In order to properly follow up on my experience with Creative Time’s social practice summit, and given my heretofore lack of involvement with #OccupyWallStreet protests, I was pretty much obligated to visit Creative Time’s Living As Form exhibition at the historic Essex Street Market. I mean, the art included, for the most part, is all about progressivism and alternative modes of operating within our faulty society. And community! I love that word, community! As a dutiful citizen of the world, surely taking in an exhibition dedicated to valuing people doing stuff together over commercially-based, materialized practice would amount to me contributing something, somehow. Right?
I arrived at the exhibition space on Sunday too late to participate in one of the Lower East Side walking tours that the Dutch duo Bik Van der Pol had organized for the day. Based on the description of the tours on Creative Time’s exhibition site, the tours are rooted in the history of the neighborhood’s urban development (or lackthereof) and social movements, particularly the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area. I also caught the middle of the Barter 101 workshop and didn’t want to interrupt to join. I felt guilty for missing such obvious opportunities for conversation and learning, but there was still so much more to experience, and can’t I be a good person just for having gone?
My first stop was at the OurGoods booth, which is heavily papered with flyers with requests and offers for goods and services, each sheet with little rip-off tabs of contact information. Along with the non-competitive MARKET set up by Chicago-based group Temporary Services, among other practices that encourage bartering or collective pooling of resources, I considered these efforts as in alignment with the protesters at Wall Street, as they resist out of control capitalism by creating spaces for alternative economies. I took a few tabs with the intentions of emailing the individuals to help them with their projects, feeling determined to help, if limited in my means to do so.
I nodded appreciatively at the bare-bones aesthetic: larger project and social booths are constructed from cinderblocks, while smaller projects consisting of books, photos and videos are displayed on industrial steel shelving units, like the kind you could buy at a hardware or restaurant-supply store. No efforts were made to hide the decay of the building. Paint peels off the walls and the cold cement floor is splotchy and exposed. Several videos are shown in pre-existing structures within the building, what could have been storage rooms or perhaps refrigeration units.
From the outside, the building looks unkempt, perhaps abandoned, until you notice the spiffy Creative Time sandwich boards and Carolina Caycedo’s neon installation “Blessings” above the Essex Street entrance. The whole exhibition functions like a site-specific installation, with many references to the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area and other elements of the social history of the area.
As I wandered alone around the space, I retreated further into passivity. Overwhelmed by the variety and quantity of projects included – the website boasts over one hundred – I found it easy to just skim the texts and half-heartedly watch videos. I was jolted out of my headspace when the men from Thin Air Cable, dedicated to poetry DVD distribution, attempted to engage me in conversation. As I nervously stammered and shuffled away from them, failing to even get their names, I became suddenly self-conscious of my willingness for detachment. I wanted to walk around the exhibition space quietly and alone. I wanted to continue pick up the free newspapers and zines at my leisure, knowing full well I’d likely keep them without reading much and eventually stack them in the recycling bin. I wanted to keep enjoying the fact of being there without the responsibility to actually say or do anything.
These desires for solitariness seem out of line with the driving values of community and participation central to the exhibition. “Whose fault is this?” I wondered. Do I blame myself for not being open and actively participating, or the artists for not effectively inspiring the will to participate?
The projects range from those where participation can be immediate, like Mel Chin’s Fundred Dollar Bill campaign, where exhibition visitors can create their own bills on location or online to contribute to the larger appeal to Congress for lead-free soil in New Orleans, to Fallen Fruits’s comment-emblazoned jam jars, the counter-reaction to the reaction of previous activities of theirs in Los Angeles. This broad scope of engagement is ambitious, but presents a challenge: are visitors meant to consider each included project as a document of its occurrence, or as the thing itself? Are visitors implicated by the choices they make regarding participation at the exhibition, or does the responsibility fall on the artists? Or is it the responsibility of the curator for providing the context? Are we all necessarily implicated by virtue of claiming citizenship of the world?
When “living as form” is the overarching philosophy, and life becomes art, it seems to follow that art also becomes life. Taking in art is what we are doing, and thus, what we are living. The safe distance of criticality is shortened when participation is a key element of the work. This contrasts greatly with the passive manner in which I’ve been previously, unknowingly trained to experience art: it is created and we see it, and the most active aspect of the process as a viewer is of interpretation. For many of these socially engaged works, interpretation, my consideration of the piece, is almost beside the point. The point is less what the artwork makes one think or feel, but rather what those resulting thoughts and emotions make one do.
I’ve been so used to expectation of experiencing an exhibition somewhat passively that I ended up experiencing Living As Form as a historicizing exhibition and less of a platform for on-going practice. While it’s important to value these projects through historicization, however complicated that may be, the impetus is also there for some of these included projects, especially the tours and workshops and barter stations, to be the living projects in action. Living As Form functions dually, challenging pre-standing conventions in curating and viewership simply by incorporating these socially challenging practices.
The question of displaying work so ephemeral or intangible revisits concerns of documenting performance art from a generation ago. However, unlike their predecessors, the dematerialized form itself isn’t the institutional critique, although institutional critique is a part of many of these works. The resulting exchanges post-barter, the knowledge gleaned from a conversation or workshop, the appeal for legislation, the public grounds analyzed or reclaimed – these effects of the form are the critique, are the artwork. Exploring these forms and topics in such a forum is not new, but continues to remain relevant as public practice and curatorial projects with discursive platforms continue to gain currency.
I can’t give myself any “good person” or “active politicized citizen” points just for having visited Living As Form, but at least the exhibition gave me the space and food for thought to challenge my hypocritical passivity. It’s still not too late to actually do something.
Creative Time’s Living as Form continues until October 16 at the historic Essex Street Market (southeast corner of Essex and Delancey Streets, Lower East Side, Manhattan).
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