Since when did artists drive around in armored trucks? Mel Chin’s Operation Paydirt/Fundred Dollar Bill is a socially engaged art project that traveled “over 18,000 miles during the 2009/10 school year” in an armored truck visiting schools and encouraging students to create over 400,000 fake 100-dollar bills. These “Fundred” dollar bills will be presented to Congress this fall—hopefully in exchange for the necessary funds to “remediate the extreme levels of lead pollution in New Orleans.” Mel Chin’s assistant Amanda Wiles described the project to me as “network-oriented.” She characterized Chin as a “connector—pulling from different disciplines,” including art, science, and education. Unable to classify the project as art or environmental activism, Amanda termed it a “hybrid art project.”
Documentation of this project was showcased in Living As Form, an exhibition of documentation of over 100 socially engaged art projects. Creative Time—a nonprofit dedicated to bringing art to the public—organized this curatorial intervention of the Lower East Side’s historic Essex Street Market between September 28 and October 16. Like Mel Chin Studio, Chief Curator of Creative Time Nato Thompson acknowledges that socially engaged art works “defy easy categorization, and raise issues of authorship and traditional notions of art…often hav[ing] more in common with guerrilla and urban gardens, alternative economic and education experiments, and civic-minded, nonprofit organizations.”
Living as Form showcased twenty years of socially engaged art documentation in tandem with live performances and workshops. Complementing the colossal collection of project documentation were participatory workshops on issues of artistic exchange and alternative economies, exploratory tours of the Lower East Side, collective lunches at a nearby pop-up restaurant, and five new site-specific installations. The exhibition provoked visitors to embark on a two-fold archival and participatory exploration of “hybrid” artistic practices that bridge the gap between art and activism, art and everyday life.
The indoor exhibition space took the form of a media archive turned labyrinth. Architectural firm Common Room designed the space—comprised of stacks of concrete blocks, rigid metal shelves, and low, provisional dividers reminiscent of a construction site or military bunker. Erratic rows of TV monitors (equipped with headphones) displayed video and textual documentation of actions, interventions, and general processes of a myriad of socially engaged artists.
Art collective Temporary Services set up MARKET, a participatory installation in the form of a central kiosk of local vendors within the exhibition space. The majority of vendors were mom-and-pop shops and studios providing the Lower East Side community with public services such as printmaking classes.
Living As Form was a multimedia playground. The logic behind the exhibition’s lack of structure—with no delineated starting or ending points—seems to have been aimed at influencing visitors to pave their own paths: whether to keep straight, head right, turn left, or maybe even do a preliminary lap. The second most influential crossroads was whether to participate in collective workshops and tours, or to remain a passive, anonymous spectator who denies his invitation to the exhibition’s network of collaboration.
Creative Time seems to have had no strict expectations of any one participant. The exhibition gave viewers the agency to explore and to choose. Certain pieces had to be skipped in order to focus on others. No two people could experience, or even traverse, the exhibition in the exact same manner. Following different paths, attracted by different media and projects, each participant’s mind recorded a unique narrative of the event.
Socially engaged art—also referred to as social practice, relational aesthetics, dialogic arts, and even new genre public art—is a pervasive and divisive trend in the 21st century art world. Practitioners of socially engaged art collaborate with the public and often times disavow artistic authorship in favor of collectivity. They collaboratively realize projects set out to strengthen social bonds, explore the possibilities of improvisational interactions, or ameliorate social and environmental injustices.
One example, OurGoods—self-identifying as a “barter collective”—seeks to initiate “action oriented discussion about value and mutual aid in the arts.” The collective’s installation-performance piece How Much is Our Work Worth to Each Other? transformed a pocket of the exhibition space into a platform for collective exchange (words, goods, services). Body-size bulletin boards covered with “HAVES” and “NEEDS” fliers marked the space OurGoods demarcated as “a gathering place for personal messages and informal exchanges.” Each weekend of the exhibition, the collective hosted workshops on how to survive as artists, while eluding the capitalist market through bartering, collaboration, and solidarity. Like many of the projects in the Living as Form archival exhibition, the members of OurGoods facilitate art networks sustained by imaginative dialogue and cooperation.
The nearest bathroom was located next door at Olympic Restaurant—a small diner that has been a local institution since it opened in 1989. There, the Danish art collective Superflex permanently installed Power Toilet/JP Morgan Chase, an exact replica of the executive’s restroom at JPMorgan Chase. Superflex had a two-fold intention by installing the restroom in the diner: “provid[ing] an essential service” and prompting visitors “to contemplate the structures of power that become so imbued in even the most unassuming architectural spaces.” This simple gesture of installing a toilet expressed the transformative possibilities of socially engaged art.
THE SPECTRE OF SOCIAL SCULPTURE
Rick Lowe was also a contributing artist, with an installation hidden behind four stone cubes and two curved barricades. Lowe is the founder of Project Row Houses, an exemplary model of social practice; the program takes an artistic and alternative approach to social activism, focusing on public housing.
The late German artist Joseph Beuys’s concept of ‘social sculpture’ influenced Lowe to transform a dilapidated, historically black region of Texas into an ongoing relational (and humanitarian) artwork, Project Rowe Houses. This hybrid artwork and community project includes renovated homes for single mothers and exhibition and multimedia performance art spaces where families can interact with resident artists. Lowe’s process-oriented project speaks to the possibilities of aesthetically charged communication and pluralistic collaboration. Through imaginative exchange, the artist and participants—or co-producers—alter their spatial and social realities, building new communal ties and expanding the architecture of the environment in ways previously unimaginable. This seems to be the common goal of many socially engaged art initiatives—to progressively intensify social interactions and to improve daily life on the daily basis.
BISHOP AND HER DISCONTENTS
In the months prior to the opening of Living as Form, Creative Time held a series of public dialogues discussing, analyzing, and evaluating contemporary social practice. Claire Bishop, art historian, critic, and author of Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, gave an astute survey of the catalysts, tensions, limitations, and possibilities of socially engaged art during a talk on May 18 at Cooper Union, entitled “Participation and Spectacle: Where Are We Now?”
Standing within eyesight of Nato Thompson and a panel of socially engaged artists, Bishop was not afraid to voice her skepticism and suggestions regarding social practice. She announced her distaste for the catchphrase ‘social practice,’ arguing that its elimination of the word ‘art’ or ‘aesthetics’ symbolically relegates artistic discourse and in turn valorizes social discourse. Bishop expresses discomfort about the proximity of art and community work. Yes, they can be in dialogue, and yes, they can collaborate, but for Bishop, artists and social workers should not be synonymous terms.
One of Bishop’s first remarks during her speech was that the most frequently asked and agitating question she hears is, “Surely its better for one art project to improve one person’s life than to not happen at all?” She said she could never manage to formulate a response.
Joseph Beuys, however, would have presumably said yes—believing that every dialogue is a worthwhile artistic endeavor. His theory of social sculpture is reflected in the work of many contemporary socially engaged artists and participants in Living as Form. He declared that “EVERY HUMAN BEING IS AN ARTIST” and that it is through diverse communication and collaboration that art can reach its total transformative and revolutionary capacity. Living as Form sought to interrogate this declaration within the context of socially oriented artistic projects that have unfolded over the last two decades.
STILL LIVING AS FORM
The Essex Street Market was gutted of its glory at the show’s closing on October 16. The participation continues on Creative Time’s website with its very own YouTube of socially engaged art. And it doesn’t stop there: Living as Form is only part one of Creative Time’s mission to bring documentation of participatory and socially engaged art to the public.
What began in New York City is traveling the globe as Living as Form (The Nomadic Version). Nato Thompson, wielding a portable hard drive with 50 projects from the original exhibition, will curate site-specific exhibitions of socially engaged work at international host institutions that will activate each rendition with a unique participatory project. Thompson will hunt for undiscovered socially engaged projects and groups throughout his voyage—uploading documentation to his hard drive. Living as Form has become a socially engaged project of its own, linking participants, artists, and diverse workers for social change in a collaborative and process-oriented network of social practice.
JORDAN CARTER B’12 is a social sculptor.