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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.

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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Chloë Bass

Chloë Bass is a Brooklyn-based conceptual artist working in performance, situations, publications, and installations. Learn more about her at chloebass.com.

11 replies on “Between Theory and Action in Social Practice Art”

  1. Ms. Bass,

    As a Hispanic/Latino artist, I would like to clarify for you and your editor that I am not “a white man.”

    Ernesto Pujol

      1. Thank you. And I’d like to add that you were not present for the 3-day symposium, but only for 1 day (the last day), yet you misrepresent yourself to readers as having been there for the entire event, and then pretend to critique it. That is unethical.

        1. Yes, it’s true that I was there for one day. But I never stated that I was there for three. Additionally, looking at the way the symposium was presented, with the exception of the keynote speaker, who I missed on Thursday, it seems that the other activities were much more secretive and private. So I wonder what of this was even intended for a review. This is a question; I don’t know the answer, maybe you do.

          For the record — and on the record — when I agreed to cover the event, I was upfront from the beginning about when I could and could not be there. SAIC chose to extend the invitation regardless. So this is definitely a mutual effect.

          1. Your article gives readers the impression that you were there for the entire symposium. I am glad that you have clarified that for them. Had you attended the rest of the symposium, or bothered to do your homework and find out about it, you would have learned that, as a whole, it was a culturally diverse event. There was nothing “secretive and private” about it; yet another unfounded statement. Really, Ms. Bass, the only unfolding sense of entitled whiteness here is your own. In professional terms, what you did and stubbornly continue to do is fraudulent journalism, which should get people fired. Enough said.

          2. I don’t see how the article conveys the impression that she was there for the whole time. On top of that, she’s very clear about her subjectivity from the beginning, hence the “what I experienced” line in the very first paragraph. She then goes on to mention race in a single aside in parentheses. I’m not sure where you’re getting a sense of “entitled whiteness,” or where you see for fraudulent journalism in a subjective dispatch about a conference and a show that the writer attended herself in person, or why you are taking such a hostile tone.

          3. I don’t see any questioning of a lack of declared subjectivity. Just that little research was done which is a justifiable source of frustration when Mr Pujol’s participation in an event is reduced to a mealy mouthed and uninformed jab at upholding old paradigms.

          4. I can understand frustration. I was frustrated too. I think a more productive and interesting conversation to have with respect to all of this, in addition to questioning the role of theory within a lived practice, is also questioning the role of criticism within it. We can talk about that! I would love to talk about that. But not in a way that’s a personal attack.

            P.S. I find it mildly humorous — if not to say slightly ironic — that in the end the same mistake was made about me by Mr. Pujol that I made in my initial write-up: I am not white, could not be mistaken for white by anyone, and therefore no matter my opinion, it is probably not a result of entitled whiteness.

          5. I would invite Ms. Steinhauer to reread the opening sentences of the article, in which the author states that she was invited to attend the symposium and never clarifies that she only attended the last day. It is only in a response to me that she finally admits this. Having been part of the diverse process leading up to the event, and of the diverse event itself, a critique that profiles it as lacking cultural diversity is poor journalism. I repeat that Ms. Bass did not do her job and her litany of responses dotted by banal exclamation points are her efforts at saving face. I also think that to describe my critical response as a personal attack is intellectually lazy and makes her call for strong criticism disingenuous. As for the fact that she originally listed me, a Hispanic gay artist, in her reversed-racism list of straight white men, and condescendingly thanked me “for speaking up” (a very unfortunate choice of words), yes, I remain shocked by her entitled “whiteness,” as a political expression.

  2. I was wondering if you attended the exhibit the day before. Personally I thought that was the important part of the symposium (even though it might’ve not been formally introduced into it, the same people were there). Four simultaneous conversations in round tables inside the installations. And then a (less successful) presentation of all the themes talked about… It all relates to the issue of scale. Clearly social practice is only materially (as opposed to symbolically) effective in smaller scales, take Ken Dunn’s “terrific” project…

  3. It’s enough to point out that the presenters were four MEN, five in if you include Lewis Hyde on Thursday. Putting other identities aside for a moment, this was enough to have me scratching my head about the curators’ choices. I’m a part of this Chicago scene, such as it is. And yet, I found the symposium to be targeted to an insular group of people, though I’m not sure who they are/were. I’m guessing they’re the same people who get invited to the meals at Rebuild Foundation, which I have also never managed to penetrate no matter how many times I signed up on their website. I chalk it up to the fact that I’m not a fancy curator, an art star, or a potential donor. To be fair, maybe it’s just that SAIC students, faculty, and staff took priority over the so-called public.

    I went to the talk on Thursday, which was the only thing that seemed truly open to the public. Believe me, I am drowning in announcements from SAIC, so my access to info about their programs is not wanting. Friday’s events were cloaked in mystery and only my SAIC friends who are directly connected to the exhibit seemed to be aware of them. As for the symposium proper on Saturday, I signed up to get email alerts about registration well in advance, but never got an alert (other people told me the same happened to them). When I finally went to the website a few days after registration opened, the registration was closed to a wait list. I’m glad you were able to go and report back. It’s telling how defensive everyone is about your writing about this event. I’m guessing you are not the first to share similar critique(s). To be honest, the symposium sounded like a snoozefest on paper, so I was kind of relieved that I didn’t get in because I would have felt obligated to be there.

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