Practice makes perfect.
The success of socio-cultural projects can fortunately be measured quantitatively through the number of individuals impacted by them. To hierarchically catalogue novel formats of public practices based on novelty may satisfy the intellectual onanism of some cultural parasites but fortunately this has little or no effect on matter as a whole. You speak about a summit on public practices as someone who reviews a fictional war movie. You talk about form, creativity, history and tradition. Your eyes get glazed and, at times, you are even mildly amused. You have never been in a war or a slum, but you are getting to sound really clever when grading the entertainment value of keynote presentations.
Keep up with the good work.
Below is a description of the project that I presented at the Creative Time Summit which was mentioned in Claire Bishop's opinion piece. Bishop seems to want to characterize her response as somehow absolute, but of course there were many different reactions to the project. There is a lot of talk these days about the need for critical dialog in regards to socially based art, but I can't see how insults like the ones in Bishop's piece are constructive, instead I think they reflect more on her personal interests and priorities than on the work she is supposedly commenting on.
Made In India
In 2007 a living room rug was purchased for us as a gift from an American housewares company. It was ordered from the Internet. The rug took a while to arrive, but the day after it did another identical rug was also delivered. The second rug was dropped off on our porch when we weren’t there, so we couldn’t tell the delivery person that a mistake had been made. At first we weren’t sure what to do about the second rug. We considered contacting the company to let them know what had happened, but then we thought we could do something more interesting with the situation. We noticed that the tag on the rug said that it was made in India. This got us thinking about the global economy and the role we played in it as western consumers. We decided to sell the rug for the amount it was sold for in the US, which was $1500, and take that money to the rug factory where the rug was made. We would then “redistribute the wealth” to a factory worker who might have made the rug. That would also give us a chance to see first hand what the environment was like that our rug was made in, and hopefully give us a better idea of the implications involved in the simple purchase of a product made half a world away. The rug and the idea (which included funds for us to travel to India and document the experience) were sold to two art centres, the Art Gallery of Mississauga and the I.D.E.A. Space at Colorado College. The two organizations split the costs and agreed to exhibit the piece (the second rug and video documentation) and to own the work collectively when the project was completed.
We spent the next year doing research about the rug industry in India and related subjects to prepare ourselves for the trip. We also, after a long search, located someone in India who could help us find the factory and help with the project, Ashish Mahajan. Ashish works for an amazing media arts organization in Delhi called Sarai, which we also had an opportunity to visit and learn about. Ashish is an incredibly knowledgeable and resourceful person and the project could not have happened without him. When we got to India we met with Ashish and he took us around to talk to various people who were able to give us more first hand information about factory work issues and practices in India. We were also able to walk around a “factory slum” with a friend of Ashish’s and see the desperate situation the people living there were in. The factories in that area included many US appliance makers. It was a shocking revelation to realize that our refrigerator was made in a place like that by people living in those conditions. We were told that assembly line dismemberments and fatalities were everyday occurrences for workers at some of those factories.
Eventually, we went to the city of Panipat about three hours outside of Delhi where most rug factories in northern India are located and visited a factory that we think was the one where our rug was made. After seeing the operations at that particular factory, which were surprisingly less problematic than we had expected, we befriended a worker named Sandeep who showed us where he lived (a small cement room shared with two other workers in a compound across the street from the factory) and told us about his life and what it was like to work in the factory. He had come to the factory five years earlier from an area of India that was a day’s train ride away, and his earnings helped support not only his wife and three kids, but also his large extended family. We ended up explaining our project to him and giving him the $1500, which we had converted into rupees. Coincidentally, $1500 was about the equivalent of the amount of money that Sandeep could earn in one year working at the factory. Ashish gave Sandeep his phone number and said that he would check back in with him at some point to see how he was doing, but we haven’t heard any reports yet.
We continue to use our rug and have since bought various other products produced in developing countries (though we have thought twice before doing so). The shock and amazement of our visit to India has left a lasting impression on us and we think often about the people and experiences we had there, but some of the extreme feelings have faded, and we are still not exactly sure what to do about our role in the global economy. Our ideals tell us one thing and convenience tells us another. We realize that our tiny “wealth redistribution” project had a very small and limited effect on the larger systemic issues that we were trying to address, but at least for us and hopefully the people we interacted with it created a personal and significant connection within a huge and almost incomprehensible capitalist machine.
Harrell Fletcher and Wendy Red Star
Okay so she was harsh on Vik and Harrell, but -
‘At its best, the “Revolutions” summit offered an immensely valuable overview of a wide range of engaged practices otherwise lacking visibility in New York, while the discursive format provided an appropriate alternative to the exhibition as a means of presenting this often visually evasive work.’
Is this so negative?
It’s hard to understand why magazines and journals like Artforum and October would want to publish this particular kind of insult or provocation now. These attitudes come from a popular press that sets out to mock and divide its readers. Socially based art has been a ubiquitous research and practice throughout contemporary art, it is only that it has usually been treated as too déclassé to write about and discuss, until recently. In these types of texts we now find its sardonic, barking reception and fear of its proliferation. In Claire Bishop’s previous writings she appears to elevate the most violent, transgressive, attention seeking works as though this makes them more authentic for the continuation of an art history that she struggles and fights to maintain. ‘The range of positions wheeled onstage clearly indicated that there are artistic innovators in this field who stand leagues ahead of those who laboriously rework worthy clichés.’ We are being pushed to see who-does-it-best in a movement that has been a global groundswell. The newest academy, it seems, now wants control over what no one previously cared about: now you have to be sharing, relaxed, stupid, inclusive, impromptu and public in-the-right-way. This kind of writing navigates the way to a mass-market elitism.
First, it is refreshing to actually see something like a discussion here in Talkback. Usually, I just look at the pictures that accompany Scene & Herd pieces, perhaps skim the first 'graph, but VM's and HF's comments made me go back and read the piece. While we should cheer on those who wish to step outside the art world and do something in the world of flesh and blood, not everyone can or should become an art-tinged sociologist or politician. On the whole, I think Bishop's piece is fair criticism. Cynicism is not out of bounds when discussing art or any other human endeavor. Finally, “consummate opacity” is a lovely way of saying that Mr. Gillick stood naked behind the podium.
Bishop bemoans the “clichés” used by the conference participants then invokes one of the most shopworn of them all by criticizing the way that they fail to “problematize” their own practices. She just can't shake the old vanguardist intellectualism that places her in a privileged relationship to culture.
I think it is the epitome of snarkiness to criticize someone for being earnest or sentimental. Sure, a purely congratulatory climate can be unproductive, stifling even, but the joy she seems to take in mocking even hints of affirmation or sentimentality seem very much like someone more concerned with being cool than human(e). Bishop's vicious cynicism appears to be a critical affect employed merely to denigrate rather than clarify the nature of Fletcher or Muniz's work. She complains of “soulless language” yet offers “Tears of joy!” in dismissal - it is clear whose soul is lacking.
I find myself as bored with her self-important criticality and apparent obsession with agonism as the only path to political progress as she was with the scandalous notion that like minded people might gather to “cheer and whoop” rather than “problematize” or dissect each other.
Bishop is sweeping and inaccurate in her statements, with vague references and arguments.
One example: The Yes Men stated that evening that they gladly call it “art” when the grant application calls for it. This fluid definition makes total sense for how they operate, and points a finger back at the art world - and at Bishop - because apparently she would think their practice legitimate (and think the funding rational) if they called themselves artists.
Second example: the summit was comprised of summaries of PROJECTS, not life's work. And of course it was an overview - its a ONE day event. And is it worth her time and ours as readers to separate the women from the men in terms of effectiveness or artiness?
And instead of saying what something is not (i.e. “the revolution's not so new”) why not take a minute to say what it IS? Why not look at what people are enacting today instead of constantly relocating them to past romanticized movements? Bishop did not take the time or consideration to recognize Watts Towers or Project Row Houses - two projects/developments that directly intersect the social and economic fabric, founded by “artists” Edgar Arceneaux and Rick Lowe. And what about Teddy Cruz? What about Igor Grubic? Arguably, Grubic's work mirrors the “institutional” work of the 70s Bishop so mightily champions. And it seems she would certainly perk up at the presentation from Morris Dickstein, with his book Dancing in the Dark and its claim the 1930s produced the greatest art, ever.
Bishop states the summit “assumed (along with many of the positions presented) that art as a discipline can and should be marshaled toward social justice. I would have liked to see more pondering of the specifically artistic competences that can be deployed toward these ends.” What exactly is “artistic competences?” Seems that instead of recognizing or specifically challenging what art can be and do in terms of social justice, she wants people to “ponder” about how (conventional? traditional? non-revolutional?) art could do this. While she is sitting in the audience pondering and looking for the “art” in the room, there are people making change in the world instead of worrying about whether or not they can call it art.
The only thing I agree with her on are the implications of projects from Fletcher and Muniz. But what I do not agree with is her quick dismissal of them - her “tears of joy” comment only further adds to the problem by simplifying, and generalizing, the audiences reaction (assuming she was able to accurately interpret such) and the people with whom Fletcher and Muniz interacted. Bishop could use her position as a writer/critic/whatever to take these projects to task - using specific reasons for why she thinks they are misguided.
So despite Bishop’s somewhat patronizing tone, her report-back at least offers the opportunity to consider the event in a public forum on a platform with wide visibility. What remains to be considered are the complexities of the issues raised viewed from the vantage point of cultural production’s relevance to everyday life. It might be helpful to report on the numerous points of dissensus as well as consensus. As much as Bishop seems to feel that the event consisted of a cadre of similarly minded artists, this analysis is highly inaccurate and revealing. What unites the presenters, and this decision was clearly intentional, is their commitment to social change. I suspect this uniting principle rubs Bishop wrong and forcers her to bemoan their like-minded commitment. But a commitment to social change is hardly a uniting factor. In fact, this ongoing lumping together of politically minded artists remains an endemic problem of art criticism. These political cultural projects are not at all of the same opinion, analytic framework, position in power, nor strategic approach.
Over the course of one day, thirty-six presentations provided an opportunity to consider how radically different they actually are. These differences could provide good material to consider the evolution of the filed of political based public practice. From those committed to metaphoric gestures to those invested in participating in radical political communities; from those whose language is positioned in a highly theoretical discursive model to those who purposefully utilize everyday speech to broaden their audience; from those who purposefully disdain the art world to those that operate deep within it.; from those who work with communities to those whose work antagonizes. Teasing out these differences can provide a more productive framework for considering the complexities of cultural projects in relation to social change. Of course, the commitment to social change will probably serve as a good incentive for pushing past the myopic obsession with forms and art historical reflexivity toward the complicated analysis of legibility, audience, effect/affect, and power.
Admittedly, the event could have used a follow up where these issues are teased out. And admittedly, the question of what constitutes art (I prefer the term culture) wasn’t addressed head on. And yes, this back-to-back presentation style by dint of its very nature ultimately leaves out the space for conflict. We chose this format so that the work could speak for itself and the audience would be left to consider all the problems and solutions they provide. Another motivation was simply to provide a platform in NYC for this type of work. Certainly, there is much more to be said, and we intend to provide more spaces for this work. Ultimately, we need to re-engage the critical project of thinking through culture’s relationship to the issues and concerns of everyday life. We must stop this antipathy for thinking and market friendly pseudo-populism that has swept the critical stage (while admitting the disaster that jargon-laden Marxist art criticism has wreaked on political art) and instead, take seriously the potential for the arts to participate in the concerns that actually matter in the world. From this difficult vantage point (that is how projects actually transform the social landscape), the discussions around political public practice may possess an urgency capable of pushing the discussion beyond the prescribed domain of art. And in this instance I agree with Bishop that it is a good start.
Why not address the use of the term ‘culture’ head-on? It's hardly any clearer. Art marks out a set of artefacts, as modes of reference, carries a distinguished history and literature in aesthetics. Culture much less so - gathers all artefacts under one or some social science, presumes to boundaries between ‘cultures’ that neither sustain, geography, history, language nor creed.
If you want to discuss haircuts and TV jingles instead of art - hide beneath this shabby exercise in scholarship.
Make that artifacts.
how much discussion goes on at a poetry slam? I don't care for slams as everyone, the gifted and the damned, are allowed to participate. But as Nato point and Cap point out above, there is more to culture than mere consensus and more to art than the pedagogy of problematizing praxis.
To whit, the idea of selling back a rug made in india as “art” is GREAT sociology, but mediocre art.
Unless you change the definition of Art.
Funny how thin skinned so many of these practitioners are. Did not Christ tell us to turn the other cheek? And Gandhi? And MLK? Even Angelina knows well enough to ignore her critics because her heart tells her that she is doing good work.
Y'all need to exhibit a little less diva and a little more shiva.
It is delightful that this report provoked actual discussion and even responses from the participants.
However, I would observe that the initial criticism of Muniz and Fletcher was completely unspecific and unsubstantiated why exactly “misguided”? - we don't know and the responses, likewise, are pretty broad and unfocused.
We readers are appreciative but would welcome more precisely framed and logically developed arguments, and fewer ad hominems.
Benjamin L sums up a lot of the criticism of Bishop's article in the post above, saying:
“I would observe that the initial criticism of Muniz and Fletcher was completely unspecific and unsubstantiated — why exactly ”misguided“? - we don't know — and the responses, likewise, are pretty broad and unfocused.”
Those who know Bishop's other writings could probably guess at the “why's,” but ultimately, the review format, no matter how good the writer, does not provide sufficient space to elaborate on and defend judgments of value. Even the best short-review writers (I have Anthony Lane in mind) must fall back on assertion at some point down the line.
The strength of Bishop's writing is that it is critical (both in the sense of of “criticism” and "critique) but not dogmatic. Her last few sentences show that she is open to the experiences of others, while reserving her right as an expertalbeit a self-reflexive onewithin a system of value-making, to make value as she sees fit. She has also been known to revise her opinions over time.
What's interesting about her is that she is equally committed to notions of authorial voice, quality, and criteria for judgment, as well as to radically open forms of art-making. Normally commitment to one means rejection of the other, so her refusal to accept that division will always produce ambitious, controversial art critcism.
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