Art as Social Practice: Mapping New Relations Within The Social Interstice

[This is a recent research paper & is a foundational exploration in issues, theories, & history of art as social practice.]

In his 1998 essay, Relational Aesthetics Nicolas Bourriaud wrote about the theoretical concerns of a new form of contemporary art that addresses issues of the relational, that is, art that directly takes into its praxis particular socio-cultural concerns, and that situates itself out of the privatized spaces of the gallery and into the public sphere. Such a movement toward art as social practice shifts the understanding of art as object into one of encounter. In introducing the term relational aesthetics, Bourriaud wrote:

The possibility of a relational art (an art taking as its theoretical horizon the realm of human interactions and its social context, rather than the assertion of an independent and private symbolic space), points to a radical upheaval of the aesthetic, cultural, and political goals introduced by modern art. To sketch a sociology of this, this evolution stems essentially from the birth of a world-wide urban culture and from the extension of this city model to more or less all cultural phenomenon (14).

Bourriaud frames his treatise on this new possibility of art within a political and historical context, broadly tracing the origins of the modern political era to the Enlightenment period and then into the rise of modernity and the twentieth century avant-garde, specifically pointing to Dada, Surrealism, and the Situationists. Already within this brief passage, Bourriaud alludes to key factors, which not only organize and contextualize the world in which we in the capitalist West experience, but also the practices, production, and consumption of contemporary art – namely, economies, geographies, and socio-cultural divisions, specifically within an urban context. To trace this historical trajectory, we understand modern and contemporary artistic practices within a geopolitical context of conquest and power relations, wherein which the Enlightenment project of the 18th century and the anti-authoritarian avant-garde movements of the 20th century ultimately fell short of their emancipatory aims. Bourriaud writes, “Instead of culminating in a hoped-for emancipation, the advances of technologies and ‘Reason’ made it that much easier to exploit the South of planet earth, blindly replace human labor by machines, and set up more and more sophisticated subjugation techniques […]” (12).  

Further, in his reference to a “world-wide urban culture,” Bourriaud underscores the global-economic and socio-cultural relationships that are activated within the modern city and the artistic practices produced therein. The rise and development of Western modernity and capitalist structures especially proliferated within the urban spaces post World War II, when developments in industry and telecommunications increased, and where the production and labor of capital in the form of goods and monetary exchange were most abundant and easily attainable. Art was no exception to this reality, and the particular avant-garde movements alluded to here found themselves at the frontlines of a cultural battle with much broader social, economic, and eventually global, impact. These movements, by varying methods, and more or less influenced by Marxist thought, sought to undo what was seen as cultural and political decadence brought on by capitalism. Guy Debord’s treatise “Society of the Spectacle” and the Situationists’ disregard for the commodifiable art object in favor of urban interventions and the orchestration of situations that subverted the normal flow of everyday life (read: of production and consumption) in the capitalist city was a part of this project.

Indeed, it is within these capitalist city-spaces where economic and political structures are most intensely generated and played out, and which subsequently aid in the organization of social strata based upon productivity, abundance and access to resources – or the lack thereof. In contemporary Western cities, not only do we see this manifested in areas of class, but also in the areas of race and gender, these categories often becoming so intertwined and embedded as to become institutionalized and codified into predictable forms of behaviors and social relations. “The social bond has turned into a standardized artefact. In a world governed by the division of labor and ultra-specialization, mechanization and the law of profitability, it behoves the powers that human relations should be channeled towards accordingly planned outlets […]” (9). What results are not just reified and reproducible systems of production, exchange, and capital, but also social and economic inequalities: within the city-space, geographical, economic, and social divisions between the haves and have-nots, between those with access to the institutions and resources that enable true participation within a society, and those who are denied this access, are mapped, built and sustained. In effect, “the exploitation of the South of planet earth” has been imported back home, to the very spaces where we live, raise our families, and produce our work. Artists included.

Here is where Bourriaud’s relational art activates. From these spaces of particular social, cultural, and economic contentions arise a need for a new kind of art, and artistic practice, that takes up the task of addressing, questioning, and transforming, the world in which it operates. Bourriaud more specifically describes the spaces of relational art as “social interstices” derived from a term used by Karl Marx (18), which I will address in more detail. To make art from this position is a decidedly social and sometimes overtly political act, but it is nevertheless one that understands artistic practice as not existing within a social vacuum, but rather that seeks out new kinds of relationships between people and ways of being in the world that subvert what is presumed or socially predictable. Further, it seeks out the transitional potentialities of artistic practice within the realm of the social, utilizing art as a vehicle for inclusive participation and collaboration of an audience or a particular community that is generally denied the opportunity to do so. Indeed, the artistic practice itself becomes a participatory or collaborative process, which is as paramount as the work produced. I would also highlight the particular pragmatist underpinnings of this position, which seeks out new meanings, ways of knowing and being in the world itself, and not in the enclosed, privatized spaces of the institution – academic, artistic, or otherwise. It is an “experimentation and belief in the world” (Rajchman, 11), and calls for an active engagement in the very city-spaces and social arenas that we occupy (or trespass), in order to create something new, and toward the aim of “learning to inhabit the world in a better way” (Bourriaud, 13).

Within the discourse of contemporary art, this kind of work has gone through a series of names, from ‘community art’ to ‘new genre public art’ or ‘art in the public interest’ (Graham and Cook, 114). In defining other characteristics of the form, Graham and Cook outline three widely used terms – interaction, participation, collaboration – that are commonly used in the discourse of relational or socially engaged art. To better understand the works addressed here, I will provide these brief descriptions:

Interaction: ‘acting upon each other.’ Interaction might occur between people, between people and machines, or between artwork and audience […]. Participation: ‘to have a share in or take part in.’ Participation implies that the participant can have some kind of input that is recorded […]. Collaboration: ‘working jointly with.’ Unlike interaction and participation, the term collaboration implies the production of something with a degree of equality between the participants […] (112-114).

Art engaged in the social and public sphere includes some combination, if not all, of these characteristics as both creative form and tactic, each exploring territory outside of traditional fine arts practice, and producing within the social – and creative – interstice.

In its larger aims, art as social practice is concerned with relationships between people and the transformations of societal structures or conditions within the world. A crucial part of this project are issues pertaining to the (re)making of subjectivities, and the processes of discovering an inter-subjectivity between artist, participants, collaborators, and audience. To frame this in philosophical terms, it is a process of becoming, and in the realm of community life, of becoming-together. As a critical practice, then, relational art may also draw from the understanding that within these processes of becoming, new subjectivities, “as they take shape, […] elude both established forms of knowledge and the dominant forms of power” (Deleuze, 176).

In this paper, I will discuss the places and people of art engaged in social practice, paying particular focus to two artists known for their socially conscious and politically charged works: Suzanne Lacy and Krzysztof Wodiczko. Specific attention is paid to the collaborative and participatory nature of their work, the communities (or outsiders) they have chosen to work with, and the specific problematics their works address. Within this discussion I want to address questions of where socially engaged artistic practices take place and under what conditions, as well as who is involved: who participates, who benefits, and for whom is the art produced? Through the theoretical writing of Nicolas Bourriaud I have offered a historical and socioeconomic context to the rise of such artistic practices, and will further elucidate on a few key ideas from his text that can illuminate the discussion of works produced in the public sphere, and that are performative, participatory, or collaborative in nature.

Making Subjectivities in The Social Interstice

In asking the question of where places of socially engaged, or relational, art takes place, I will expand upon Bourriaud’s term the social interstice. To first outline the theoretical underpinnings of the terminology, he writes:

The interstice term was used by Karl Marx to describe trading communities that elude the capitalist economic context by being removed from the law of profit […]. The interstice is a space in human relations which fits more or less harmoniously and openly into the overall system, but suggests other trading possibilities than those in effect within this system. […] it creates free areas, and time spans whose rhythm contrasts with those structuring everyday life, and it encourages an inter-human commerce that differs from the ‘communication zones’ that are imposed upon us (16).

In this way the social interstice opens new territories and durations for relational art to take place. It is simultaneously in and out; operating within the greater super structures of capitalist time and space, and also outside its determined flows of cultural and economic currencies. Functioning in this way, these artistic practices may create new meanings, values, and kinds of exchanges not based upon commodity and monetary models of exchange, but in newly created values of shared human exchange in the forms of culture, knowledge, and information. Another elaboration of this idea is introduced by Brian Holmes, who gives the description of scholar Yochai Benkler’s concept of “commons-based peer production” as “non-proprietary informational or cultural production” (359). Here Benkler is referring specifically to free software and academic publishing, which are also bound up in market economies, but the concept can translate into other systems of exchange, such as those existing within the social interstice. The idea that within the practice of relational art, open and free access to resources, as well as the opportunity to fully participate in the creation and exchange of meaning, information, and culture, is inclusive and non-proprietary, is especially potent ground on which to include those who are excluded from the production and control of greater social and economic power dynamics.

It would also be necessary to include the issue of making, or producing, subjectivities, as part of this renewed model of exchange. For within the ‘free areas’ of the social interstice, where the individual may be released from the binding social strata of the larger societal context, the making of meanings and new ways of knowing the world is inclusive of a reflexive process of making and knowing the self in relation to this world. In arguing for the renewal of subjectivity as an aesthetic project Felix Gauttari stated, “What is at stake here is the finality of the ensemble of human activities. Beyond material and political demands, what emerges is an aspiration for individual and collective reappropriation of the production of subjectivity […] that the world can be rebuilt from other Universes of value and that other existential Territories should be constructed toward this end” (Bishop, 81). I argue that relational art has the potential and the undertaking of doing just that; perhaps from out of the social interstice new existential Territories may be discovered, mapped, and expanded. For the purposes of this paper, and in the discussion of Lacy’s and Wodiczko’s works it is especially crucial to highlight the question of subjectivity, as both artists work within the sites of the social interstice, where specific problematics of the individual and a community play out, whether it be with youth of color in West Oakland or the immigrant and homeless populations of New York City.

Lacy is an artist, educator, and arts administrator whose work has spanned over three decades. She is renowned for her work in performance, conceptual and situational art within the public sphere, addressing women’s issues, as well as those pertaining to race and class. Her work is widely collaborative, participatory, and pedagogical in nature, working alongside communities to stage large-scale public works. In 1987 she moved to Oakland, California to be dean of the school of fine arts at the California College of the Arts and Crafts (CCAC, now California College of the Arts). It is here where Lacy along with Chris Johnson, an African American photographer, and theater director and media specialist Annice Jacoby, founded ‘an arts-in-community organization’ called Teens + Educators + Artist + Media Makers (T.E.A.M.) (Irish, 149). This organization produced a number of collaborative projects with the youth of Oakland that addressed social and economic disparities their communities faced and which translated into the teens’ lives through their experiences within the public school system and their interactions with the Oakland police.

The city of Oakland proved to be fertile ground for Lacy’s work, given its particular historical and geographical positioning within the larger Bay Area. Sharon Irish describes the various factors which gave rise to the formation of several Latino, Asian, and African-American communities throughout East and West Oakland, also referred to as “the flats” because they are level portions of the land that were once tidal flats, essentially placing these communities spatially apart from the elevated areas of the East Bay, which were largely populated by white communities. Other industrial developments such as the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) were built through the neighborhoods of West Oakland, making it an area that people passed through from San Francisco to downtown Oakland (Irish, 148). Concurrently, Oakland’s violent crime rate and gun homicides involving youth “were among the highest in the state and the nation between 1986 and 1996” according to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (Irish, 147).

Through the T.E.A.M. initiative, Lacy, in collaboration with Oakland youth staged a series of public performances, engaging city officials, policy makers, as well as members of the Oakland police force, as participants. The organization was in effect from 1993-2000, and had a stated goal of “demonstrating how art can effectively participate in civic policy” (Irish, 150). It should be noted that Lacy’s own reputable status as an artist and educator offered these projects significant opportunities to engage civic and political entities in ways that many new or emerging artists may not have access to. It was to this end that these projects were able to receive funding and civic support, as well as the opportunity to contribute to the city council’s approval of the Oakland Youth Policy Initiative, which was “an official statement of priorities […] that says we recognize youth as our most important resource and that we will put time, energy, and resources into their development” (Irish, 154). In placing Lacy’s work within the context of the social interstice, I would argue that even given any institutional support these projects received, the work was still produced in the spaces between official discourses, specifically located within the neighborhoods and social spaces where the youth lived – socially, geographically, and economically separated from the centers of power and affluence. The projects conducted through T.E.A.M. were able to create a bridge from out of these social interstices and into the arena of a larger public discourse.

The projects orchestrated by T.E.A.M. often incorporated elements of performance, video, and audio, and were always staged in public spaces. Students participating in these projects were encouraged to use media in producing their own content, focusing on creating their own images and representations of themselves. One such project was entitled Teenage Living Room (1992), which grew out of a series of media literacy courses Lacy and Johnson conducted at Oakland Technical High School, located up the street from CCAC. Nearly fifty ninth-graders took part in this performance event, which was staged in the CCAC parking lot. Faculty members donated cars for the event, in which the teens sat and talked about issues that were salient to their lives. Topics included “power, sex, friends, family, violence and money” (Irish, 149). Spectators walked around the cars to listen in on the conversations, while local television affiliates broadcasted excerpts of taped moments of the event. What resulted was a performance and media event that placed at its center the youth of color of Oakland Tech, who determined the content of the piece itself, creating their own representations of self to the wider public. From this grew other projects, also often stemming out of media literacy curricula designed by Lacy and T.E.A.M collaborators.

In No Blood/No Foul, a piece created in June 1996 and staged at a health club in downtown Oakland, basketball was the vehicle for performance. Youth and police officers squared off in a game in which the rules changed every quarter. The title of the piece was taken from the rules of street basketball, where “if there is no blood, then there’s no foul” (Irish, 155).

The piece used the given architectural elements of the space to stage the player-performers, the audience, and its media elements. Above the basketball court is a running track, which was converted into a viewing space for the audience, who could watch the game below as well as video clips of interviews conducted with the participating players on twenty monitors. Sports commentary was also audible from this vantage point, and at one point, the audience was invited to participate as referee. Other elements of the performance included black asphalt paper, which lined the balcony, upon which spectators were invited to contribute graphic responses to the game, creating a 180-foot mural. Irish outlines a number of key strategical organizing factors within this piece that are echoed in other works by Lacy:

[A]n extended preparation in the local community with workshops and conversations, collaboration with other community leaders, a prerecorded sound track, an elevated viewing area for spectators to gain a broad overview of the action, rhythmically moving bodies, an invitation to interact with the performers […], staging of the event in a centrally located downtown space normally given to for-profit functions, a ‘both/and’ quality of up-close clips of individuals as well as panoramic view from above, live video and documentation that continued the performance in ‘media space’” (156).

In taking these elements into account, we can trace the structural formations of Lacy’s relational aesthetic, which effectively created new meanings, relations, and values cultural (and civic) exchange. In using performance and media as the vehicles for collaboration, these works of relational art created a liminal space where a constructed social interface enabled a new kind of encounter between individuals normally separated from each other via prescribed and predictable power dynamics.

Where Lacy engages communities and civic entities in the creation of public performance as relational art, Polish artist Krzysztof Wodiczko works with projection and the design of usable and wearable objects and vehicles through a practice that he terms “interrogative design” that works as “an engagement in strategic challenges to the city structures and mediums that mediate our everyday perception of the world; an engagement that through aesthetic-critical interruptions, infiltrations, and appropriations that question the symbolic, psycho-political, and economic operations of the city” (Wodiczko, 27). Through his practice, Wodiczko often works in collaboration with individuals of a society that are often voiceless, ostracized, and rendered the invisible dwellers of the city-space.

His greater artistic project is also a decidedly historical one, whereby history is a site for the production of power relations. He has often cited Walter Benjamin’s concept of “history of the victors,” as a pivotal theoretical influence on his work. He describes this history as one “which operates as a past ‘transmitted to us through a hermeneutical tradition that selects events, preserving some and rejecting others, at times determining their interpretation.’ The history of the victors must be confronted and interrupted by the memory of the nameless or the tradition of the vanquished” (Wodiczko 4).

Wodiczko’s projection work with public monuments and public spaces makes real the metaphor of the projection as something that brings forth the emergent inside out into the world of the public sphere and collective memory. He strategically uses iconic images through slide and video projections that subvert the symbolic and official meanings inscribed within a public monument. Other projection work has focused on particular individuals who have survived social trauma and that utilize testimony or cultural memory as modes of narrative to disrupt and subvert dominant or official notions of history and subsequent determinations of sociopolitical structures. The Tijuana Projection (2001) is a prime example of this, wherein a live feed of the faces of women working in the “maquiladora” industry were projected live onto the façade of the Omnimax Theater at the Centro Cultural Tijuana. Their voices were amplified over loud speakers as they recount their stories of work related abuse, sexual abuse, alcoholism, and family disintegration.

Wodiczko’s other works that are based in design focus on particular groups within the city that often have no place, no community, or voice in civic participation, and who often have undergone some level of trauma due to their situation. Works such as Homeless Vehicle (1988-89) and Alien Staff (1992) in particular deal with the needs and concerns of the homeless and immigrant populations within New York City, respectively.

In the design of these works, Wodiczko worked closely with individuals from these groups, implementing changes and improvements based upon their feedback in order to suit their needs and the needs of the issues being addressed. The implementation of Homeless Vehicle originated out of a need for shelter for those whom public dormitory shelters, which often imposed prison-like and dehumanizing conditions upon its residents, was not an option. These individuals instead chose to be urban nomads, living under the particular limitations and compromises of such an existence. As is too often the case, they were not recognized as legitimate, participating members of the civic society, and therefore ignored by the greater populace and relegated to surviving within the margins of the city. Wodiczko’s vehicle was a means by which to make them visible again, as well as create an object that served to interface them with the greater public. It also provided for them a much-needed portable shelter that could serve as a space for sleep and protection. In describing his design approach, Wodiczko writes:

The signifying function of the vehicle is as important as its strictly utilitarian purpose. The form of address – the design of the vehicle –     articulates the conditions of homeless existence to the non-homeless, even conditions that the non-homeless may not wish to recognize. This allows the homeless to be seen not as objects without human status, but rather as users and operators of equipment whose form articulates the conditions of their existence (Wodiczko with Lurie, 19).

The individual owner of a vehicle was understood to be its ‘operator,’ connoting a kind of expertise and knowledge needed in order to command it. The vehicle’s functionality, which included not only physical shelter for the homeless but also compartments with which to store scavenged items such as recyclables and objects that could be resold, was essential, as was its function as symbolic mediator between the homeless and the non-homeless. This, and other vehicles and objects designed by Wodiczko, work in this way: to facilitate an encounter, and an interruption, within the socio-cultural and “psycho-political” passages of the city between his subject/collaborators and the greater public. They operate as D.W. Winnicott’s transitional objects, mediating physical and psychic spaces between individuals and society that work to create the conditions for the emancipation from traumatic or oppressive states and into spaces of empowerment, transformation, and healing.  His works forge relations between Self and Other where none exist, and creates conditions via the implementation of objects, devices, and vehicles, where interaction and encounter can take place. In this way, Wodiczko’s work is a critical relational art that facilitates voice and agency for those who have neither, and which seeks to foster and legitimate the subjectivities of these individuals, who so often struggle within societies that continually deny them voice in civic society and therefore the rights to living a full and decent life.

Wodiczko has also designed a number of wearable devices that operate as extensions of the body, such as the aforementioned Alien Staff, designed for illegal immigrants, aliens, nonresidents, and residents who “have no voting rights, nor any sufficient voice or image of the own in official ‘public’ space” (Wodiczko, 104). It is a “piece of storytelling equipment and a legal and ethical communications instrument and network for immigrants” (104). Physically this object resembles a biblical rod held by the subject, and attached to its top end is a video monitor and loudspeaker, through which the storyteller/video-performer’s pre-recorded narrative is ‘broadcasted.’ The design intentionally calls attention to itself, drawing others toward the individual commanding the instrument, and in effect activating an interaction to take place.

Another project, entitled Dis-Armor (1999), is a prosthetic device that incorporates wearable communication technology, and was designed for Japanese high school students and “school refusers” who lack facial expression and live silenced by traumatic experiences of violence, neglect, and abuse. Through its design, this particular piece allows the user an alternative means to communicate her experience. Two LCD screens are placed on the wearer’s back with a live feed of the user’s eyes via cameras installed within a helmet that covers the face. Additionally, a speaker that amplifies the user’s voice is placed below the LCD screens. Attached to the helmet is also a rear-view mirror or monitor, a microphone, and a headphone, allowing the user to hear and address a spectator who is located behind the student. In utilizing this piece, the subject, sheltered within a safe zone provided by the helmet, may begin to speak out about her experience, while not having to directly address the spectator, which is often intimidating and anxiety-inducing act.

I highlight these particular works as effective examples of Wodiczko’s interrogative design, and how his practices inform and deepen our understanding of the impact of relational art and the reasons why artists may be compelled to work in such terrain. His work operates as “interruptions, infiltrations, and appropriations” within the circumscribed spaces of the city and its social interstices, actively creating new relations between his subjects and those outside their own realm of lived experience. I would further emphasize that he decidedly seeks out the social interstices that are regarded as uninhabited, deactivated, or irrelevant by larger society, giving voice to narratives within the psycho-social urban space that have been disregarded, delegitimized, and silenced. It is no doubt that Wodiczko’s own experience as an immigrant, political outsider, and refugee has informed the shaping of his artistic practices.

In returning to Bourriaud’s treatise on relational art, one can then also contextualize both Lacy’s and Wodiczko’s works in this way: “artistic practice thus resides in the invention of relations between consciousness. Each particular artwork is a proposal to live in a shared world, and the work of every artist is a bundle of relations with the world, giving rise to other relations […]” (22). These particular artists, and others who operate in the realm of relational art, or socially engaged art, are the facilitators and collaborators of a much larger ethical and socio-cultural project. To make connections where none exist is the work of one who perceives the world as a web of relations bound up in social, cultural, and economic systems that create structures of unequal proportions, and then creates works of relational art that act within and upon it to create new spaces for experience, as well as new systems of meanings, values, and exchange. It is further an envisioning of what human relations could be within a society that grants to all equal access to the institutions and resources that enable true participation and human dignity.

I further argue that it is not just the task of the artist who works in the realm of the relational, but also of the individual and society at large to create the conditions under which a new individual subjectivity may be given the time and space to become, toward the discovery of a new kind of collective way of being in the world. If it is true, as Bourriaud postulates, that “art was intended to prepare and announce a future world: today it is modeling possible universes” (13), then it is in thinking of things from this kind of relational becoming-together that we can radically transform the kinds of art we make, its impact within the process of the transformation of relations, in order to create possibilities for a better way of inhabiting the world. “The artist dwells in the circumstances the present offers him so as to turn the setting of his life (his links with the physical and conceptual world) into a lasting world” (14). With this in mind, the opportunities to create relational art will continue to be bountiful in the hopes that the spaces of the social interstice can flourish beyond the state of in-between, and into a vast new territory of human relations.

B I B L I O G R A P H Y

Benjamin, Walter. “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. New York: Schoken, 1969.

Bourriaud, Nicolas. Relational Aesthetics. France: Les Presses du Reél, 2002. English language version.

Deleuze, Gilles. Negotiations. Trans. Martin Joughin. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.

Gauttari, Felix. “Chaosmosis: An Ethico-Aesthetic Paradigm.” Participation. Ed. Claire Bishop. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006.

Graham, Beryl, and Sarah Cook. Rethinking Curating. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010.

Holmes, Brian. “The Revenge of the Concept: Artistic Exchanges, Networked Resistance.” Art and Social Exchange: A Critical Reader. Ed. Will Bradley. London: Tate Publishing, 2007.

Irish, Sharon. Suzanne Lacy: Spaces Between. Minneapolis, MN: University Of Minnesota Press, 2010.

Lacy, Suzanne. Leaving Art: Writings on Performance, Politics, and Publics, 1974–2007. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010.

Rajchman, John. “General Introduction.” The Pragmatist Imagination. Ed. Joan Ockman. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2000.

Wodiczko, Krzysztof. Critical Vehicles. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999.

Wodiczko, Krzysztof with David Lurie. The Homeless Vehicle Project. Kyoto, Japan: Kyoto Shoin International Co., Ltd., 1991.

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