Today I received an invitation to register for the “Open Engagement” POWER conference taking place at the end of April in Oakland and the Bay Area. The annual notice makes me wince every time I receive it, as it reminds me of the time I applied six years ago on the occasion of their Portland, Oregon conference. It’s called an “open” engagement so I figured my chances would be high in receiving an opportunity to participate. Sadly my proposal was rejected, and added to the no cigar pile.
The rejection triggered an interest in watching from the outside this curious sub-world of artists who consider themselves “social practice” artists. These artists would generally describe their art as engaging with the public in a unique way with the primary end point not being a product but an experience. Simply put that’s all it is. My rejected proposal was to interview all participating artists and ask them to briefly discuss the lineage of their practice. Meaning – who do they refer to or reference when considering their practice art historically? I was really hoping for artists to realize that their social engagement art is an obvious derivative of “happenings” – which started with Futurists and Dadaists in the 1910s and 1920s. My project was an institutional critique of this isolated art medium that is social engagement, and I truly believed some seriously smart discussions might have come from interviewing the small artist group selling bits of yarn in the street for art’s sake. Maybe the panel of judges read between the lines that I think the idea of contemporary open engagement /social engagement is needing to patch up some holes in thinking, and why some engagements are, or are not art.
Don’t get me wrong – one of my favorite examples of art now and historically are art happenings in the 60s (e.g. Yves Klein, Niki de Saint Phalle), and more recently the many examples cited in the book What We Want Is Free: Generosity And Exchange In Recent Art edited by Ted Purves. In fact I would recommend this book to any practicing artist – less because it is a short survey of recent social practice projects, and more because it is a meditation on how recent artists have incorporated concepts of generosity into their work. One of my favorites is the “Public Fruit Maps” (2004-present) by David Burns and Austin Young. These are hand-drawn maps of urban areas where fruit trees grow in or over public spaces. You can download one of the free maps and other goings on with the Fallen Fruit project here.
Another more recent social practice artists I am fascinated with is Miranda July. I just completed her first work of fiction, The First Bad Man and her non-fiction project titled It Chooses You. Miranda July has built a persona of herself as awkward with much neurosis, and a fan of novelty: she seems to have tried everything almost once – an app, a web site, a novel and a film. This I love about her – to continually put yourself in new places in your artistic practice truly helps to foster quality material and output. Regarding the awkward bit, I love it as much as I love Woody Allen or Larry David – a lot for 30 minutes give or take. The novel was funny at first (I laughed out loud), then moved into a completely ugly sexual battle within the main character, then ended on a very sweet note. This arch of cuckoo might appeal to a lot of folks so read it if you think it would – it’s short and curious. Warning: I would put the novel in the brain stain category. This is either a huge complement or a complete insult depending on vantage point. The collection of short stories was also awkward where she interviewed people who were selling odd items in the PennySaver in the Los Angeles area- most were out on their luck and seemed desperate vis a vis July’s writing and the accompanying photographs. I couldn’t tell whether she was condescending or truly empathetic to these people throughout the various interviews which was irritating.
The idea of open engagement continues to interest me – less in the form of social art practice, and more the idea of where and how is there social engagement anymore? How do we open ourselves to new ideas when we are only interacting with our peers, and a select group of people and media we choose to follow and acknowledge? The conference I was invited to is not an open engagement, but an engagement that speaks to a specific audience in a specific and qualified way. What makes this “open”? Art is a necessary disruptor. Why does this type of art engagement feel so quiet – it’s trying to make important waves though continually reaches their specific constituencies. How can they be more disruptive and reach a larger audience?
Hans Ulrich Obrist recently described a “Filter Bubble” project he launched with his group “89plus” (a group of artists that were born after 1989). The issues being addressed are exactly this idea of what the world looks like when Internet-focused people are fed information by algorithms that feed you mirror images of yourself – a sort of closed circuit personal ecology. I believe this personal filter bubble metaphor may also be used in the art world bubbles. Much like the challenge to open those bubbles, break the filters personally, how do social practice artists truly reach a public demographic? Obrist sees the filter bubble issue on an individual level as urgent. In his words:
“We must remain radically open to new ideas. And we must preserve and promote the systems by which it is possible to share, collaborate, and investigate. The future depends on it!”
Meanwhile museums and institutions are required to break all kinds of filters and bubbles to make relevant programming to engage the public otherwise they lose their audience, and die as a community resource and cultural institution. This is why artists such as Olafur Eliasson have become so popular: if his work is in a museum it actually doesn’t function unless a participant is roaming around within or around it. Similarly museums have tried to make the audience the curator by posting new descriptions of famous artworks written by museum goers (see Tate Britain for basic examples). Engaging diverse communities is no small task – audiences are more distracted than ever, and would like everything (including meaning of an artwork) to come immediately.
So why this change in art consumption? Why the need to explicitly call something “participation” or “engagement”? Bear with me here on this limb …I think it has to do with the light bulb. Years ago in the theater, before the invention of stage lighting in 1816, the theater going experience was highly interactive and lit up. You would never simply sit back and watch the show, you were frequently participating whether it was through loud chants, booing, tomato throwing or whatever. You simply participated. Then there was lighting, first gas lighting then the lightbulb. Theaters began to have fully functioning lights on the stage, and on the audience which would be dimmed for each show. So at this time the audience was put in the dark. No interaction, just a passive experience of watching and quiet contemplation. This quiet contemplation carried itself to the visual arts, though there was far more vitriol and commotion in criticism then then there ever is now. So one could say the audience has been in the dark for almost 200 years. Only in the past say 15-20 years has there been an acceleration of involvement and while audience members still sit in the dark in theaters, their visibility on social media is vibrant and bright. So all art institutions (for-profit or non-profit) and artists are now needing to consider more thoughtfully the audience, hence the mutation of art happenings into “social practice”. And social media, and so on.
I hope art is having a full swing soon into art that disrupts, that jolts you out of your usual, that reminds you of the beauty that is. It can only do this with 1. an audience, and 2. something strong to pierce the bubbles.
If you do live in the California area the Open Engagement Conference is free and open to the public – you should go! Keynote speaker is Angela Davis(!!) and the artists need you to make their art come alive.
Peace – c
Tagged: 89plus, engagement, Fallen Fruit Project, Filter Bubble, Hans Ulrich Obrist, happening, Miranda July, Niki de Saint Phalle, Olafur Eliasson, Open Engagement, social art practice, social engagement, Ted Purves, Yves Klein