Art in the Age of Social Practice
by Thomas Friel
(Part 1 can be found at badatsports.com)
"...purge the world of bourgeois sickness, ‘intellectual’, professional & commercialized culture ... PROMOTE A REVOLUTIONARY FLOOD AND TIDE IN ART, ... promote NON ART REALITY to be grasped by all peoples, not only critics, dilettantes and professionals ... FUSE the cadres of cultural, social & political revolutionaries into united front & action."1
Though Maciunas wanted to rid the world of pretty much all art that wasn’t Fluxist, he was voicing a desire for what art could be out of what art had failed to become. The social upheavals and activist spirit of the 1960’s no doubt provided fertile ground for artists like Maciunas, Yoko Ono, Allan Kaprow, John Cage, Lygia Clark, Hélio Oiticia, etc. etc., to explore the possibilities of an anti-art born out of the beauty of the everyday, imbued with chance and chaos, taking forms that had to be experienced to be seen. Often ephemeral and traditionally un-aesthetic, the work would be difficult to sit with at first, but its insistence in the importance of the everyday and democratically allowing the audience gain authorship, remain fertile ground for contemporary artists to traverse.
Flash-forward 30 years or so, where Nicolas Bourriaud proposes that the loss of personal connection through technology may have spawned the move towards social and interactive work such as what he describes in “Relational Aesthetics”.2 An instant classic, the book was devoured by artists and curators, quickly made it into their practices and class rooms filled with art students sporting JNCO Jeans and tongue rings. It seemed in some ways that with this trend, a movement was happening. In reality, this took a bit longer to truly get off the ground, most likely because the art students forgot these ideas to make room for the work of Dale Chihuly and Hans Bellmer. Now Relational Aesthetics is known as Social Practice, and is officially indoctrinated in the world of art. There are MFA programs and festivals devoted to it, funding and collectors of it are present, museums and galleries often showcase it, and it was even lampooned on Portlandia last season, where Fred and Carrie learned that everything in their daily lives was a series of art projects.3 Such conditions provide new opportunities in a field, but also many challenges to keep the work moving forward and retaining vitality.
If Painting’s failure is that it is merely an image - a fantasy - and not reality, then the failure of Social Practice is that it is just reality, and does not provide a permanent image. Image is the Faith; presenting a belief we hold true or untrue. The image stands locked in time to represent what is merely an unprovable belief. The countless representations of Christ on the cross may be the most perfect example. Social Practice only has fleeting images or image fragments, but not permanent images. There is no faith, just fantasy. This is particularly a problem with work that intends to bring about social change at the micro level. We move from one scenario to the next, with days, weeks, or months between them, each its own isolated incident, social experiment or utopian model. But without permanence, change is never enacted and remains as only a possibility.
This is not always a negative, as some realities should not extend past the realm of possibilities. Since Social Practice uses the audience in direct conscious and spatial relation to the work as part of its construct, the work will continue to change for the life of its existence, however long that may be. It is dimensionally unstable, and while partially defined by the surrounding architecture, it is seen to be less defined by physical space than by temporal. In a performance work, the space is defined by the artist, but with socially engaged works, the audience is performing too, and for how long? If they leave the space, have they truly left the work, or are they still performing it? Here’s where creating a faithless art has its advantages. By allowing a community to engage in the work, that community gains, to some small degree, ownership in that work. Buying it or selling may determine who has the rights to stage it again, but the public retains time specificity in the life of the work. Likewise, requiring active engagement sets up social situations that become experiential on both personal and collective levels.
Negatively, this is why social practice often results in something that functions as an arts and crafts workshop, a town meeting, an answer to a community’s structural or living needs, a bad party or merely a social experiment. The aesthetic is often rugged DIY as opposed to skilled professional, because the latter would create a divide where the artist is king and the viewers his serfs. Social rules apply to social practice. At its worst, social practice may amount to nothing more than free haircuts in the park, given by the artist, or any number of non vital services that are stamped as art to create dead end dialogue. Simply being drawn to Social Practice due to criticisms in class and capitalism, is not enough. Nor is adding references to Marx.
At its most impoverished, Social Practice merely becomes interactive art, which often allows for only one or a few predetermined outcomes for how someone can interact with the work and thus view it correctly. The artist will set up specific instructions or parameters and the audience will have to function within these set limitations. The end result becomes an unintentional experiment in human behaviour: who will interact with the work vs. who does not; who interacts with it “correctly” vs who interacts with it outside the parameters. Here, there isn’t much agency given to the public which the work attempts to address. Interaction is the conceptual framework in the art, but to the loss of the unique individuals who are interacting with it. By participating, they give the work purpose like the use of machines and tools.
As more festivals and curated Social Practice works come to light, it becomes more important to sift through what is actually successfully engaging and what becomes routine iterations of the same. Perhaps what is needed is a manifesto. They always seem to put things into perspective in a divisive sort of way, perhaps this could create splinter groups of artists engaged in the form, those who believe drinking beer with friends IS the highest form of art, and those who say it is just drinking beer with friends.
1 George Maciunas, Fluxus Manifesto, 1963
2 Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, Les Presses du Reel, 1998
3 Portlandia, Season 3, Episode 8, 2013