What we define as knowledge defines where and when we see knowledge production and knowledge acquisition unfolding. In the context of an art school, this means that the infrastructural elements such as courses, classrooms, timetables, grades, workshops, and critiques are the frames through which we envision and enact what counts as knowledge. And yet, there are countless other experiences that disproportionately shape the learning environment of racialized, queer, poor, and disabled students that are not considered knowledge, expertise, or even a core part of the educational environment. In this essay for esse, I explore the implications of this reality, ultimately arguing that the contestation of power will define more meaningful and equitable art education for the future.
Why Art Schools Need More Socially Engaged Art
Image: Social Practice Kitchen, a weekly student-led by-donation community kitchen at Emily Carr University of Art and Design. SPK invites students, staff, and faculty to create meals. Photo: Facebook/Arts in Society Research Network.
Canadian Art recently posted an essay I wrote over the summer, which you can read in its entirety here. I’m including an excerpt below:
Despite Canada’s history of artist-run culture and modest socialism—both productive contexts for thinking about where larger social imaginations have existed at a national scale in the past—our post-secondary institutions have yet to find meaningful ways to position socially engaged art as a practice befitting the needs of artists, students and citizens in the here and now. Post-secondary art institutions have also had very little to say so far about the significant histories of care, stewardship and collectivity embedded into the tenets of communities that blossom outside of the hegemony of white patriarchal capitalist centres. Instead, art schools relegate socially engaged art to minors, streams or one-off courses maintained as a peripheral concern to the “real work” of training emerging artists, designers and cultural producers.
Motivations & Intentions
Photo: Project preparation for Broken City Lab’s The Letter Library at CIVIC Space
This post originally appeared on Open Engagement‘s 2014 blog, 100 Questions / 100 Days
To ask the question, “what motivates us?” is to ask for some core reason or rationale that can explain our decisions and our actions.
In the context of social practice, it seems that we often act in response to a set of tensions distributed throughout the world we encounter. These tensions might be experienced as a series of failures, disappointments, and losses, met with glimpses of potential, side doors, and alternative routes. In this way, tensions are a constantly fluctuating intensity produced by a sense of antagonism with the world we encounter being met with an iterative negotiation with the world we can imagine.
However, the precise moment and location at which these intensities and antagonisms become motivation is difficult to pin down, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Without an exact moment or location, we can find a range of affirmative resonances (rather than total alignment) with one another’s intensities and antagonisms. This range of affirmative resonances gives us the space to appreciate motivation as not only a reaction to a specific set of circumstances, but the potential for an instance of shared affect and built capacity. It provides us with the scaffolding to imagine a different way to be in the world, together.
Intention presents a clearer set of actions and assertions, likely already tested, debated, and secured. Intention protects our motivation through its relative clarity (where motivation is a messy constellation of tensions, intention is a clear trajectory of action), but it is not infallible. It directs us to actions at the scale of everyday life, art, and ultimately professionalized circumstances, but it also threatens to cloud the recollection of our motivation. The danger is that without the recollection of our motivation, we cease to be able to act towards the imagining of a different way to be in the world, and ultimately, we diminish intention to a series of empty gestures — still legible, but now vacant of that shared affect (the very stuff that helps us to work together).
If we can ask about our intentions, we might provide ourselves with an occasion to check on who exactly our intentions are serving. Have our intentions lost their capacity to do the work of discreetly translating our motivations into action for the world we encounter? Have they become subsumed and organized by the power structures of that world? If intention loses its capacity to foster a distance and an intimacy by virtue this subsumption and organization, then what good is it?
Motivation, then, must resolve itself to be the ongoing and incalculable sum of the experiences we have with an antagonism pointed towards the power structures, mechanisms of control, and practices of injustice we encounter. In short, motivation is the thing we have all felt in our gut that something isn’t right. Intention becomes the framework for the set of actions that we attempt to realize in order to address those hegemonic realities, and simultaneously provides a cover that is more legible, coherent, and instructive for our motivation, which is messy, unresolved, and perhaps misguided (though deeply urgent).
We hope to check our intentions against a set of politics that are just and true based on our experiences and education, but we risk conflating motivation with intention the longer we work. The violence of that conflation presents itself most clearly in the moments where we have assumed that we need to act on behalf of other people, or in the moments that we find ourselves repeating the things we have already done too many times before, or in the moments where we find ourselves in situations that are financially or politically interesting but ethically and aesthetically jeopardized.
If we are to act on the motivation of wanting to imagine a different way to be in the world, together, then we must configure our motivation as a site of potential and our intentions as the instruments of action. In this way, asking about our motivation can aid us in our recollection of what antagonism can urgently provide and asking about our intentions can aid us in fostering an urgent set of actions.
The Aesthetics of Intention
Above: the unintentional aftermath of a car being driven slowly into a building.
The Aesthetics of Intention
The artist brings to each and every occasion an intimacy and a distance.
Both of these things are important to the artist and ultimately to the occasion, as they inscribe an intention.
Intimacy is an intentional form of living, a way of paying attention to a detail within a particular occasion. It is nuance, weighted just so.
Distance is the intent to find an appropriate measure of temporal and spatial logics for a given occasion. It is study, without violence.
The artist recognizes conversation as an occasion, and in so doing, instills a value that might otherwise go unvalued.
The aesthetics of intention could be illegible, invisible, or indiscernible, and yet it remains as form in its patience, its slowness, and its lethargic affect.
The artist who brings intimacy and distance to each and every occasion practices the aesthetics of intention and ultimately fails to produce, with intention.
The artist hosts an occasion at undetermined intervals.
Download a PDF of this statement.
On Support: the Foreverness of Contingencies
This text was originally presented at Homework II: Long Forms / Short Utopias in November 2013 on a panel organized by the Department of Unusual Certainties entitled, “Support Someone Else’s Revolution”. There are a couple of changes from that original presentation, but it remains unresolved.
I have to begin by saying that I don’t believe in revolution, at least in the ways that we’ve commonly come to understand it. The systems of oppression and instrumentalization are everywhere and contagious. There is no switch to flip, no one to kick out of office, no position to occupy, and no stable state to destabilize. There is no revolution. There is only a measure of distance between where we are and where we want to be. That measurement takes many forms. Sometimes it’s measurement as destruction of property. Sometimes it’s measurement as marching. Sometimes it’s measurement as self-immolition. Sometimes it’s measurement as civil war. Sometimes it’s measurement as shoplifting. The measurement of distance between where we are and where we want to be is simply shorthand for possibility. That possibility has the potential to create a space for affinities to coalesce and, in turn, to become misconstrued as a kind of indefinite support, or worse, a revolution. You see, a decision to smash this window here with you rather than that window over there cannot be ratified as support, or at least tacit support. It is rather the ability to see my own interests in the ends you appear to be trying to achieve. My support is contingent on this action being legible as a conduit through which I can enact my own politics. Support is quite selfish, though it attempts to masquerade as something much different. The idea of supporting someone else’s revolution is really a tidy way to draw out these contingencies as either a given or somehow an admission of my own failure towards the collective.
And yet, the idea of support, in general, does provide a useful frame to read the limits of the idea of revolution. In the idea of support, we can find a sense of benevolence by virtue of its ability to be asserted in discrete care objects. We can feed one another without committing to the revolution of ending starvation. We can house one another without committing to the revolution of ending homelessness. We can teach one another without committing to revolutionary pedagogy. Support removes us from the need to commit to a revolution, as support offers a trajectory towards some other thing and revolution signals an ending of one thing in light of a new thing. Support can span politics, capitalism, and revolution because it doesn’t require of itself to do anything outside of its action. It offers a glimpse of affinity without a whole-hearted conversion. I can support you in doing this one thing, while ignoring you when you’re doing this other thing. I can also make my values and politics more clear without fear of reprisal. I can support you wanting to getting a new apartment provided you don’t start manufacturing Methamphetamines out of it.
Support is inherently time-based and fleeting. Our recognition of these attributes provide us with the flexibility to mark beginning and end points for our own engagement. I can support you until the new year, but then you’re on your own. A revolution insists on a new beginning. A revolution doesn’t ask you to momentarily be on-side, it suggests that from here on out, there is a new side that everyone will be on, forever. The idea of a before and an after revolution would suggest that my commitment now exists in absence of my politics before. To address forms of support in a stable state, we might unfold everyday activities. We agree not to crash our cars into one another and in turn support a stable state. We decide to not burn down our own house so as not to accidentally burn down our neighbour’s houses and in turn support a stable state. We are complicit in failing to support someone else’s revolution by following the rules and guidelines that are requested by a stable state, and generally, we are well-served in this decision. In attempting to animate the possibility for someone else to dream up a revolution, we might offer particular interstices as projects. We could create heavily-curated gaps in our own ideas to try to elicit others to fill them. We could even try to generate interstices that could quickly become much larger gaps, and holes, and absences that might allow our original conceptions of interstices to be overruled. However, there is always someone who has the capacity to renegotiate that interstice on their terms. Someone who can pick up their toys and leave. Someone who can always lock the doors. Someone who can always cut funding. Someone who can always point to a contingency and note that their support ends by virtue of that contingency being breached. So, even when we pretend to be able to support someone else’s revolution, we are really only creating a veneer of support.
Until a revolution takes place, we have the luxury of contingent support. That I doubt the possibility of a revolution is not to suggest that I doubt revolutionary practice. Practices are also temporal, rather than discrete time objects. A revolution is a time object insofar as there is a moment at which the revolution has occurred and in the moment before it had not. Practices are across time. They are a system of unfolding time towards a particular direction, but never an end. There is no limit to the number of times a basketball player needs to practice his dribbling, free-throws, or passing. The practice is in the ongoing and infinite rehearsal. Techniques may shift, and the particular emphasis may change over time, but there is no arrival of a practice, there is only a continuance.
The idea of supporting someone else’s revolution might also impart that revolution is inherently toward a politic that we can support. Perhaps the details are forthcoming, but we could generally assume that there is value in a broad revolutionary idea. We have to wonder though about the revolution that we cannot support. If we truly cannot support it, then are we simply in opposition to the revolution or can we consider a way in which we might we make room for these politics to be exercised, or practiced?
Perhaps agonism creates a contingent support, or perhaps a meta support for the idea of support. It allows us to support this or that idea by virtue of this moment’s alignment with my own politics. It creates the capacity for us to generally think something should happen, even if we don’t want to take part directly. It allows us to believe in the gesture of support without lending our support to every cause we encounter. My support is towards the capacity to choose to support you, or not. My support is contingent.
Limits & Possibilities: A Pamphlet on Gestures of Art, Education, & Civic Life
This work was presented as a lecture and self-published 20-page pamphlet discussing a series of proposals, provocations, and trajectories for socially-engaged art practices interweaving with everyday civic life, education, and critical theory. Each page of the pamphlet was used as a starting point for discussion with the audience and included footnotes and an index of self-critiques for further reading, consideration, or problematizing. It was presented at the Contemporary Art Gallery’s Field House Studio, as part of their “Artists in Public” series, which invites creative and cultural producers to share their theories, thoughts, and experiences of developing projects in the public realm.
Download the PDF of the pamphlet here.
Included in the pamphlet were the propositions written below (please note that these propositions should be considered incomplete without their footnotes and critical responses, which are included in the PDF of the pamphlet):
Local realities should be a driver for all activity.
An education should not be designed to help you solve problems.
More participation resolves nothing.
A social practice is not about doing things for other people.
Working on behalf of other people is probably more violent than we’re ready to admit.
Engagement should be inextricable from commitment and duration.
Agonism is a thoughtful response to the world we encounter.
Being reasonable is a matter of class. Identifying a way forward is a measure of power.
Value practices are meeting points. Social practices are often not.
Priorities allow us to mask urgencies.
There is value to be found in our infinite complaints.
Forever, and ever, and ever. I’ve been so happy loving you.
Loss, when disguised as everyday life, marks a powerful turning point for tactical action.
Avoid building communities in exclusion of building publics.
Scalability concerns those with the means to scale.
Producing steals moments, re-producing steals a lifetime.
Methodologies of Failure: Evaluation Practices for Socially Engaged Art
A set of questions:
- Did your artwork involve other people?
- Are you uncomfortable with calling your artwork an artwork?
- Would you rather discuss it as a project?
- Did you refer to the other people involved in your project as a community?
- Have you tried to explain at length the ways in which you are defining the terms ‘involved’ and ‘other people’ and ‘community’?
- Are you painfully aware that there are unavoidable power imbalances at play in your project?
- Did you document the results or process of your project using a digital SLR, a camera phone, or Instagram?
- Are there obvious formal possibilities for exhibiting this documentation?
- Did you wonder if it would it be inappropriate to sell this documentation?
- Are there power struggles immediately evident when viewing this documentation?
- Have you considered trying to present your project as a book, documentary, or play?
- How much pressure did you feel to defend the work as tackling political change?
- Did you assume that your project needed to continue indefinitely towards achieving some political end in order for it to be successful?
- Were you asked about success, measurable outcomes, attendance levels, or evidence of change?
- Did you expect there to be answers to those questions?
- Did your research for this project lead you to briefly attend a series of parallel community meetings at which you felt the need to excuse a comment or thought as coming from the perspective of an artist?
- Did your project dissolve after a public presentation / workshop / town hall meeting / charette / or screening?
- Did you have any unresolved guilt around its dissolution?
- Can your project be critiqued by a painter?
- Do you feel belittled when approached by a visual artist, theoretician, or architect?
- Have there been discussions of ‘radical’ theory offered from a great distance to the project?
- If your project were a math equation, would the sum always end up as a critique of capitalism?
- Is your project illegible enough to likely never be printed in Artforum or your local newspaper?
- Can you imagine yourself being awarded a large-scale prize some years after the launch of your project, which you didn’t necessarily define as an art project in the first place?
- Could your project easily be mistaken for a project found in surveys of Fluxus, Conceptual Art, or Dada?
- Did your project align itself to a set of political goals that have already been articulated?
- Is there form evident in the project that would allow it to most easily fit into an identified granting opportunity?
- Could your project be mistaken for a restaurant, social service, after-school program, or a guerrilla marketing campaign?
- Could your role in the project be defined as that of a facilitator, organizer, or teacher?
- Were you asked to explain the reason you think your project is art?
A Declaration of Principles (for artists, cultural workers, & supporters thereof)
By posting this page, we submit that we are an artist, cultural worker, or a supporter thereof and declare the following: we are no longer interested in participating in consultancies, asset maps, or activities that offer us “promotional opportunities” in absence of clear financial or strategic gain. We will not support the exploitation of artists or other cultural workers or their works for the sole purpose of further municipal or economic planning, fundraising, or marketing. We refuse to acknowledge the existence of the politically-invented term, creative economy, which lumps together practicing artists with video cassette duplication services. We can no longer participate in activities that knowingly disadvantage artists with less experience and we vow to make accessible opportunities that we have to these same artists. We hereby decide to stop playing prescribed games and to start making it up for ourselves. Henceforth, we will support one another by adhering to this declaration.
Also available as a PDF, or high-res jpeg.
Toward a New School of Art: How Social Practice, Radical Locality, and Antagonism Should Shape Art Education in the 21st Century
The following is based on ideas that must certainly exist in other contexts, books, and agendas. While not necessarily referential to any of these particular sources, the following knowingly exists within a continually evolving matrix of art and studio-based pedagogy. The following also attempts to address what I believe is the only option for art schools to stay relevant in the coming decades—a time that will demand holistic and constantly shifting attempts to unfold the complexities of everyday life, founded on a commitment towards the local and the small.
Art education should be framed around the following realities and situations:
‣ antagonism towards existing infrastructures of all kinds
Faculty in this New School will be a mix of semi-permanent locally-committed professional artists and visiting artists from abroad; both groups of faculty will maintain the following:
‣ an artistic practice that requires mutually-beneficial collaboration from students
‣ a record of creative activity that is not exclusively tethered to art galleries or art infrastructures
‣ an active and evolving interest in pedagogy
‣ a lack of fear of the uncharted
‣ an insatiable interest in collaboration
‣ an open studio / work / office space
‣ a quarterly public presentation on their research
‣ a commitment to the local
‣ an aggressive stance on the importance of the idea of the ignorant school master
‣ an appreciation of affective vs. effective
A New School of Art will not hinge on a new art school, instead it will occupy spaces that require formal partnerships with other institutions within a given geography such as:
‣ bus stations
‣ living rooms
‣ interrogation rooms
‣ tree houses
‣ chemistry departments
‣ office space
‣ high schools
‣ the occasional space previously assigned to old art schools
Students in this New School of Art will apply to enroll with the following understandings and interests:
‣ there will be no instructions
‣ writing is a foundational skill
‣ reading is necessary for understanding the world
‣ there is a never-ending supply of potential in any given place
‣ learning is constant
‣ the transference of employable skills is abundant if you pay attention, but you should not pay attention to that part
‣ using social media is not being social
‣ questions are not optional
‣ critiques can take many forms
‣ your instructor will not always have the answer
‣ you will not be asked to make anything specific
‣ everyone will need your help at some point, as will you their’s
‣ an art practice does not equate to making an art object every day
‣ collaboration is not optional
These realities and situations will appear as the following in the New School of Art:
‣ an underlying agreement to develop art practices, not art objects
‣ no medium-based classes
‣ medium-specific workshops
‣ relentless collaboration
‣ an ongoing curiosity about community and its possibilities
‣ learning opportunities organized around themes
‣ projects that occur beyond and outside of institutional schedules
‣ ignorant co-teaching
‣ classes that only take place over dinner with local food
‣ demonstrative occasions of what art can do outside of a gallery
‣ truly preparatory instances for young artists working in a world beyond the “art world”
‣ no private studios
‣ no classrooms as we might normally recognize them
‣ ongoing discussions with neighbours and explorations of neighbourhoods
‣ a rigourous and continual investigation of how place shapes you and how you shape place
‣ an embedded understanding that not every experience in life is art, but that every experience in life informs an art practice