A Performance Series

Mapping Social Practice

 By Sue Bell Yank

I’ve recently been talking to several cultural practitioners about how to educate those with a more traditional notion of art in understanding and contextualizing today’s social practice. The notion of expanded or post-studio has been around for some time now, but the historical contextualization of social practice is still very much in formation. My own efforts in this realm have been mostly trial and error, guided by some very sharp and inquisitive theoretical minds, but the way I trace the development of social practice seems to find some resonance with others striving to do the same thing.

Now, I must give a disclaimer – there are so many multiple influences and complex practices that contribute to how we understand social practice today, but from a purely pedagogical standpoint the following seems most useful for bridging the gap. I start at Beuys, simply because he is a well-known albeit controversial historical figure who was able to encapsulate his paradigm-shifting work in a few useful phrases. Most notably, the phrase “social sculpture,” which illustrates Beuys’ idea that activities which structure and shape society are a form of art no longer confined to a material object or artifact. From this radical notion (and buttressed by decades of expanded, non-object based conceptual practice) arose a variety of mostly non-object based practices engaged in social and spatial issues.

These follow several major veins that are relatable but manifest in varied ways. I would describe them as such:

Relational aesthetics – projects focused on congenial gatherings like making and distributing food or beer, discussions, invitations, and exchange (i.e. Rikrit Tiravanija)

Systems analysis – projects focused on uncovering, analyzing, criticizing and/or celebrating current systems that contribute to a deeper understanding of how society works, often with the goal of shifting those paradigms (i.e. Merle Laderman Ukeles, LA Urban Rangers, the work of Teddy Cruz, Urban China)

Pedagogical Practice – projects focused on sharing information in a non-traditional format, often user-generated and multi-disciplinary (i.e. The Public School, SOMA, The Mountain School of Arts)

New Models – related heavily to systems aesthetics, these practices focus on modeling new (or forgotten) societal systems that undertake issues ignored, perpetuated, or inadequately addressed by current systems (i.e. Project Row Houses, Watts House Project, Victory Gardens, Fallen Fruit, various eco urban farming collectives, the work of the Harrisons)

There are of course many variations and overlaps amongst these categories, and work that does not fit so well in any of these. The semantics of these categories can also be argued about – the titles are working titles and may not adequately encapsulate the definitions I have put forth. Nevertheless, I find this framework useful as a starting point. In terms of current work, I do believe that research-based analysis of social and spatial systems (Systems Analysis) is very much where it’s at – though plenty of relational aesthetics practice still exists, more model-based and solution-based practices are prevalent.

This framework still brings up some questions for me, questions that solidified when I examined the very interesting “Map for another LA” put out by the Llano Del Rio Collective just recently. The map is meant to describe growing “collectivist activity” that in many ways fall into the “New Models” category of social practice – though the practitioners may identify as artists or not. I will post further about my thoughts on this map, but now I leave you with a few questions:

1) What core values run throughout these different practices – and why?

2) Are these infrastructural practices?

3) What institutional or civic strategies that may be focusing on the goals described above (systems analysis, new models, new forms of pedagogy) are not considered social practice – and why?

4) Are the “new models” that strive for reproducibility actually spread? Or do they only perpetuate other “new models”?

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