Please sign in:
or sign up

Arts in Milwaukee

A Public Service Of Milwaukee Artist Resource Network

previous | next
previous | next
previous | next
previous | next

Salon IV Purview

Salon IV: Contemplating Positions



Amidst a barrage of criticism levelled at socially engaged art/participatory art/social practice in art - that it is a mere case of ‘delegated performance’, that it is neither politically efficacious nor aesthetically compelling - one mitigating statement seems to recur: 'Its heart is in the right place'. Coming from a country, South Africa, with a long tradition of resistance art, I am interested in acts of defiance (whether conceptually, or in praxis) in order to determine how this trope can be conceived of as 'art'. These ‘acts’, however, can easily be construed as “uncritical charitableness” inadvertently contravening rather than enhancing social justice. It seems to me, then, that one needs to consider other options when discussing the nature of socially engaged art or participatory art. Perhaps one should consider acts of reconstruction and of empowerment as well.

All these options tend to oscillate between acts of disruption and acts of amelioration. In South Africa, for example, a recent exhibition of a work by Brett Murray of President Jacob Zuma, depicted in a strident Lenin-like pose, with fully exposed genitals, notoriously called The Spear, certainly caused disruption on a national scale in civil society. On the other end of the spectrum Terry Kurgan's Hotel Yeoville - a participatory art project in which an internet facility within a largely inner city immigrant community gave rise to many visual and verbal narratives (e.g. the exchange of goods and services) - constitutes acts of amelioration in a country that is not averse to sporadic acts of xenophobia. The Spear was rather confrontational, leaving a very troubled country in its wake; Hotel Yeoville, much more 'useful' and 'moderate' in its scope.

In theorizing about these two positions, it seems as though writers align themselves much more readily with one or the other position. Claire Bishop, for example, advocates a more radical, confrontational stance, whereas such authors as Grant Kester and Nato Thompson, a more dialogic form of art, immersed in local conditions, and artists developing solutions to very particular socio-political problems through a sustained dialogue with specific communities. Bishop is adamant about aesthetic criteria to judge this type of participatory art, stressing that art should always maintain a good measure of autonomy and that art should, by definition, contain a high level of ‘unreadability’. Kester is more concerned about the advancement of the agency of the non-participants or secondary audiences. Nato Thompson occupies perhaps a third position; that of recording as many instances of socially engaged art as possible, and including such tenuous ‘art forms’ as WikiLeaks, and the Tahrir Square demonstrations. If this is not art, Thompson seems to be asking, then what are the methods we can use to understand its effects, affects, and impact?

What seems to me to be viable alternative positions to take with regard to socially engaged art are proposed/articulated by many artists reflecting on arguably one of the most significant forms of socially engaged art or participatory art in recent times, the Occupy Wall Street movement.  “Take the lead”, “Take ‘time off’ to join occupying highly politicized spaces and territories”, or “Take no action at all”, seem to be the three most popular positions in this regard. Taking the lead would necessarily result in many instances of confrontation with arguably quite spectacular effects. Taking ‘time off’ to join the fray has rather nostalgic overtones. Michael Berenbaum, a holocaust scholar, augers that one should at all times “...try not to be a perpetrator, try not to be a bystander, try not to be a victim.”

The most interesting position to me seems to be the inertia one: taking no action at all. It presupposes a form of ‘bodiless, cerebral combat’, an ‘abstract combat’ in which the ‘art’ resides in mastering inactivity. It challenges the artist to affect change by imagining it first, by contemplating alternative positions, and by not assuming that imaginations run in straight lines or that positions are fixed and/or static. Feel-good social art is not the only option. So the question becomes what kind of progressive change is possible in the current environment? What can artists do to facilitate that change?

Kester’s answer is rather philosophical: ”Just because you can’t change everything doesn’t mean you can’t change something.” Equally so Bishop’s response: “Small gestures have a potentially liberating effect for many individuals.” My interest, then, in looking at your work will be to discuss ways in which you make the processes you plan to follow with your social engaged art, or your participant art project visible and explicit. How you communicate its essence to secondary audiences.
Perhaps the most effective form of participation, the most noteworthy form of social engagement resides in theorizing the situation, imaginatively and aesthetically interpreting and/or explaining injustices and inequalities in society. What makes social engaged art or participatory art, art? In the words of Suzanne Lacy it is the ability “to relate a set of experiences that move us in a direction of understanding each other better, understanding social systems better, thinking about new ways to make art.”

Wilhelm van Rensburg
Research Fellow
Visual Identities in Art and Design (VIAD) Research Centre
Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture (FADA)
University of Johannesburg (UJ)