New York's historic Essex Street Market currently houses Living as Form, a more than twenty-year survey of contemporary art engaged with social and political issues, or rather social practices. As a trans-disciplinary form of art making, social practices are challenging to categorize; other names include "relational aesthetics" and "public practices." Each term attempts to corral cultural production that zigzags between politics, activism, social services and, what Robert Henri called, art spirit. With more than 100 projects featured in the exhibition, and hundreds more catalogued online, it is a sprawling archive that simultaneously defies and embodies widely held definitions of art in the formal sense.
Curator Nato Thompson challenges viewers to consider the greater good as a measure of artistic validity: to what extent have these works impacted their communities? Here social relevance is privileged over aesthetics. The question of whether these works are conferred art status is a tedious semantic debate -- whether their existence matters in the world at all is a more pressing measure of value.
Mierle Laderman Ukeles, "Maintenance Art Performance Series" 1973-74
The works address many issues facing the global community at large, including food production, the prison system, reproductive rights, and immigration issues, among others. Documentation of Mierle Laderman Ukeles's career-long investigations into sanitation work, for example, is presented alongside take-away printouts of Ukeles's "Manifesto for Maintenance Art" (1969) and notes for other projects with the New York City Department of Sanitation. This is also a pointedly international survey that addresses projects in far reaching locales such as Czechoslovakia, Russia, Mexico, China, and Thailand. Adjacent to the Ukeles's display are a series of monitors featuring videos by Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei and Russian collective Voina, among others. Additional material includes documentation of unauthored community movements, such as this year's demonstrations in Tahrir Square and spontaneous gatherings in Harlem, New York on the night of the 2008 presidential election. (Occupy Wall Street began the week prior to the opening, otherwise this spreading national movement might also have been featured.)
Each project has been reduced to the summation of its ideas for the exhibition. Video footage, photography, and/or ephemeral collateral are presented alongside didactic text. In this sense, navigating the exhibition is like surmising the layout of a book. (A catalog will be published in 2012; presumably it will embody a handheld experience of the exhibition.) If it seems like an overwhelming confluence of information, it is. But it is also energizing to see so many artistic endeavors geared towards an active engagement with the world. Seeing so much can only possibly generate more.
Tamms Year Ten, mud stencil, date unknown. Photo: Paul Kjelland
With a few exceptions, most of the projects are independent grass-roots movements organized by individuals galvanized by a desire to change the circumstances of the disenfranchised. Laurie Jo Reynolds, for example, founded Tamms Year Ten with a group of like-minded others to advocate for policy change at Illinois' Tamms supermax prison. Mexican artist Minerva Cuevas has created work around food insecurity. Los Angeles-based Suzanne Lacy's nine-year project "TEAM" (1991 - 2000) engaged Oakland teens with educators and artists to produce projects that explored public policy. All of the projects re-imagine power structures, sometimes at personal risk and often at financial cost to the artists.
Many of the artists featured in the exhibition also spoke at this year's Creative Time Summit, the annual social practices conference that took place the day before the exhibition opened. Some of the speakers good-naturedly skewered the perceived ambiguity of these works as art in the formal sense. Members of the Austrian artist collective WochenKlauser, whose projects include an 18-year-ongoing mobile medical clinic that treats 600 homeless patients a month, put it plainly, "We are artists and we are allowed to call anything we do art. It's just that simple." Bay Area artist Ted Purves succinctly observed that "we often comes at the expense of I" in socially engaged art practice. Even as a complicated exhibition Living as Form makes it clear: art isn't always altruistic, but when it is it matters more.
Living as Form is on view through October 16, 2011 at 80 Essex Street, New York, NY. For more information, visit creativetime.org