Book Review (Originally Published in Afterimage Vol. 40 No.1):
Living as Form: Socially Engaged Art from 1991–2011
Edited by Nato Thompson
MIT Press/Creative Time Books, 2012
280 pp./$39.95 (hb)
In the summer of 2011, Manhattan public art commissioning organization Creative Time launched a new initiative to document and present “socially engaged art” made since the 1990s. The project, dubbed “Living as Form,” was curated by Nato Thompson, best known for his 2004 exhibition “The Interventionists: Art in the Social Sphere” at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, and more recently, as chief curator at Creative Time. “Living as Form” includes an online archive, lecture series, exhibition, traveling exhibition, and book. Including such a vast network of components has been a feature of many of Thompson’s curatorial endeavors, from Paul Chan’s staging of Waiting for Godot in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, to the 2008 election season “Democracy In America: The National Campaign” projects*.
Thompson’s book, Living as Form: Socially Engaged Art From 1991–2011 is representative of the overall project and will have the most implications for our understanding of art history. The first text, by Creative Time president and artistic director Anne Pasternak, contextualizes the project within the organization’s long history of commissioning work like Gran Fury’s series of AIDS activist advertisements “Kissing Doesn’t Kill: Greed and Indifference Do,” which ran on public buses in the 1980s. In the following text, Thompson introduces his curatorial vision of focusing on “strategic” and deeply invested projects more than on the temporary disruptions of his past work on interventionist art. Next is a series of essays that complicate and complement this curatorial vision by Carol Becker, Claire Bishop, Teddy Cruz, Brian Holmes, Shannon Jackson, and Maria Lind—all significant contributors to recent discourse around public, social, and political art. The final 150 pages of this beautifully designed full-color book are dedicated to project profiles of groups, individuals, actions, campaigns, and events.
The featured 107 “projects” in the book were selected by Thompson and a curatorial advisory board made up of twenty-seven groups and individuals (several of whom are either catalog authors or participating artists). The projects are complemented by an online “Social Practice Archive” of over 350 projects, and the “nomadic version” of Living as Form—a self-contained hard drive of projects—allows each host venue to show selections and add their own local projects to the archive. This open-ended archive of art, project descriptions, and documents signifies both a pragmatic acknowledgement of the limitations of the conventional curatorial process to be inclusive and a reticence to commit to the exclusion that can make exhibits coherent.
Eschewing coherency, this effort attempts, in Thompson’s words, to make the category of socially engaged art “bigger.” This includes curious additions such as WikiLeaks, Tahrir Square, the United States Social Forum (an activist conference held in Atlanta and Detroit), and the spontaneous joyful street parties of Election Night in Harlem on November 4, 2008. Undoubtedly, these make the genre of socially engaged art “bigger” and connect relatively small art projects to events much larger in scope—yet the inclusion of these complex organizations, events, and social movements under the auspices of “projects” flattens their enormous significance far beyond the bounds of art. What do we gain by this inclusiveness?
In her essay “Living Takes Many Forms,” Jackson, a performance scholar, argues that “[i]f we then bring work that derives from theatrical, visual, architectural, textual, and filmic art forms under the umbrella of ‘socially engaged art,’ it seems important to register their different barometers for gauging skill, goal, style, and innovation. We might call this the ‘medium specificity of social engagement” (91). She goes on to argue that it is necessary to be clear so that the forms grouped together can gain something from their proximity, and develop a “tolerance for different forms” rather than seeming like an awkward social mixer.
Throughout the featured essays, the authors rattle off a massive list of artistic sub-genres and historical movements, revealing that that the impulse of bringing “art into life” is not new, and is also remarkably prevalent and diverse. Jackson references WPA Federal Theater in the 1930s and the implicitly political work of choreographer Bill T. Jones, while Lind discusses European artistic practices developed since the 1990s. Holmes mentions the Living Theater and discusses a parallel development in Argentina in the late 1960s he calls “eventwork.” Bishop takes on the influence of French situationist rhetoric and forms from that same time period that continue to be the dominant paradigms in curatorial and art-historical discussions of socially engaged art today.
Living as Form is a compelling and ambitious effort and much-needed contribution to the study and understanding of art concerned with engaging social life—a vital, broad, and diverse field ever-expanding with new experiments. It asks important questions about what is gained by making our categories of art bigger, and similarly what may be lost if we abandon “smaller,” more focused ways of looking at art. It is exciting to consider what new artistic families will emerge as Living as Form sub-genres (including video activism, social-realistic theater, and event-art) continue to associate with the likes of ecological art and experimental economic arrangements. As those of us invested in this comingling take our investigations further, it would be wise to consider which projects constitute strategic turns and which may simply represent more of the same.
[*Full Disclosure: I have worked with Thompson on a number of the projects mentioned above, including being an exhibiting artist in The Interventionists (2004) and a co-organizer of a portion of the programming for Democracy In America (2008)]
Daniel Tucker is a writer, artist, and organizer currently pursuing an MFA at the University of Illinois at Chicago. See miscprojects.com