SOCIAL PRACTICE: An Interview with Scott Stulen

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By Shelby Gilliland:

How would you define social practice as an art form?

I think social practice is a general term we’ve assigned to a lot of work that is performative and event based but I think it’s a very loose definition. For the purposes of this conversation it includes a whole range of work that is socially based and performative. The unifying elements are that the work has a collaborative nature and it takes place in the social realm — the public sphere — and needs public participation. It’s not an object, although it can include objects, but it needs people. 1990s installation work included anything that wasn’t sculpture and in some ways social practice is at the same stage now. A lot of this work has been happening for decades, going back to the 1950s and 1960s, going back to Fluxus. With the recent interest in defining social practice as a distinct discipline, and there is interest by young artists who are willing to define themselves in this practice. Another of the new developments is the increase in funding streams for this type of practice, which have not been in place in the past.

What is your current job and how does it pertain to social practice?

My new title is Curator of Audience Experience and Performance at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

It is a new position and a new title at the museum.

As far as I know it is the only such position in an American museum. Similarly to Sarah’s title at the Walker this is a new kind of position.

The job I am taking was created because of this rise in social practice work within museum programming and curatorial departments and because audiences’ expectations are changing. Audiences still want a traditional museum experience, but now they also expect and want a more engagement-based experience in the museum. They want the space to act as a gathering space, a place for dialogue. My new job is to bring more social practice work into the museum, into the galleries and into the spaces in-between and look at different means of engagement and audience participation. I want to look at this in a flat way – moving away from the standard hierarchies. We often expect audiences to be different and we don’t see or find the crossovers between audiences. I think all audiences are valuable and there are ways to find crossovers between audiences.
I want to acknowledge that our audiences are coming to the museum for different things and they are not uniform. There are many different ways of engaging audiences – it is not monolithic. I want engage audiences in different locations, different spaces, including the museum, the gallery, and spaces outside. I am looking for more ways, new ways for that to happen. I describe myself as a curator who is interested in a space where the mainstream public is a little uncomfortable and the museum audience is a little uncomfortable. I am interested in the space in-between – that point of access for different people, bringing different things to light.

What made you interested in social practice as a form of art?

This type of work is not something that I sought out originally. When I was in school, even as an undergraduate, I was interested in many things that were performative, including how the audience interacted with the work as a performative experience. I worked at Rochester Art Center before I worked at Walker Art Center and in both institutions I had the chance to experiment with public programs and the public.

It gave me a chance to find the immediacy of audience reactions to artistic programming. I get a little rush from this kind of work in the same way I get it from music. There is nothing that will compare to the immediacy of a crowd hearing music played live – there is immediate feedback from an audience. I am interested in that, in ways of activating that, and doing it in surprising ways. As time has gone on and I have had more opportunities to do this work I’ve become interested not only in the practice but in the critical assessments of it. For example, is it art? Maybe this question is flawed. I am interested in this type of work – however you want to label it. I am interested in the aspect of social change. Can an artwork do anything beyond reinforcing existing values? Maybe no or maybe yes. But I am interested in those questions and giving the audiences a opportunity to participate, to act.

What have you previously done with it?

At Walker I worked on Open Field and related projects with Sarah. Open Field hosted over 300 “social practice” projects spread over three summers and explored crowd sourcing the public and engaging artists and the institution. At the Rochester Art Center I didn’t label it this way but we did experiments with sound, concerts, temporary installations and live performance on a regular basis. We experimented with both the performers and how the audiences experienced performance. Early on at the Walker I was given the opportunity with the Turrell Sky Pesher, an artwork many people didn’t know exists.

We did a concert series in summer 2009 with musicians playing inside the Turrell with speakers on the outside of the space. You could hear it inside the space or outside of it. It created a different relationship in those environments. The last one I organized was with Solid Gold, a local indie rock band. They often played at First Avenue and similar clubs but were hungry for a chance to do something more experimental. The performance we created placed the band in a full set in costumes inside the Turrell and the audiences watched it from the outside of the space. I like the unexpected things that happen. You set up a scenario where things can potentially happen. I worked out a full-page color ad with The Onion and the contest winners got to perform with the band. They had to be in costume too – it was couple on their first date, in costume. A very surreal moment, which I love!

I curated the Walker’s contributions at Northern Spark.

We needed extra security. The only security we could get that night was the security for concerts. They were so interested in working in the museum. One of the security guards made a point to learn about the work she was guarding that night. She gave these little tours to gallery visitors. I loved it. She guarded the sculptures we had commissioned, and they were bringing them outside the building to be burned. She was explaining this conceptual art piece to our visitors. It was great! I am interested in these kinds of scenarios where these kinds of things can happen.

How did you get involved with this art exhibition? And what are you currently contributing to it?

I got involved because Howard asked.

In my current transition to Indianapolis we will find a way for the Indianapolis Art Museum to be involved in this project, even in some small way. Let’s make it a Midwest conversation about social practice! We don’t have the details worked out yet, but I hope to remain involved as the show progresses. We have some ideas.

What are the challenges of presenting social practice in an art gallery?

There are a lot of challenges presenting this kind of work, especially if it wasn’t intended to be experienced in a gallery. The gallery context sets up certain expectations of behavior, which this work often acts against, and that actually can be very interesting. This is a matter of presenting not only work and activities but documentation as well. It’s a challenge to do all that inside the context of the gallery. In this exhibition we hope to show some video, some documentation, and to host activities as well as present objects. Any gallery has its set of challenges. We will struggle with the walls in the center of the Nash Gallery, which divide the space up in a way that is not conducive to social practice. Any work that not a painting on the wall has certain challenges in the gallery. How do you make something engaging when it could take hours to consume all the documentation? It’s a matter of making it engaging, entertaining and also consumable. Regardless of what it is.

What are the opportunities of presenting social practice in an art gallery?

This is a very good opportunity, because the exhibition is up for the entire semester, which is rare. And having it on the campus of the University of Minnesota allows an ongoing dialogue about different aspects of this type of work and to showcase it for different audiences. I hope it will be informative to students and to the community. One thing that is lacking in social practice is a more critical dialogue. It takes time for that to form around an artistic practice. Until recently social practice has been given a free pass because there’s been no way to talk about it! I’m excited about this exhibition as being a forum to explore some of these ideas. Is it really doing what is says it is doing? These are important questions for the artists. If it’s social in nature, how is it actually engaging the audiences? This is an opportunity, a place to have those kinds of conversations.

What specific ideas do you have in mind while working on this project?

Opening up more dialogue. Exposing the students and community to work they maybe were not aware of, and to show the wide scope of what social practice is. We want a more expansive investigation of social practice, not a single point of view, not a single clique. The cat video festival didn’t investigate social issues, but it did engage crowd sourcing, and I want to find out how the public can engage these ideas and this dialogue. Hopefully, we can record some of this; collect an archive for some of this. The documentation becomes the piece afterwards. Who collects what? There are interesting questions about collection, preservation, and display of social practice. What is acquired? How do funders find out about this? What does success look like? Sometimes it isn’t just attendance numbers. Engagement is much trickier, it’s not so clean, and it’s difficult to measure. How do you measure success with some of these projects?

What audience are you trying to target the exhibition towards?

It’s a mix of students — not just in Art majors, but the broader campus, surrounding communities, and I hope the Midwest. With this blog and some other ideas we have it could reach beyond this region.

If you had the opportunity to incorporate ballroom dance into the exhibition,how would you do it?

If I were going to do that it would be on top of the parking garage across the street, someplace unexpected. Maybe someplace where all you hear is the sound, like if they were on the second floor and we heard the sound underneath it, or, maybe in the elevator. Situations that are not expected, and how do you react to that? This is the opportunity with social practice work.

 

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