Social collaboration in art

How do we judge art made ‘socially’ – and how are we judging it? I’ve recently read a number of pieces that deal with this subject and here I’ve pulled some quotes from three pieces: Claire Bishop in this February’s Artforum and Big RED and Shiny’s interview with Mel Ziegler and review of his and Kate Ericson’s show at MIT List Visual Art Center.

Claire Bishop The Social Turn: Collaboration and its Discontents Artforum February 2006:

But the urgency of this political task has led to a situation in which such collaborative practices are automatically perceived to be equally important artistic gestures of resistance: There can be no failed, unsuccessful, unresolved, or boring works of collaborative art because all are equally essential to the task of strengthening the social bond. …I would argue that it is also crucial to discuss, analyze, and compare such work critically as art.

What serious criticism has arisen…is framed in a particular way: The social turn in contemporary art has prompted an ethical turn in art criticism. This is manifest in a heightened attention to how a given collaboration is undertaken.

…discomfort and frustration…can…be crucial elements of a work’s aesthetic impact…The best examples of socially collaborative art give rise to these—and many other—effects…

It is to this art—however uncomfortable, exploitative, or confusing it may first appear—that we must turn for an alternative to the well-intentioned homilies that today pass for critical discourse on social collaboration. These homilies unwittingly push us toward a Platonic regime in which art is valued for its truthfulness and educational efficacy rather than for inviting us—as Dogville did—to confront darker, more painfully complicated considerations of our predicament.

Micah J. Malone A Conversation with Mel Ziegler Big RED and Shiny 37:

Micah Malone: One of the striking things about the work is the reciprocal process between the budgets, collectors, the constituents within the groups you engage and the final product of your research. Can you elaborate on the entropy with these money exchanges and other things?

Mel Ziegler: Well it’s not always money, sometimes its just pragmatic things like painting somebody’s house or repairing a sidewalk. The financial things happen to be more in relationship with the art market itself.

… I know Kate and I were genuine and I know a lot of the artists in Culture in Action were genuine, but then you also have to deal with how the institution is framing the project and that is a whole other issue.

… So, I think that we knew that the language, this kind of context of the art gallery and museums, was not necessarily a bad thing, it’s where the dialogue happens. But how do you engage it and still do the other work. So, I don’t think we were against one or the other, I think in order to make that work interesting both of those things had to exist. … That was what we always attempted to do, even with our museum projects, to have this dialogue that was beyond the walls …

Christian Holland Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler @ MIT List Big RED and Shiny 37:



Christo’s work also influenced them for what it was not. Ziegler continued, “it is mostly about being big, beautiful and visually expansive. But everything else that goes behind it, all the social aspects of convincing governments, convincing people, convincing land owners…is the most interesting part of it.”



The show’s press release states that, “Ericson and Ziegler worked with people from outside the academy in ways that incorporated voices too often unheard in the world of contemporary art,” but it seems that the people they worked with are actually too often unheard of in general. Eminent Domain is sometimes criticized for appearing in galleries as it is presented only as a paint chart, disassociating the experience of the work’s participants and highlighting only their plight. This is a common problem of a few pieces in the show and many in their body of work; they are leftover pieces of performances or remnants, missing their original context.

There has been a move away from making pieces distinguished from the audience, setting up the art and the audience as two more or less defined and separate entities, to incorporating an audience and their concerns into the production. It’s a very real likelihood that inviting the audience to become involved can lead to exploitation if their set of concerns are not communicated successfully to a future audience, or if the work is presented to the first audience in one way (as being one thing) and is subsequently presented to another audience as being something else, if the perspective changes. Certainly, this becomes problematic in the process of the transferal of the work from the original activity to it’s presentation and documentation.

It’s inevitable that a piece will lose some meanings and gain others once packaged and represented for art-world purposes. Isn’t that what Art does?

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