Social Practice Art: Engaging Multiple Perspectives

Authored on:

Sep 02, 2014
Participants in the 2014 Summer Seminar.

The role of art in society has long been debated. If an artist works in a university and in combination with community partners, that definition becomes murkier yet.

As part of the Obermann Center’s Summer Seminar, “Problem Solving Social Practice in Art,” a group of scholars, community organizers, and artists cast a wide net on the idea of “social practice in art,” examining and exposing gaps in the topic, both in scholarly terms and in how those terms related to community actions and organizations.

Questions that arose throughout the week (June 16-20, 2014) included:  What is the value of art outside the commercial space of the gallery? How does academia recognize artist-scholars whose work is community based and may not produce traditional pieces of art? How can artists most clearly represent the scope and intention of their work to potential collaborators? Would you rather have your work shown in the Venice Biennial or work in a community garden? (For the record, the participants were split on the last question.)

Jung Asks "What constitutes creative research?"

The idea for the seminar originated with Anita Jung (Art & Art History, CLAS), an artist concentrating in printmaking, whose own work began as investigations regarding violence toward women. After focusing more on teaching and scholarship, she is now returning to her roots. Her work is increasingly collaborative, utilizing colleagues across the university to further explore what possibilities there are and what it means to be an artist working within academia, as well as exploring what constitutes creative research.

Committed to including the voices of artists working both in and outside of academe, Jung invited John Engelbrecht, director of Public Space ONE (PS1), a community-based art organization in Iowa City, to co-direct the seminar with her. In turn, they organized a group of nineteen visiting artists, including four other UI faculty and four UI alumni who are now working artists and/or faculty members in other parts of the country.

The participants were diverse in age, experience, and creative practice. Many of them were in the throes of transitioning between media and modes of expression, or exploring how social practice projects intersect with their better-known work. For example, Lane Hall and Lisa Moline, both of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, have long careers as printmakers and installation artists. In 2011, as part of statewide demonstrations in Wisconsin, they formed the Overhead Light Brigade (OLB). Initially, they created light-up signs to carry messages during nighttime protests. Now, OLB is a network, with a presence in twenty states, each group ready to shine attention on issues from water quality to support for public schools. Most of the participants at the Summer Seminar knew of OLB, and many of them knew of Hall and Moline’s artistic work, but few were aware that Hall and Moline were the originators of OLB.

"Collaboration is uncomfortable."

Nimbly negotiating different worlds – political and governmental venues, educational systems, museums, prisons, and nonprofit organizations – was emblematic of the participants’ work. Many of these artists seek out various collaborators, but Jung said their participation in far-flung disciplines and systems also indicates a growing awareness of the value of having an artist at the table.

“Artists question and bring a different perspective,” she says. “Collaboration is uncomfortable, and we are good at being uncomfortable.”

During the seminar, each artist presented his or her work, often focusing on a few especially relevant projects. While all of the projects arguably have a social good component, some of the artists are more comfortable than others in embracing the artistry of their projects. When Vanessa Vobis, a University of Iowa graduate and co-founder of a Los Angeles group that creates gardens in under-utilized urban spaces noted that the LA Green Grounds had been featured at the Venice Biennale, she said this didn’t matter too much to her; she’d rather her work be reflected in the soil of L.A. Other participants continue to view their work very much as part of the mainstream art world.

Negotiating the line between art and social practice

“What is art?” was an ongoing theme, as well as “How is it valued? When production of work includes other people, especially non-artists, the boundaries seem to blur.

During the week of the seminar, Brooklyn-based artist Traci Molloy led a workshop with teenagers at United Action for Youth. They talked about collaboration and then wrote about their own identities. The workshop culminated with Molloy taking portraits of the group, which she is then combining into a single layered portrait that will soon be exhibited in downtown Iowa City.

Molloy noted that social practice artists are more harshly judged than many artists; their intentions are questioned. As an independent artist, it is essential that academia understands and values their processes and products. “How this is taught and what is written about it,” says Molloy, “effects how future curators, critics, and art educators, many of whom come out of academic programs, appreciate work like mine.”

Much of the week was focused on pragmatic questions, such as tenure and reward and creating healthy collaborations. For Engelbrecht, the documents the group created that speak to group identity and dynamics, partnering relationships and collaborations for creative projects, including a manifesto, a set of rules, and a contract, were especially useful. As the co-director of PS1, a nonprofit community arts venue that is often asked to partner with an array of public and private organizations, Engelbrecht is intimately aware of the issues these documents attempt to address. The contract, for examples, outlines all aspects of creating art, especially in collaboration. “It really delineates the process,” he says, “and helps to clarify the scope of a project, its often hidden expenses, and expectations of time.”

Institutional challenges

The fact that PS1 and the University of Iowa were able to partner on the Obermann Summer Seminar, was itself a wonderful demonstration of a successful collaboration, said Laurie Beth Clark (Art Department, University of Wisconsin-Madison). “PS1 is a model for a small space that is appropriately scaled to its community,” says Clark, who has served as an administrator in addition to her role of scholar and artist. “It’s very challenging for a large R1 institution to partner successfully with a small organization and not crush it.”

Clark added that the inclusion of PS1 in the week’s events, including a progressive dinner around the theme of food and political protest that she and her collaborative partner Michael Peterson (Department of Theatre and Drama, University of Wisconsin-Madison) prepared in the PS1 kitchen, added greatly to the conversation, bringing it beyond the walls of the university.

New partnerships emerge, conversations continue

Many invaluable connections were made throughout the week. Since their time together at the Obermann Center, some of the artists have begun planning future projects. Of special significance are the connections made between University of Iowa School of Art and Art History colleagues. Continuing the dialogue between this cohort and other Iowa City-based artists is a key next step for Jung. In order to further the conversations started in June, she and Engelbrecht are also creating a web site that will have videos of the seminar sessions, as well as individual interviews with each participant available. They expect some of the pragmatic documents created during the week, such as the contract, will be available there, too.

The co-directors are heartened that the time is ripe for more emphasis on and understanding of social practice art within the academy. As Jung notes, “What we’re doing parallels with conversations about public engagement and revamping the academic tenure criterias.” Like social practice art, next steps are not entirely clear but are certain to include multiple perspectives.