Between Theory and Action in Social Practice Art

Wolfgang Zumdick presenting at SAIC's Lived Practice symposium
Wolfgang Zumdick presenting at SAIC’s Lived Practice symposium

CHICAGO — Two weekends ago I was invited to attend the Lived Practice symposium held by the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The symposium — which asked the central question “Can life be an art practice?” — was part of a series of programs connected with A Proximity of Consciousness: Art and Social Action, the current exhibition at SAIC’s Sullivan Gallery. That social practice is difficult to define is not a new problem. However, what I experienced was not so much a confusion of terms but a confusion of time: a series of talks that demonstrated the divide produced by the slowness of theory pitted against an active practice.

Chicago prides itself, and rightly so, on a long and active history of social/lived practice. Speaking with assistant curator Kate Zeller, I learned that the specific goal of having the symposium was to figure out what kinds of conversations people are “ready to be having” about the field: talks that go beyond the question of whether or not social practice is art. As such, SAIC invited philosophers to present: Crispin Sartwell, Ken Dunn, Wolfgang Zumdick, and Ernesto Pujol. (It is worth noting, in a field that hurts less for diversity than some other creative arenas I could name, that three invited experts were white men.) Yet the conversations offered were neither new nor ground breaking, but echoes of conversations I’ve heard a million times before. Sartwell’s talk, which started off the day, was a tired rehash of whether or not we can accept pop culture as an art form. Ken Dunn told the story of his Chicago Resource Center — a terrific urban greening project that was neither presented nor interpreted as art. The conversations were a litany of tropes: inevitable (and irrelevant) references to Detroit, debates about what really constitutes authenticity, even the ubiquitous use of a blackboard — essential to every social practice show, including some of my own.

SAIC_Temporary Services_1
Temporary Services, “Publishing Clearing House” (2014). Installation view in A Proximity of Consciousness: Art and Social Action, Sullivan Galleries, Chicago. (photo by James Prinz)

Yet A Proximity of Consciousness is a beautiful exhibition: well curated, stunningly installed, engaging and smart. After a day spent at a symposium that left me tired, visiting the show was so inspiring I almost wept. The show reflects both the ongoing, live nature of the practice itself, and the deep knowledge that curators Mary Jane Jacob and Kate Zeller have acquired through their long-term engagement with the field. More than half of the artists in the show are SAIC graduates, and it’s a legacy that would make any school proud: Pablo Helguera, J. Morgan Puett, Laurie Jo Reynolds, Rirkrit Tiravanija, and Inigo Manglano-Ovalle. Each of the projects presented — from a live fish and Iraqi weapon installation by Michael Rakowitz to the publishing offices of Temporary Services to Pablo Helguera’s Addams-Dewey Gymnasium, which honors the legacy of John Dewey — captures the best of social practice: as an engaged process that, in its openness, creates aesthetically and philosophically beautiful results. The work is living: it has the flexibility to breathe and grow. Who participates — and how we participate — will have a specific impact not on defining the projects, but enlivening them.

What is lost between the power of the work and the dullness of the lecture hall? Is it that life? Maybe if we think of writing — of theory itself — as a kind of lived practice, the imbalance will begin to correct itself. What if critical ideas, like the best social practice, could go out into the world without the expectation of certain outcomes? Social practice, where outcomes must be far from pre-determined in order for a project to be truly successful, still seeks to be an established field: a historical moment, and a solidified one. How can theory around it help to do that while still maintaining a rigorous ephemerality?

I think the question is not what conversations we’re ready to be having about social practice, but how we’re ready to be having them. I am looking forward to the symposium that allows for a flexibility of theory around social practice: theory that forms itself by being in the world, not before it gets there.

A Lived Practice took place at the Art Institute of Chicago on November 6–8. A Proximity of Consciousness: Art and Social Action remains on view at the Sullivan Gallery (33 S. State Street, Seventh Floor, Chicago) through December 20.

Editor’s note: the organizers of this event provided the writer with airfare and lodging.

Correction: This article originally stated that all four philosophers invited by SAIC are white men. That is incorrect; only three are. It has been fixed.

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