Participatory Art and Social Practice
There comes a point when you’re sitting somewhere and you’re listening, or reading, or watching something and a light bulb goes off. It’s almost as if you can see it pop up above your head. Something has clicked. Some piece of the puzzle has landed in place and you’re starting to be able to see the bigger picture. I had a couple moments like that in this participatory art and social practice class. A few concepts really hit home for me and I am happy to say that I have already started using a couple in my creating practice.
I think the biggest concept was play. Kaprow wrote, “Play, of course, is at the heart of experimentation. Elsewhere, I’ve pointed out the crucial difference in the English language between playing and gaming (I993:IIO-26). Gaming involves winning or losing a desired goal. Playing is open-ended and, potentially, everybody “wins.” Playing has no stated purpose other than more playing. It is usually not serious in content or attitude, whereas gaming, which can also involve playing if it is subordinated to winning, is at heart competitive.” (Just Doing, pg. 104) So much of the time we are in school we are given very clear instructions as to what we are supposed to do; the projects we are given have outlines and expectations attached to them. We are required to meet these expectations in order to receive a passing grade. Because ultimately that is what school generally ends up boiling down to… grades. Or as Kaprow might call “winning” an A. They, grades, have become so important to us as students we lose a little of who we are. As children we are allowed to play and express ourselves, but as we grow we are taught that we can only express ourselves with play in certain parameters. We are given a box, if you will, that we’re required to stay within the boundaries of. As we continue through our lives those boxes become smaller and smaller so that we become useful cogs in the machine of society. And any deviation from the boundaries of the box is frowned upon. We lose the essence of what it means to be allowed to play without rules, without expectations to fulfill, and without a set goal in mind aside from having fun. In this class we were allowed to play. For example, we were given the opportunity to play with parachutes and balls simply because we thought it would be fun both for us and for other students on campus. We played music, we laughed, and we kicked balls around, some even juggled. And although it was an assignment it was in the name of play and fun. I believe that there should be fun in school, the chance to experience something outside the norm of just completing assignments. Something that reminds us that we are people, and children at heart, that are more than just numbers, projects, and grades.
The reason this made it to an ‘Ah Ha!’ moment for me is because I have been taking everything so seriously. Everything I have been doing has been for the satisfaction of someone else, namely whoever my teacher may be. But as this class progressed I found some of my work to be a little more about what made me happy as opposed to what would make other people happy. The main artwork that I created this semester in another class was done because I wanted to do it. I was lucky to have a teacher for this class understand why I was making what I was making, even though it fell outside the original parameters I was given for the assignment. He saw the joy and excitement that I had in making my pieces of art. He allowed me to play with my idea. He allowed me to find ways to use techniques he was teaching in class to complete my desired product. My pleasure in the process of making was apparently contagious because he too became excited about what I was building. I believe that my ability to adapt the concept of play and work it into what I was doing was beneficial for me. It opened my eyes to the fact that maybe stepping outside the box, and creating for myself and not others, is what is necessary to be a working artist. If your work isn’t making you happy then why do it?
This kind of leads into the concept of questioning everything. If it doesn’t make you happy then why do it? Is it to acquire fame? Is it to acquire wealth? Is it to do something as basic as supporting your basic needs as a person? Question like these made me think about why I create. Initially it started off because I enjoyed it. I have enjoyed the process of creating things I found visually appealing since I was a child. The fact that other people liked most of what I made was just a bonus for me; although my mother did not always like my choice of canvas as I grew up such as the wall or the inside of the van. Back then I knew I made things because I wanted to. There was little need to try to make something that someone else would like. It only really mattered that I liked it. This goes back to getting older and having boxes put around us that we are asked to stay within. But why? Why do we put children into those boxes? And why to we put emphasis on their financial advancement rather than the social, cultural, and artistic advancement? Why are American politicians taking so much away from artists, particularly when they are young? Music departments shrink until they are just a band for sports events. Resources are taken from art departments so that when something runs out you either just don’t have it anymore, or sometimes a kind soul of a teacher spends money out of their own pocket so that their students can continue to create. Why do people spend millions on a single painting, but refuse to invest the same amount of money into art education for our children so that new art can be created?
The reason this made it to an ‘Ah Ha!’ moment for me is because there are so many questions, but not enough answers for them. Some I know the answers to. A lot of which falls into the realm of money and greed, or having something rare that no one else has. But I guess the real question is ‘what can I do as an artist and creator do to answer these questions? And what can I do to draw others’ attention to the fact that these question exist and go unanswered?’ Right now I am probably going to create that which makes me happy. If I happen to be able to answer some of these questions while I create I will be happy about it, but I have to keep doing what makes me happy.
In the readings that were done for class we read a lot about what other people had done. We read about how people took the idea of play and made it into something that had meaning beyond play. We read from Claire Bishop’s writings about what she thought of other people’s work. And I don’t really like how she, having never really been a creator herself, thought that she was the authority on what other people created. What gave her the right to criticize what one person calls art? Why can’t someone’s “play” be important? Why tell someone that what they, as an artist, are doing is trivial when she doesn’t actually participate in it? She is just a viewer. She is not a participant. She doesn’t activate the work she looks at. She just criticizes it. And that isn’t fair of her, or anyone else, to do. Because how do they really know what it is if they do nothing with it; do nothing to help create it; do nothing to help bring it alive? She may think she is the authority on participatory art, but she is not. The planners, makers, and doers are. They are the only ones to be the judges of their practice. If other people like it and find meaning in what they, the artists, are doing, great! But I do not believe that she should be allowed to look down her nose at what other people create. I do not believe that if you have never gone through the work to create something that someone, who is not a creator, should be allowed to come along and tell you what you have done is inadequate. We as artists make art that has meaning to ourselves. We bare our souls in everything we create. We show what is important to us. We bring light to the world through our practice and our play. And we show the world a reflection of itself. And that is what art should be. It is a piece of the artist. It is not made for the critics, though they are abundant. Art is about play and not competing. When critics come into the scene it definitely becomes a competition of who do they, the critic, view as better. But you know what? No. I have come to the point that what I create will be for myself. I will make. I will play. I will help. But I will not judge. It is not my right to judge other people’s work. It is my job as a fellow artist to encourage, participate, and help activate. And that is how I plan to integrate what I have learned into my art and my life.
Attached are some pictures from when we were playing with the parachutes and the balls, as well as one of the stars from another project and some of the non-Newtonian mass we played and experimented with. I enjoyed these projects, and I hope you did too.