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Let's Blush

I was already in a hurry when I found the tiny doorway of the “Hair 2 Stay” salon at the edge of Chinatown. I didn’t need a haircut, I didn’t have an appointment; I only wanted to take a peek at Darren O’Donnell’s latest piece, “Haircuts by Children.” But as soon as I arrived it was clear there was no way to just watch, to be a member of the audience. There was no audience. It was a tiny corridor of a salon with an even smaller waiting area and I felt ridiculous hovering in the doorway. Darren came up and asked if I was getting my hair done. When it turned out one of the kids would be free in a few minutes it suddenly seemed I had no choice but to say, “Sure.”

At that moment, to be honest, I felt a little trapped. And if you happen to have read O’Donnell’s book, Social Acupuncture, you’re likely to be as sure as I was that O’Donnell wouldn’t mind that one bit. He likes to start off from uncomfortable moments. He’ll take a group of kids with him into a neighborhood, knock on a random door, and ask the stranger who opens it if they can all come in and tour the house. I’m sure those strangers feel a bit trapped too–the eager young faces looking at them expectantly. What’s surprising is that with a curious mix of bravado, showmanship, performed naivety, and simple humanity, O’Donnell often enough convinces people to welcome him in.

Arguably, the moment when you move from uncertainty towards curiosity and engagement is the crux of any artwork’s act of seduction. It’s all the more pivotal in social and participatory work because the work itself doesn’t begin to exist until someone takes that step. O’Donnell keeps these ideas up front, calling himself a “social impresario.” Like a carnival barker he’s willing to exert some pressure, even become something of a nuisance, in order to get things going.

Back to the salon. I’m sitting in the styling chair, rather worried for my hair. This isn’t a theater or a gallery, it’s a real salon taken over for the day. A shy girl of twelve or thirteen, recently emigrated from China, is scissoring tentatively at one side of my head. Her more relaxed classmate is casually trimming the other. O’Donnell comes up and offers a clipper but the girls shake their heads mutely. For the past week or two, with the help of a professional stylist, he has been training their middle school class in the arts of hair cutting, from scissor use to conversational patter. The idea was to both empower kids and put people in “atypical” social encounters. The patter wasn’t going so well but the atypical was humming along.

I’m here in the salon chair because I’d like to take up some of the questions of ethics, sincerity, democracy, and antagonism that have been going around social art circles over the past few years and to relate these to problems of current practice. If Nicholas Bourriaud represents a rather breathless enthusiasm for the feel-good, micro-utopian possibilities of social artworks (see the already classic Relational Aesthetics of 1998) and Grant Kester has championed therapeutic community art (Conversation Pieces, 2004), Claire Bishop has come to stand for the darker pole, arguing that better democracy and better art are made from disagreement and antagonism (see her essays “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics” in October, or “The Social Turn” in Artforum). Social artists themselves have been caught in what I think is a false landscape of dichotomies, where ethics are pitted against aesthetics, allowing critics rather than practitioners to draw the lines on the map.

From a practitioner’s point of view, there’s an inherent puzzle in social and participatory artwork: for the work to happen in the first place the artist somehow has to solicit active involvement. Participants become collaborators or co-creators. And the word collaboration, with its sinister as well as positive connotations (collaboration with the enemy), suggests something of the problem. A person naturally approaches collaboration with a degree of skepticism – they want to know with whom or what they are collaborating, they want to be assured of ethical treatment, of fairness and reasonable safety. The most common forms of social artwork–the party, the discussion group, the walk, the meal, the classroom–offer reassurance by mimicking familiar social structures and promising at least a kind of basically pleasurable conviviality. The danger here is the blandness of unending reassurance and the triumph of politeness. Since the purpose of politeness is to keep social forms intact, it can push aside the critical.

We might frame the question this way: does the need for the ground-level agreement of participants pull social artworks towards a uniformly positivistic or even utopian tone? If participation is furthered by honesty, fairness, giving, and helping, does this prevent us from talking about or being interested in their opposites: lying, cheating, stealing and harm? Can we imagine art situations where we break or reconfigure the rules of participation rather than just inhabit and obey them? And as we invent social structures outside of art contexts, is there something important about “art” and its conversations that we want to keep?

Philosopher Yuriko Saito’s “everyday aesthetics” might be helpful here. Her sense of aesthetic perception is broad and covers a wide range of phenomena. “In the realm of ‘the aesthetic,’” she says, “I am including any reactions we form toward the sensuous and/or design qualities of any object, phenomenon, or activity.” And she is careful to distinguish that she is not valorizing the aesthetic; elevating it to equal some form of “good.” “My notion of ‘the aesthetic’ is decidedly not honorific….our aesthetic life includes not only pleasant, but also unpleasant experiences, characterized as depressing, disgusting, or dreary. In my view, the aesthetic further includes reactions towards qualities such as dingy, nondescript, or plain looking, which may or may not be accompanied by an emotionally tinged quality like disgust.”

I’d argue that aesthetic perception in this sense has strong functional or practical implications once translated towards the social. Aesthetic social perceptions will include attractions and repulsions, structures of hierarchy, inclusion and exclusion. You will find discomfort, awkwardness, danger, dullness, risk and intensity, as well as bonding or healing. If we remap the word aesthetics in this way, to go beyond the visual into our social sensations, this gives us the potential to talk about social artworks in terms of their form.

Form here isn’t just about elegant design, it’s about structural properties that directly affect our relations with other people. We know a great deal from ordinary personal experience about the ways social form matters. Just think of a few occasions in which you met with a group to make some decision. The size of the group, the hierarchical structure, the formality of the situation, how well you know each other, the aggressiveness or timidity of individual characters, time, location: all these aspects of social form affect how the meeting goes. Your response to all of these factors can be considered as aesthetic responses.

By giving sustained attention to social form and social aesthetics–how structure and expectation relates to experience and feeling–we may begin to create some new possibilities for social creativity. Beyond the design of Bourriaud-style microtopias or Kester-style therapeutics we may find weirder social beasts. As Judith Rodenbeck has pointed out, the iconic participatory works of the sixties were plenty strange–sometimes boring, confusing, scary, creepy, or even dangerous. If you’ve seen any of the recent reenactments of works by Kaprow, Acconci, or Abramovic, this thought will already be familiar.

In Social Acupuncture, O’Donnell makes his own case for unease in social artworks. “Social discomfort, while a pain in the ass to endure, is often necessary if we have any interest in increasing our social intelligence. It’s like mental confusion: any learning process must encounter a period of confusion–without it there’s no learning. With social intelligence, discomfort and antagonism are hallmarks of a successful encounter.”

Even while still sitting in the stylist’s chair, I felt a swirl of internal contradictions. I’m shy. My hair cutter, who whispered her name so softly I couldn’t catch it, seemed mortified by the need to speak English. So we did not, in fact, converse. Our interaction was much odder. We were there together in a moment of mutual, concentrated awkwardness that was itself interesting. Rather than thinking about how competent a child could be as a hair stylist, I was struck by the profound difference between my child hair cutter’s hesitation and the breezy confidence of the adults I was used to. I found her extreme care and anxious delicacy very beautiful, unforgettable really; an art experience in its own right, as was my dismay at the uneven results my boyfriend rather kindly described as “punk.”

Performance artist Reverend Billy, in a “morning prayer” that opened the recent Creative Time Summit, “Revolutions in Public Practice,” called on the audience to do what is embarrassing. “Exalted embarrassment,” in his formulation, is a moment when you break out of your own social norms, creating new possibilities for action. In an interview about interrupting the flow of ordinary shopping at Starbucks, he says, “It all comes down to the decision, what sort of dance am I involved in here? Where are my arms, where are my hands? How far is my voice reaching, what am I saying? It’s all physical. It’s the physical-spiritual. It’s sacralizing the ordinary. Once you take responsibility for that and you’re willing to enter a state of heightened odd-ness in public space, you’re by your example having fun outside their consumer strictures.”

As a practitioner, my interest in making social art is that it opens up the art experience to a much wider range of responses and emotions than were typically provoked by objects. I regularly see excitement, greed, anxiety, confusion, curiosity, fear, pleasure. While writers like Bishop (following Jaques Rancière) have pointed out that modes of contemplation and spectatorship can allow for or even encourage critical thinking, this doesn’t change the fact that contemplation is generally mild. The embarrassing, the uncomfortable, the awkward, the uncertain, the weird; because we’re in the realm of the social all of these point to useful disjunctures, zones where expectation fails, etiquette founders, and habits can’t help us.

Another way to frame the question is, what is at stake? For artwork to reach the threshold of interesting there has to be something on the table that matters to everyone involved. Anthropologist Clifford Geertz, concludes his famous essay on Balinese cockfights, “Deep Play” with the observation that the fights with the biggest bets are the “deepest”: “The Balinese attempt to create an interesting, if you will, ‘deep,’ match by making the center bet as large as possible so that the cocks matched will be as equal and as fine as possible, and the outcome, thus, as unpredictable as possible.“ He goes on: “the center bet is a means, a device, for creating ‘interesting,’ ‘deep’ matches… The question of why such matches are interesting–indeed, for the Balinese, exquisitely absorbing-takes us out of the realm of formal concerns into more broadly sociological and social-psychological ones, and to a less purely economic idea of what ‘depth’ in gaming amounts to.”

“Depth” I take here to be a term that’s not quite reducible. Deeper play, like deeper art, goes places language and good intentions can’t entirely follow. Indeed, that’s the point. One way to find ourselves in the territory of “deep play” may well be to raise the stakes. In ordinary life what drives us out into the awkward unknown is desire (sometimes erotic) and need (all the multiple needs we have for each other). The blush of embarrassment and the flush of excitement aren’t unrelated. We step farther out into difficulty when we’re aware of genuinely wanting. We risk where we might win.

Another approach may be to be more playful, to fool around with forms, even looking to genres for inspiration We’ve had plenty of social realism; what would social abstraction look like? Social expressionism–would there be some yelling? Social pattern and decoration–would it feel something like a dance? Imagine a social art of the absurd, a conceptual or minimal social, social glitch with its poetics of failure, social punk, social jazz. If social art naturally engages questions of ethics and democracy this needn’t limit artists to familiar and reassuring forms. Let’s be embarrassed and excited. Let’s heighten some oddness. Let’s take bigger risks and make deeper plays.

August, 2010

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Photo credit for images: Darren O’Donnell

This essay originally appeared in the online journal/zine 127 Prince

References:

Jesse Ashlock, “Q+A/Shopocalypse Now, Reverend Billy,” RES May/June 2005.

Claire Bishop, “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics,” October 110, Fall 2004.

Claire Bishop, “The Social Turn,” Artforum, February 2006.

Nicholas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, Les Presses du Reel, 1998/2002.

Grant Kester, Conversation Pieces; Community and Communication in Modern Art, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2004.

Darren O’Donnell, Social Acupuncture, Coach House Books, Toronto, 2006.

Judith Rodenbeck, “The Open Work; Participatory Art Since Silence,” audio podcast http://distributedcreativity.typepad.com/idc_events/2006/01/the_open_work_p.html see also: https://lists.thing.net/pipermail/idc/2005-November/001199.html , 2005/2006.

Yuriko Saito, Everyday Aesthetics, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2007.