffman, “Living as Form,” Frieze, no. 144 (January–February 2012), http://www.frieze.com/issue/review/living-as-form/.

2. Ben Kinmont, Project Series: Moveable Type No Documenta (Sebastopol, CA: Antinomian Press, 2011), 28.

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