On Social Practice and Performance

I have been accused, from time to time, of burying the lede, so before I start in earnest, here’s a précis:

The recent “re-discovery” of social practice in visual art builds on a long tradition of socially engaged art in both visual arts and performing arts practices. There are many performing artists (theater, dance, other) currently creating within this framework. I will urge these performing artists to appropriate the language of visual art practice and situate themselves in that tradition, applying to visual arts institutions for financial support, resources and presentation opportunities. At the same time the emergence of social practice as a trend speaks to two fundamental shifts in American culture: one, a broad re-thinking of the role of the arts in society and two, a rejection of corporate capitalism’s demand that citizenship is predicated on being a consumer, not a creator or empowered participant in civic life.

This is the first of what will hopefully be a series of articles exploring alternative performance practices and contexts and their implications. Ready? Here we go.

Recently Ben Valentine wrote an article on Social Practice over at Hyperallergic in which he asserts that:

“The work of Social Practice is on the rise, but compared to the traditional art world news of auction prices and gallery openings, it doesn’t seem to be receiving as much online attention. Institutions such as California College of the Arts, Portland State University, Otis College of Art, The Queens Museum of Art, Creative Time and more have come to emphasize this quietly growing field, but many news sources are slow to the show and struggle with representing the immersive projects. Could the qualities of Social Practice as a field be incompatible with global media outlets, especially for the internet?”

My first problem with this statement is that this field is “on the rise” and “quietly growing”. While I have not yet had a chance to read Claire Bishop’s new book Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, I’m reasonably certain that she will demonstrate that this is a field with a long, long history going at least as far back as Joseph Beuys’ concept of “social sculpture” if not further. I also have not yet read Shannon Jackson’s Social Works: Performing Art, Supporting Publics, though I quickly scanned what was available online, and she addresses all this in a much more thorough and thoughtful fashion. So feel free, reader, to chime in with comments.

Anyway, Social Practice, or socially engaged art, is perhaps becoming fashionable again in certain art circles, but it is not new or emergent. The second problem I have is Valentine’s assertion that this discipline isn’t receiving as much online attention as “traditional art world news of auction prices and gallery openings”. Theoretically, anyway, social practice is meant to exist in opposition to the commercial models of the “traditional” art world and as such, should resist coverage in a commodity-based context. Certainly if the uber-trendy Nato Thompson and Creative Time can generate hundreds of metaphorical column inches about their various fashionable adventures in radicalism, then the practice is well-situated within the mainstream of the art market. Also, Valentine misses an opportunity to explore the idea of internet-based art exploring social practice or the possibilities for modeling alternative documentation and dissemination strategies outside hierarchically approved channels, something we at Culturebot are quite passionate about.

At the same time I was lent a copy of Pablo Helguera’s Education for Socially Engaged Art. I’m slowly working my way through it – it is not a long read, but I am a busy guy. However, Culturebot was actually part of a group show at Exit Art with Pablo, so I am particularly interested in seeing how our ideas and practices might intersect. On his website he poses the following question:

“An artist organizes a political rally about a local issue. The project, which is supported by a local arts center in a medium-size city, fails to attract many local residents; only a couple dozen people show up, most of whom work at the arts center. The event is documented on video and presented as part of an exhibition. In truth, the artist can claim to have organized a rally?”

I hope to find that Helguera will answer this question in the book. But the fact that this question can even be posed points to a problem inherent in the application of visual arts practices onto social structures and references the concerns that Valentine articulates about the art world’s media coverage of social practice work. As an outsider to the visual art world, it seems to me that there may be a tendency for visual art practice t0 resist deep embeddedness, valuing concept and theory over application and implementation, documentation and creation of the “art object” over actual impact. It is enough to have a video in a gallery and talk about what you did at the reception with wine and cheese, but it doesn’t ultimately matter if you created change in a meaningful way. Certainly this isn’t true for all visual artists, but when aligned with certain segments of the market-driven art world, the likelihood of irresponsibility rises. This seems particularly evident in the work of Tino Sehgal who, admittedly, has little interest in the agency or subjectivity of his “interpreters”, as evidenced in a recent New Yorker profile where he makes the deeply revealing and equally troubling assertion that, ““What my work is about is, Can something that is not an inanimate object be considered valuable?” Um, like, you mean, human beings?

[NB: Hal Foster’s essay “The Artist As Ethnographer” does a fantastic job of articulating the problems and dangers (including well-meaning but inadvertent cultural imperialism) in “socially engaged art”. The essay can be downloaded here.]

At roughly the same time Ben Valentine was writing his article at Hyperallergic, Michael Rohd contributed another in a series of articles at Howl Round about his twenty years developing “civic practice” techniques with Sojourn Theatre in Portland, Oregon. Reading about Michael’s work and his planned Center for Performance and Civic Practice got me thinking about all of the performing arts practitioners who have engaged in this work rigorously and diligently over the years.

My first thought was how, yet again, artists in visual arts and performing arts contexts are exploring the same ideas at the same time with the same goals but for any number of reasons (I have strong opinions on this that would only distract us here) are not in dialogue with each other. So instead of collaboration and shared learning we have competition, redundancy and inefficiency. For instance, I recently had a conversation with an early-career visual artist who had only recently discovered the work of Augusto Boal, thinking Boal’s theories were obscure, little-known practices of the avant-garde rather than a well-established and frequently-taught component of many university theater curricula.

My second thought was that the increasing visibility and attractiveness of this work from both visual and performing artists speaks to the possibility of real change in the role of the arts in communities, civic life and in the culture at large.

Social Practice, or Civic Practice, is if nothing else, a vast, diverse and poorly defined field. For my purposes I’m going to use the term Social Practice as opposed to Civic Practice, and I will use this term to refer to any number of artistic projects in various disciplines that emerge from engaging with social issues in community, that enlist “non-artists” in the creation and development of the project and have as a goal some kind of awareness-raising or sociological impact. This doesn’t preclude aesthetic considerations or the possibility for the realization of a singular artistic vision, but it implies a set of conditions that are outside of more traditional artistic practices.

I’ve been thinking about the idea of social practice in performance a lot since I returned from the Fusebox Festival in Austin, TX. We had just finished our Exit Art residency when we headed down to Texas, so I was already kicking around some of the ideas from that process. Then I saw 600 Highwaymen’s This Great Country, a site-based, de-constructed staging of Arthur Miller’s Death of A Salesman.

600 Highwaymen is a Brooklyn based theater company led by wife-and-husband team Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone. Michael has roots in Austin, so they went down there for 3 months to build this piece. Their casting process was long and involved, meeting with dozens of people trying to assemble just the right mix. In the end they had a diverse ensemble of non-actors and self-identified actors of all skill levels, races, ethnicities, age groups and abilities. The entire project was built in situ with the support of local participants leveraging local resources for costumes, rehearsal space, everything. The project was developed collaboratively under the guidance of Michael and Abby and was sited in an iconic local venue – The Lucky Lady Bingo Parlor, a distinctive location that reeked of decades of stale cigarette smoke and financial desperation.

By using non-traditional casting techniques and siting the work in an iconic venue, 600 Highwaymen succeeded in decoupling Miller’s play from its iconography, returning the focus to the plot, characters and situation. Even though Austin proper is relatively insulated from the current economic woes of the country, it is in Texas and the betrayal of the American Dream looms large over the landscape. Willy Loman’s plaintive voice and sad delusions ring clear, sharp and true.

The production was successful both as a work of art and as a demonstration of socially engaged art where local stakeholders were gathered to work collectively on a project that had meaning and resonance for the community at large. Not coincidentally the method by which the performance was constructed – leverage local resources, barter, exchange, good will – ran counter to more traditional, commercial models of cultural production and in so doing articulated a meta-critique parallel to Miller’s original text.

Another theater project that could be equally well situated as “social practice” in a visual arts context is Aaron Landsman’s City Council Meeting. Subtitled “Performed Participatory Democracy”, City Council Meeting is a performance created fresh in each city where it is presented, with local artists, activists, government officials and other citizens. Basically Aaron and his collaborators have created a framework for staging a city council meeting. They go into a city and spend time with local stakeholders to identify important issues, ideas and entities and craft a participatory experience that engages with those ideas.

I remember participating in a workshop version of the production at HERE Arts Center on the same day I had been to visit Zuccotti Park and thinking that OWS was mistaken as they marched down the street shouting “This is what democracy looks like.” Actually, Democracy looks more like the City Council meeting – tendentious, glacial, occasionally passionate, frequently boring, mostly mundane with brief moments of transcendent vision and dreams of endless possibility.

The project is currently scheduled to tour to various communities nationally and is bound to develop and grow as it moves.  But even in its present form it is a positive indicator of the possibilities of developing scalable frameworks for the collaborative creation of socially engaged art.

This past summer The River To River Festival presented a workshop reading of Maureen Towey’s Three Sisters. Towey, who has collaborated with Michael Rohd on previous productions, has developed a concept for Chekhov’s play where it was developed in residence at the Good Companions Senior Center (through a SPARC Residency), engaging local non-actor senior citizens to collaborate with professional actors, all over 60 years old, to collaboratively develop a new version of the classic text. In this reading where the ensemble is comprised of a working group of seniors from different cultures, backgrounds and experiences, the text takes on new valences as it addresses issues of death and dying, love, loss, home, community and place.

And of course there is a long history of this kind of work in a theatrical context.  Cornerstone Theater, originally itinerant but based in Los Angeles since 1992, has been making this kind of work for nearly 30 years. Another long-running and deeply-embedded project is John Malpedes’ legendary Los Angeles Poverty Department, that creates performances and multidisciplinary artworks that connect the experience of people living in poverty to the social forces that shape their lives and communities. Founded in 1985, LAPD is made up of people who make art and live and work on Skid Row.

Ping Chong’s Undesirable Elements project is:

… an ongoing series of community-specific interview-based theater works examining issues of culture and identity of individuals who are outsiders within their mainstream community. It’s not a traditional play or documentary-theater project performed by actors. Instead, Undesirable Elements is presented as a chamber piece of story-telling; a “seated opera for the spoken word” that exists as an open framework that can be tailored to suit the needs and issues facing any community. Each production is made with a local host organization and local participants. The development process includes an extended community residency during which Ping Chong + Company artists conduct intensive interviews with potential participants and get to know the issues and concerns facing that community. These interviews form the basis of a script that weaves cast members’ individual experiences together in a chronological narrative touching on both political and personal experiences. The script is performed by the interviewees themselves, many of whom have never before spoken publicly.

Melanie Joseph’s Foundry Theater has developed many socially-engaged art projects from more “traditional” theatrical presentation to their most recent project – This Is How We Do It – a festival of dialogues about another world under construction – which, to my mind, can be seen as public symposia or a series of collaboratively created lecture/performances.

Minneapolis’ Ten Thousand Things, while not exactly “socially engaged art” in the sense of using community members and non-artists in the creation of work, has developed an aesthetic and rigor that brings innovative, adventurous performances into underserved communities, demonstrating that challenging work need not be the sole province of the aesthete or insider.

I suppose an argument could even be made that The Living Theatre’s “Paradise Now” was a form of “socially engaged art”. That piece “sought to completely dissolve the boundaries of human interactions through a practice of live collective creation, forging a revolutionary harmony between actors and audience.” “The purpose of the play is to lead to a state of being in which non-violent revolutionary action is possible,” wrote Julian Beck.

From a description of the documentary DVD as featured on Arthur Magazine’s website:

“What happened each night onstage—and offstage, and then out into the streets—was a series of purposefully provocative and interventionist actions, from marijuana smoking and full-body group nudity to screamed declamations, intense arguments and (yes) orgies, often involving audience members.”

I’ll have to leave that particular exploration for another time or another writer to articulate.

And in a more abstract or less overtly political way, Big Art Group’s The People engages local community members as an integral component of the work. Rimini Protokoll’s 100% London drew on what they call a ‘reality trend’ practice that “draws on the views of ‘experts in daily life’ and where everyday people are the principal characters.”

 At the same time there are many artists situated in the dance world who explore this kind of practice. Probably the most well known of these artists is Liz Lerman, who for years has engaged people of multiple generations, backgrounds and communities in the research, development and performance of her work. More recently Naomi Goldberg Haas’ ongoing “Dances for a Variable Population” project has done extraordinary work with senior populations using classes and community collaborative programs to develop a contemporary movement vocabulary that is at once rigorous and accessible, erasing the border between dancer and non-dancer in the creation of professional performances. Currently the dance presenter Dancing In The Streets is developing a two-year embedded project called “The South Bronx Culture Trail” that engages artists, scholars, and community members in developing a physical and virtual trail connecting sites that played a significant role in spawning the rich cultural history of the South Bronx.

One might posit that Jerome Bel’s The Show Must Go On could have social practice elements to it, in its engagement of non-dancers, or for that matter Sylvain Emard’s Le Grand Continental. I am, admittedly, blurring the line between more presentational forms that incorporate non-performers into the creation and performance and work that is built in situ with, from and by community residents. I do this with the intention of raising questions of context and outcome, proposing that the incorporation of non-performers into contemporary work can destabilize the assumptions of audiences of traditional forms, essentially social practice in reverse.

All of which is to say that the “traditional” disciplines of dance and theater have a long history and a lot of practice in creating work that can be contextualized as “socially engaged”. If the art world could get over its knee-jerk (and, frankly, outdated) rejection of “theater” and its practices, there is a significant opportunity to de-objectify visual arts performance practice and share knowledge and skills across contexts.

While I would hope that visual artists practicing socially engaged art would avail themselves of the resources of the dance, theater and performance world, I would also urge artists working in theater and dance to appropriate the language and contexts of visual art. First because the thinking that comes out of the visual art world is useful when developing theoretical frameworks around performance projects, but also because this might open up new streams of funding if performance practitioners learn to write about their work in a way that enables them to apply to visual arts funders. Creative Time funded Paul Chan to bring Classical Theatre of Harlem’s Waiting For Godot to New Orleans as a site-specific work. They wouldn’t have funded the production if it were contextualized as a theater project. If you read Pasternak and Thompson’s statements it is as if they had discovered the idea of using community engagement as a means of contextualizing and producing theater. To be super-cynical – if they’re going to pretend we don’t exist or exist merely to be co-opted towards their ends, then we should just call what we do visual art and try to access their money.

Along those lines, while this becomes problematic on many levels and runs counter to the essential ephemerality of performance (I recently had a long conversation with a presenter about this) maybe performing artists should think about creating documentation as art object or some other form of residue/evidence that translates into something that can be bought and sold. This is something Culturebot began to tentatively explore at our Exit Art show, and other more established artists, like Ralph Lemon, are also thinking about. The fact is that the visual arts has created a significant economy in documentation, contextual materials, residual evidence and even “experience as object” – there is no reason for the exchange to be solely one way. Performance practitioners should actively co-opt the frameworks of visual art insofar as it is capable to benefit from that association.

On a much less cynical angle, or at least from a more telescopic perspective, the rise of “socially engaged art” in both worlds, I think, points to the larger dissatisfaction of artists with the economies of our respective contexts and the economic inequity of our society as a whole. I will explore the “means of production” angle more fully in a separate essay, but generally speaking if we look at programs like the NEA’s ArtPlace initiative and the language being used about community, placemaking and social engagement, we can see a trend away from big institutions and Big Culture towards more sustainable (in all senses of the word) cultural structures. Not every city needs a symphony, an opera, a ballet, a big ass Museum. The truth is that the arts really become transformative when we move away from spectatorship and towards engagement. I was talking with an experience designer recently who thoughtfully pointed out that even dance clubs need wallflowers, and it is important to recognize (ala Ranciere) that spectatorship CAN BE a form of active engagement – but I will propose that the structures of spectatorship need to be changed and the assumptions behind the traditional audience/performer relationship need to be re-examined. (All of this plays into the ideas we’re exploring here around critical horizontalism). Either way, we know people are more excited about arts and culture when they feel a part of it, not just watching something because they are told it is good for them.

Now is a good moment for performing arts presenting institutions to look at Skramstad’s prescription for museums in the 21st Century and take that into consideration as well – to take as their mission “nothing less than to engage actively in the design and delivery of experiences that have the power to inspire and change the way people see both the world and the possibility of their own lives.” The key word here being EXPERIENCES.

The implications of the transition from presenting to engaging, from watching to experiencing, speak to the possibilities of reclaiming agency. Audiences are no longer passive consumers, they are not defined by the transactional nature of traditional presenting. Performative projects are no longer mere spectacle, they are platforms for connection, even civic engagement. Going back to the Greeks, theater was a place where people came together to look into who they were, as a community, and to imagine who they might become. Here we are presented with the opportunity to revisit that purpose and redefine it for the Information Age. Socially Engaged Art, whether framed as Visual Art, Theater or Dance – or something else entirely – opens up enormous possibilities. It would be great if all artists, regardless of practical self-identification, could meet across their differences to change the way art is valued and interpreted in our culture and advocate for deeper more meaningful engagement with the public at large.

10 thoughts on “On Social Practice and Performance”

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