I visited New York for five days in May with my partner, artist Mike Stasny, to attend Open Engagement, a social practice conference held this year (May 15-19) at the Queens Museum. We were there to present our Sumptuary project, our recent five-week residency at MINT gallery in which we performed a speakeasy-as-arts-commissioner. We stayed at the YMCA in Flushing and would walk from the train to our room after hours, when the layers of exuberant shop signs had no one to yell at but each other.
We arrived with a lot on our minds about how to sustain and evolve our current projects. Lucky for us, Open Engagement, now in its sixth year of bringing social practice artists together, had chosen “Life / Work” as its theme. As it was framed and reframed over the course of the weekend, Life / Work’s punctuation became significant, implying proximity if not conflation. Through the lens of two particular lives’ works, those of conference keynote speakers J. Morgan Puett and Mierle Laderman Ukeles, it even became a bit of a manifesto—the life as the work—whether articulated directly (in Puett’s theory of “comportment as commons”) or through practice (Ukeles’s four decades of collaboration with the Sanitation Department of New York City).
Presenters had the lucky opportunity to bookend our conference time with a four-hour class with each keynote speaker. And so, on the night of May 15, before we even got our conference tags and schedules, Mike and I began to learn of the childhood of J. Morgan Puett, who grew up with a freedom to imagine and create in rural Georgia that she now seeks to recreate at Mildred’s Lane, her “experiment in living,” in the woods of northeastern Pennsylvania.
Before Puett experimented in living, she experimented in fashion. Tagging along on a field trip to a fashion museum while in graduate school in the ’80s, she asked where clothes from the Depression era might be found. Her docent’s curl of the lip in response led Puett to begin making her own Depression-era reenactments to fill in the missing history. So began her “storefront practice” that caught the eyes of the fashion world more than the art world, and still lingers, it seems to me, as “baggy chic” and other ubiquitous styles. This unexpected beginning to a lifelong career of deeply investigating spaces and how they inform and support our “comportment” was a lesson in following instincts and opportunities, “I’m just an artist trying to have a great life and share it with my friends.” Us too! Easier said than done, of course.
Friday’s field trips and opening remarks set a relaxed and intimate tone to the conference, and then the traditional too-much-happening-to-catch-it-all program kicked off for us on Saturday morning with Edgar Arceneaux’s talk, “New Financial Architectures for Creative Communities.” His main point was that we must act with awareness of how our tools define and limit what we make. This simple thought became incredibly rich to explore when the definition of tool was stretched to include financial structures. Many audience members were deeply wrestling with the challenges and implications of forming a 501c3 to support their work. My favorite question that Arceneaux posed was about risk—what kinds promote creativity and what kinds decrease productivity? When Mike and I asked artists to make new structures with us at Sumptuary, what risks were we asking those artists to take?
We presented briefly in the museum’s atrium (where Open Platform, a series of brief reports from the field, went on for two full days), grabbed lunch, and then rushed back to catch a panel of foundation directors discussing “Support for Socially Engaged Art.” Perhaps because it is their job to see the forest despite the trees, synthesis and inspiration abounded. Deborah Fisher, founder and executive director of A Blade of Grass explained her excitement for art that is “not about its own history,” and that has a “columnar” audience who participates in myriad ways. Michelle Coffee of the Lambent Foundation narrated, with great candor, her commitment to the arts and social change as a tumultuous journey, continually tearing herself from one until she realizes she has lost sight of the other, blind spots and failures serving as mile markers. Judilee Reed of the Surdna Foundation urged for collapsing the opposition of instrumental and intrinsic theories of art’s impact on audiences and participants, the problematic outcome of the binary being that “artists are not supported to know and do the work of social justice movements.”
When the issue of assessment came up, so did a lot of broadly applicable wisdom: “If you measure what you value, others will value what you measure.” “Budgets can be stories.” “The change you seek may be longitudinal.” “Let’s do social practice evaluation as art.” “I’d fund that!” shouted Deborah Fisher. I don’t doubt it.
On Saturday night, in her keynote address, Puett focused on her current work and collaboration at Mildred’s Lane, “a new contemporary art complexity.” She asserted that education should be principally involved with new ways of “domesticating,” engaged in every aspect of life, with the quotidian as the launching point. It’s hard to predict what a Fellowship at Mildred’s Lane might be like, as they’re always derived from “algorithms.” Puett’s holistic, listening way of making isn’t unlike Buckminster Fuller’s concept of “synergy” in that she’s quite comfortable not knowing what outcomes will be but quite sure of how to proceed.
On Sunday morning, I dragged myself out of bed after a conference-sponsored late night karaoke field trip, unwilling to miss the opportunity to participate in a Theatre of the Oppressed NYC workshop. While the games played out very much as I expected (having worked with Agnes Wilcox of Prison Performing Arts), our workshop group worried uniquely over how these games incentivized us to communicate. Forum Theatre solves problems through participatory imagination, but we can only imagine what we can communicate efficiently when things are moving fast and interactively.
We then joined a lunchtime conversation about work and friendship titled “Intimate Aspirations.” Yael Filipovic and Kristelle Holliday offered up “friendship as political commitment” and wanted to know if it was a material? A prerequisite? An end-goal? A structure? And do we even need it? Yael reported research that has shown the “proximity required for issue-based thinking,” so perhaps we do. Artist Heather Kapplow spoke of the benefits of living in a small artists’ community—everyone is curator, critic, and audience in turn. I was attracted to the accountability of such mutualisms, and wished for institutional reinforcement of said mutualisms at larger scales. We had a hard time resolving the tension between friendship as art-making tool and our responsibility to publics-at-large. What’s the ethic to uphold above all? Sincerity? Transparency? Democracy? Diversity?
A panel on “Artist in/as Institutions” delivered much food for thought, including a City Artist-in-residence program that launched in Jerusalem in 2012 and places artists in municipal bureaucratic offices to observe and respond to the cultures therein. What if MARTA had a resident performance artist running up and down its halls, finding beauty and possibility in transit problems?
The collective Institute for New Feeling comprises three artists using institution as form, with the slogan “new ways of feeling and ways of feeling new,” claiming the space and/or vocabulary of a wellness institution or spa. (We thought of Atlanta-based Jared Kelley and Erin Palovick’s “Queersar” project.) IfNF diagnoses “the institution” as having the following elements: collectivism, focus, public engagement and authority. They spoke as though the first three yield the latter, which is the best case I’ve heard for artist-as-institution, and IfNF does it with such a smart combination of humor and gentle sincerity.
Shortly after, Mierle Laderman Ukeles took the stage for her Sunday night keynote address. It was the 50th anniversary of the World’s Fair that had taken place at Corona Park in 1964. Some 40,000 people flooded into the park that day to celebrate. Ukeles told the story of having her own “hut” at the 1964 World’s Fair, where she sold paintings. Her hut neighbored a long-lashed giraffe, whom she quickly befriended. However, whenever the giraffe peed, urine flooded under her tent’s wall and splashed up on the sides and over her feet.
She then told the well-known story of becoming the (unsalaried) Artist in Residence of the New York City Department of Sanitation in 1977. Taking up residence in a high rise, asking every maintenance worker to wear buttons that read “I Make Maintenance Art One Hour Every Day,” she wandered around the building for many days, asking the workers whether they were making work or making art, and took a Polaroid of them in action. The Whitney Museum showed the Polaroids of “work” or “art,” and Ukeles sent a positive review of the show to the Sanitation Commissioner. What followed is a career of sanitation collaboration that ranged from choreographing barge ballets to traversing the entire city of New York until she’d shaken every maintenance worker’s hand, a piece she describes as “a dismapping of the formal city and a remapping of the entire living city.” Ukeles believes that sanitation is the perfect model for public art, because sanitation is “to husband a whole city as home.” This is not unlike Puett’s emphasis on domesticity in education.
Ukeles’s sanitation collaborators “are on the clock when they are doing this work.” but are working very differently: “What have you always wanted to do if the coast guard wasn’t watching?” When Ukeles uttered that question toward the end of her address, fireworks went off. Literally. Outside. In the middle of Corona Park. Their sound filled the atrium, and couldn’t help but seem in celebration of Ukeles herself. During the Q&A, Mike and I wandered outside. It felt incredible to let the mist roll off our eyes beneath an enormous sparkler show.
The next morning, in the quiet early light of a closed museum, we presenters met up with Ukeles for a further four-hour conversation. She spoke of her desire to wedge her way into the big conversations about permanent public projects: “Why do all these things all around us have to be so stupid and boring and dumb?” She feels that Fresh Kills Park, which “belongs to all of us” (our trash), “must be transformed by all of us.” She’s trying to figure out how a place can “switch its meaning,” and go from being a “site” to a “place.”
Her plan to turn Fresh Kills into a “place” includes having one million people make an offering to the park. The offerings must fit in the palm of a hand. The personal meaning of the objects will not be released or forgotten upon transferal (which will occur at museums, our natural “cultural transfer stations”) but instead will be meticulously catalogued. That meaning will remain with the objects, thus transforming Fresh Kills into a “place.” She also delicately acknowledged that the Fresh Kills project might still be under way beyond her lifetime, and that we might be invited to take up her work.
One commonality to note between the careers of Puett and Ukeles is that they both married their art practices to distinctly other industries, fashion and sanitation, respectively, which magnified the visibility and impact of their imaginative powers. For me, social practice might most mean working with what is already there, as the social so fully exists in a way that paintings do not until we make them, which could mean all social practice yields social change. I would find some relief in the de-valorization of “change,” because it’s only art if we don’t know what we’re making, right? As J. Morgan Puett said in ecstatic response to an audience question, “These things cannot be strategized. My life is emergent.” (Thanks for catching that one, Mike, and writing it down.)
Maggie Ginestra is a writer, collaborator, curator, and facilitator based in Atlanta. She is the cofounder and programming director of Sumptuary, and also facilitates WonderRoot’s 2014/15 Walthall Artist Fellowship, designs collaborative processes as a member of Unicorn Projects, and helps to support several other arts initiatives, such as Idea Capital, Dance Chance Atlanta, and Mighty Rights Media.