Chris Kraus: Social Practices
If the last decade or so of social practice art has presented artists with different ways of working in the world—not unaffected by history, not without compromise or complicity with the art world, not without material—then Social Practices by Chris Kraus, published by Semiotext(e), takes a different position. Kraus's book is not about social practice art, necessarily, but her selection of essays and interviews unfolds social practice projects and some of the persistent debates that come to occupy its discursive and critical sites. The collection is composed of previously published essays and interviews written over thirteen years (although some of the events take place in the 1990s). It is cut through with tensions of art world success, premature death, and the social and economic issues confronting artists and culture at large—displacement, gentrification, debt—along with questions of how artists are to live and work within these conditions. Kraus exposes the visible cracks of social practice and the institutional structures on which they hinge. Her writing is conversational yet critical, engaged yet incisive, with elements of chance, memory, and travel animating each entry. Instead of chronicling each essay, I follow some of the patterns of social practice she forms throughout the collection, as well as her writing about Los Angeles and environs, highlighting successes and failures of the genre.
The term "social practice" itself has its roots in psychology and refers to how one's practice engages with social contexts through activities and critical inquiries: it's a methodology, a way of doing things. Coupled with "art," social practice takes the "social" as its medium, in form and content (engaging with societal, economic, and political issues) and involves finding new ways to work with communities, audiences, and publics on short- and long-term projects. As historian Grant Kester has pointed out, it has become the institutionalized version of socially and politically engaged artwork and arguably also the community arts tradition. It stems from a desire to create art that makes a difference, to be relevant as an artist, to form alternative economies, and to find a way out of the highly commercialized art world.
Social practices constitute an aggregation of methods, and Kraus argues this is partially due to a professionalizing of art and the dissolution of the humanities. As a consequence, these orphaned disciplines migrated to the fine arts, distinctive from community arts, but more relevant than the "social utopias" and gallery-based work of Nicholas Bourriaud's relational aesthetics. And so, in 2005, California College of the Arts' Art & Social Practice MFA was born filled with well-intended students—artists, activists, and designers clamoring on about participation, social justice, intervention, community, publics, and aesthetics. As social practices gained popularity, projects that sometimes do nothing more than create temporary situations, often rather convivial, and which have been absorbed into participatory culture, have become the face of this genre. This shift, for Kraus, has led to a lack of credibility, causing many artists to distance themselves from its nomenclature while still benefiting from the commercial and educational structures supporting the discipline. Thus the term "socially engaged art" is used more often, which mandates a social or political engagement (though all social practices need not be political); it's not political art, but doing art politically.
Kraus's case studies unfold against the mysterious geography of Los Angeles, so vast and filled with promise and lost dreams. She excavates LA's 1990's art scene as it transformed from artistic outpost to the global city it has become. "A Walk around the Neighborhood" takes readers through Mt. Washington (an artist enclave northeast of Los Angeles) to stand on the balcony of a Craftsman Bungalow and encounter artist Delia Brown and her Pastorale—a rumative film about youth and privilege—as we bask in the California sun. In Highland Park, we meet artist Daniel Mendal-Black as he details the changing nature of his gentrifying neighborhood. Down through Chinatown and Bunker Hill we pass through Joel Mesler's gallery Pruess Press and learn about how, in the early 2000s, musicians and artists gathered and recorded on their own terms, in defiance of the music industry during a time before the area's redevelopment. Her journey chronicles the way artists witness, document, and respond to these shifts in their neighborhoods. The performative, collective, or communal artwork finds its roots in cultural traditions tethered to the local.
"Kelly Lake Store" describes a project (ultimately rejected by the Guggenheim Foundation) in Minnesota where Kraus proposed making a country store into an artwork. The store would highlight the depopulation and dereliction of small towns across the U.S. and include an operating business on the vacant lot, bringing students in to participate and local residents to work the shop. Her Guggenheim proposal resonates with many artists whose practices draw attention to and hope to ameliorate pressing issues confronting urban and rural communities. Kraus's essay suggests students enter MFA programs to become teachers, archivists, and small business owners because these types of community-centered activities are no longer valued, but find visibility in contemporary art's elastic discourse and definition.
"Radical Localism" confronts the specific challenges facing border towns. Kraus presents a portrait of Marco Vera's Mexicali Rose, a neighborhood center with long time ties to the area. The center programmed video classes, art exhibitions, and a film club in Pueblo Nuevo near the Mexicali border. Mexicali Rose lasted five years, and during that time, it "strengthened existing ties amongst residents of the Pueblo Nuevo community and created a larger one of its own." These aren't artists coming in to do work (the proverbial "fly in fly out" kind); they are from the area, invested in maintaining what is quickly disappearing.
Understanding if and how a given social practice project evolves and has impact over time with local populations has been a persistent question for artists working in this capacity. Lost Properties explores debt with the Rolling Jubilee, a group of activists and artists who help eliminate student and medical debt, raising money to buy debt for a fraction of the actual value, and then abolishing it. Kraus follows Thomas Gokey, a founding member of Rolling Jubilee, from his early career at LibraryFarm with partner Meg Backus, to his time with Occupy Wall Street, to his founding of Rolling Jubilee. Elsewhere in the essay, Kraus's details Felicia von Zweigbergk's Lost Property, located in a low income primarily immigrant neighborhood in Amsterdam. The artist-run space functioned as a conceptual bar and for Kraus, defied the do-gooder model where artists come from outside and try to fix a neighborhood. Now defunct, the space did not attempt to change its surroundings; there was no community outreach nor did they feature neighborhood art. "The project makes no spectacular claims and remains free of embarrassing zeal about nonexistent communities." Instead it acknowledges the only true common ground shared by immigrant tenants and artists: "all would prefer to be elsewhere."
An essay from 2018, "The Happy Beneficiary," lands us in Wellington New Zealand, and it is here where I found her critique of social practice the most explicit. For The Beneficiary's Office, Tao Wells set up a public relations company called The Wells Group, which asserted that the average unemployed person has a smaller carbon footprint and consumes less, therefore causing less harm to the planet. This argument ignited debate, and many in the local community did not see or understand it as an artistic provocation. Summarizing Tao Wells's work, she writes, "his community conceptualism has little in common with the intention contemporary art genre knows as 'social practice.' He won't be moving on to the next international site of misery… Like Mexicali Rose, and artists who've exhibited at Mexicali Rose, Wells is a permanent member of the community he interacts with." This may be a fair assessment, but I'd argue there are powerful short term works (for example, in 2006 Paul Chan staged four outdoor performances of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot in the New Orleans neighborhoods worst hit by Hurricane Katrina). Public responses to the work give focus to the challenges faced when audiences experience a social practice project but are unaware of it as art. For Kraus, Wells's work illustrates how bound activism and art have become, doing what traditional activists' tactics alone could not. More explicit activist work is common motivation for artists working in this genre, and I would suggest the creative forms of activism occupy one end of the spectrum of social practice art.
Another aspect of social practices is the presentation of the bohemian counterculture artist, which Kraus explores in the work of Ryan McGinley in "Pseudofiction, Myth and Contingency." In the late 1990s, McGinley, while himself in his early-twenties, photographed his friends, capturing youth from New York's Lower East Side. His decidedly bohemian, sometimes naked, but expressively free images define his work through the 2000s (described by the artist as "pseudofiction"). They form, for Kraus, "the haphazard elements of everyday life to create an incandescent illusion of freedom and beauty." Many of these pseudofictions harken back to a 1970's lifestyle, a time when artists were "unburdened by debt or career, countless young people simply traveled, and an 'artistic life' could be lived without being professionalized." Kraus draws on Roland Barthes's Mythologies to understand how such imagery can "convey a sense of the real" and subsequently hold up false constructions about how artists can and should be able to live.
"It's Very Sad, Really," a conversation with poet and critic Quinn Latimer considers how, as a genre, social practices (along with other wayward disciplines) appropriates, subverts, and borrows from other professions and disciplines by using critical theory to trespass into other disciplines, finding refuge in an institutionalized art structure that is willing to embrace "reduced and simplified" strays of the humanities. For Kraus, the "art world" now stands in for any remnants of a counterculture since the former needs a welcoming home and the latter has been commodified, now requiring art's ability to offer counternarratives. The limitations of art-based research and the post-MFA impulse to excavate some sort of meaning in well-intended projects is made explicit as she reflects on her experience with the Concord Collective. As Kraus points out, artists whose projects "pass" in the art world, yet remain on the fringe, may well be the only remaining counterculture, where activism can flourish and reinvigorate political and socially engaged art; both protected by and complicit with the structures that define them.
Kraus's portrait of Los Angeles is in some ways analogous to my understanding of social practices—the inability to grasp it fully, only ever glimpses, whether it be the art project itself, its effect, or the people for whom it's designed. The vastness, the promise Los Angeles's artistic culture had before it faded is akin to the promise the social practices genre had; both are now at risk of being swallowed by marketable residencies, MFAs, grants, and of fading away when the next genre steals the spotlight.
With such a heavy suspicion for what the genre now includes, Social Practices as a title didn't make sense for this collection, unless we see it as her social practice, made explicit in the last line of the book, where Kraus proclaims, "Write when you can. Your letters are welcome." So I did, to ask about the title. In her response, she claims the title is, "sort of a joke, and also a statement: that art always involves a 'social practice' of some sort . . . trying to redeem those two words from the prissy genre it's come to connote." The educational structures that support social practice engender critical thinking, ethical acts, and formalized processes. Released from institutional bounds, artists go into the world and try and change it. While some are misguided and "prissy," I'd contend that many find their professionalized degrees better position them to function in a neoliberal economy and able to link up with the remaining counterculture.