Articles

Learning Omaha: Social Practice in Action (Part 3)

by Chloë Bass on August 13, 2014

Chloë Bass's Urban Design Lab exhibition at the Bemis Center, including the Department of Local Affairs (all photos by the author/Hyperallergic)

All photos of Chloë Bass and Teal Gardner’s Urban Design Lab exhibition at the Bemis Center, including the office of Bass’s Department of Local Affairs (all photos by the author/Hyperallergic)

Editors’ note: This is the second in a four-part series by the author exploring what it’s like to learn a place through the creation of a social-practice artwork. Read parts 1 and 2.

OMAHA — I walked from Nebraska to Iowa this morning, over the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge. This is something I’ve done a few times since arriving in Omaha, actually. It’s not as dramatic as it sounds, only about the distance from the west side of Manhattan into New Jersey. It’s funny that New York, which has so much pedestrian infrastructure, hasn’t made a walking bridge from state to state, while Nebraska, which generally doesn’t, has. The “ped bridge,” as it’s affectionately known, is one of the only places in Omaha where I can find the thing I tend to like best about cities: a wide range of people enjoying the same activity — if not quite together, then at least in parallel. Couples strolling hand in hand. Tourists taking photos. A girls’ track team running to the end of the bridge, quickly turning around, and returning back to Nebraska.

Urban Design Lab exhibition (click to enlarge)

Urban Design Lab exhibition (click to enlarge)

The walk concluded the week of putting together the Urban Design Lab exhibition, which will remain on view at the Bemis Center through this fall. The exhibition is as much of a platform as it is a “show”: elements of classroom design became exhibit design not in the often overplayed social practice standard of keeping class notes on view, but with a bit more intention. All furniture remained consistent in the room, which means tables that were first workspace are now display space. Empty shelves carry wall text explaining our work, as well as the books and movies that informed that work. Student group projects produced after workshops with local artists and urban planners are shown alongside the Department of Local Affairs office. Everything has been more or less maintained in order to prolong and engage discovery.

IMG_2639This space is intended to maintain honesty about the things I have and have not learned about Omaha through the process of working with the Urban Design Lab teen researchers. It’s a space for interaction, so far quite successful. Coming downstairs from my studio at the Bemis Center to the exhibition, I often notice people lingering, touching things, reading the wall notes (personal maps, pamphlets, reviews, and advice) submitted to the Department of Local Affairs. During the opening, a much younger visitor, when asked what the most important thing about Omaha was to her, drew me a picture of her teddy bear. Even the audience’s arrival at the opening was informative: they came exactly on time, ready to learn and to listen, and reached critical mass 15 minutes after the announced start time. While this feels strange by native New York standards, there was something really pleasant about such a readiness for celebration.

(click to enlarge)

(click to enlarge)

A commenter on a previous post asked how the Department of Local Affairs, in process, is different from science class (she used slightly different words, but you can see the whole thing here). My answer is that it isn’t: art, like science, is a space for experimentation; art, like science, also follows a specific process — although in the case of art, this is more specific to individual products or craft techniques, rather than standardized across an entire field. Social practice does not fall outside of this equation. But recording process can be boring; just because a work results from an engaging, ongoing dialogue doesn’t mean all the steps that went into it are already, automatically and perfectly, The Work. I see social practice more as a methodology — or a series of intersecting methodologies —used to produce art. These methodologies and the results they produce are inseparable, but they are not identical. But perhaps social practice gets closer to an equivalency between the two than other art forms: a balance between what we see and how we know it was made becomes essential in any reading.

In writing about my process, it’s my hope to fold what I’ve learned — in the city, in the classroom, and in the comments — into both the documentary record and my desire to make that process better. Publicity, in this sense, is a form of accountability, something that I think social practice very much ethically needs. It’s easy enough to fudge things for a single photo. Or, more loosely: in all art, there is editing, but I think the demands of a public, or even a public-ish, practice include holding both The Work and the process up for scrutiny.

IMG_2637Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to a $4.50 movie: a particularly Omaha delight.

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