Promise In The Present

faith and skepticism in Carol Becker’s micro-utopias

by by Jordan Carter

illustration by by Robert Sandler

Last Thursday, Carol Becker—writer, scholar, and Dean of Columbia University School of the Arts—gave a talk on micro-utopias to a micro-sized audience at the Martinos Auditorium in Brown’s Granoff Center. Her lecture, entitled “Micro-Utopias: Public Practice in the Public Sphere,” attempted to bridge relational aesthetics, socially engaged art, and other public demonstrations that do not explicitly declare themselves art. She used the term “micro-utopia” to synthesize an array of disparate activities including the Occupy Movement, Marina Abramovic’s The Artist is Present, Tino Sehgal’s This Progress, and Mohandas Gandhi’s hunger strikes. According to Becker, small gestures in the public sphere, artistic and otherwise, can produce “micro-utopias,” instances of collectivity that temporarily alter the possibilities of the present. These micro-utopias do not promise to instigate long-lasting change, but they facilitate a certain faith that change is possible.

Early in her lecture, Becker repurposed an inspirational quote from anthropologist Arjun Appadurai: “think of the biggest problems of the world and think of the smallest solution.” According to Becker, this is socially engaged art’s modus operandi. But as many art critics, including Claire Bishop and Jacques Rancière, have noted, these so-called relational or socially engaged art forms often presuppose their own success. By declaring themselves art on the loose basis of dialogue and collaboration makes it difficult for art critics to evaluate the success of these works in terms of traditional aesthetic criteria. In other words, if talking is art, how do we determine the Kandinsky of communication.

Following the lecture, I asked Becker to give her position on what makes a successful micro-utopia: its conviviality, its antagonism, or its level of participation. She replied that she, unlike Bishop, is not an art critic—and for a reason. She is not interested in grading works on a spectrum of success and failure or creating some sort of formalized rubric for socially engaged art. Becker disclaimed, “I choose to talk about works that make sense to me, in their simplicity. For me, there are no checkpoints.” She doesn’t write off works she doesn’t like, because she finds that less valuable than proliferating the possibilities presented by the works she does. For Becker, criticism and criticality seem to stymie the hope and possibility inherent in these miniature social interventions. But considering that the talk was given at a university—the epicenter of critical inquiry and habitual skepticism—did Becker really think she could give a one-sided motivational speech without acknowledging the Achilles heel of her micro-utopias? If we can’t rank the success of these projects, or even provide a critical language to analyze them beyond hope and possibility, it’s unclear whether or not they should even be discussed in an academic setting.

Becker claims that she sees no difference between socially engaged art and public activism proper. She also does not adhere to a linear timeline; her slide show consisted of a variety of “micro-utopias” that injected art into the public sphere, ranging from Gandhi’s pacifist hunger strikes to Creative Time’s Key to the City project, which distributed skeleton keys to NYC citizens, transforming previously private spaces into spaces of public exploration (i.e. one key actually opened a storage closet in the governor’s mansion). All of these projects are different in their approach and their context, but Becker finds a similar sense of possibility in the “micro-utopias” they facilitate. The word “micro” is essential to Becker’s argument. These gestures are particular, involving a particular audience in the context of a particular issue. But that is not to say that these micro-interventions are inevitably pointless. Inspired by Carl Jung, Becker asserted, “Things can exist for a moment and permeate the human consciousnesses, coming back and being reinvented in new times and spaces.”

The first half of Becker’s lecture focused on the collapse between public and private space. She says that we “could blame Oprah” for cultivating a society of public confession, in which “the public has become a screen for the projection of private problems.” Becker argues that contemporary art must be continuously and dynamically responding to the question: “where and how do we facilitate public dialogue.” Although Gandhi’s gesture was individual, introducing his personal, physical suffering into the public sphere, he did so to catalyze public action surrounding a public problem. His private suffering was a mechanism for projecting public problems onto the public screen, not vice-versa. This is what aligns him with artists like Rick Lowe (Project Row Houses) and Mel Chin (Operation Paydirt/Fundred Dollar Bills), who work as “individual provocateurs” in the public sphere by transforming derelict shotgun houses into a community art project or drawing public awareness to the neglected lead levels in New Orleans soil.

Although Becker stressed the potential of the agora (the assembly space of a democratic society)—citing instances from the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street—she could not shy away from museum-based art. A good portion of her talk revolved around Marina Abramovic’s performance piece The Artist Is Present at MoMa, in which the artist sat for hours on end looking directly into the eyes of spectators who had waited in line to experience the “intimate” one-on-one experience. While Becker mentioned that many participants, after locking eyes with Abramovic, would hurry to the exhibition website to see the photo—the proof of the encounter—she did not seem to think this in anyway delegitimized the work’s social relevance. Personally, I can’t help but be wary of the influence Abramovic’s art star status had on the public’s level of participatory engagement. Doesn’t going to sit with a celebrity qualify as spectacle, irrespective of whether or not some people did have truly revelatory experiences? It’s difficult for me to get on board with Becker’s conflation of Gandhi and Abramovic, Occupy Wall Street and Creative Time’s Key to the City project. Yes, in all cases there was a considerable degree of public participation that could be categorized as a “micro-utopia.” However, starving one’s self for social change is very different than practicing patience in a MoMA gallery and getting paid for it. Bodies accumulating in Wall Street to protest economic inequality cannot be equated to public participation in Creative Time’s conceptual scavenger hunt.

But at what point must we as students suspend our dogged criticality, our focus on aesthetic legitimacy and simply give in to the possibilities of the work?  Perhaps it’s necessary to consider the limitations while honoring the possibilities inherent in these micro-utopias. As hard as it is to ignore these artists’ precarious ties to the economy of the art world—especially when juxtaposed with the labor of Gandhi—at times these critical questions must be deferred in order to be uplifted by the aspects of these projects that are undeniable successful: their ability to get people to perform new publics in preexisting spaces, facilitating moments of minor social and spatial transformations.

JORDAN CARTER B’12 lives in a perpetual micro-utopia.