Thoughts on Ethics, Process, and Learning Curves in Socially Engaged Art Practice

Thinking about what it means to do the work that I’m doing. What is it that happens in ‘socially engaged’ art practice that makes me want to do it? In thinking about my experience so far with Flushing International High School, it’s important for me to sit down and write some thoughts out, for perspective and also clarity with myself on my methods, motives, and what I’m learning in this process of making art that is ‘socially engaged.’

Here I am – this person with a bunch of ideas about a project with immigrant youth; not an immigrant myself (at least not first-generation, as these students are), an outsider who lives on the other side of the country, coming in suddenly for three weeks in December and January. I enter the space, not knowing anyone except for my friend who teaches there and who had done so much already to help promote and support the project – but how much could anyone do given that I couldn’t even be there for this? The school is a world unto itself, it’s constantly happening, kids are there everyday, living their lives, and here comes this stranger saying, Hey, join me in this project!

What do I seem like to them?

You enter a space that you don’t belong to and try to forge new relationships. You are aware that there’s always the possibility that people will question your motives, why you’re there, what you’re trying to get out of it, etc. And though I am clear that my motives – or my hopes – are to make a critical, effective, affective work that addresses immigrant youth issues and engages a wider public in NYC, there were moments when I did question myself – What was I doing there? Why did I want to do this? These questions were weights upon me on the days when students were not showing up after school. If there were no students who were excited by this, then there was no project. (Later I realized much of these issues related to the fact that many students don’t have time after school – particularly the ones who eventually joined the project.) Planning — much I would do differently, though it would be helpful to live in NYC fulltime. Here is the nature of the main challenge of this project: that I live far away and that there is no mediating institutional support to aid in the structuring of time, coordination, and other logistics. I’m thinking here of the structure of a group like WochenKlausur – a working model that serves as a kind of goal for me as well. For now, it’s a beginning. Focus on what is plausible for this iteration, in the hopes to continue the project in a long-term format with long-term goals.

. . .

As a socially engaged artist I have to make work that rises organically in response to and in conversation with the people whose lives resonate with the social, cultural, and political issues I feel are important to make work about. The work does not exist without them – it just cannot. It’s important that their voices, opinions, and insights, and the relationship that we form together is integrated and fully present in the work.

And the work changes based on what they are willing to give.

They are truly my collaborators and hold equal authorship of the work. I bring what I can as an artist with an understanding of social practice methodologies and technical and design skills, and also as someone who knows some things about the issues they are affected by and invested in. I also bring a passion to do something in response to those issues.

. . .

Language. This is important for a social practice artist – how to convey what it is you do and why it’s art. Or do you have to explain at all? Better to just do, and the questions and answers (maybe) will arise as needed. Perhaps all this talk about what makes ‘social practice’ art should be left to art world bantering, for I’ve found it does little to move this project forward. But language is also important in the ethics of transparency. For me, this is a critical and necessary part of social practice art, transparency at every stage of the process.

To work in socially engaged art is to socially engage, meaning to foster new relationships based on some kind of established common ground or goal. It means being in dialogue and really listening. This latter element – the listening – is utterly critical – no real work that claims to represent or address the issues of a particular community happens without it. The listening is deeper than comprehension – deeper in that you have to access the multiple discursive meanings within a statement. For instance, when a student states, ‘I always talk with my friends about how we can get rid of our accents’, there is an expressed desire to fit in, or to pass, but something is also revealed regarding awareness of Otherness, of societal assumptions and prejudices against immigrants or people who speak with accented English. There is something stated about identity politics, interpersonal ethics, the immigrant’s struggle to be respected like any other person regardless of speech, ethnicity, race, education, and economic status. And the listening is also about forming a relationship of intimacy and empathic communication, which I would say is also integral in the ethics of social practice art.

I bring conceptual ideas, formal techniques, and insight in how to translate the sentiments of a particular subject position into something that could be regarded as ‘art.’ That’s what I do. But I am also learning how to do this – as every situation requires its own kind of response and artistic strategy. Methods and approaches must be formed to address the specific issues and particular contours of a community or social context. Awareness, flexibility, and responsiveness throughout the process is part of this work.

The individuals I work with bring their life experiences, their own specialized knowledge and expertise around the issues we are addressing, their passion for making change, and their own ideas in response to the suggestions I offer.

What is made in the process  – new ways of knowing, new ways of being (in – relation). Knowledge is an activating force embodied by the subject-in-relation; it works on us and through us as we work on and through the world. As such, we are always in a process of becoming, producing these news kinds of knowledge and ways of being. Cybernetic feedback, positive feedback into the world.

The ethics are embedded: in relations, always ethics are embedded. How those relations are crafted and developed defines the ethics of the project. And so conversations are important – they are critical. And actions that respond in kind to those conversations are critical. Representation is contested and conversations will need to happen about how the students want to represent themselves. This dialogue is also a part of the work. Transparency.

. . .

And so, going back to this question: Why do I this work?

Because I must make work that speaks to, engages with, and challenges social and cultural problems. Because for me, human relationships are everything – they have the power to affect how societies function (or not) and policy at every level. The reason I maintain my identity as an artist, and not as an activist or social worker, is because I respond to problems with art – with images, sounds, affect, imagination, and discursive symbols – and believe that creative thinking and action are critical and active ingredients in finding our way out of the problems that persist within our societies. Other equally important ingredients are added by social work, activism, anthropology, sociology, planning, biology, gardening, and the list can go on depending on the appetite.

It is important for me to do this work, and to work in this way. This is born from my own desires to change things and also my belief in art to activate and operate within the realm of social and political change. I cannot separate art making from ethics – they are so intricately bound together. Just as some artists are compelled to work with certain technologies, ideas about the aesthetic, the postmodern, or other conceptual phenomena, I have to work with ethics and human relationships. (It is arguable too that all art is ethical, or relational, but for the socially engaged artist it is important to identify certain criteria and theoretical distance to develop a rigorous and critical practice that is distinctive from other ways of artistic production.) I believe in art’s ability to effectively and dynamically engage with the social, and so everything I do is a way to investigate and open the possibilities. I too am implicated in all of this – I am not just an outsider coming in, but also a subject that is affected, changed, and renegotiated within the process.

This all requires great risks. These risks are different from the kind required in art making that is solitary and studio-based (these risks can be great too), because you enter the ‘real world’ of human relationships, of lives lived always outside of the concerns of ‘art’, and you have to give yourself over to the situation – be in it. You have to give of yourself, and give up your desire to control, you have to identify your own preconceptions and challenge them, you have to let go of your own fixed notions about almost everything, including elements of the project that aren’t going to fit the context because the context is not what you had imagined it to be. All of this you must be willing to do so that you can be in the flow of life that you are entering, which is the source, the lifeblood, of the project. What I’m learning as a social practice artist is the importance of always thinking on your feet, responding to the shifts and changes of the context you’re working in. Whenever I begin to stress out, when I think things aren’t going as well as they should, when I am constantly trying to push the situation out of what I perceive as an impasse, everything jams, remains stuck, or becomes more impossible to overcome. But when I let go, when I recognize and accept the limitations and have a certain faith that things will actually work out, when I believe in the small things that have begun to work and move from there, then things begin to move; it all changes. The places of being stuck give way to other spaces – of possibility, of opening. Revealed to me are things I could have not anticipated or planned for.

And of course always is the risk that the project may not work out at all for any variety of reasons beyond your control. To be a socially engaged artist is to accept that risk and move forward with a pragmatist’s belief in the world.

. . .

The reality of this project is that time is limited. Space is limited. I have all the institutional support I could ask for. Most importantly, I have the participation and excitement of the students. In terms of what we can accomplish in the brief slots of time I can foresee, there is only so much that can be done, and so I also have to be very realistic. I think I have readjusted the parameters of the project to more appropriately fit the constraints, so it’s also just a matter of really maximizing the time and opportunities available to get at least that much done. (Which is still a lot, and can be very powerful if we’re all focused and clear about our goals.) The dialogue with the students has begun, and they are an incredible group of people to be working with. I think we can get a lot accomplished in the time we have.

Right now, as I prepare for February, I have to think up the activities and projects that we will do to make the art – the images, video, audio, and text. Video portraits and the question of representation, audio narratives, a guidebook to city for immigrants, the event planning… How to approach these goals in creative ways? How to structure the time… I can’t help but feel that results are needed, and by ‘results’ I really mean: knowing what this is going to look and feel like by March. Post-February trip I need to figure this out – the aesthetic backbone of the work.

So – lots of time in the studio. Everything must be documented. Talking, making, recording, shooting. I need to find it, together with the students.


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01 2012


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