Social Practice in Questions… Stephen Wright

18th Street Arts Center is pleased to present Social Practice in Questions…a speaker series and publication surrounding inquiries into the nature and promise of Social Practice. These events act as a culmination of independent curator, theorist and educator Bill Kelley Jr.’s yearlong curatorial residency at 18th Street and bring together 6 exceptional thinkers in the field.

Tue. April 9, 7-9 pm, Otis 18th Street Studio, 1657 18th Street Santa Monica, CA 90404

Inversions, Insertions, Implications: A conversation with theorist Stephen Wright

Theorist Stephen Wright lectures on issues of how art is used  – its use value, or its “usology”. Trying to reposition art away from formats that impede its growth, Wright proposes an “escape” from constrictive paradigms. His lecture will reframe art’s usology with in an “epistemology of the south” with primary focus on work from Argentina and the community driven practices that emerged out of the financial crisis of 2001. Followed by open conversation.

Hosted by 18th Street Arts Center in cooperation with Otis College of Art and Design MFA program in Public Practice.

Mapa invertido, drawing by Joaquín Torres García, 1943 [Museo Torres García]



“What is the promise of social practice?”

Steven Wright:

First of all, I think the question should be reposed in the plural —

ie., What are the promises of social practices?

— because otherwise we may on the one hand inadvertently ontologize a fundamentally disparate set of praxes, pigeonholing singular practices under a misleading heading, and on the other hand, end up asserting that there is ultimately one underlying promise. And though modern English doesn’t inflect adjectives to agree with nouns, it seems only fair to bear in mind that “social” should be plural too. In short, the varieties of practices we call social are not just different like apples and oranges, both of which are after all fruit; they have utterly different self-understandings, visibilities, and modes of engagement; the communities of use where they deploy are flattened if they are subsumed under the abstract concept of the “social” or “society”; and though I’m not sure they really “promise” anything per se, their desires and prospects are surely not One, but brim over in countless directions. So, many promises, if any.

I will name four. To restore use value to art. I will call this the “usological promise”. To sunder art from itself. I will call this the “escapological promise.” To renounce performativity in favor of mutualizing (in)competence. I will call this the “generative promise.” To vacate art’s own space and promise for other practices to fill and to fulfill. I will call this the promise of “extraterritorial reciprocity.” My perspective here is from the position of art, for that is where social practices have come from since the notion of “practice” was first introduced into art discourse in the mid-sixties (to replace “works” and more latterly “activity”) in a self-conscious attempt to escape capture as art, that is, just art… For the false promise of autonomous art was that it could have social traction when captured, performatively and thus ontologically, as art. I am advocating the obviously counterintuitive position that one cannot approach the promises of social practices from the perspective of the social, but only from the perspective of art, from which they have nevertheless wrested themselves free, because it is from art that they migrated. They have, if you like, left the land of false promises and false opportunity for what they perceive as the promises of the social — but it is their perception that interests us in trying to name those promises. What promises did art see in migrating southwards, slipping its moorings and making its ways into the shadows of the attention economy? In trading off autonomy for the social; exchanging artworks for practices?

Above all, social practices have sought to escape the crippling prohibition of usership in art. They want to engage socially under the auspices of usership, assert rights of use, restore art’s use value. All of the conceptual architecture of the mainstream artworld is founded upon Kant’s imperative of “purposeless purpose” and “disinterested spectatorship.” Social practices promise to repurpose art, without renouncing art; and they propose to do so by engaging a mode of relationality far more extensive and intensive than spectatorship, and which can perhaps best be described as “usership.” As a category common to social practices, usership stands opposed not only to the conceptual institution of spectatorship (for in social practices there is no spectacle, and hence no spectator, only implicated users) but also to the institution of expert culture (of artists, urban planners, scientists — epistemic chauvinists of every stripe, for whom “use” is always “misuse”) and perhaps more importantly to the institution of ownership. Social practices are unowned and unowning. In a playful way, we might say they are disowning (dissolving ownership’s claims) for from this perspective they began by disowning their own assigned identity as art.

It is for this reason that another of their promises is escapological. They don’t escape in the spectacular (albeit fascinating) manner of Houdini. They simply do not wish to be captured as art. They want to be the real McCoy, without ceasing to understand themselves as art. In other words, they don’t want to be performed as art — they want to foil that performative, to have that capture fail. Throughout modernity, art made wonderful social-transformational promises. And never kept them. Never could. Because it was just art. The promise to sunder art from itself is the promise to escape institutional capture; to escape ideological capture; and to escape ontological capture (as art). But how does this capture occur? It happens performatively — hence these practices promise to escape performative capture.

And this is the essence of the third, generative promise. For if they are not performed as art, then what will become of art? What will become of art’s promise? For all the promises (and real interest in some cases) of performance studies, it is clear that performativity has an inherent blind spot, like any outlook; and in the wake of the ostentatious and inflationary use of that concept in any number of theoretical sauces, it is social practices which have laid its pitfalls bare. What performativity overlooks is what is being performed — and with respect to art practices leaving the sandbox of art for the social, that can be called “competence”. Now after a century of radical deskilling, to speak of artistic competence is to sound suspiciously conservative — at least to the ears of the experts policing the confines of the field. But competence is not to be confused here with artistic métier or skill in the fine arts tradition. In fact it is to be understood as virtually synonymous with incompetence, for the promise of social practice is founded on mutualizing incompetence, inasmuch as only the ingenuousness and ingenuity of incompetence can bring a competence to the fore. As Robert Filliou once famously put it in his equivalency principle, there is in art a fundamental equivalency between the well done, the poorly done, and the not done. One might add that to the list of promises too, I suppose, but I take this generative promise more analogously from Noam Chomsky’s famous distinction between linguistic competence (inherent to all native speakers of a natural language enabling them to distinguish a grammatically coherent speech act from one that is not) and linguistic performance (actualizing that competence in producing speech acts). One need never perform a competence for that competence to exist. This is an extraordinary promise that art can make in its contemporary moment of trans-social migration: it can deploy its (in)competences and self-understanding in social settings far removed from art, without ever performing them as art.

But what happens when art leaves its “own” territory? When it moves into situations of collaboration in other territories? When it migrates south, socially and epistemically speaking? Does it not make a sort of promise through its often conspicuous absence — the way nature abhors a vacuum? This is the promise of extraterritorial reciprocity, a perhaps excessively multi-syllabic way of describing how in leaving its own territory for another, in becoming social practice, art opens up in a gesture of reciprocity a space and perhaps a promise for other social practices to fill and fulfill.


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