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Research Convening: Perspectives on Exhibiting Social Practice in Museums

Process as Form: Response to the ICI Curatorial Convening on Socially Engaged Art

Elizabeth M. Grady, Ph.D.
Director of Programs, A Blade of Grass

Curatorial Research Convening wih SFMOMA and YBCA (February 27-March 1, 2017). ICI Curatorial Hub, New York, NY.

In considering the curatorial challenges of presenting socially engaged art, there is a tacit acknowledgement that socially engaged art constitutes a specific form, or range of closely related forms, not unlike painting or sculpture. If it is art that can be interpreted and exhibited (curated), it must have a form, however ephemeral that form may be. What follows is a short exploration of the form that socially engaged art takes, the aesthetics of that form, and its implications for presenting the work in a museum context, with an eye toward the forthcoming retrospective of the work of Suzanne Lacy at SFMOMA and YBCA, curated by Dominic Willsdon, Rudolf Frieling, and Lucía Sanroman. This position paper is neither definitive nor complete, but intended as a further contribution to the conversation recently undertaken at Independent Curators International by a diverse group of artists, scholars and curators.

I. Form
Socially engaged art is work that happens between people, through an iterative process constituted in part by a series of meetings, workshops, and/or creative visioning sessions. It takes place over time, and at least in part in non-art spaces. The artist fabricates it by creating partnerships with non-artists, addressing anything from common interests to urgent social needs. It differs substantially from traditional art like painting or sculpture, where the goal of the artistic process is to produce an object for exhibition. In contrast, interaction and relationship building are the “real” work here; any physical or visual manifestations that emerge can be somewhat incidental, significant primarily as evidence of the preceding process of relationship building that occurred, which constituted the form. [Example: Lenka Clayton and Jon Rubin’s …circle through New York, currently being produced in collaboration with the Guggenheim, involves six artworks or other culturally significant expressions rotating between the six participating sites. At the museum, the “exhibition” of one of the artworks involves staff humming the oldest song in the world, “borrowed” from the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, in the museum’s atrium. It is well understood by staff that this is not the work itself but merely one possible manifestation of the relationships between participants, and one possible manifestation of the performance of the song.]

The “social” in socially engaged art can be seen as a process by which existing conditions and paradigms may be examined and hacked; it is a variety of systemic thinking that at its best can produce visionary new ways of examining social circumstances and issues. A primary goal of such work is to interrogate thought patterns and worldviews. Without conversation interrogation is impossible, so it is in the act of dialogue that the art happens. The form that socially engaged art takes is therefore identified and identical with its process. Any resulting objects, texts, images, or related products are secondary, even in the cases where they are not unimportant. For example, objects, texts, or images produced through dialogue and collaboration (things that look like artworks) are sometimes made as a frame for a project that is completed through use or activation; in other words, through a social interaction. Again, dialogue and relationship building are both form and process. [Example: Thomas Hirschhorn’s Gramsci Monument, a work that involved the collaborative building of a structure on the lawn of a public housing project in the Bronx that served as a space—a literal wooden frame—for education, discussion, recreation, and other forms of community-driven activity. Without such activation, the work was not considered complete.]

II. Aesthetics and (Inter)subjectivity
What are the implications of the fundamental shift from a process that precedes final form (like painting and sculpting) to one that is identical with it? For one thing, it changes the nature of the aesthetic experience. For another, it transforms the role of subjectivity in understanding the work. In the case of painting, for example, an artwork is ordinarily appreciated through viewing. However, the aesthetic experience felt by the viewer is internal, highly subjective, and relatively solitary. Because the work is complete, the viewer is not granted an opportunity to exercise direct creative agency in producing the work (leaving aside for the moment the question of the degree to which interpretation may also be creative). The viewer experiences the form that results from the process, if imperfectly (due, for example to the removal of the work from its originally intended setting, and to historical and cultural distance). In the case of socially engaged art, where the process is the form, the aesthetics still lie in experience, but the experience is of a different order. It is manifested in creating a shared vision through dialogue with the artist. It is an experience of making, in which participants have a degree of creative agency. Unlike the case of a painting, where one can occupy the same space as the form after the process is complete, since the form and process are one and the same in socially engaged art, in an exhibition context the viewer can only appreciate the form at a remove, since they have missed out on the process and therefore the form. It's as though they are being asked to look at a palette, some dirty brushes, and a few fragments of painted linen, and nonetheless come away with an equivalent experience to viewing a full painting. To replicate the depth of viewing an exhibition of more traditional art, in a presentation of socially engaged art there are two basic possibilities: 1. Bring the viewers into the process, and therefore improve the appreciation of the form; or 2. Change the expectations about what the viewing experience can or should be.

If the aesthetic experience is of a different order, what is the attendant difference in the way that subjectivity contributes to understanding the work? With a painting, even one removed from its original context, like a Caravaggio altarpiece removed from a church, lowered to eye level and lit brightly, one may still have a personal experience of its emotional impact; a direct, one-on-one viewing relationship with the object. When participating in a socially engaged project one has an analogous aesthetic response to the experience. However, the very act of placing such projects within an institutional art setting almost guarantees that the work cannot possibly be appreciated in a way approximating that of its originary co-creators and/or participants. One sees it through photography, video, or other mediated means. Is this something like the historical distance we have from a work of art from another time, like the Italian Renaissance, when language and culture were different? Or is it truly a different order of subjectivity that we bring to the viewing experience altogether? I would argue that the shift is epistemic, from a subjective to an intersubjective perspective. The work is best understood as it is made, through discussion. In keeping with an appreciation of this epistemic shift, it stands to reason that the curatorial perspective, insofar as its interest is in fostering learning and interpretation, must also change. It is worth asking what it might mean to consider the role of dialogue and discussion within the museum context as part of the viewer experience.

Collecting, Historicizing, Presenting (i.e. curating)
If socially engaged art is best experienced in the moment, how can it be collected, historicized, indeed even understood outside the participatory experience? How can we contend with a form that is iterative, durational, and takes place in the real world rather than art spaces? Perhaps, by creating a form of curating to match the art form. I propose that curating be treated as a real-time process, with the curator following the progress of the socially engaged project closely, and retaining as much as possible of the project’s process in documentary form. It can take the form of producing film or video that records the process, offering a narrative of the project told in part from the perspective of participants/collaborators, and not just the artist. Capturing co-creative voices is essential to the curator’s ability to later construct a four-dimensional picture of what happened for a non-participating audience in the museum. This can also be achieved through field research conducted a little bit like ethnographic interviews, where all project stakeholders have a voice, and the curator uses the research to construct texts that can take the place of more standard wall labels. By producing such materials, the curator also paves the way for the collection and historicization of the work, as well as creating engaging ephemera with which to construct the show, and on which to base new dialogic experiences designed with the museum viewer in mind. This helps to address the issue of how socially engaged art can be effectively exhibited in a static context when the process of the art is dynamic, but there must surely be additional strategies to allow deeper engagement.

Tension and Transparency: Thematizing the Problematic
The museum provides a frame for understanding and interpreting art, but was designed to house static art. If the process is the form, in order for it to function well for socially engaged art, the exhibition must reflect that process-form. The specific case of the Suzanne Lacy retrospective at SFMOMA and YBCA offers a unique opportunity, in being sited near a place, Oakland, CA where Lacy has a deep history. An excellent way of helping the exhibition’s audience to understand the ephemera that will inevitably make up the bulk of the retrospective, given the restraints of now-historical media, would be to transparently compare and contrast the lived experience of a socially engaged project and the mediated distance of viewing films, archival material and ephemera. Commission a socially engaged project, even a small-scale one. Openly acknowledge the gap between the archival record and lived experience. Use the exhibition context as a way to examine this problematic. If the tension between the iterative, time-based, and extra-institutional framework of socially engaged art and the presentation of its documentation and other ephemeral traces in an exhibition is the crux of the issue, then transform it from a problematic into something generative; make it the curatorial work of the exhibition project, while retaining Lacy’s rich body of artwork as the focus.

Museum as Think Tank

Arden Sherman
Director and Curator, Hunter East Harlem Gallery

Public session of Research Convening wih SFMOMA and YBCA (March 1, 2017). ICI Curatorial Hub, New York, NY.

On March 1st, Independent Curators International (ICI) hosted a public discussion – or workshop – that recapped the two prior days of closed-door sessions where international curators, museum directors, art historians, and artists discussed the fundamentals of exhibiting and collecting socially engaged art. Organized by SFMOMA and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, the overall atmosphere of the room was excited, supportive, and in line with the mission of greater social engagement. While no concrete conclusions were made this day, the collective desire to exhibit socially engaged art in retrospective-style brought up fascinating ideas around logistics, audiences, roles of organizers, and roles of artists.

As art historian Julia Bryan-Wilson pointed out in her remarks recapping the closed-door part of the convening, socially engaged artwork often places stressful demands on an institution and logistically challenges the roles we normally assign to artists and arts workers. Conversations arose around the ways that an institution “instrumentalizes” an artist for its own public agenda and the ways an artist, in turn, “instrumentalizes” an institution for his/her own practice. In my current role as the curator and director of Hunter East Harlem Gallery (HEHG)—a site dedicated to socially minded art projects located inside the Silberman School of Social Work, a satellite campus of Hunter College—I look to artists to engage audiences and bring in new, interested visitors to the gallery. Perhaps in thinking about HEHG on a holistic level, this method of exhibition making could be seen as complicated and even, problematic.

As I grapple with my own insecurities about exhibiting socially engaged art, I often wonder about the organizational committee and those sitting around the big “planning table” for art institutions. For example, two days after the ICI workshop, I was invited to join a meeting hosted by Hunter College President Jennifer Raab addressing a new initiative she is spearheading in the neighborhood of East Harlem. What was exciting about this particular meeting were the diverse areas of specialty of those sitting around the table. Experts in early education, urban planning, geography, social work, public health and culture were all present. This meeting, in the wake of the Social Practice Research Convening at ICI, made me curious about the diversity of those administering art institutions and that, if, perhaps, we thought of museums more like think tanks, would the same questions arise around how to correctly and nobly display socially engaged art?

It’s widely agreed that Social Practice transcends traditional forms of visual art making and those practicing artists engage with social circumstances outside traditional forms of exhibition making. In order for us to properly exhibit socially engaged art, we must upturn traditional methods of exhibition making informed by historic curatorial practices and bureaucratic arts administration. Every person in the room was privy to the inner working of art institutions and understood from experience that museum education departments are often more responsible and better equipped (with more flexible schedules, fluidity of time-based programming, and budget wiggle room) to showcase socially engaged art.

I propose expanding the exhibition making outside the Education Department and the Curatorial Departments in larger art institutions. Let’s create think tanks, or a body of experts providing advice and ideas, inside our art institutions. Let’s diversify the planning committee to include specialists outside the art world. Let’s seek funding outside the traditional foundations, board members, and marketplaces that typically fund our art exhibitions. A few models of “museum as think tank” have sprung up over the years, most notably New Inc. at New Museum, which is a design-focused incubator located inside a major NYC-based museum providing opportunities for designers and technological researchers. If we want to rethink the types of artists and art practices that we showcase in major public institutions, we must rethink those who have a seat at the table. Social Practice demands alternative strategies for creating the work, and therefore we must reassess and redevelop systems for those who organize, fund, and administer these kinds of exhibitions in order to make an impact outside a closed-door session.

Response to SFMOMA & YBCA Research Convening

Herb Tam
Curator and Director of Exhibitions, Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA)

Suzanne Lacy speaking at Curatorial Research Convening wih SFMOMA and YBCA (February 27-March 1, 2017). ICI Curatorial Hub, New York, NY.

The artist was present during the discussion of Suzanne Lacy’s upcoming retrospective at San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. The curators, scholars, artists, and art professionals present at the Convening brainstormed as though the artist were not present. They discussed the challenges Lacy's work raises for an exhibition that examines four decades of political, socially engaged, and community-based art.  Lacy was careful not to interject with her own biases or leanings about how her work should be presented.

However the fact of her presence in the room brought up questions for me about the nature of her authorship over her own work, an issue that she seems to wonder about herself. Put more bluntly, how much credit should she take from all of these projects? Even though she instigated and mediated the social interactions that her work is based on, the resulting “work” seemed to develop organically through collaboration. However this retrospective clearly will center Suzanne Lacy as the creator. I sensed an unease from her about the marginalization of her collaborators, and some others in the room spoke about this as well, especially because the words we use to label contributions of others besides the artist instigator can reflect the imbalance of power in these collaborative relationships. Often, Lacy, who is white, goes into communities of color to stage her projects highlighting the threat of exploitation that is drawn along racial lines.

I understand this concern, but on the level of visitor engagement I would argue for Lacy’s life story to be foregrounded. SFMOMA’s audience has grown since it reopened with a larger space and when I visited in December I got the sense that many visitors only have a passing interest in art. At the Museum of Chinese in America, we have a similar issue. We have found that stories connected to specific people engage visitors. We believe visitors are more likely to try and understand difficult artwork better if they know the how an artist’s intention is informed by their back story.

The exchanges between Lacy and artist Tania Bruguera were the most memorable, especially when they differed on the terms used to categorize their work. Bruguera liked the term “political art” while Lacy wasn’t too sure how to label her work and even questioned the value of such labeling. Ultimately Lacy said that terms like this should be constantly shifting and it was fine that they are never fixed. The two are clearly friends and admire each other’s work a great deal. It would be fun to see how Bruguera would curate Lacy’s work, as they deal with many of the same challenges.

Questions about how to use an archive were brought up. How can documentation and ephemeral materials be activated in a different way in this case? As the discussion continued with questions being asked rhetorically at every turn, I wondered whether and how this feedback would be digested and brought back into the development process. I hope the artist and curators can use the feedback and their own original thinking to come up with a wildly distinct yet coherent way to present this kind of work.


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