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Artistic License
Author: Su Yim
Posted: January 18, 2012


Social practice combines with art for an experience that pulls people in and gives them something unexpected.

ARTIST CARMEN PAPALIA has lived with progressive vision loss all his life. As the 29-year-old Portlander became legally blind, he explored his disability in poetry and essays. But Papalia knew he wanted to do more.

“Disability art is usually directed at people with disability, but why not present it to contemporary art audiences and institutions?” he asks.

That premise led to his art project of the past year: walking tours in three different cities where participants lined up behind Papalia, closed their eyes, and followed him through city streets, parks, and nature areas.

Papalia, a student in the University’s Art and Social Practice master’s program, knows that his project covers unusual territory for those who think about art in more traditional terms. But art as social practice, also known as socially engaged art, represents a growing wave of highly interactive, collaborative public art that often combines unexpected disciplines, such as economics and food or social work and education. For example, artist Eric Steen MFA ’09 worked with 15 homebrewers to create a public class to explore beer culture and economics in Glasgow, Scotland. Their 30 craft beers were served for free at a bar Steen built in Glasgow, as a means of engaging people in the process and artistry behind beer.

At last year’s Conference on Art and Social Practice put on annually by PSU, Nashville artist Jonathan Paul Gillette hosted “What Are You Running From-Athon” at the Buckman Park running track. To register, runners filled out a questionnaire that asked what drove them to run, and Gillette hired three counselors to help people confront what they were fleeing.

THE DEFINITION of social practice is intentionally broad, with more focus on the artists’ intentions and the creative process rather than the final product.

In social practice art, it’s all about a new, creative flow, says PSU art professor Harrell Fletcher, who started the social practice program in 2006. Rather than all the attention and energy focusing in one direction, from a “genius” artist to his “masterpiece,” as it does in traditional art, social practice art is more inclusive. An artist may choose to work with individuals in a neighborhood. For example, one group of artists set up a screen printing shop in a local library to help community members and organizations print posters, bulletins, and T-shirts to increase communication about their events. “You can create art that is relevant to people in the community,” Fletcher says.

The idea isn’t new. Social practice as a term used in art started about eight years ago, says PSU art professor Jen Delos Reyes, who teaches a course on the history of art and social practice in the program. But its predecessors include the 1920s Dada movement, which combined various practices, such as mixing theater and publications. The Intermedia Society in 1960s Canada worked to create experimental artists’ workshops, performances, and exhibitions. 

Today, social practice is especially relevant in a highly digital age filled with social media, says Allison Agsten, curator of public engagement at UCLA’s Hammer Museum. “There is something about the element of human-to-human contact that is incredibly precious right now,” she says.

SOME MUSEUM curators may struggle with finding a place for social practice in the art world. Papalia says a gallery curator in Vancouver, B.C., lost all interest in him once he explained his social practice approach. Agsten acknowledges that some museums don’t understand the artistic merit of some projects. But others, like Hammer and the Portland Art Museum, see opportunities to foster dialogue with visitors through social practice pieces.

In October, the Portland Art Museum’s Shine a Light third annual one-day exhibit expanded conventional conceptions of art to include tattooing based on art from its collection, art-inspired recipes from local chefs, and Papalia’s walking tour. PSU students and faculty planned most of the exhibits.

Social practice also provides different opportunities for making a living through art, Fletcher says. “I don’t see the studio/gallery model as a sustainable practice,” he explains. Overall, few artists score gallery shows—although that is the aspiration taught in many art programs. The system also keeps art in controlled environments.

In contrast, Fletcher says social practice artists can find funding through grants for specific projects. He and Delos Reyes point to prominent artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles of New York City, who established a project in the 1970s to shake hands with every member of the city’s sanitation department. The project led to his long-term relationship with the city as an artist-in-residence. 

In Portland, PSU students Molly Sherman and Nolan Calisch have partnered to combine agriculture, social work, and education into artist-in-residence positions with New Seasons Market, the Portland area grocery chain. The two will interview local farmers who supply the stores with produce and share audio from the interviews with shoppers at the Concordia store, Sherman says. The project is an outgrowth of their Farm School project, which educates people about the source of their food.

Sherman, who moved from New York to attend PSU’s Art and Social Practice program, has long been interested in education and says she would be excited to work in a high school teaching art. Rather than apply for a master’s in education, she chose the art approach because it gives her flexibility for unconstrained creativity, she says. She sees hope in how other artists have sustained themselves through grants and other funding. 

Agsten agrees that art as social practice has a promising future as a new way for artists to work and for audiences to experience art. 

 “I have more and more conversations about social practice, and how to formalize the museum’s role in fostering this kind of work,” she says. “It’s almost certain we’re going to see more really thoughtful work in the future with much more visibility.”

Su Yim, a graduate assistant in the PSU Office of University Communications, wrote “Business as Art” in the Fall 2011 Portland State Magazine. Photos by Tyler Brain

Top photo: Art student Jason Sturgill arranged for two tattoo artists to ink visitors with designs inspired by works in the Portland Art Museum.

Second photo: No one will ever think of a museum as stuffy once they have square danced just yards from its collections, reason Portland State art students, who organized the event at the Portland Art Museum.

Third photo: Students invite the public to drink beer and talk art at Session with a Stranger during this year’s Shine a Light one-day exhibit at the Portland Art Museum.

Fourth photo: Museum goers also receive art-inspired haircuts or, for the timid, don wigs modeled after museum pieces, a project of student artist Lexa Walsh.