What's up with social practice art?

arts / Article

Gallery visitors with completed Fundreds at McColl Center for Art + Innovation.

Social practice art, often also called interactive art or participatory art, in some way encourages the viewer to engage directly with the art or artist by either forcing viewers’ physical actions, manipulating their senses, or sharing creative expression with them. This type of art has been on the rise since the 1970s, with much earlier precedents like the Surrealists hands-on events in Paris; the “Happenings” of Allan Kaprow in the 1950s and ’60s; the feminist art of Miriam Schapiro and Judy Chicago in "Womanhouse"; or Graciela Carnivale’s "Experimental Art Cycle."

Nonetheless, social practice art has become more mainstream with college art programs even offering concentrations in social practice. This popularity is hardly surprising given the “plugged in” nature of our culture and our habitual interactivity. Social practice art appeals to us. Why it appeals to artists as a mode of artistic practice may seem more obscure.

Much of these artworks are aimed at raising awareness of social and environmental problems, alleviating these conditions, and empowering people to create change. The noble intentions of social practice artists with activist goals cannot be dismissed as hyperbole.

Proponents of social practice art suggest that artists choose this method in rejection of the art market. The ephemeral nature of much of this artwork with little salable material supports this argument. Furthermore, this choice may be a reaction against the excesses of individualism. Modern art upheld individual expression as the pinnacle of artistic endeavor, so a swing away from this seems reasonable in contemporary art.

A recent conversation I had with multimedia installation artist Samantha Hill about practicing what she terms “experiential art” supports these arguments. “I’m interested in these philosophical discussions and interpretations of culture,” she said, “but I’m doing it in the art realm. I throw out a question to start a dialog. Experiential art allows me to ask more questions and learn about people – to connect with more people.”

Hill’s art practice is very much focused outward to listen and engage with the world around her, significantly rejecting modern art’s obsession with individual expression. Her work is multi-disciplinary, combining oral history, archival work, multimedia installations, public interaction and performance. Hill’s latest work, “The Kinship Project,” is an archive of 145 years of family photography, oral history recordings, artifacts and ephemera. She uses this collection as source material for social engagement installations like “The Jeli’s Tale: An Anthology of Kinship” and “The Great Migration” at the Southside Hub of Production in Chicago.

Furthermore, Hill wants to share ownership of her site-specific installations, viewing them almost as science experiments where she can step back and see what happens. “My way of creating is to let the project unfold. It will depend on the participants I interview and photograph. It's about them. My installations are experiential to activate all five senses at once, so I also want the viewers to take ownership of my projects. Have a conversation with each other. Get past the gallery etiquette and touch the art.”

Experiential art is also an answer to today’s technology centered world proclaimed Hill: “People need a different kind of activation because we are stimulated by so much media we don’t even know how to think straight, so we need something to get us hyper focused. You can activate people with a lot of tactile stimuli.”

For Hill, the end goal is the conversation – the interaction between people: “I like to play. I like to play a lot, and when I make something that is interactive, I am in the process of playing. Then by allowing my audience to participate in the work with me it is like we are all on the playground learning a new game together.”

Samantha Hill completed a residency at the McColl Center for Art + Innovation in November 2013. While in Charlotte, she worked with the residents of Double Oaks neighborhood, which is being converted to Brightwalk, a planned mixed income housing community, to capture their memories and stories of the neighborhood, as well as its transformation. In mid- to late 2015, Hill will return to Charlotte and use this material, much of which she captured with a tintype camera, to create an interactive installation in a historic location Downtown.

Social practice art is clearly popular, since it has spread beyond the “art capitals” of New York City, Paris and London. Here in the Queen City, we have had multiple opportunities of late to participate in social practice art with the residences of Samantha Hill, Quynh Vantu and Mel Chin at the McColl Center. Who that created a Fundred Dollar Bill could forget the empowerment that came from this type of democratic expression through art? "Operation Paydirt/Fundred Dollar Bill" is scheduled for completion this year, with all of the Fundreds to be delivered to Washington, D.C., where this art currency will promote solutions to the lead contamination of cities.

Vantu’s "Thresholds," which re-imagined the first-floor gallery and entrance of the McColl Center using fabric and light, made participants out of passive visitors. As you walked through "Thresholds," the installation forced you to physically act and move in certain ways because of its construction, and then with the addition of other people in the same space, you had to negotiate how to act and move with them and the installation. Vantu is vested in exploring the social interaction that occurs with and because of the built environment. The active and unique space of a threshold recurs in Vantu’s art, as it is this space where people are frequently moving in and out that enhances social engagement.

Quynh Vantu "Threholds" at the McColl Center. Quynh Vantu "Thresholds" at the McColl Center.

As the introductory label to the exhibition put it: “In midst of this technological age, digital networks and virtual realms are being constructed at a staggering rate. It enables and subsequently rewards our most insular and private impulses. Qunyh Vantu’s "Thresholds" serves to gracefully guide us back to a tangible reality through a series of shared experiences with ourselves and a community.”

This type of interaction between people is at the heart of social practice art. Artists like Hill and Vantu are facilitating personal encounters – something we seem to have lost or devalued in the “plugged in” atmosphere we inhabit. Ironically, the tools that were supposed to  use to create greater connection have increased distance – we prefer the impersonal nature of an email to the timbre of a voice over the phone. Hill, Vantu, Chin and other social practice artists are reacting against this distance to promote more face-to-face interaction, conversation and connection.

Some critics label these artworks as too experiential and imply that they are superficial, bordering on entertainment. They suggest this only feeds into a culture obsessed with experiences. But, maybe, this is better than a culture obsessed with materialism. Some experiences created by social practice art might be frivolous, but the majority I have participated in are not. They create connection, and isn’t a meaningful experience what art is all about?

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