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The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2012

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MAY 2012 Issue
Art Books

Living as Form

Ed. Nato Thompson
Living as Form
(Creative Time and MIT Press, 2012)

Some critics accuse contemporary art since the 1990s of producing no definable movements. If pressed, they might concede that relational aesthetics represents one trend. In his 1998 tractfrom which the genre takes its name, French curator Nicolas Bourriaud sketched the theoretical contours and historical precedents of the art of his contemporaries, riffing on institutional critique, happenings, and social movements of the 1960s and ’70s. Notable relational aesthetics works, such as Rirkrit Tiravanija’s pad thai feasts in galleries, Liam Gillick’s discussion platforms, and Pierre Huyghe’s dialoguing puppets, have been critiqued for retaining perhaps too much faith in the neutrality of the white cube. Despite their leftist political rhetoric, these artists’ institutionally friendly, post-utopian works appeal to self-selecting, well-educated museum publics.

Living as Form, a multiplatform project undertaken by Creative Time curator Nato Thompson, suffers the opposite problem. This survey, which seeks to broaden the understanding and definition of “socially engaged art from 1991 – 2011,” runs the risk of losing coherence in its “cattle call” enthusiasm to blur the lines between politics, community organizing, and art. It draws its title from the 1969 landmark conceptual art exhibition When Attitudes Become Form, yet has an even more ambitious curatorial agenda, spanning an exhibition, conferences, and an online archive of over 350 projects. While the accompanying book is by no means exhaustive, it provides a broad mapping of the stakes involved in the production of this type of work. Brief essays by six leading intellectuals accompany a handsomely illustrated index of over 100 artist projects selected by the curator.

To his credit, Thompson overlooks most of Bourriaud’s subjects for less familiar, geographically diverse instances of social practice: works that, per his definition, engage media manipulation, structural alternatives, gatherings, presentation of research, and pedagogical tactics to address topics of public import. Accordingly, many of these works are sited outside the white cube—for example, Houston’s community-building organization and art residency Project Row Houses, the Yes Men’s counterinformational media stunts, and Tiravanija’s ecologically responsible Land Foundation in Thailand. Other “projects”—such as the Tahrir Square protests—were not conceived expressly as visual art.

The book’s willingness to embrace contradiction is commendable, though many of the essayists’ opinions mostly fall into one of two polarizing categories: artists must abandon their sense of aesthetic autonomy in this climate of urgency, or art must retain its distance from direct politics in order to be effective. Thompson’s sympathies seem to lie with the former camp, as he anchors his introduction with a quote from Cuban-born artist Tania Bruguera about the limitations of appropriation as a radical gesture: “It is time to put Duchamp’s urinal back in the restroom.” Ironically, this project attempts to appropriate alternative “forms of living” into the very same aesthetic realm. Reviving Debord’s condemnation of capitalist spectacle to support various projects’ anti-visual orientation and alternative political aims, Thompson concludes that examples of social practice can include community gardens, institutionally sanctioned workshops, and performances—even pure activism, like the international abortion-on-demand project Women on Waves.

On one end of the contributors’ spectrum, art historian Claire Bishop—legendary for her attack on Relational Aesthetics in a 2004 October journal article—warns against abandoning aesthetic criteria for ethics when evaluating these works. She argues that much of social practice “focus[es] on micropolitical gestures at the expense of sensuous immediacy,” and favors projects such as Christoph Schlingensief’s “Please Love Austria”(2000), a gimmicky reality-show-style contest in which illegal immigrants, held in a shipping container in a public square, competed for a visa via an online vote. The project sparked national debate across classes and political divides about entrenched racism. Bishop maintains that “models of democracy in art do not have an intrinsic relationship with models of democracy in society,” and that artists should deploy the visual strategies of the societal provocateurin favor of vague progressive ideals.

Other writers take a more context-specific, illustrative tact. Maria Lind, a leading curator of the relational aesthetics generation and current director of Tensta Konsthall in Sweden, privileges institutionally supported projects occurring “slightly off-center.” From Elin Wikström’s poetic creation of bicycles traveling in reverse (“Returnity,”1997) to Apolonija Šušteršič’s “Suggestion for the Day”(2000) that brought various professionals together to discuss topics in Stockholm’s urban development, Lind attests that art can provide a context for civic protagonists working in diverse fields to start a dialogue. Likewise, Carol Becker’s meditation on micro-utopias, Paul Ramírez Jonas’s “Key to the City,” and Marina Abramović’s marathon staring contest “The Artist is Present” promote an inclusive, participatory model of practice. Shannon Jackson’s tantalizing but brief essay revises the topic of spectacle and theatricality, teasing out affinities between social practice and experimental theater. She highlights initiatives such as the WPA-funded Federal Theatre Project and the Mobile Academy, a series of one-on-one sessions with experts that seeks to create an economy of “black market knowledge.”

Brian Holmes and Teddy Cruz, the two best-known activists among the contributors, write powerful manifesto-like essays that also leave the reader wanting more. Cruz concisely frames his notion of “radical proximity”(as opposed to critical distance) in Latin American pedagogical projects against the shrinking public sphere in the age of neoliberalism. Holmes grounds his notion of a socially conscious “eventwork” in historical precedents such as the 1968 Tucumán Arde exhibition in Rosario, Argentina that analyzed local labor struggles, AIDS activism of the ’80s and ’90s, and contemporary antiglobalization movements. Given the production schedule of Living as Form, however, he only had space to add a short afterward on the events of Occupy Wall Street.

Unfortunately, OWS doesn’t make it to the project index, either, though many other initiatives of dubious aesthetic value do. In addition to Tahrir Square, the index includes non-artist initiatives like WikiLeaks and the United Indian Health Services—a Native American community nonprofit. Some of the choices concerning visual artists are also surprising. For instance, rather than featuring Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei’s blog—arguably his most political work—Living as Form includes “Fairytale”(2007), a project where Ai brought 1,000 Chinese citizens to the international art exhibition Documenta. This loose methodology of conferring symbolic status on a non-artistic project, under the wrong practitioner, could be construed as empty “radical chic.”

Despite this questionable tactic, Living as Form stands as a thoughtful and motivated survey of recent social practice. The project rightfully positions newer collectives like Public Movement, Chto Delat?, Voina, and Long March Project alongside legendary (yet still under-recognized) artists such as Suzanne Lacy, Mierle Laderman Ukeles, and NSK (Neue Slowenische Kunst). That it ultimately juxtaposes relatively market-friendly projects with those far outside typical structures of both living and funding only mirrors contemporary art’s increasing commodification and hybrid economies, leaving the field open for contestation, elaboration, and artistic response.


Wendy Vogel

WENDY VOGEL is online editor at Art in America.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2012

All Issues