“Social Practice and Art as Activism: Ways Artists Bring About Change” is the title of a research subject I created for myself. I want focus in my artwork. To that end, I need to address the constant concern and distraction that comes from seeing terrible things happen in the world. Even if I think just about my country, I see us at a breaking point. I see an imminent rupture of stability nationwide, one that’s been building for decades. Do I address it through a solitary studio practice? Or participate in activism? Or make activist artwork? I want measurable and meaningful change in the world.
This inquiry about social practice art begs me to ask myself so many questions: what does this have to do with my work in the studio? Is it because I feel so responsible for helping people that I need to abandon my artwork for social work? Is it because I care about effecting real change? Or because I want to legitimize my artwork through a value that isn’t based in aesthetics or art dialog? Do I just want to tag along in a movement of art that is getting attention?
So, where do I belong in this dialogue? I’m an artist, and I can’t stop being an artist. It’s who I am, it’s what I must do. Still, I want to be a part of something greater than myself. And I don’t want to twist my artwork into something that’s confused or serves ego. I want to make effective artwork. I want truth in my work. And I want to do something about the terrible things I see happening.
I’m overwhelmed by the number of activist issues I could consider in my work. I almost don’t know where to start. Even if I put aside what’s spurred me on for years in my studio, or even the concerns of daily life that influence the narratives in my work, I would not be able to address the exhaustive list of human concerns that demand my attention. Everyone/Everything: hatefulness, bitterness, greed, fear of other, victimization, me-me-me-isms? Economics: homelessness, displacement, corporate greed, consumer greed, environmental abuse? Race: discrimination, profiling, devaluing, false accusations? Feminism: sexism, domestic violence, rape, government intrusion, inequality? Children: disparity in education, physical & sexual abuse, unequal opportunity? Mental health: the stigma, lack of resources, lack of empathy, fear of weakness? LGBT rights: hate crimes, incomplete freedoms, discrimination?
So, how can I use my voice as an artist to serve others?
1.) Evaluate the roots of my current studio practice:
So much of the art I make is deeply personal. I grapple with material, formal, and conceptual elements. I’ve seen things. I’ve experienced things. I need to speak. I articulate myself by using a visual language; I want my work to speak for me. I have a deep interest in how humans relate and respond to each other, what we reveal about ourselves, and how we treat each other. Through the combination of materials, the titles, and the layers of imagery I build into each piece, I create a passive expectation of communication between the work and the viewer. I work to create an experience that draws the viewer in, causing pause, reflection, and contemplation. These are things I do alone in my studio, with a possible goal of having it enter into a larger art dialog through art shows, etc. These are the vehicles I use to push my voice out into the conversation.
2.) Consider the desire to have direct social impact:
As far as I can tell, national issues AND the issues in my artwork are each such massive things to me that I’m personally unable to effectively join the two. While I deeply appreciate work (social work & artwork) that seeks to improve the lives of other people, I’m afraid that if I try to artificially impose an agenda on my studio work, it will deflate. I have years invested in my artwork that is not about having direct social impact. I cannot suddenly make something out of nothing. I can make artwork that gets watered down by the effort to combine the two (with the social impact being minimal), or I can continue the trajectory of my work and additionally, do activist work outside of my art practice.
3.) Pick one social issue & decide on a course of action:
In June, after the Charleston church shooting, I wondered aloud on Facebook what I could do or should do. I looked for a thread that runs through everything that frustrates me. What was one thing I could focus on? I’m already involved in one-on-one connections, I’m already vested in my local community. What impacts all communities, economics, minorities, women, children, mental health, and LGBT? I want big change. So what could that one thing be? Gun violence. I decided to work for gun safety. I have joined the movement for change in gun regulations. I will participate in the conversations that can bring change, as a human, as an artist. I must speak out in some way. For me, participation began with joining a collective organized campaign (Everytown for Gun Safety.) It continues by doing small things (FB posts, trying to have level headed conversations with people who oppose me). Later, it will likely mean participation in group activism.
4.) Leave room for using art to speak out for social impact:
I will keep working in the studio, and this activist work may or may not make it into my artwork. I will let whatever happens in the studio, happen organically. If and when that includes socially engaging work, that is what I’ll do. I can include the tools of activism in the set of materials that build my work, but I will not abandon the work that is coming from within. I will not stifle the voice that seeks to speak out through my work. Will my artwork combine it all? I don’t know. I’m busy in my studio practice, but I have room to use my skills on the side to support the issue (gun safety) that concerns me. I can screen print, I can write, I can be an artist whenever and whatever I do.
By the way, the Public Works show (curated by Christian L. Frock and Tanya Zimbardo) at Mills College Art Museum (through Dec 13) showed me a myriad of ways that artists HAVE used their work for social issues, many of the ones that mean so much to me. It’s exactly the kind of work I want to have in mind, so that if & when I am compelled, the social issues on my mind WILL make their way into a creative means of communication to the masses. I’ve wanted to write more about the show in particular, but I’ve been so overwhelmed by how to approach the idea of social practice artwork in what I do, that I haven’t been able to zero in on the show itself. I can tell you, though, that I went into this show hopeful, and I left inspired. If you are here in the Bay Area, please please go see it. There are so many vehicles for activism on key issues, and they are within our grasp: public performance, video, collaborative projects with communities, public data analysis, websites & social media for showcasing elaborate projects, newspaper ads, business/social cards, stickers for community interaction on walls.. the list goes on. Go see the show! Or buy the book of essays + catalog that go with the show!
(Here are quotes I’ve collected so far on this subject, a work in progress. I have way more underlined in my books than this, so I’ll update when I can.)