What is social practice art?

“We are a race of artists.

What are we going to do about it?”

–Shirley Graham Du Bois

On Saturday, I, along with three other “social practice artists,” was invited to speak on a panel titled A Race of Artists at the AJC’s Annual Arts Festival. Preparing my own responses and listening to the responses of my fellow panelists – Theater Gates, Morgan Carlisle Thompson, and Clinnesha Sibley – got me thinking about what exactly it means to be a social practice artist. One of Theaster’s questions to the audience, in particular, has driven my continued questioning of this idea – “Would anyone have called Mohammed Ali a social practice boxer?” he asked.

Question. Tom Finkelpearl, Director of the Queens Museum in New York, suggests that social practice art has risen as a reaction to the art market – “It’s a reaction to the excesses of individualism.” Others, like Nato Thompson, Chief Curator of Creative Time, think it’s a byproduct of our technology-reliant times. We know that social practice art is not new – Surrealists hosted participatory art sessions nearly a century ago, and Rick Lowe has been working in the black community in Houston for the last decade reclaiming community art spaces – but nonetheless, social practice art is having a moment. Why?

As someone who also works inside the academy and is beginning to see a similar trend in what we call applied academics – or in my case, applied anthropology – I think the trend might be broader than the art scene alone. Increasingly, there’s a desire to connect our work – whatever form our work might take – to the public. And often times, to a piece of public life that we believe is in crisis. It’s humanitarian in some senses, and yes, certainly, that is rooted in our society’s turn towards individualism. It’s rooted in the belief that you as an individual can stimulate some broader change in your community or even in our world. There’s a dark side to that, but I do believe there is also truth to be found in this connection between theory and practice, and especially between art and social practice or social change. To me, the most powerful works are always those that both reveal something deeply intimate about the artist and also connect deeply with the public. That’s not an easy thing to do – for a work of art to be at the same time an individual reflection and a public call to action or awareness – but when it’s done right, it reverberates.

Question. All of you do work that involves deep immersion into specific communities – whether it’s the migrant community in Morocco, the residents of Southside Chicago, or America’s returned veterans. As social practice artists, what lessons have you learned about the process of working mindfully with the communities you and your work serve? Or put another way – how can we as artists create practices and projects that are respectful and inclusive of the communities we seek to serve? How do we avoid the pitfall of art as a tool of gentrification or exploitation?

This is something I think a lot about, and my answers to this question are still in formation. Maybe they always will be – maybe this is part of the practice that always remains in flux, and is hopefully, always improving. As an anthropologist and documentary filmmaker who has spent many years living and working among the population of sub-Saharan migrants and refugees trapped at the border to the EU in Morocco, my work is deeply immersed in the community about which I am telling a story. And it’s not a community in my own backyard – I am in every sense an outsider there. I think this really drives my desire to tell a story that has been written by the people themselves – to let their voices shine through unaltered, and in my current project, to include them in the practice of filmmaking.

To give some examples of what exactly this means in my case, it means sitting down with a focus group of community members to create the interview guide that I use in my research – making sure that I’m focusing on the issues that matter to them, that I’m using language that is salient to them, and that the questions I’m asking are successfully reaching across our cultural or linguistic barriers to access the issues I’m trying to access. In the practice of filmmaking, it means bringing extra point-of-view cameras on every shoot, so that subjects can capture their own daily lives. It means letting the people on screen tell me how they would art direct a given screen – what do you want to wear, what parts of your space do you want to show (or not show), what parts of your daily life do you want to invite the audience inside?

My work is very much centered on bringing global awareness to a humanitarian crisis – to another side to the current Migrant and Refugee Crisis – that isn’t seen on the news. But it is also centered on portraying those caught at the heart of the crisis not as victims or as vulnerable subjects, but as individuals who have vulnerabilities AND incredible reserves of strength and hope and power. I think that’s key – never stripping your subjects of the multiple dimensions that they hold – that we all hold.

Question. Because so much of social practice art is not commodifiable, it often suffers criticism based on scale, cost, benefit, and the ephemeral nature of some of these projects. How do we (or how should we) evaluate social practice art?

For me, part of constructing any project, and certainly a social practice art project like the documentary film that I’m working on right now, is setting these goals and expectations for myself and for the community that I’m working with up front. I, as an artist, have set goals that I aim to reach – for instance, this project will not feel like a success for me if I don’t reach broader audiences through a distribution contract and of equal importance, if I do not reach policymakers through screenings at the UN global assembly. I also have goals I am shooting for, but know I may not reach – those are usually the actions that fall beyond my control. I hope this work results in amended policies that crack down on the illegal practice of “push backs” at the Moroccan border – but that is largely out of my control. All I can do is document what I see and get it in front of the right people. I encourage participants to similarly set goals for their involvement. This enables me to think of any investment in this piece of art – in this film – as an investment in bringing awareness and a hope for bringing change.

Question. In researching all of your latest project for today’s panel, I was impressed by the multiple layers of hustle in your CVs. In addition to being artists you are, collectively, two professors, two writers, two art space founders, a foundation director, and a board director. Can you speak to how these different responsibilities or communities of practice have influenced your art?

My work as an anthropologist – both as a professor of anthropology, an applied researcher and a writer – has always been deeply intertwined with my work as a filmmaker. For me, art is the way I communicate my research outside the walls of the classroom – it’s the way I make my research a social practice. It certainly gives me a different approach when I’m behind the camera or the editing screen, and I think that comes mainly from the amount of time that I spend in a community or on a given research topic before I even bring the camera into the scene. By the time I’m writing a book or starting to create a feature-film, I’ve already become intimately connected to the stories – to the place and the individuals – whereas as many documentary filmmakers discover their stories in the process of filming. But that’s not to say there aren’t always a lot of surprises on the way!

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