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Visions of the unbuilt

Andrea Durfee at ROCO

When I was growing up, in both East St. Louis and then in Idaho, my family lived at the edge of undeveloped land. These havens for my imagination weren’t protected, just overlooked or privately owned—undisturbed stretches of wildlife and undergrowth, a mix of grassy slopes, streams, and wooded paths. In a suburb at the edge of East St. Louis, it was a small copse at the base of the hill behind our little Cape Cod, and in Idaho, from our home sitting at the rim of the bench—just above the Boise Valley—I could walk to the edge of our back yard and look down at a fenced pasture with horses and, alongside it, the only human development within a convenient walking distance from the base of the slope, a sawmill. (We had some dangerous forbidden fun bounding across those floating logs.) My friends and my brother and I would spend hours in those spaces, only dimly aware of the smells, the soft feel of the earth, the birds and insects—yet all of it was imprinting itself on my mind whole, planting in me the desire to grow things as an adult and to get outside whenever possible. In those little overlooked tracts of wildness, I felt in touch with myself and the world in a way that I couldn’t in school or inside our home, in front of a television, the only screen that existed back then. 

There’s a surplus of artwork on view in Rochester right now devoted, more or less, to the symmetry between human nature and the natural world. (Thou art that, the ancient Hindu philosophers would say.) In a fortunate coincidence, while Oxford Gallery is showing the work of three masterful landscape painters, Rochester Contemporary Art Center has assembled a themed show, Landscapes and the Unbuilt, that celebrates the slightly paradoxical effort that we human beings are making to keep from spoiling places like the ones that helped shape me as a kid. We’re intervening to prevent ourselves from, well, intervening. For the RoCo show, a group of artists took as their subject a particular parcel of land under the protection of the Genesee Land Trust, and they created one or more works to capture the spirit of the place. The work is all marvelous, especially grouped together in a way that amplifies each individual effort—and some of it represents the best work I’ve yet seen from these particular artists. The terms of the show may have brought out new dimensions in their work by forcing some of them to pay attention to the particulars of a specific place.

I responded most intensely to what I saw just inside the entrance to the East Avenue membership gallery. There’s an intricacy and density in Andrea Durfee’s paintings and Bill Stephens’s drawings that makes it hard to get any deeper into the exhibition, there’s so much to see in just one or two of these pieces up front. In the work of both, the task of having to convey an actual, particular place—to sift through myriad impressions of a specific location and nurture a companionship with that landscape—produced excellent results. I’ve always liked Durfee’s work, but the clarity and particularity of her vision is amazing in her three largest paintings of Full Lotus Farm in Arcadia, NY. It feels like a new benchmark for her. She uses flat areas of color outlined with spiderweb-thin lines, vaguely reminiscent of stained glass. Her technique echoes the outlines of cloisonnism and some of the Nabis, yet her paintings have a different effect on the viewer—they draw you deep into the scene she depicts, forgetful of the painted surface, though they aren’t conventionally realistic. In each one, she conceals a nude female figure—her avatar, maybe—merged with the landscape yet emerging like bedrock pushed up from beneath permafrost.

Each of these images could serve as an emblem of the show’s purpose, to emphasize the symbiotic unity between nature and its most conflicted creature. Yet here, these elements of her style efface themselves behind the vibrant light and the scene’s immediacy. You feel the sun on your face and hear the cicadas. The surfeit of detail in the foreground of her recent paintings somehow unifies itself into an effect like the energy of a summer day. The most impressive painting in her grouping, Through the Garden, depicts receding tiers of vegetation, layers of growth that stand at successive distances behind a frieze of wild grasses in the foreground done with assiduous draftsmanship. These swaying stems are backed by more and more distant strata, with the female nude so unobtrusively camouflaged beyond a road as an irregular bulge of earth that I missed it at first and wondered if Durfee had given up on the trope. In these pieces, it works perfectly and underscores the point of the show: how hard it is to draw a border between human nature and the world it reflects. 

Directly across from her work are some of the largest drawings I’ve seen from Bill Stephens—and the surprise is that somehow the larger scale seems to have spurred him to find even more dense levels of entrancing detail, smaller regions of fascination within larger forms that emerge under his pen. In his methods, Stephens is has essentially been a surrealist, surrendering to process, letting the image emerge on its own as he works instinctively from his first marks. Yet here he’s taking pains to capture particulars of what he saw at Gosnell Big Woods Preserve in Webster. The results are dramatic and some of the work reminds me of Barry Moser’s illustrations of the dark wood introduced at the opening of The Divine Comedy. These drawings feel like work done from a deep sense of confidence and purpose, in a way the sort of images he’s been working toward over the past few years, and the marvel is how much he finds to see and show in ink drawings that conjure up psychological depths from a few gnarled roots or frond-like leaves. As in Durfee’s paintings, there’s a fine balance between complexity of detail and overall unity—how the unity is achieved represents part of what fascinates. In my favorite piece, Big Woods Spirit, what appears to be a twisted tree trunk, in literal terms, morphs into a hooded figure, like a ranger from Lord of the Rings or maybe a hint of Donatello’s prophet, some visionary wandering in from a long stay in the wilderness, impossible to ignore or dismiss. I think I wouldn’t want to turn my back on this particular tree—out of respect and maybe caution—and then I remember I’m looking at something akin to driftwood. It doesn’t diminish the respect.

Jean Stephens brings a similar kind of intensity—with a more traditional emphasis on building form from areas of value rather than with her husband’s storm of etching-fine lines—in her graphite drawings from Ganargua Creek Meadow Preserve. In a poem she wrote about the project, on display with the work, she refers to the trees and vegetation as “these old gals” and her imagery evokes an anthropomorphic likeness to human form in vegetation and the earth—but, as with Durfee, the vegetative world reveals itself to Stephens as distinctly female. It’s a cosmic yin to the yang of human technology and artifice. Portal shows an ancient-looking trunk where it spreads out into exposed roots as a door between inner and outer, a gnarly portal that might be a feminist nod more toward Georgia O’Keefe than Judy Chicago. These anatomical overtures speak more about nature’s generative power than gender politics.

Even though Phyllis Bryce Ely has been exhibiting a lot over the past year—at Main Street Arts and Oxford—she doesn’t appear to be stretching herself thin. This show, on the heels of the others, gives you maybe the clearest way to see the full scope of her work, from oil to encaustic. Some of the small paintings in wax serve as simple, iconic distillations of what she saw at Cornwall Preserve in Williamson, NY. Yet her most characteristic strengths are in her larger oils. The swirls of sky and land almost seem emblems of altered states: psychotropic visions of a natural order. If Edvard Munch had been a much happier camper, he might have painted scenes like this.

She was paying a visit to the exhibition when Bill Santelli and I arrived to see the show, and she explained that the artists all had about two months during which to do the work, a very tight opportunity, and she hadn’t gotten to know her paintings much before delivering them to RoCo. “I feel a little exposed,” she said. One of the interesting features in several of the paintings: she did them on discarded engineering vellums, from the planning office where she works in Penfield. Developers bring them in and if something turns out to be unacceptable in a particular schematic, they toss out the drawing and bring back a revised one. She collects these discards and uses them as a support, with a palimpsest of lines and words showing through layers of paint. In some cases, the drawings resonate or contrast with the image she applies to them.

I can’t do justice to all the work in the show, though it’s all fascinating and beautifully presented. Jennifer Schinzing’s glass boxes laden with beautiful, lapidary glass sculpture serve as beds for small taxidermied animals: bunnies, birds, and squirrels. It sounds macabre, but the effect is entirely the opposite: the small animals look asleep. The work is serene and almost radiant, qualities virtually impossible to capture in a photograph. (I know; I tried.) Nate Hodge, who has done murals throughout the region, produced a single painting, with an assembly of collateral objects linked to the site he depicts and his interaction with it, including a pair of muddy boots. The parameters of the show: to produce work that conveys a relationship with one particular place seems to have focused and concentrated his talent–as if may have done with Durfee and Stephens–in a way that makes the painting much more intricate and concentrated than his expansive murals. The work is a soaring abstract evoking a forested scene under a brilliant sky, though nothing is rendered in conventional ways. It’s assured and  exuberant, spontaneous but disciplined. It feels as if he’s worked hard to be true to something outside his imagination. The outcome is exhilarating.

Seeing for the first time

Jim Mott, from his recent show at ROCO

My next post will be about the current, marvelous exhibition at ROCO: a group of artists showing work that celebrates a particular place worthy of preservation in this region. But first I wanted to catch up on Jim Mott, whose own work would have found a place into that show if only he hadn’t had a solo exhibition there just a short while ago. Jim does, all of the time, what the artists now on view at ROCO did simply for the curatorial purposes of the exhibition:  to pick a place, sometimes at random, and depict whatever he sees as equally worthy of consideration, no matter what it is. 

Mott came by for a cup of tea recently and talked about a variety of things and rather than take time to rework our conversation into a regular post, I’ll just pass along the conversation, as I’ve done before, which should be of interest to his fans. I have high hopes for the residency he’s seeking at the University of Michigan. I think his proposal should get some serious interest, but the ordinariness of his work almost puts it outside the mainstream now—but he has an interesting angle on how he might present his project, which he discusses. He stayed long enough to touch on a lot of different things, yet left in time to get in some cross-country skiing at Mendon Ponds Park before it got dark: 

Jim: I’ve been reading this longish book. Richard Powers? A friend of mine from Nature Conservancy gave me this novel of his about trees. The first half is brilliant but the second is good but not as exciting. He takes nine different characters, odd people who are moved by trees toward something and then he goes to a showdown in the Northwest. It’s intensely poetic and full of information. He got a genius award.

That always helps.

Jim: He gets all ecstatic about trees. I didn’t loan you Julian Bell did I?

I don’t think so. Are you still communicating with him?

Jim: Yeah, I have an open invitation if I ever get to England. 

<I mention that I’m reading the last volume of My Struggle, which includes a long essay about Hitler and how Knausgaard thinks the modern era has de-individualized society and has cut people off from nature so that

Robert Ryman, 1930-2019

This is spot on. From an interview with Robert Ryman:

RYMAN: I came from music. And I think that the type of music I was involved with—jazz, bebop—had an influence on my approach to painting. We played tunes. No one uses the term anymore. It’s all songs now, telling stories—very similar to representational painting, where you tell a story with paint and symbols. But bebop is swing, a more advanced development of swing. It’s like Bach. You have a chord structure, and you can develop that in many ways. You can play written compositions and improvise off of those. So, you learn your instrument, and then you play within a structure. It seemed logical to begin painting that way. I wasn’t interested in painting a narrative or telling a story with a painting. Right from the beginning, I felt that I could do that if I wanted to, but that it wouldn’t be of much interest to me. Music is an abstract medium, and I thought painting should also just be what it’s about and not about other things—not about stories or symbolism.

ART21: You don’t think of meaning?

RYMAN: There is a lot of meaning, but not what we usually think of as meaning. It’s similar to the meaning of listening to a symphony. You don’t know the meaning, and you can’t explain it to anyone else who didn’t hear it. The painting has to be seen. But there is no meaning outside of what it is.

ART21: So, meaning is closer to an emotional reaction?

RYMAN: I think that’s the real purpose of painting: to give pleasure. I mean, that’s really the main thing that it’s about. There can be the story; there can be a lot of history behind it. But you don’t have to know all of those things to receive pleasure from a painting. It’s like listening to music; you don’t have to know the score of a symphony in order to appreciate the symphony. You can just listen to the sounds.

ART21: How does your work fit into the contemporary art world?

RYMAN: I don’t think of myself as being part of anything. I don’t get involved with art. I mean, I’m involved with painting, but I just look at it as solving problems and working on the visual experience. I’m not involved with any kind of art movement, and I’m not a scholar. I’m not a historian, and I don’t want to get into that kind of thing because it would interfere with my approach. So, it’s better that I not think of that. (LAUGHS)

Fruit and flowers

Still Life with Lemons, Oranges and a Rose, oil on canvas, Francisco de Zurbarán 

Zurburan’s fascinating, austere Still Life with Citrons, Oranges and a Rose hangs directly opposite the entrance of its period room so that it commands your attention as soon as it comes into view at the Norton Simon Museum. When I saw it a few weeks ago during our visit to the museum in Pasadena, I immediately recognized the work from its visit to The Frick a decade ago. What I actually remembered was Peter Schjeldahl’s review of the show and his justly ecstatic paean to this particular painting—similar to his raptures over Morandi in another essay. It’s simple, spare, and as perfectly balanced and restful as a Matisse, but also full of mysterious grandeur, in an almost ironic way, since it’s a depiction of the most commonplace things. It’s a surprisingly large painting by traditional still life standards, close to four feet wide, so that the depicted objects are larger than their actual size. The layers of Catholic symbolism—the objects standing both for the Holy Trinity and the Virgin Mary—has little resonance now and yet the painting’s power and subdued beauty hasn’t diminished. Its simplicity feels as integral as ever, as if it embodies some kind of alternate mathematical axiom—five + seven + three = one. Stripped of its religious symbolism, it continues to shine with its intended spirit, as if Zurburan’s religion was merely a way of climbing a ladder, as an artist, to quotidian serenity not limited to its theological expression.

The ideas have fallen away leaving the perceptual power of the image to keep working on the viewer and marvelously urging the same orientation toward the world as the ecclesiastical one. The lesson has faded, but its wisdom remains: humility, self-abnegation, attention to the abundance of ordinary experience, and gratitude for any glimpse of ordinary goodness and truth and beauty. Both artist and viewer marvel at the generous luxury of the earth’s simple gifts, its fruit and flowers. These subjects still look like offerings on an altar but at the same time seem to be just the opposite: not sacrifices, but gifts going in reverse, from a greater to a lesser power—from one who can make a lemon to one who can make a picture of one—offered to whomever stands before them as sustenance for either body or spirit. 

In other words, even without all the intellectual trappings that gave Zuburan a pretext for making this painting, they pass along the same monk-like devotional intensity—in the assiduously achieved formal qualities of the painting, the long hours of solitude in the studio—without consideration of his religious justification for painting them.  They stand as an example of how the greatest art embodies a life that spills up over the lip of every meaning and purpose meant to contain it—and meant for it to contain—conveying a quality of attention that operates as a moral and spiritual corrective in and of itself. A great still life conveys psychological qualities that have moral consequences—silence and calm.  The painting stands as one of the supreme justifications for the still life genre—not nearly as congenial and charming as Chardin, but just as magical as the French master’s best. The humblest and most commonplace objects, simply by reflecting light a certain way, seating themselves naturally in their space, bearing the pull of gravity in their own particular ways, can convey the quiddity of life itself, long before the mind has time to go to work breaking down what it sees into what it ostensibly means and, in the process, gets further and further from the actual work—and life—itself. 

20th century mystic

Concert, oil on canvas, George Braque, Janice and Henry Lazarof Collction, LACMA

On my visit to LACMA last month, I was delighted most by the work in two particular areas of the museum: Fantasies and Fairy Tales, a themed exhibition of arresting prints and the small wing devoted to the Janice and Henry Lazarof Collection. The latter had the feel of those private collections converted into museums–the Frick, the Phillips–where the taste of the collectors is tantamount to a class on how art should be made. Nearly everything in the Lazarof Collection begged to be photographed, but when I tried to take a shot of the Braque above, the guard hurried over and chastised me, which was a surprise, because the wing appeared to be a permanent installation of work–a way of sharing the vision of two insightful collectors with the public–not a temporary exhibition, which seems to be the only shows that prohibit photography now in an effort to increase catalog sales. I asked, therefore, if there was a book available, and he directed me to the shop where it was on sale and for a discount. It was a fortuitous purchase because it includes a long essay on Picasso, so prominently featured in this collection, that turned out to be an indispensable aid to the thinking I’ve been doing, since my visit to Los Angeles, about one particular Picasso print I saw elsewhere at LACMA–it changed my understanding about that painter whose fame and position in the history of 20th century painting has always, for me, eclipsed the aspects of his work that have turned out to be most powerful and intriguing.

So I purchased a book simply to bring home an image of this particular still life by Braque, which was done toward the end of his most fertile period, from his move toward synthetic Cubism through the more and more idiosyncratic interpretations of pedestal tables, the “gueridons,” his most personal motif, especially with a guitar on board. It preoccupied him for at least twenty years; the most representative and familiar example of this series is The Gueridon at the Phillips. What’s astonishing about this work, for me, is that everything in the paintings from this period–with a few exceptions–seems to have been invented perfectly, naturally, as if Braque were proceeding like a scrupulous realist, where you know the work is great because the proper marks are the ones that most faithfully reproduce exactly what’s seen. The rules are obvious and simple. Here, none of that is the case, there is no common sense guideline for what makes a Braque so manifestly perfect–everything he sees or imagines is flattened into an essentially arbitrary pattern, and yet though every shape and line and color seems the outcome of improvisation, the final result looks inevitable, almost immutable and right, but also deeply felt in a way that seems in a class of its own next to all the other work that sprang from the Cubist movement. How a painter achieves this is the great mystery–on a par with the question of how Vermeer enabled a fleeting moment in an average day to look eternal. Braque’s own enigmatic journals only deepen the mystery and suggest that his path, once he broke with Picasso, took him more and more deeply into the region he entered via synthetic Cubism–a long, meditative and assiduous creative exploration during which Braque rightly felt infallible without ever letting his ego know what he was up to. He’d reached the artistic equivalent of a state of grace:

On this painting, from Envisioning Modernism, p. 62:

The viewer is thus forced to focus on the tenuous relationship between the still life and its environs, demonstrating what Braque called his “great discovery”: “Objects don’t exist for me except in so far as a rapport exists between them or between them and myself. When one attains this harmony one reaches a sort of intellectual nonexistence–what I can only describe as a state of peace–which makes everything possible and right. Life then becomes a perpetual revelation. That is true poetry.”

Among untrodden ways

Zurich Box, oil on canvas, detail, Ken Townsend

I’ve been reading, with greater and lesser pleasure, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, which–throughout the series of fictionalized memoirs–has repeated references to Romanticism, especially in painting. In the narrative, he’s regularly moved by images that convey the implacability of nature–and these moments, not of epiphany, but of emotional release, baffle him because the author has no way of making sense of his deep response to nature through these paintings, in contrast to his almost Beckett-like exhaustion with the daily life he so tediously represents in thousands of pages of prose. My response to the series of books is similar to my reaction when I look at artwork created in devotion to an invariable idea–in other words, a fair amount of work done over the past 150 years–once you grasp the idea, if it’s merely the illustration of an idea, why keep reading or looking? What’s fascinated me about Knausgaard is his deep ambivalence about modernism and the way it has set ordinary human emotions aside in favor of general artistic principles (though his own artistic principles seem, in the course of the work, to be destroying his own family so that maybe has more in common than he thinks with the modernism he distrusts). Hence, his retreat, emotionally, to Romanticism. Yet, in the final volume he seems to see his florid outpouring of feeling in reaction to certain poetry and painting as delusional, or at least negligible–leaving the reader with a vision of his creative work as a pointless exercise in obsessive attention to his own life, out of a conviction that life is essentially meaningless. Not exactly where I had though he might be going.

Three artists on view now at Oxford Gallery are equally drawn to the beauty and grandeur of nature–Ken Townsend, Charles Houseman, and Sean Wituck–and don’t quite distrust their passion the way Knausgaard does. And there’s an appreciative realism involved here, a friendly humility in the face of nature, that seems more contemporary than the era evoked by the quote from Wordsworth Jim Hall has used for the show’s title. Their work hints back to the Romantic love for nature, but not in a way that evokes the Hudson River School, nor the sublime of Edwin Burke or Kant, where nature is great beyond comprehension. Turner’s storms are nowhere to be found here. Nature is beautiful in their paintings, and in some cases, as indifferent to human comfort and scale as it is in the Romantics, but it’s also still, inviting, and serene–a setting for human purposes, on its own terms. The painting that most interests me is what appears to be a diptych depicting a spot on the coast of Maine, at Acadia National Park by Houseman–enormous rocks, typical of Maine’s fractal coast line of glacial rock. The massive boulders at the center are surrounded by tidal pools covered with a thin layer of autumn leaves–the leaves are what make it inviting. It’s a glimpse of an outcropping that could serve as a seat for a hiker’s quick lunch in October, or could just as easily be what was visible twenty thousand years ago, when cave paintings were the only contemporary art. I suppose that’s a roundabout way to say the current show at Oxford offers a glimpse of what’s timeless everywhere around us, with a hint that our time is brief, compared to the tenure of sky, earth, ocean and trees. Maybe that’s a Romantic insight after all.

Face to face

Dora Natella’s work in Similitude

Manifest Gallery has a new show, Similitude, through Feb. 22, devoted to contemporary portraiture. I wish I could get to Cincinnati to see it and another show revolving around the subject of sinks and chair. Sinks are a fascination for me, though I’ve only painted one from different angles and in different lights. Here is the overview of the show from the folks at the gallery:

SIMILITUDE
The Contemporary Portrait

As we stated four years ago when we last approached the theme of portraiture, technology exacerbates people’s retreat into the upper limb of their body, encouraging portraiture on a mass scale in the form of social networks such as Facebook and Instagram with their flood of ‘selfies’. Facial recognition tools which help sort photos of friends and family based on images of their face, and ‘facetime’ calling also put the focus on the front of the human head, and puts a premium on visual identity. The center of our humanity has coalesced into the mind, behind the face. When we think of each other, we (usually) start with the face. 

Recognition matters. Throughout art history the ability of the artist to not only capture a likeness but also the character and spirit, if you will, of the subject has defined whole careers.

Mythic landscapes

Status of Persephone, etching, Gillian Pederson-Krag

From Matt Klos, of Exeter Gallery, in Baltimore, on the gallery’s current show:

Accidents of TimeMagnolia Laurie & Gillian Pederson-Krag

January 11th – February 28th

Magnolia Laurie’s paintings and Gillian Pederson-Krag’s prints present landscapes that feel immutable. The landscapes are poetic and, at times disquieting. Often monochromatic, and grand even at a small scale, each work possesses a profound stillness. Magnolia presents paintings on panel excepting two large oils on canvas. Each panel features subtle washes which form reticulated edges where the puddles of pigment end. The fine networks at these perimeters form distant blurred treetop canopies or the appearance of pulled cotton where clouds give way to sky. Her paintings feature volcanic mountains, scorched earth, and in “To Weight it Down” a forested space with what could be police tape cordoning off a crime scene. This is what remains after the cataclysmic event. Nature remembers the action lest we forget. Gillian makes meticulously crafted etchings. These dense and expertly arranged tangles of linework describe landscapes of bare tree branches, rivers, and ruins. Thin filaments run behind thicker ones creating a deep quiet space. In an amber toned etching a statue of Persephone sits with one leg crossed over the other holding a fruit amongst an overgrown thicket. She presents bounty from nature as nature itself threatens to overtake her. Many of these landscapes bear the mark of humankind. Human elements create the formal structure which carries one’s eye throughout the scene.

In Laurie’s works towers and fences serve as this device while in Pederson-Krag’s ruins and weathered statues are featured. Our affect on nature is front and center in current scientific and political conversations. If a monomyth is present here perhaps it reveals that our striving, our monuments, our self-importance, and our collective self, will eventually pass away. The landscape of tomorrow will contain our ashes and dust. “The happy ending of the fairy tale, the myth, and the divine comedy of the soul, is to be read, not as contradiction, but as a transcendence of the universal tragedy of man. The objective world remains what it was, but, because of a shift of emphasis within the subject, is beheld as though transformed. Where formerly life and death contended, now enduring being is made manifest – as indifferent to the accidents of time as water boiling in a pot is to the destiny of the bubble, or as the cosmos to the appearance and disappearance of a galaxy of stars.” – Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, pg. 28 

Owen Griffiths

[E]ssentially, it’s about: how can you subvert an artistic process to also be a useful one?…I think what’s happening in my practice is that I’m realizing that there’s an archipelago of projects which don’t necessarily function as art projects now, but were afforded or created through the mechanism of an art project and now continue in another way. I like the idea of the legacies of these project being connected up. I think the strategy is part of a broader process of the need and the want to collaborate. Whether it’s with a housing association or with a local government, a gallery, or with other artists.

Owen Griffiths* is a social practice artist based in Wales, UK. Focused on site-specific, community-based projects, his work utilizes multiple mediums, including community gardens and edible landscapes, architecture, green public spaces, and more. Griffiths uses “art projects” as tactics to enter into publicly-owned spaces, transforming them into beautiful and useful landscapes that are co-authored by others in the community. Ultimately, this tactic beautifies the space, creates community buy-in, and keeps the space in the hands of the people – rather than sold to a private corporation.

*This interview was conducted in conjunction with the British Council’s Arts and Social Practice fellowship, of which Griffiths was a fellow in 2014.


Sarah J Halford: Can you tell me a little bit about your practice and how you came to it?

Owen Griffiths: I’m an artist. I work in the social practice realm of things. I work with communities, and on the basis of co-authorship and collaboration, which is sort of central to the practice. That means that sometimes with a gallery, sometimes with a community, or an institution, or organization. And it’s based around trying to work in conversation with as many partners as possible to create the work, or create a change, or create whatever the project is. So, my work is about seeking out the kind of constituencies that kind of feed into the process, place, or the objective of the work.

I had a kind of fairly traditional route to becoming an artist. I went to art school and got a B.A. and then an M.A. But where I work in South Wales, working with social practice here isn’t necessarily something that’s happening all the time. We aren’t as fluent, necessarily, in some of these ideas here in places like the UK – in Britain and in Wales. But I think there’s a real urgency around the political climate, the economic, social, environmental climate, and what’s happening in Europe where this work can actually play an important role in countries like Wales. So, even though I call it an artistic practice, and it’s sort of talked about as an artistic practice, it’s sometimes hard for galleries to get into that or think of a way of working with me. So, I tend to author a lot of projects myself or with other artists. Or work with communities on things.

SJH: For those galleries or to someone who maybe doesn’t know much about ‘social practice art’ – how would you describe yourself as an artist?

OG: I would say that I’m a social practice artist – I think that term is really important. But I think also what I’d say is that I’m really interested in finding out the potential of a place or a community through looking at the vernacular of a place, or things that are specific to that situation. I’m really interested in looking at the quality of that stuff, how we can build cultural confidence and build cultural partnerships. Whether it’s about celebrating their locale, or their role in that locale, or re-politicizing people to play a role in their community. So, that’s what I’d say – I’m interested in that work. That can take lots of different forms. But it’s not about saying that there’s a form to each project, and it’s not like you get the same project every time. You change and adapt, you’re site-responsive, you’re dialogue-responsive. So, you have to kind of move and shape-shift a lot with this kind of work.

Pictured: Vetch Veg – Swansea, Wales

SJH: Can you give me an example of a project that you’ve done that you thought went really well?

OG: I think the Vetch Veg project in Swansea was a seminal moment for me in how this kind of work develops and how I found my language as an artist. I was asked to look at the idea of developing a project in my local environment, and there was a football stadium that was being demolished just in front of our house, before you get to the sea in Swansea. It was the centenary of the football field, and they took the thing down and moved it out of town. So I thought, how can we develop this piece of land and how can we talk about what it’s future will be when it’s had this kind of iconic symbolism in the city for a hundred years? So, we ended up making a vegetable garden in one section of it. That is still there, 5 years on, and about 150 people garden and grow stuff through this project.

I think before [Vetch Veg] I’d been working in and out of galleries, or on the fringes of things. I’d been teaching a bit, I’d been working with communities or children and educational stuff. And this project really accelerated the understanding of what social practice could be. And, also, I lived within a square mile of this place. So, it was a project that happened through the Cultural Olympiad in the UK in 2012; I basically worked on this thing every day for 2 ½ years, so it really took over my life. But it was incredible because what you’d see when you go there is that this is a functioning and sustainable resource that was created through the the processes of art but is now no longer talked about, or needs to be talked about, as an art project. It just exists as a community resource, which is really exciting.

But, what’s really interesting is that this vegetable plot influenced the future of the site and influenced people’s political and social consciousnesses in the area. To connect to this piece of land and say, “actually we want to keep this piece of land – we don’t want you to sell to Tesco. We think this is a really important place to keep green.” Because often in city centers we have a lack of green spaces or resources for children, a lack of tranquil spaces, and the connection between places like that and mental health are really, really huge. So, how, as an artist, can you work with a community on a project like that to help to be part of a conversation about what the future of this piece of land is, and how can you be an author of this piece of land rather than give all of that to the council?

Because we presented this idea to the local authority that owned the piece of land as an art project, we weren’t seen particularly as serious threats in the sense of – we’re taking ownership of a piece of land. Because we called it an art project, they let us do it because they thought it would either fail or it would be temporary or it would just be something for the Olympics and it would move on. But, as I said, 5 years later people are still there and the park is now green. Now, that’s not all because of the Vetch project, but it did play a significant role in how that piece of city center green space has been altered and kept green. So, I’m very proud of that piece of work and of the collaboration that we worked with in the area.

Pictured: A sketch of Vetch Veg – Swansea, Wales

We were there every day, in the rain, building raised beds for planting. The stadium was compacted into building waste that was buried underground. We scavenged bits of football stadium roof for the cafe and the shed, and all of the other things that we used, the roof of the bread oven, all of those things. We just borrowed materials from the demolition. So, it’s how a project like that can be a kind of social connector in that area – how this endeavor of creating a garden can bring a lot of people together and cross lots of boundaries.

The best thing was when we had 10 tons of topsoil delivered, because the kids would just climb this mountain of topsoil and play on it. Just to be outdoors with their neighbors and their families, that’s really great in an urban area to have experiences like that. Now, kids go there after school, they water the plants, there’s an old pipe where they’ll play with the water, and people are growing stuff – maybe not to feed their whole family on that stuff, but actually it’s a social space. That’s really important, as well as the growing. It’s sort of talked about, in Wales anyway, as a project which has started a conversation about what it is to work in your local area, what it is to work in communities, what social practice can be, and is recognized as an example of good practice, which I’m really thrilled about. But I definitely learned so much by doing it because I’d never done such an ambitious thing before, and it really changed the way I work and practice.

SJH: As a community garden, you obviously needed the community. So, how did you get their buy-in to work on this project?

OG: We basically just went around, knocking doors and talking to people and went for pints in pubs and talked to people about the project. We put posters up, and got people to just come and see it. We worked with local counselors, we worked with sustainable groups in Swansea to talk about the project, we just went around and chatted to people.

And, also, we realized that regular consultation groups weren’t the way to go – questionnaires and things. It needed the human conversation, which you can’t just do in a form and send in the form. It was really important to go meet people and talk to them. What would happen then is that people would say, “I’ve never talked to my neighbors and I’ve lived on this street for 20 years.” And you just thought, well that can’t be, surely, but actually these things are really common.

It was really interesting to see things like racial tensions come to the surface, and the changing relationship to the community – the effect of the student population, the Chinese community, the Bangladeshi community that lived in this area, and people who were from Swansea and born and brought up there. So, it was all of these stories coming together, and whatever these urban conflicts are – conflicts around parking, or whatever, that you find in areas of dense housing, it was really interesting to say, “well, [at Vetch Veg] we’re not going to talk about any of those things – what we’re going to do is build this thing together. And, none of us are gardeners, so let’s just try to build this infrastructure together and develop this project.”

And then, throughout that year it was building that community partnership, really working with lots of different groups in the community, encouraging the Chinese retirement home to be part of the project, encouraging the churches and the tenants association, and all of these different groups that are active to come and be part of the project. I worked with about 4 or 5 people who were totally key and who emerged as community leaders to the project who really saw the project through and are very active there today.

SJH: It sounds like the community was really hungry for something like this.

OG: Yeah, I think we just hit the right time. Nobody had asked them what was going to happen in this piece of land. They’d lived with an empty stadium for 5 years, which had gone into dereliction, and no one had ever really had conversations with them about what this could be. So, having established this community confidence through the work that we were doing, we felt capable of challenging some of these prescribed ideas or possible routes that this piece of land would go down.

SJH: Why a garden? Why not a community center or just make it a dog park or something?

OG: Well, they have a community center, they have a beach across the road where all the dogs go. It was more about creating a green space, really, than a vegetable garden. It’s not as prolific of a growing space that you could have if you didn’t have individual beds. But it felt necessary to have individual plots so that people might have a plot next to someone they didn’t know. You wouldn’t necessarily be next to your neighbor, but you might be next to someone you’ve never met before. Mixing it all up like that was quite key when we came to work on this.

SJH: How does a garden like this fit into your larger “social practice”?

OG: I think that since Vetch Veg the gardens have been quite a theme in my work, because what it gives you is a space to nurture something, a space to talk about everything – politics, place, community, identity – you can talk about all that stuff, but you can do it while moving soil or building something. So, really, it’s kind of a vehicle to get to the conversations and get to the work that you want to do. I suppose that I’m probably a frustrated landscape designer because I love the idea of these spaces as anti-capitalist spaces that are somehow connected to a community-oriented belief. So, in a privatized landscape, I think about how spaces like these have a real strategic importance, as well as a biodiversity importance, as well as a social, political, cultural importance. So, they kind of work on lots of different levels for me. And being outdoors working with other people is just such a great experience for people to connect food politics to a sense of place. I don’t always make gardens, but they’re definitely a theme that I’ve been working with.

Pictured: Hillside Secure Children’s Home – Neath, Wales

I also worked, as well, in a secure unit for 12 to 16 year old kids, which was basically a prison and a school all rolled into one, and they lived on site, just outside Swansea. We made a garden there as well because often in institutions like that, the outdoor spaces are not very cared for, there aren’t enough resources to look after them, and people aren’t empowered to take them on.

The prison project was in a place called Hillside Secure Unit. Its courtyard is basically the only space that the kids all use at some point in the day, crossing it to go to class or whatever. And it was a completely unloved space that was just mossy and damp and just really boring. So, we talked about linking that space to a pedagogical role. We created a raised bed system again and we worked with the kids and staff to develop an outdoor classroom, essentially, and a space where other conversations can happen.

Especially when you’re in a high security institution, sitting in a polytunnel and hearing the rain fall on the polytunnel and having a conversation with your therapist is such a nicer experience that sitting in a strip-light room where the furniture is bolted down and everything around you is about hostility and coldness. Even though the staff might be trying to bridge those gaps, the architecture is working against you all the time.

Pictured: Inside a polytunnel at Hillside Secure Children’s Home – Neath, Wales

So, after consultation with the staff about what we were trying to do and how it would work, this outdoor class would be a place where we could have conversations, they could have family visits there, and the [garden] beds were just chalk-full of stuff. It was a really rich biodiversity – a complete mixture of planting. We grew everything with the kids, so you really get to talk about the idea of the seed growing into the fruit. We would connect that garden to a bigger conversation of things in the outside world and how in a few years time when they might be leaving that place or going onto a different institution, how they’ll work with that. So, those transitional conversations about place, and also abstract conversations about life and the world and our place in it, ecosystems and materials, all these things. It’s just a great vehicle to talk about all of this stuff.

SJH: Did you have any specific goal in mind when you went in and did that end up changing by the end of it?

OG: The goals of the prison projects are really open because the environments are so different. They have different categories of people who are in there for different reasons, with a massive difference in needs and mental health, so you’ve got to be really flexible to sustain a conversation with a place like that. That is the goal: if you can have a conversation with the institution and create something that hopefully lasts beyond your intervention as an artist. So, the fact that the garden in Swansea [Vetch Veg] and the Hillside [prison] gardens are still there and still used is a great result in that sense. We can leave something that doesn’t need prolonged artistic intervention to keep it up. So, I think that’s the goal when you go into a situation like that – how can you create something sustainable and useful through the project? How can you manipulate an artistic process or artistic funding to create a wider conversation about what the usefulness of this is?

SJH: What is it about these conversations that’s so important to you?

OG: Well I think that the conversations that you have as an artist – they’re interesting because you’re kind of like a trespasser, you’re coming maybe with no expertise in this sector, and you’re allowed in through the label of an artist to work with people or an idea, so there’s a sense of privilege around that a lot of the time. What’s amazing is that people will tell you stuff. You have amazing conversations with people about all kinds of things. But it’s incredible to learn about the perspective of the workplace or the world or politics from people in different situations. It informs your work and what you do, so it’s absolutely key in the way that we create a space and allow people to be heard. How you bring people into the role of a collaborator or a sense of co-authorship. You can’t do that unless you have a real understanding of them.

SJH: Regarding the prison project, you said that there was an effect on the students and educators. What did that effect look like? How did you first realize that it was happening?

OG: I think the effect was almost immediately because they very rarely get the time to spend outside doing something that’s not sports-related. So, to be outside with permission to do things like wheeling a wheelbarrow full of soil, and just really simple tasks like that, you could see how much they enjoyed doing it and how extraordinary the effect was of them being outside and doing something that wasn’t necessarily competitive.

You can use the garden as an example to talk about any educational process. So, that’s what was interesting was that they sort of began to see the possibilities of the garden. And then, we would sit in the polytunnel and have our tea breaks, but instead of having these really bad, sugary snacks we would bring in different, healthier things. And just that somebody had offered them something different and that we were sitting in this polytunnel listening to the rain, chatting, just the informality that the garden gave, you could see this kind of weight shifting – not necessarily lifting, because you’re still in this high-security space – but the sense of having permission to be outside in a different way. And then the staff came to us with ideas – it was their idea to bring the therapists into the garden. We had hoped that things like that would happen, but you never really know, depending on the context and what’s happening in the institution.

So, it was really great because the young people enjoyed being outside in a different way, and then the adults could see the possibilities of the garden as a metaphor for a bigger way of working in spaces like that.

SJH: And what about the conversations that happen within the groups that you work with? You said earlier that sometimes real social or political conversations can come up amongst the co-authors. What do you hope comes next?

OG: I guess you just take things from the conversation…I don’t know the answer to that, really. I think it’s just about…yeah, I don’t look at things like that. I just sort of carry on. They don’t stop, these conversations, they just carry on. You know, like after we’ve left a project, for example, or after I’ve stopped working on something — knowing when to stop working on something, knowing when to stop having those conversations is really difficult, because you might work with a group of people for 2 years and you become friends with them, and you develop relationships with people around this work and these roles and these ideas. There’s a sense of a real, common ownership of a project, and then you leave. It’s really hard for the community, it’s really hard for you as an artist. So, it’s a tricky thing for you to work on. And I think I’m learning how to do it all the time.

SJH: Were those conversations part of how you knew that the project was successful?

OG: Oh yeah, definitely. I think that the difficulty is that the markers of success in projects like this are very subtle, and actually you’d have to ask them what made it a success because my criteria would be different to theirs. Also my criteria is from the perspective of someone who leaves at the end of the day, and their criteria is that they managed to stay out there for an hour without misbehaving or being sent back in or being restrained.

Now, they might not be able to necessarily express the fact that that was a successful experience, but for the staff, they’d say, “Wow, it’s amazing to see so-and-so in the garden, he’s totally different here than he is in an educational context.” And I’d say, “Well, this is also an educational context, it’s just an informal educational context.” We’re talking about a lot of complex things like building, co-planting, but actually the informality and the outdoor element just gave people spaces to breathe. I think that’s so important in a high-tension environment like that. All the kids are between 12 and 16, majority of them in the 16 age bracket. So, they’re like these big teenagers with a lot of energy and hormones kicking around, and so to be outside and to give them spaces to talk about this stuff was really key.

So, yeah, I think the markers of success were kind of always moving and different depending on who was coming in and out, but I think when someone would say something like that to me, it was like – great! Because you might feel like something didn’t go very well, but actually then you’d be informed by one of the teachers that that was a really successful engagement. Specific environments offer different things; you have to attune yourself to those, and that takes a bit of time.

SJH: It sounds like you measure success with a variety of metrics that are based on one’s perspective. Have you felt that way about other projects?

OG: I think it’s with all the projects, really, when you’re working with groups of people. How do you evaluate the experience successfully, and honestly, and how do you use a process of evaluation as a creative process to inform how you go forward? So, you’re not doing it at the end, you’re doing it throughout. And I think that’s the key: to try to work with these processes throughout. And it takes a bit of time, but it actually informs a more sustainable practice of working. You basically get to achieve something that’s a more real connection to a place by adapting things all the time.

Pictured: A community gathering at Vetch Veg – Swansea, Wales

SJH: These sound like incredible projects, but what about the times when things don’t go so well?

OG: Yeah, I’ve certainly had projects like that where things haven’t worked for various reasons.

SJH: Does an example come to mind?

OG: Yeah, sure…I want to be somewhat vague with this because the project is still ongoing. But looking back now I can really see why it didn’t work, but at the time it’s really hard to work out. In a partnership project recently we had difficulty having a conversation with all the key partners. I think that’s a really important part of something. So, when things haven’t worked, it’s been about not having access to the people who have conceptualized this creative project, who have maybe thought: what we need here is an art project, when actually they don’t need an art project. But they bring in an artist and you work on this project and you get to meet people and have conversations, but actually you don’t get to talk to the right people or things aren’t properly communicated.

SJH: So is it that this project wasn’t hitting the right chord with the community?

OG: It’s not necessarily that, I think that when social practice projects don’t necessarily work it’s because what they need is an architect or a better resource. So, I think when it’s not worked very well it’s because they didn’t need an art project or the community didn’t want an art project but the landlord wanted an art project. Or the consultation they’ve done around this is just a form-filling exercise or something.

SJH: So in the project that you’re thinking about, what were some indicators that it was starting to go south?

OG: The fact that they’d say things like, “We’ve done a community consultation and we sent out 300 flyers and nobody showed up.” Things like that where you have a track way of doing things and you’re not willing to change your way of doing things. We were trying to do something different than what they normally deliver, and therefore you might want to change your consult methods. So, things like that were clues to this kind of conversation not going forward.

And, also the fact that we couldn’t speak to the director or the landlord of this piece of land, we were meeting other people. So, sometimes it’s really useful to speak to people at the head of an organization to talk about what this is, because actually what most people are not prepared for is the time that these projects take and the money they take because they can be big beasts sometimes. They take a lot of time and a lot of resources and money and they don’t always necessarily give you a big shiny thing at the end of it.

Pictured: Vetch Veg – Swansea, Wales

SJH: Do you connect these community-based projects to a broader idea of social change?

OG: I think so, yeah. I mean, they’re attempting to be – sometimes failing, sometimes succeeding. But I’m working in Wales, and I’m really interested in the idea of small nations as authors of change, and the idea of being based in somewhere like this, working in your locale as well as internationally, as a way of creating a sustainable shift, or a greater participation in something to enable things to happen. Of course, there are loads of other models and ways of doing this not as artworks, which are much more successful or give greater agency or at a greater speed, but I think what’s achieved through social practice can be really unique and really transformative, and can provide a really poetic space for intervention.

But, essentially, it’s about: how can you subvert an artistic process to also be a useful one? So, how can we use a Cultural Olympiad grant or commission to achieve something long term, all the way out in Swansea? I think it’s about that question, really, it’s about the usefulness of this and the utility of it. How can we participate in a greater idea of connection to place, to neighbors, to cities, to urban design, to the questions of the environment around us and how we can participate in those changes and not have things done to us all the time.

SJH: Do you think of your work as one-off projects or do you connect them all together to a larger strategy for change?

OG: I think what’s happening in my practice is that I’m realizing that there’s an archipelago of projects which don’t necessarily function as art projects now, but were afforded or created through the mechanism of an art project and now continue in another way. I like the idea of the legacies of these project being connected up. I think the strategy is part of a broader process of the need and the want to collaborate. Whether it’s with a housing association or with a local government, a gallery, or with other artists.

I think those small-scale changes are inspired by changes on a mass-scale. So they’re a part of bigger changes that I’m not authoring, but they’re part of a much bigger thing. So, the Venn Diagram of how these things connect up to a revolution around how we use land in this country. Or say food justice, social food politics, is the big issue, then this work connects up to that as a small part. So, I feel like there are plenty of enormous social change movements happening that these projects can assist in. I think they’re one and the same, really.

I’m always interested in the idea of collaboration, but I think now it’s about strategic collaborations, probably with other artists, to get these projects moving in a quicker way. That’s what keeps me in Wales and that’s what keeps me working here – the possibilities of working in a small community and creating these changes, creating the landscape that you live in, and also having international conversations from this perspective feels like a really good time to challenge the neoliberal structures, to challenge land privatization, to challenge the lack of green spaces in cities. These are conversations that a lot of artists are having, there’s a lot of artists becoming social practitioners now. It feels like a really rich time.

 

For more information on Owen Griffiths, visit www.aboutreconnection.com

 

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Ben Davis

[P]eople want to have it both ways. They want to say “This is my form of intervention in the world. This is how I’m going to change the world — but don’t ask me how because I’m an artist.” It has all of these little noble effects, [which] they call the “message in the bottle” theory, which is the de facto theory that most people have when you try to figure out what circuit connects what you’re doing to how you change the world. Why not put a message in a bottle and eventually it’s going to wash up on the shore and someone will find my message? I think we can do better, basically.

Ben Davis is a New York-based radical art critic. He is the author of 9.5 Theses on Art and Class (2013) and the current National Art Critic at artnet News. With a special interest in political art, Davis focuses on art’s role in political and social movements, the breadth of art’s impact, and how art activists think about and execute their work. His work has been featured in venues such as Adbusters, The Brooklyn Rail, e-Flux Journal, Frieze, New York, The New York Times, Slate, The Village Voice, and many more.


Steve Duncombe: How did you get into the business of doing art criticism, and particularly art criticism with an emphasis on class and politics?

Ben Davis: Well, that’s pretty organic. I moved to New York in 2004. It’s a long story but by a series of random encounters, I ended up writing for a paper in Queens about community art and then ended up working for a fine art magazine. At the same time, during this period of the mobilization against the Iraq war and a lot of other things, I became involved in various forms of activism. In the end, I was particularly focused on criminal justice activism against the death penalty. Most of the time these things were just parallel tracks in my life.

I do think there’s a way that this background helps: so much of the intellectual production around fine art traces back to various kinds of political claims that are being made covertly or overtly for art shows and the art object. This can be overinflated, [but] can also be really genuine and easy to overlook or underestimate. We should try to put a little bit of perspective on some of the claims that are made for art.

SD: What do you mean by that?

BD: Well, it becomes clear when you’re actually involved in politics that the term “politics” contains a multitude. In art, the question is treated as if it’s a self-evident thing. It’s like: What is the connection between art and politics? And I realize that my question is: “What politics?” All these ideas that are really vital, and are actually the subject of really acrimonious debates in the activist organizing space, are almost never the subject of discussions in the arts. There is this whole huge universe  that ranges from progressive electoral politics, to nonprofit politics, to community organizing, to socialist movement building, to anarchist communal space building, that just collapses into one thing. The conversation about art and politics is sometimes all these things, one of these things, none of these things.

SD: Why is that? Why is it that politics become this abstraction in art? Where, for an activist, “politics” tends to be the politics of getting this person elected or not, the politics of mobilizing these people or not, get this policy passed, or, even the politics of world building and self-expression. But it’s defined. We know what it is.

So, why in the art world is it this abstraction: “art and politics”?

BD: I don’t know if there’s exactly one answer. I think in some sense though, I’ve come to think of it like an original sin, [as if] it’s sort of baked into the idea of art. “Art” is a fairly modern concept. I always like to say if you look at the people that we consider to be the first real critics of modern art, Charles Baudelaire and John Ruskin, they would have all been in the same high school class with Marx and Engels. I mean, they’re all born within one year of each other. So, the development of capitalism and the various kinds of attempts to theorize and think against it, and the modern idea of the artist, they’re simultaneous tendencies.

These are all pretty specific counterpoints to the birth of consumer capitalism. The world’s more and more alienated. People don’t know where their commodities come from, or they don’t have control of their labor. And so, society invents this alternate route to salvation. On one hand, people are theorizing political resistance. On the other hand, people imagine these fantastical forms of resisting through artistic expression, where we’re going to be redeemed by people who feel harder or who offer this imaginary escape route where your children can love what they do and be these visionaries who show us an alternative route out of alienation.

That strand continues  through our history. In the 60s, they talked about the opposition between the hippies and the politicos. That’s a displaced version of the opld opposition: people who believe in transformation through living passionately and creatively vs. the people who are, like: How do we actually shut down the Pentagon?

I wouldn’t be dismissive of the artistic route. I think it actually poses an interesting problem for the organizer route — how you coordinate or integrate those kinds of energies. But it is a problem. On one hand, art contains within itself these strands or strains where you think about [it] as an alternative to the [everyday] world of exploitation and alienation. That can be an entry into alternative modes of thinking or it can be a deflection form alternative modes of thinking. It can be both at once or neither. That’s kind of the eternal conversation that’s latent within these debates.

9.5 Theses on Art and Class by Ben Davis

SD: In your 9.5 Theses on Art and Class you talk about how part of the problem of art itself, but by extension political art, is that it has a middle class analysis of the world — that the individual is the agent of history as opposed to the class or the collective being the agent of history. Is that part and parcel of this alternative model of social change?

BD: Yeah, I think there is a kind of constant deflection in that direction, towards solutions that are based around the individual visionary. Art tends to go in that direction. It’s not fated to be so but I think it’s useful to start from the point of view that art politics, the kind of politics that tends to manifest within these spheres, has a natural bias towards that. Just because of the entire conception of art and that function.

This is one of the reasons, frankly, that rich people are comfortable funding artistic causes: because cultural politics is much more friendly ground than “straight” politics. There’s some paper I was reading on the Ford Foundation’s investment in black activism in the early 1970s where they talk about [how they] funded black cultural causes because it was friendlier terrain to them than some of the more revolutionary or community organizing activity that was going in the African American community at the time.

SD: And I imagine more legible to themselves. Which is why we can understand this idea of the individual artist who’s seeing the future because we, ourselves, are individuals who can imagine ourselves as agents of history.

BD: Right.

SD: Bringing it back to this idea about socially engaged arts, social practice, or whatever you want to call it — one of the reasons why I really wanted to talk to you is that you’re one of the few people, I think, who’s writing today that is at one and the same time genuinely sympathetic to the aims of things like social practice arts, socially engaged arts, but also doesn’t give it a free pass.

Can you tell me a little bit why you don’t give it a pass? Why don’t you just accept the work based on its artist’s intentions?

BD: Because anything that is unquestioned is the tool, the instrument, that power turn on you. When you define anything in such a way as to make it off limits to criticism — I’m just saying that once you do that, you’re just giving people this huge stick to beat you with.

Kara Walker’s Sugar Baby at the Domino Sugar Factory is a great example. The project is actually a landmark project [that is] totally fascinating. It has attracted a really interesting audience, and I know activists who went there as soon they could [to] talk about racism and criminal justice issues because it attracted such a diverse audience. It definitely opened up a kind of space.

But it was all funded by Two Trees Real Estate Development, and it was all an attempt to get people excited about the waterfront in advance to this very controversial redevelopment. So I think you have to come up with a complex way to look at it. Otherwise, you’re not taking the politics part of art-in-politics seriously enough.

SD: Okay, so let’s play this out a little bit because the counter argument would be something like “You can’t hold art to the standards that you’re holding say a housing organizer, an anti-racist organizer. That art is this thing which has myriad sort of impacts and influences and so on and so forth. To be critical of it is missing it’s possibilities.”

BD: Sure, except people make claims for it all the time as if it’s equivalent to housing activism or it’s like your form of intervening in the world. That’s the thing. It’s that people want to have it both ways. They want to say, “This is my form of intervention in the world. This is how I’m going to change the world — but don’t ask me how because I’m an artist.”

I call this the “message in the bottle” theory, which is the de facto theory that most artists have when it comes to the circuit that connects what they’re doing to how it changes the world. You are just putting a message out there and hoping it does something, like putting a message in a bottle and eventually hoping it’s going to wash up on the shore and someone will find the message. I think we can do better, basically.

And particularly now, I try to be critical of the new forms of art and politics — but supportively critical. Constructively critical.

Because there is also a dangerous tendency that I see, particularly in young critics who are progressive or radical, and it partly comes as a reaction to the kind of inflation of claims around art and politics. There’s a kind of criticism that starts out of a left wing tendency to criticize some of the vagueness and opportunism of the art-and-politics conversation and really ends up in a right wing place, dismissing all politics in art. I think of it as a course of antibiotics that you haven’t taken through all the way to the end. Then you build up more and more resistant strains of bacteria.

I think you need to head that off. And a way to do that produce a critical way of looking at things where you define some of the criteria by which you say a project would be successful so that it doesn’t all disintegrate into this obviously massive hypocrisy. Or you moderate the claims you are making.

SD: As a constructive critique, what would your advice be to an activist artist? Imagine I’m like: “Ben, I really want to stop racism and I’m going to do this installation. It’s going to stop racism and it’s based on my experiences as a white guy and about how white supremacy was part of my family. Yeah.”

What would you say to something like that?

BD: First of all, the problem with that is not the second part, I don’t think,  where you want to make an installation exploring the complicity of my history with racism, or any other issue. That’s a fine thing, though [you] want to be sensitive to how you do that. [The] problem is the first part:The claim that it be evaluated as your intervention to change the world. It’s just like, to a certain extent, you should unburden [some] art from having to change the world. That’s not the only thing it’s for.

That’s something I say in my book is: art is a Swiss Army Knife not a hammer. Some art is just [about] an artist working through things. It doesn’t [have an] instrumental effect? That’s fine. It’s when the claim is made that [the art] is something else that it can become a way to deflect from other conversations, to redefine social change in a less threatening, more individualistic, more artistic way. So that’s the first thing I would say: Be sensitive about the claims that you’re making, the space you’re using and so on.

The second thing I’d say is define the politics of it. I think the pernicious thing is that, by its nature, the art sphere really wants to aestheticize politics. By the nature of the space you’re in, it really wants to take politics and turn it into a motif or a theme and so on. It wants heart-warming stories. It wants tales of transcendence. It wants the most symbolic form of politics possible. You just have to push against that as hard of possible. You want to be able to know really specifically what you believe, politics-wise.

Then the third thing is to attach yourself to something. I think this is the best way that you can actually better define the stakes or outcomes of things. There are all these people doing this kind of work. Sometimes it seems like we start from the point of view that the artist is going to figure problems out for society, which, again I think is an inheritance of our romantic conception of the artist and all these kinds of attempts to redefine art as a form of wisdom or social knowledge. I don’t think artists are particularly smarter about politics than anybody else. Some of them are but the majority are just — it’s not any more likely that an artist has something visionary to say about politics than a scientist or a plumber or anyone else. I just cannot believe that. And the best way you can check yourself is to be associated with people who actually know their shit, who you can check your work with.

All the time people make claims about various forms of struggles they’re representing and you just have to be following the news around the struggles to be like, “That was the debate about five years ago.The thing that you’re advocating is the conservative wing of this particular movement,” and so on.

A few years ago I was part of a talk about activism in Chinatown, and someone from CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities, a tenants rights group, talked about what a burden artists were on [them]. CAAAV was constantly getting inquiries about artists who wanted to do a project about gentrification. And their organizers were like, “You realize that we have to train you, every single one of you? Every time we get one of these requests. It’ll be better if you just volunteered as a person and then see what comes of it.” To start from the position [where] you’re assuming that you’re a special visionary person and that you’re going to bring your solution to something is already starting behind. I think you should start from the point view of a citizen, activist, organizer. Then from there,  artists definitely have skills that are needed—but work backwards from the material involvement.

SD: What do we have to learn from artists? I can organize a bunch of tenants to throw out a landlord. But why do I need some artist that’s always talking about: “you can’t tell me what to do. I need my artistic freedom. I’m a creative, blah blah, blah”

BD: Well, you definitely don’t need that kind of artist.

SD: All right. Okay.

BD: Politics, I believe, is movement-building organization. So it is true, in my experience, that a lot of the work of movements and organizations becomes really instrumental. It’s always focused on the next thing and always focused on the hard problem of just trying to figure out how we’re going to get 25 people to this vigil so that this politician [or] local official is shaken a little. I think that’s probably the most important piece of this organizing. It’s the piece that art always leaves out. The problem with most art stuff is that it’s attached to nothing besides the art world. What it produces is more a conversation about itself and it never produces the output linked into the second space. It usually never [raises the suggestion] of: “Should you be so inspired by this poster show, there’s the next meeting where you can go and plan…”

But sometimes what the most urgent organizing leaves out is the time space to think about where you’re recruiting people and bringing new blood in, in between actions. A lot of times, that new blood comes in through the less instrumental parts of this work. My conclusion from that is that the question is not so much that everything has to have clear output or a clear propagandistic function. It’s really more the question ultimately of what it’s attached to. Artists can play a key role in opening up the spaces where people enter movements.

Pictured: 9.5 Theses on Art and Class Poster by N+1 Mag.

BD: My friend, [who] is a lawyer who does housing rights, he’s like, “What you do is stupid.” I have to agree with him a little bit. I have to agree with him. But that sort of sits over me like a challenge. How do you prove that this is not stupid?

You have to think both thoughts at once. I don’t think that you should try and reduce everything to the instrumental “How are we going to shut down x” level. But, on the other hand, that stuff is important too. I think we’re in a really interesting moment, a really interesting historical, political, communicational moment where I think there’s all of these questions about these things that haven’t been worked out yet that I’m trying to work my way through because I feel like they’re unfolding around me all the time.

It’s almost like the rise of the internet and social media and a variety of other phenomena have made it so that every single movement gets translated immediately to the thing that’s most purely expressive. It’s like everything immediately becomes an open letter, an online petition, various forms of shaming and attack. It’s almost like people have doubled down on expression as activism. We’re going to hold the line on the —

SD: On the cultural infrastructure.

BD:  — on the cultural infrastructure. In some ways, that’s important but in some ways I think it’s also that was the problem we were in in the first place. People have just doubled down on politics within the cultural space. If you look at the serious history of cultural politics, that’s often a danger is that people over-estimate the good that they’re doing in the cultural sphere and don’t see what’s going on outside of it.

I think of the example of Brazil in the 60s. The coup happens in 1964 and there’s four years of incredible culture in Brazil where you get the Theatre of the Oppressed, the Tropicalia Movement comes out of that. Incredible developments in worker education, art, and art hybrids. There’s a great essay by Roberto Schwarz about this where he says, “If you were in one of these theaters at this time, you would have think that we had won. No one was asking the question: If we were so brave, how come we’d lost?” Then [by] 1968, they polished off the peasants. They polished off the workers’ movement. They’re finally like, “We’re sick of the intellectuals and the artists and we’re coming for you.” They passed the 5th Institutional Directive. And all of the artists go into exile or go silent and it becomes clear that that was all this weird interregnum.

I just really worry about that [in the Trump era]. And it’s another reason why you need to be constructively critical of all of this stuff and ask what it’s building towards. What are the larger things it plays into? Because it’s very possible that these are just spaces that are loaned to us.

 

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