Talks, projects, commissions and exhibitions involving so-called social practice are everywhere these days. Thus Creative Time’s exhibition ‘Living as Form’, billed as an ‘unprecedented, international project exploring over 20 years of cultural works that blur the forms of art and everyday life, emphasizing participation, dialogue and community engagement’, seemed like it would be a definitive way to once and for all clarify what ‘social practice’ really is.
The exhibition was organized by more than 25 curators, working under Creative Time’s chief curator and ‘Living as Form’ mastermind Nato Thompson. It included documents of more than 100 artists’ projects; nine site-specific commissions located throughout the area of Essex Street Market; and a newly created online archive of more than 350 socially engaged actions that have taken place since the early 1990s. Thompson should be applauded for attempting to create an organized historical survey of this by-definition unruly field, and for the enterprising way in which he brought together such a diverse array of practitioners and activities, from star artist Ai Weiwei through WikiLeaks, to the spontaneous revolution on Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
The exhibition space, designed by architecture collective Common Room, was divided into several sections, the majority of which housed documentation of past actions, projects and activities of socially engaged organizations around the globe. These were displayed on a large number of metal shelves, giving the audience the impression of being in a library rather than an exhibition space. As a result, ‘Living as Form’ seemed rather distant from the artists’ original intentions, which put a huge emphasis on site-specificity and temporality as well as on direct relationships with communities, participants and audiences. There was not as much ‘living’ in ‘Living as Form’ as one would have hoped; documents felt like ghosts of their former selves, still present but without much weight and impact, simply there to fill the space.
The exhibition did succeed in offering an introduction to the multiple (even opposing) voices that make up the field of socially engaged practice. It mapped out a large area of work that clearly sits outside established art production and in many cases goes into the realm of political action that seeks to, as Thompson wrote in his curatorial statement, propel us ‘toward the elusive goal of social justice’. But because of this ‘Living as Form’ also suffered: the many approaches it presented were too vast and disparate. The distance between not only the means but also the objectives of these artists and activists makes clear how activism has, on the one hand, penetrated large fields of cultural production but, on the other, has also brought a great deal of confusion into any attempt to collect and analyze socially engaged projects. Traditionally, an exhibition space is a place where ideas are clarified, crystallized, made coherent. Is it sensible, or even possible, to present deliberately open projects such as these in the form of an exhibition? If ‘Living as Form’ did not succeed in finding the right format for the presentation and historicizing of social practice, it did at least suggest a direction for disseminating information about social practice to audiences who aren’t there to witness them in the moment.
In the centre of the space, the so-called dynamic areas offered an ongoing series of talks, readings, workshops and other discursive events. Another section was handed over to a smaller group of artists and organizations who created new projects specifically designed to be displayed in this environment. These included a work by the Thai artist Surasi Kusolwong, who created the most traditional art work in the entire show, a floor installation entitled Golden Ghost (2011) which comprised large piles of thread waste in which gold jewellery, designed by the artist, was hidden for audience members to find and take home.
Among the nine site-specific commissions, the most notable was perhaps Superflex’s Power Toilet / JPMorgan Chase (2011), a life-size, fully functional and publicly accessible replica of the JPMorgan Chase executive toilets, installed inside one of New York’s least glamorous diners, the Olympic Restaurant, on the corner of Essex and Delancey. The contrast of the shiny marble tiles and the yellowed, grease-soaked walls could not have been more apt in describing the divergent realities of the richest one percent of the population versus the other 99 percent.
The opening of ‘Living as Form’ was timed to coincide with the third Creative Time Summit, an annual conference on social practice. This year it suffered from a large number of poor or simply incomprehensible presentations, many of them by participants in the exhibition itself. Despite good intentions, what the field of ‘social practice’ seems to suffer from most is not enough dedication to communicating its activities clearly, and taking itself too seriously in its quest to save the world. But, as with the exhibition, what made the summit appealing was the diversity of approaches that it presented and the large crowd that came out to the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts at New York University; there is evidently an urgent, prevalent desire to discuss the relationship of the arts to politics and activism. The timing of the conference and exhibition felt right, too, coming just as the Occupy Wall Street movement gained traction; the protests provided the real-life backdrop for what was (supposed to be) under discussion during the summit and inside the gallery space.
‘Living as Form’ ultimately did not provide a conclusive statement about what social practice is. In many ways it did the opposite, not really clarifying anything. But it was disorientating in the best possible sense, open to artistic practices that try to tackle the urgent issues of today. Its intentionally and inherently open-ended nature, resisting traditional norms and forms of art-making, ironically becomes its weakness when its practitioners try to reach out to those they most want to be talking to. The dilemma, therefore, was the one of form – or, rather, the absence of form, since the impossibility of applying aesthetic criteria to social practice often makes it difficult to fully assess a project or coherently communicate it to a larger audience, beyond that of specialists.