Claudia Mesch / Visual Culture

Participating & Compromising

Are we at a point where art is simply morphing into low-cost home improvement or public education programming?

Feasting on the Street

One disturbing development of ‘participation’ in the artworld is the opportunistic hijacking of what’s been called social practice art by business interests and by these same art institutions as they attempt to stretch their budget dollars just that bit more.

Years ago Claire Bishop already talked about the sometimes odd compromises that arise between artists and museum/galleries in the name of what used to be called relational aesthetics, and that has now developed into social practice art. Bishop wonders about the implications of artist Liam Gillick’s artworks, for example. With no apparent objection on the part of the artist, Gillick also uses his art to address the practical concerns of the patron/client, such as in completing the design for a needed intercom system in a housing project. I wonder about another artist’s ‘decorating’ of a dingy museum employee lunchroom by means of some cheerful—and beautifully realized—wall paintings (that I observed recently). From what I could gather, no museum labels routed museum visitors to this site, nor identified the origin of these paintings. Frequently, artists now also take over the function of what traditionally had been carried out by museum Education Departments, by designing in-museum projects for visiting school children or staging family-day events on the aforementioned Saturdays. If it is not too sacrilegious to suggest it, are we at a point where art is morphing into low-cost home improvement or public education programming, in the name of participation and/or social practice?

A potentially teachable moment occurred last spring, during the widely anticipated visit of the social practice artist Clare Patey to Phoenix, Arizona. Patey is of course well known for her wildly successful staging (or ‘curating’ as she calls it) of the ‘Feast on the Bridge’ events in London over many years. These community events take back the street/bridge for pedestrians, and teach about local ecosystems and local food production while offering free food and general conviviality to community participants. These London events have been celebrated as ideal instances of social practice art, and even utopian moments of community building.

As I learned in reading news reports and bloggers on the event, it was perhaps the idealism that surrounded the ‘Feast on the Street’ event in Phoenix that led some to believe that food would be free at the event (even in London participants could purchase plates from organizers on which they were served the entrees on offer.) Many in Phoenix were surprised to find food trucks from a number of local establishments lined up at the event instead, along with catering from nearby restaurants. The trucks served food for purchase, including hot dogs and hamburgers; several of the trucks ran out of food before the official seating time to dine at the blocks-long table had arrived.

I can forgive a level of disorganization during such a large event; and there were a lot of good things that happened during the event, like the presence of SeedBroadcast, Valley Permaculture Alliance and GMO Free Arizona. If Patey was able to pull off these huge London events for years, I wonder why this smaller scale one in Arizona was more difficult. The main point of the feast—to educate on local and alternative food (‘locally grown, prepared, and sourced foods’ as a press release declared)—was forgotten in the process somewhere. The promotion of local restaurants and fast food seemed instead to be a major impetus (behind the food trucks).

The simple conviviality of a shared dinner has defined social practice art from its beginnings. Patey took this idea to the street in order to bypass the (art) gallery system, with an eye toward a larger public good. I fear however that with this step of exiting the art world earlier participation art’s critique of art and art institutions disappears. Compare the feast event to the early meal-based artworks of Rirkrit Tiravanija (for example). Tiravanija’s performance/events still delivered some critique. In the smaller urban center of Phoenix, city sponsorship of public festivals lags far behind London, a European art center. The Phoenix event appeared to foreground local marketing and promotion. That’s no different than dozens of events staged in countless cities by commercial concerns every weekend.

Particularly social practice artists need to guard their work against this kind of appropriation. They otherwise are on the cusp of where they cease to be artists and no longer make art. The conviviality they produce as social practice is then no longer readable as art or practice. They are instead absorbed into any number of new local marketing ventures, or into some kind of unpaid internship—another experience economy phenomenon. Social practice art needs to be careful of the alliances it sets in place, and realize that if it is to survive, it quite desperately needs the art world it is rather blithely leaving behind. ■

Art and PoliticsClaudia Mesch is Associate Professor at the School of Art, Arizona State University, and her new book, Art and Politics: A Small History of Art for Social Change Since 1945, is out now.

Top image: Clare Patey’s Feast table in London. Photo: Barry Lewis

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