Art & Gentrification

Larne Abse Gogarty on the uses and abuses of social practice

Sam Durant, <em>We Are the People</em>, 2003, installed at Project Row Houses in Chicago

Sam Durant, We Are the People, 2003, installed at Project Row Houses in Chicago

If social practice is ‘gentrifying’ community art, as claimed by African-American artist Rick Lowe at the 2013 Creative Time Summit, what is at stake in these two art forms and how is gentrification conceived as mediating between them? Gentrification points to something more specific than recuperation, or co-option, watchwords we commonly associate with the ability of capitalism to claim that which declares an opposition to it, a process particularly pronounced in art and culture through the domestication of various avant-garde movements. In describing social practice as a ‘gentrification’ of community art, Lowe seems less concerned with evoking Situationist sensibilities than with identifying how successful artists who take social relations as their material are required not only to satisfy the state but, increasingly, to approach the market uncritically. If gentrification involves the displacement of oppressed social groups usually delineated upon class or race lines in order to increase property values in previously ‘undesirable’ parts of the city, how does this serve as an analogy for recent developments in social practice?

To begin with it is worth asking what is at stake in the use of the term ‘social practice’ and what this development represents in the field variously labelled as participatory art, relational art, dialogical art, new genre public art, socially engaged art, collaborative art, place-making and, less fashionably as Lowe points out, community art. These rapid nominal shifts represent an array of attempts by scholars, artists and curators to stake their claim to identifying and defining a growing area of art since the early 1990s. However, it is clear that the current gamut of artists, writers and curators at its forefront are associated with a deepening codification and institutionalisation of the field, characterised by the growth of social practice MFA degrees, the heightened art-world visibility of pioneers such as Suzanne Lacy and the commercial success of artists such as Theaster Gates. The slick, TED Talk-style atmosphere of the packed Creative Time Summit, compèred by its cheerleading chief curator Nato Thompson, is also emblematic of this. In Lowe’s account, this corporate professionalism would seem to come at the expense of gentrifying the histories of community art, previously more associated with ever-threatened resources, amateurism and anti-market sentiment, alongside occasionally anti-state politics.

Lowe’s stake in these questions is as the founder of Project Row Houses (PRH), a series of renovated ‘shotgun houses’ in the mostly African-American Third Ward of Houston, Texas. PRH includes community spaces, artists’ residencies and a young mothers’ programme, and is partnered with a Community Development Corporation which acquires property in the neighbourhood and maintains it as low-income housing. PRH is viewed as an exemplary project by many, and Lowe is a well-established figure. I visited the project last year and was struck by how it seemed to act as a nerve centre, or world-unto-itself, abundant with possibilities for experimentation for both residents from the Third Ward and the artists who take up residencies and studios there.

In recent years, comparisons have been made between Lowe and Gates, most notably in a December 2013 New York Times article. The comparison rests on Gates’s avowal of PRH as an inspiration, as well as on their shared choice of medium in renovating public spaces and housing. Though not explicitly addressed so far, one can also see points of commonality in their shared vision of art acting as the metabolism to reimagine what Gates calls ‘black space’. However, the differences between the work of Gates and Lowe tell us much more about why gentrification is a helpful metaphor to describe the current state of social practice. Gates was recently described by Art Review as a ‘populariser’ and the ‘Mick Jagger of social practice’. His rise to prominence – he is represented by White Cube (Reviews AM361, Features AM370) – has been swift since appearing in Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art’s ‘Emerging Artists’ show in 2009. Gates’s social practice work began with refurbishing buildings on Chicago’s South Side and hosting cultural events, which subsequently grew into the Rebuild Foundation, a non-profit redevelopment agency with satellite projects in Omaha and St Louis. This work is linked to Gates’s lucrative studio practice through what he describes as a ‘circular ecological system’ with the renovated buildings partly financed by his commercial success, and the material from those buildings frequently appearing in his sculptures. In contrast, PRH recently scaled back its property holdings as Lowe felt increasingly disconnected from the aesthetic aspect of the project and frustrated by the knowledge that they could never solve the housing crisis in Houston – not that this was what he set out to achieve. Lowe has described Gates as a wildcat businessman and in contrast explained that PRH is not an entrepreneurial venture.

Gates’s ‘circular ecological system’ exposes the vexed nature of ‘usefulness’ within discussions of social practice. Though Gates has largely eluded the usual ethics versus aesthetics debate due to his success in the mainstream art world, his practice readily invites criticism that the ‘usefulness’ of his Rebuild Foundation is based on compliance with a system that perpetuates the social issues it attempts to improve. Put cynically, Gates’s ‘ecological system’ involves the Rebuild Foundation acting as a kind of feel-good money laundering facility for the commercial art world and corporate developers, and this is what enables his status as a ‘populariser’. Furthermore, Gates’s description of his practice as ‘real-estate art’ signals the artist as property speculator; a very different form of work to the usual comparisons made between social practice artists and social workers, educators or researchers. I do not wish to turn Gates from the poster-boy of social practice into the whipping boy; for all its faults, his work draws compellingly on interesting counter-histories and the texture of Chicago across performance, sculpture and installation. Instead, it is important to think through what his prominence tells us about the current state of the field as a whole.

Coming back to Lowe, his talk at Creative Time also touched on how long-running organisations and projects are frequently overlooked in favour of wealthier social practice artists with better resources, educational credentials and affluent networks. In his account, this class differential is strongly racialised in the US and frequently presents the problem of white social practice MFA graduates launching projects in African-American communities without validating the cultural activity already present. In relation to this, the South Side Community Art Center in Chicago has been open non-stop since 1940, acting as an exhibition space, cultural hub and host to art classes. Its roots are in the black radicalism of 1940s Chicago and the New Deal art programmes. It sits roughly five miles away from Gates’s Dorchester Projects and, when I visited in 2012, was run primarily by volunteers on a budget that did not even appear to cover basic repairs. What does it mean when a project like Gates’s establishes a pipeline to profitable financial resources and a cosy relationship with the city’s reactionary mayor, Rahm Emanuel, just down the road? Not to deal with the discrepancy of assets and political clout between similar projects in such proximity involves unwittingly subscribing to the redundancy of trickle-down economics while being blind to the uneven dispersion of power and privilege that operates in the purportedly ‘progressive’ world of social practice. To be sure, this looks very much like gentrification.

Clearly there is nothing inherently radical in the politics of social practice, and instead the present moment represents a troubling shift towards the banal, ‘post-political’ smoothness that typifies the art world at large. This, I believe, epitomises the codification of the field into a medium rather than an experimental strategy or practice, and how this transpired needs further examination. In particular, we need to recognise that the further retrenchment of state provision and deepening recession since 2008 have pushed frequently well-meaning socially engaged artists towards plugging the gap in providing social services where they risk endorsing the logic of austerity. Alternatively, one may be compelled towards closer complicity with private funding and the requirements of capital. At best, in order to have spaces and resources to make their work artists will acquiesce to the utilitarian demands of state and capital; at worst, they will do so through ignorance and apathy. These issues face almost all artists attempting to make a living from their practice today, but are perhaps more intractable for those who produce socially engaged work through a sense that a practice that relates solely to the art world is politically insufficient.

Cuban artist Tania Bruguera has recently made the transition from a performance-based practice within the circuits of the art world to emphasising usefulness in art, seemingly in frustration at the above-stated problem. Her latest project, Immigrant Movement International (IMI), outwardly declares its usefulness and is described as an ‘artist-initiated sociopolitical movement’. Funded by Creative Time and the Queens Museum of Art, IMI began in 2010 and has been largely based at a community space in Corona, Queens. As distinct from social practice, Bruguera titles IMI ‘Arte Útil’, or useful art, and has founded the Asociación de Arte Útil, which lays down eight criteria that projects must meet if they are to be useful. This level of rationalisation serves to obscure the aesthetic meaning or political orientation of IMI and other ‘useful art’ and does little to explain what is special, interesting or better about artists providing social services. Furthermore, Bruguera makes the crucial blunder of failing to clarify what or whom this usefulness is directed towards. The move towards utility thus suffers from the same level of abstraction as ‘ethics’ or ‘aesthetics’ that dominated earlier debates on socially engaged art and fails to pay attention to the materiality of any given project.

However, the main problem with the Asociación de Arte Útil manifesto is the poverty of utilitarianism. Presumably outlining the criteria for artworks that act in the service of those more oppressed than the artist, the benchmarks are mostly set depressingly low along the lines of, for example, a project’s ability to ‘be implemented and function in real situations’. What kind of a ‘real situation’? It is in recognition of this impoverishment that I argue for social practice artists, alongside curators and critics sympathetic or involved in the field, to be bolder in declaring what it is we desire and what we wish to see destroyed. This may also present one opportunity for unifying what is now an unwieldy field. I suggest we strive for a critical agenda which emphasises the importance of works that hold a negation of the presently existing world at their core without merely offering a mimesis of exploitation and alienation. This might be by virtue of just existing in the world as a tentative contradiction to all that surrounds it – PRH would fit that bill – or through being more directly confrontational with the processes that produce the necessity for art that attempts to better social relations.

I will close with some questions: how has this trajectory of participatory art – relational aesthetics, new genre public art, dialogical art, socially engaged art, social practice – unfolded in different environments? What does its current iteration tell us about our present moment? Here, I have only considered examples from the US; how different is the current state of affairs in the UK? To get closer to answering these questions we need a better history that goes beyond the affirmation or negation of social practice within an avant-garde lineage; one that pays serious attention to the conditions that make these works possible and how older forms continue to resonate in the present. To do so would hopefully lead us down a route that works less at the level of analogies – that the critical potential of social practice lies in its ability to reflect either negatively or positively our current reality – whether that be the brutality of contemporary capitalism or the possibility for new forms of sociality. Bruguera has stated that: ‘I don’t like art that points at a thing. I like art that is the thing.’ In being ‘the thing’, the possibility of imagining ‘things’ we don’t yet know about is reduced and we risk losing sight of the compelling proposal in the Asociación de Arte Útil criteria to ‘re-establish aesthetics as a system of transformation’. That transformation, at its best, might create dynamic fantasies of abolishing the system that produced those aesthetic experiences. As a starting point, it is important to recognise that at present it is difficult to wrest any concept of use value from that of exchange value, an imbrication which social practice artists will be increasingly compelled to uphold if they do not question the very logics and material realities which currently sustain the field.

Larne Abse Gogarty is a writer and research student in the history of art department at UCL.

First published in Art Monthly 373: February 2014.

Sponsored Links