The World is a Stage

Nato Thompson (ed.), Living As Form: Socially Engaged Art from 1991 – 2011

MIT Press, 259pp, £27.95, ISBN 9700262017343

reviewed by Tom Snow

Socially engaged art may only operate along minor tangents of the art world. However, current interest in the interdisciplinary has rendered these sorts of works a focal point for many. As an impending biennial culture realises itself as a global phenomenon, Social Practice seems as in vogue as ever. Documenta, Manifesta and Istanbul, for instance, have all taken politically oriented contemporary art as their subjects in recent years, heightening visibility and rendering such practices crucial to artistic and academic debate. Living As Form compiles a comprehensive list of just over one hundred socially engaged artworks realised during the past twenty years. Presented alongside seven contextual essays courtesy of some of the most provocative scholarly voices in contemporary art theory today, the book offers important insights regarding the role of the political and social within current artistic developments.

The compilation is premised on Creative Time President and Artistic Director Anne Pasternak’s invocation that ‘social practice artists create forms of living that activate communities and advance public awareness of pressing social issues’. Despite growing numbers of ‘art enthusiasts,’ social practices are sidelined in an art world that triumphs ‘commodity makers’ over and above ‘change makers’. Yet socially engaged art forms offer a departure, retaining the possibility to advance artistic practice and ‘involve new publics in their efforts’.

Spectacle (qua Guy Debord and the Situationist International) seems to be at the polemical heart of the majority of the essays presented here. Nato Thompson uses the term ‘pro-capitalist governmentality’ in negotiation of the ‘spectacle driven world’. Citing artist Tania Bruguera’s quip that it is time for Duchamp’s urinal to be returned to the restroom, Thompson calls for a departure from the dated debates surrounding art. Rather, we should enquire ‘what are the methods we can use to understand its effects, affects and impacts’. Accordingly, we need not worry about what is art and what isn’t, when ‘all the world is literally a stage’.

It is all too easy for art criticism to co-opt certain social interventions based on aesthetic claims measured against a rapidly expanding, very global and very visual culture. Take, for example, assimilation of #Occupy into art criticism and more recently the art gallery. Thompson’s elaboration on this position is one that rejects the totalistic categorisation of social practice as a movement. Instead, this book publication and counterpart exhibition (held during 2011 at Essex Street Market in Manhattan) seeks to ‘present the temperature in the water in order to raise compelling questions’. Collapsing the idea of art and life blurs distinctions and allows collaborative practices to be thought about in relation to new forms of living.

It might be asked, however, whether it is enough that some of the works included in this survey begin to ‘appear close to some projects that arise from an arts background’. What is meant by ‘social practice’ also remains elastic throughout. Claire Bishop opts for the term ‘participatory art’, (developed further in her 2012 book, Artificial Hells) focusing on discussions of the politics of participation, grounded in various artistic histories. Problematising the idea that participation sustains political and social tensions, the reader is reminded that ‘at each historical moment participatory art takes a different form, because it seeks to negate different artistic and socio-political objects.' The assumption that participation forecloses the traditional position of spectatorship, where everybody becomes producer, Bishop notes, proves to be a fallacy.

The presence of ‘projects’ including Election Night in Harlem 2008, Tahrir Square, The Pirate Bay and Wikileaks on the list of socially engaged art remains precarious. Aside from the obvious allusion to living as form and the occasional suggestion of bypassing out-dated debates, analysis of these ‘practices’ – and therefore justification for their inclusion – is absent from any formal discussion. To omit such discussion inevitably prohibits the publications ambition to breach normative boundaries and displace conventions associated with the idea of what art can be. At this point the reader might begin to question the absence of practices like Critical Art Ensemble, Raqs Media Collective and from the list.

The twenty-year reach of the listed artworks is similarly contextualised by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union that gave rise to a new political order. Thompson clearly states that neoliberalism ‘privileges free trade and open markets, resulting in maximising the role of the private sector in determining priorities and de-emphasising the role of the public and the state’s function in protecting and supporting them.' The political stance of many of the essays included testifies to the role of contemporary art in challenging neoliberal smokescreens. But equally important to note are the political persuasions inherent in current art histories and the claims made by art historians.

Brian Holmes’ contribution is exemplary neat in its sensitivity towards historical precedents and theoretical claims. Although not explicitly stated, it seems fair to suggest that Holmes assumes socially engaged art to be necessarily activist (a point I am not sure the whole volume is making). His position finds currency with other texts included in Living As Form, especially Thompson’s essay. Holmes writes: ‘The question is not how to aestheticise “living as form,” in order to display the results in a contemporary museum. The question is how to change the forms in which we are living.’ The term ‘eventwork’ is quickly deployed with the intention of incorporating his ‘fourfold matrix’ based on art, theory, media and politics. That is, an interdisciplinary, anti-hierarchical assemblage of multiple culturally agonistic subversions. Rather than adhering to a structural(ist) analysis, Holmes insists – possibly with a nod to Félix Guattari’s ‘transversality’ – that institutional boundaries must be moved across, and other modernist norms rejected. Through discussion of two historical ‘eventworks’, the Tucumán Arde exhibition of 1968 in Argentina and AIDS activism since the late 1980s, art activism is shown to be a Post-Fordist reaction to the process of neoliberal globalisation. Within this context, subjectivity and daily experience become crucial, where ideological frameworks like Marxism – it is suggested – can no longer be relied upon to structure perception.

The strengths of this book lie in manifest claims represented through examples of artistic practice, something Teddy Cruz’s contribution might risk loosing: his call for the artist as mediator across polarised territories is convincingly made, however little in the way of an example is offered. Maria Lind points out that not all social practice projects are interesting or relevant, as with the inevitable commodification of most successful artistic developments. Holmes’ last minute endorsement of the #Occupy movement – just unfolding at the time the book went to print – is telling of the speed in which social practices are occurring, as well as the breadth of ‘eventworks’ that might be considered under this rubric. One wonders what would be made of Documenta 13’s invitation and questionable appropriation of the movement in Kassel earlier this year.

The final essay by Shannon Jackson is a sobering one. Here the reader is reminded that now is not the first time an international financial crisis has threatened the ‘vitality of civil cultures’. ‘Artistic responses are challenges to the principles of reality and social justice, acts of aesthetic affirmation must coincide with acts of aesthetic refusal’. As socially engaged art grows as a legitimate practice, related debates concerning art history, visual culture and the cohesion of both must intensify. Living As Form is by no means alone in its objectives, however its critical approach is also its achievement. A reluctance to draw conclusions is problematic at times, but in the end is countered by the importance of points raised and questions proposed.

To celebrate the hybridity of current artistic forms reflects growing complexities related to contemporary aesthetics. And, as this book makes clear, the question of living in this post-spectacular moment is also a question of expanded territories. Perhaps, then, this book might be best thought of as an intermission in a rapidly expanding discourse. As some aspects of socially engaged art begin to dissolve into the mainstream, it must also morph, twist and translate itself in order to remain radical. Subversion is not the satirical pointing of an antagonistic finger but an active search into alternative functions and new directions. Socially engaged art is by no means in its infancy, but neither has it reached the urgency of its kaleidoscopic possibilities, an approbation this book manages to maintain.
Tom Snow is a freelance writer and researcher usually based in London.