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Art Practical

Living as Form (The Nomadic Version)

Suzanne Lacy/TEAM. The Roof is on Fire, 1994. Courtesy of Suzanne Lacy.

In the fall of 2011, Creative Time presented Living as Form, an expansive exhibition at New York City's Essex Street Market that included more than one hundred social-practice projects exploring the nexus of art and life. At times overwhelming and enlightening, the ambitious exhibition served as a complement to the equally frenetic and inspiring third annual Creative Time summit. In the spirit of inclusion and given the global cross-section of participants, a touring version of the exhibition is now traveling to a diverse range of venues around the world, beginning at the Kadist Art Foundation in San Francisco. 

Kadist's Living as Form (The Nomadic Version) is a distilled version of the original show and was adapted by necessity to fit the significantly more compact venue. This constraint, aided by the considered decisions of the Oakland-based curator and writer, Christina Linden, also makes the exhibition's aims clearer and more accessible. [Editor's note: Linden is also an Art Practical contributor, and the Kadist Art Foundation underwrites Art Practical's Visiting Artist Profile series.] Of the Creative Time archive's 366 projects, fifty were chosen to travel via hard drive to the host venues, and each host can add up to fifteen new projects to its local exhibition. Both the online archive and the fifty projects on the hard drive present challenges to the exhibition organizers by virtue of their unedited presentation and sheer number. Each curator is tasked with culling works from these materials and mounting a physical exhibition that will resonate with a local audience. Linden elected to divide her exhibition into three components: a static window display with a weekly rotation of content, a video screening that changes every fortnight, and an archive room where visitors can view any of the fifty projects.

Living as Form takes on the formidable challenges of connecting social practice to the real world and presenting documentation as an aesthetic medium. Many socially engaged artists who work with non-art communities are understandably more concerned with the actual project than the resulting documentation, and Linden deliberately chose for the screening room five videos that are compelling visual and social documents. For example, Fairytale: 1001 Chinese Visitors (2007), which is on view from March 24 through April 4, 2012 is a fascinating two-and-a-half-hour video that follows the recruitment, journey, and experience of 1,001 Chinese citizens chosen by Ai Weiwei to travel with him to Kassel, Germany, for Fairytale, his 2007 piece for Documenta 12. Most of the participants had never traveled abroad, and the group included a contingent from a poor rural area where, as Ai explains in the video, women are not even given names. Interspersed throughout the film are striking views of the Chinese and German countryside, troubling conversations among frustrated Chinese artists and intellectuals, and glimpses of tourist life in Kassel.

Local relevance is crucial to the exhibition's premise, and Linden is taking several steps to connect the show to the rich history of social practice in northern California. On April 21, the Bay Area artists Chris Johnson and Amanda Eicher, along with high school students, will discuss The Roof is On Fire, the video featured in the screening room from April 21 through April 28, and Question Bridge: Black Males, currently on view at the Oakland Museum of California. Organized by Suzanne Lacy, Johnson, and Annice Jacoby in 1994, The Roof is On Fire was a potent performance piece in which two hundred twenty high school students sat in one hundred cars on a rooftop in Oakland and talked about relevant social issues. The audience was invited to stand near the cars and listen to the conversations, and the event was also videotaped and shown on the local NBC-affiliate station, CNN, and other news programs nationwide. By introducing current high school students to the work and allowing a contemporary audience to listen to the perspectives within, Linden underscores the work's continuing significance as an influence on a younger generation of community-engaged artists in California, while generating new discussions about and from the project.

Because of the almost clandestine nature of Kadist's San Francisco branch, with its subtle signage, unusual hours, and lack of marketing, Living as Form might be missed by the local audience but for those who stop to check out its window space. On the day I visited, Linden remarked that, while not many people had stepped inside the gallery that afternoon, between twenty and thirty curious passersby had paused by the front window to read about Rick Lowe's Project Row Houses, which concerns a vibrant Houston, Texas, community that combines contemporary art with subsidized housing for single mothers. The under-the-radar nature of the San Francisco venue of Living as Form (The Nomadic Version) speaks to a larger problem regarding the display of public-practice works after the fact, as contemporary curators continue to grapple with presenting that which is largely ephemeral. With this dilemma in mind, Kadist has commissioned two video interviews: with Fernando García Dory about his project, A World Gathering of Nomadic Peoples (2005-07), which convenes pastoralists from two hundred international communities, and with Theaster Gates, concerning his ongoing Dorchester Project, which includes the redesign of an abandoned Chicago building as a library, slide archive, and soul food kitchen. These videos and Creative Time's Living as Form website represent steps toward archiving projects in the public realm for future generations and presenting new methods and forms of exhibition. Additionally, perhaps Kadist's window display combined with public events will galvanize people into entering the space and interacting -- whether perusing the archive or conversing with Linden -- and will make the "connection between art and the fabric of people's lives" that Ai describes as the modest goal of his grand project, Fairytale. It is a goal that Living as Form also attempts to realize, on equally ambitious terms.

Living as Form (The Nomadic Version) is currently on view at the Kadist Art Foundation, in San Francisco, through May 12, 2012.

This article was originally published by Art Practical, an online magazine providing comprehensive analysis of Bay Area visual arts events and exhibitions.

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