This post is written as a dispatch from California, where I was at the College Art Association conference and speaking in classes at CalArts, SFAI, and the CCA Social Practices studio.
Initially when invited to contribute, I was challenged by the prompting question, “how can art effect political change?” because of how broad it was and because I didn’t think that I could begin to address that in one short post. It is one of the central concerns of my work. But the challenge was interesting and offered an opportunity to try to communicate (somewhat) concisely some of the lessons I’ve learned from many years of practicing socially engaged art at various levels.
Off the cuff, I should be clear that I work in many different places and in many different ways, which strongly influence my ideas (hence my forthcoming eclectic listing and ranting). Most often the place is in Chicago, and the most consistent method or form I work in has been a biannual publication, AREA Chicago. I also find myself working on numerous other projects simultaneously. That diversity of tactics and approaches is both informed by my life situation, which requires me to work in different ways and different places to earn a living. It is also a recognition of the fact that there are limits to all forms and there is much to be learned by trying new ones. So you’ll find on my website that my time is also spend writing essays, organizing conferences and exhibitions, lecturing extensively, and working on various kinds of documentary and research projects.
Last Wednesday, while speaking on a panel discussion entitled “Relocating Art and its Public” at the CAA conference here in LA, I was compelled to think through the work that I care about and am involved with as it relates to audiences and participants. I realized I could not clearly talk about any of this without spelling out what kind of relationships I wanted to have in this world, in a broader sense. That is not to say that the work I’ve been involved in has always succeeded in creating those relationships which I desire and want others to have. But the work that I do is so informed by a political concern about people’s potential to self-actualize in a world which stifles that possibility that I have to be up front about it. This is how I intend to address the question posed on this blog.
I concluded my presentation by recounting the provocation put forth to me by my friend Chris Carlsson in San Francisco: that the challenge for those opposed to capitalism and in favor of a different (”anticapitalist”) organizing principal for life and economies is to take the “anti” part of our perspective and make it into something that we can all strive for together. A further elaboration would be that a challenge for anticapitalist cultural work is to articulate and represent a life better than the competitive and commodified social relations that currently dominate how most of us relate to one another. One step in that direction would be to create contexts that allow us to see our relationships in ways that both benefit from our diverse experiences and insights needed to face everyday challenging situations, and that also allow us to be powerful enough together through organization so we can tackle the big stuff we all face. I honestly think that most of us barely know what free feels like or looks like. We need each other to figure out how to know how to get there. In the last eight years, most of the projects that I have been involved with have had some component that was about articulating a different kind of “we” or collective toward the ends described above. Admittedly, they are on a pretty micro scale. To the extent to which any transformed social relations are actually realized, the impact beyond the people directly involved is limited, rendering it primarily symbolic and experimental.
I’ll now summarize few of the events with which I have been involved as a participant or organizer that have tried to articulate a new or different “we.” The first is the Department of Space and Land Reclamation (DSLR), which took place in Chicago in April of 2001. The “campaign” was organized through an open call for participation circulated in email and via heavy postering throughout the city. It asked for people who are concerned about the state of public space in the city to come together and launch a coordinated and highly visible collective effort to highlight potential uses for public space, as well as to articulate criticisms or protests about how space was being controlled. This took many forms. Some were quite playful, such as poetry slams on El trains or ladders leading to nowhere placed on fences to suggest potential over-comings or transgressions. Others asked neighbors to sign petitions in order to get sidewalk kiosks to be accessible to everyone, not just real estate developers. There were over 70 similar small scale temporary initiatives that took place throughout the city that weekend. The effort, like so many complex social projects that involve people from many political persuasions and cultural backgrounds, had its successes and failures. One general success is that temporary space, opened up through coordinated space reclamation, allowed for housing activists, graffiti writers, urban planners, activist educators, pirate radio broadcasters, and critical artists to see themselves in relation to one another through a shared concern about public space in Chicago.
The DSLR spawned many relationships and catalyzed many new projects that continue to this day. By 2005, some of the folks who met through that work, along with others with overlapping interests, got together to develop the biannual publication AREA Chicago, of which I am still an editor. AREA has built on this methodology of creating a lens through which various practitioners and concerned citizens of the city can see themselves in relationship to one another. We have done that through 8 “local reader” publications, the collection of hundreds of hand-made personal maps about subjective experiences of the city into an archive entitled “Notes for a People’s Atlas of Chicago,” as well as over 50 events in the last 4 years.
Our methodology is quite simple: what is a pressing or challenging question in the city? What are people doing or not doing about it? Once that is identified, then a call for participation is circulated and people from local networks associated with art, research, education, and activism formulate a response. That response is edited, designed, and printed, then circulated back out to the networks from which it came.
We’ve asked the following question in our publications:
- What kind of infrastructure of services and resources do we need when our welfare state is in disrepair and being increasingly privatized? (AREA #1)
- What kind of food policy can we create to make sure that people of the city are healthy enough to pursue organization? (AREA #2)
- What are the things we mean and want when we say ‘we’? What are critical approaches to the commonplace political concept of solidarity? (AREA #3)
- In contexts where more and more Chicagoans are entrapped in the expanding industry of mass incarceration, how can meaningful, visionary, and practical changes to the criminal justice system occur? (AREA #4)
- What is the role of education and pedagogy in strengthening social movements? (AREA #5)
- How do experimental policies turn the city into a social and economic laboratory? (AREA #6)
- What kinds of logics and strategies do contemporary social movements inherit from their predecessors, especially the New Left and Counter-Culture Left of the late 1960s/early 1970s? (AREA #7)
- How does the concept of money and the financial crisis impact our political and cultural work? (AREA #8)
Other projects elsewhere in the world frmo which I have taken inspiration include the incredible work of: What is to be done? (St. Petersburg); Collectivo Situationes (Argentina); the Neighborhood Story Project (New Orleans); Center for Urban Pedagogy (NYC); Justseeds (US); the City From Below (North American); What, How and for Whom? (Zagreb); Victory Gardens (San Francisco); Mute Magazine (London); 16 Beaver Group (NYC); Public School (LA); and Pericentre Projects (Cairo).
Participating in this work and observing the like-minded efforts listed above have given me greater insight into the potential for art to change society and social relations. I am not overly concerned with the difference between so-called art and so-called activism. The categories that are more profound for me are culture and politics. I have to be very honest when talking about those two categories of life, as they are indeed different and mean different things in terms of their role in making our lives and the lives of people everywhere better, more just, and more complete. At the same time, I’ll be the first to admit that these two huge aspects of our lives—culture and politics—are completely shaped and informed by one another. So teasing out the differences can be a challenge. I have spent time in another text articulating my basic understanding of what politics is:
[Politics involves] views about social relationships involving authority or power, with specific recognition that capitalist states have a monopoly on the form of power that structures most of our lives. In relation to artistic practices, the political relevance is not as easily understood, as it is in, say, organizing workers or communities, running for government office, or taking direct action to make a point.
When I think about culture, it is equally difficult to define, but I would start out by saying that it is comprised of the ideas, beliefs, and experiences that make up how we understand society and our relationship to one another.
Considering the dialectical relation between culture and politics, in which that each produces the conditions in which the other is realized and enacted (which we see everyday on the scales of both us as individuals and the national governments whose policies affect all of our lives), I want to spell out other reasons why I feel that working in culture can or might effect social change:
- At this moment in time, culture is a strategic politically-charged terrain, as the “culture industries” become an increasingly significant part of our economy;
- Art and culture bring subjective, emotional, and effective considerations to society and politics that would be less explicit otherwise;
- Art can bring experimental methods and doesn’t have to be effective in a traditionally measurable sense. This highlights its non-instrumental or counterproductive potential to change how we think about efficacy;
- Visual communication is multilingual and available to people at multiple literacy levels. This is increasingly important as more elements of our diverse society collide and co-exist (this is certainly part of the argument for sophisticated visual propaganda used in so many political campaigns throughout history);
- And the space of culture facilitates unique and unexpected resonances and potential cooperation between people who might otherwise not see one another as equal or part of the same society.
Social change will get occur as time moves on, regardless of the art we produce or the experimental situations we create. The challenge for those of us who actually want to know a life better than the one we have, is to enact carefully considered cultural work that helps us better understand the role of history in shaping the present, critically approach the present moment, and imagine our possible futures. The biggest challenge to making culture that produces the kind of social change we want is not the limits of our imagination, as I am quite sure those boundaries do not exist. The challenge that is much harder to address is how we can behave differently (less competitively) towards one another, trust each other, and organize ourselves so we might avoid reproducing the same deformed social relations that capitalism has inscribed in our work, behavior, and relationships. Culture can help us represent, analyze, and refine our approach to articulating and realizing a different and more supportive social body—a better “we.”