About a month before we embarked on Acting the Words is Enacting the World, I re-read the debate that played out on the pages of Artforum in 2006 between Claire Bishop and Grant Kester about socially engaged art practice. I have always been partial to Bishop’s critique of the turn to ethical criticism over aesthetic judgments when evaluating socially engaged work, which is why I think we made it our priority to consider our aesthetic choices carefully throughout the project. I’m also interested in an art practice that moves beyond liberal humanist criticism – and again I think this is why I am so interested in the possibilities of an organic intellectual in destabilizing positions of power. I’m not interested in the debate that seeks to police the borders of what is defined and canonized as art – but I have been challenged by my own internal question: What is at stake in doing this kind of project?
I am interested in both political content and political form. I have struggled with the division between my work as an activist and an artist. As an activist, it is difficult for me to do collaborative work that assumes a position of absolute power and authority, and to relegate “collaborators” to nameless and authorless participation. Because I am interested in radical pedagogies, I think it is especially important for me in my work with others to not ignore power relations or feign equality in the classroom or within the project. Further, I think it’s also important for me to be up front about what I hope participants will get out of it or what I hope they will learn. In my work of socially engaged projects, I don’t want to instrumentalize my participants or collaborators, make them symbols or somehow players in a game I am trying to orchestrate.
In reflecting about why our collective creative process seemed so organic, I am thinking about our approach to putting together the group and our approach to working with everyone. Last spring I worked on a collaborative project with a group of community college students, which explored the theories of Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. Since then, I had been thinking about Gramsci’s notion of the organic intellectual – the belief in the creation of a socialist consciousness that would arise from the lives of working people. It was this idea that expanded his notion of the intellectual, and the role of the intellectual in revolution. So I had continued to think about this idea in formulating this project, asking, what are the possibilities for the organic and traditional intellectual? I think part of why this project seems to be so organic is precisely because it is taking as its starting point the organic intellectual.
The students who are participating in this project came to us from other teaching experiences we had had with them – but their economic and cultural backgrounds, and their educational experiences and their educational goals are completely varied. This not only makes for a completely invigorating conversation, it also means that it shifts or at least makes unstable our own positions of power as co-facilitators / teachers. Each person’s experiences and skills were valued – and more importantly taken up as a recognized point of difference that helped further shape the project. I am thinking of a few particular examples: when we realized the gem of a phrase that Evalise exclaimed during a discussion on the role of desire and narcissism in consumer Capitalism (OMG I Look so Fucking Beautiful!), we decided it must be used in some written form in the installation; we continued to work on the zine even though we were running out of time and steam for it because we really wanted to highlight Robert’s amazing drawing skills.
Finally, to create a project like this has made clear a few things about what makes socially engaged art legible to critics or art historians. First, the artist must always be the author. But for our project, we insisted on an authorship that named everyone and all. While certainly we were the architects of the project, and we didn’t want to diminish that aspect, we also wanted to be clear that the decisions we were going to make about what would be in the gallery was going to be a collective decision. The amazing thing is that everyone ardently agreed! No one wanted text on the wall stating one person’s handiwork or another. It was in this spirit of collaboration that it felt like this funny little utopic art community – albeit short-lived but fantastic as a small, contained experiment.
Another aspect of the project that distinguishes what we did with socially engaged work that often gets critical attention is that our pedagogical goals were first and foremost. All the students who participated got a crash course in Capitalism and Marx’s critique of Capitalism – a dialogue that perhaps some of them might not ever have. Typically, when it comes to “real” effects of socially engaged work, the effect must be gestural or symbolic. In the rare case, it is literal, having a “real” effect on existing social structures or relationships. The role or value of pedagogy, or the process of learning and community-building, is not not often given much critical consideration.
When the effectivity of “real” activist work happens, as in the case of Tania Bruguera’s latest project, Immigrant Movement International, it is only in claiming its status as an art project, and her role performing and orchestrating the events around it, that gives it value and intrigue. And for this, I really appreciate her project because it is using art (and its funds) as a platform to not only mobilize and build community, but also to bring attention to the political actions of a community already mobilized. But it also reminds me about the role of the artist, and why one should lay claim to such practices as art.
In our project, we used art practice as a process for learning and also as its outcome. In some ways, it was a meta-art project, using its own means to examine itself and ourselves. What is at stake? Why was it important to meet everyday at EFA Project Space? For me, what’s at stake is transformation, both on individual and institutional levels. I believe in transformative experiences. I am also probably one of the few people who still believes in the liberatory possibilities of public (free!) education. There’s something simple and fantastic and transformative about learning something, creating something that speaks to that learning, and sharing it with others. This, in a nutshell, is what happened. I’m interested in generative social possibilities that such a project can create – even if it is only for our small group of eleven people. It is an experiment in community building, not based on a nostalgic notion of a utopic time, space or activity, but grounded in a real conversation about the politics that are relevant, and using the best tools available to us: our ideas.