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Notes on Social Architectures as Art Forms

Social art forms

The idea of an art made from the social, from people participating in social interactions, descends from the Dadaists, revolutionaries, and utopians, infusing various strands of artmaking in the 50’s and 60’s including John Cage’s Black Mountain events, Alan Kaprow’s happenings, Fluxus, Gutai, the Situationist International, conceptual, body and performance art, and the work of Joseph Beuys, who crowned the swell by coining the term “social sculpture.”

Joseph Beuys defined “social sculpture” as “how we mould and shape the world in which we live.” It is in this context that he made his famous statement that “everyone is an artist.” He envisioned an art that was literally revolutionary, in which every human being would be participating in “the total artwork of the future social order” which he imagined as a “free democratic socialism”. He viewed the art objects he made as being “stimulants for the transformation of the idea of sculpture. . . .Or of art in general. They should provoke thoughts about what sculpture can be and how the concept of sculpting can be extended to the invisible materials used by everyone.” Beuys felt that the promise of participatory art forms (dada, fluxus, happenings) could only be realized by a complete artistic and social revolution (his own), but he also frequently acknowledged that this idea of what social sculpture could be or could become was still largely unexplored and unrealized.

A dispersed group of contemporary artists began working with the idea of social artworks during the late 80’s and through the 90’s into the present. Ben Kinmont explicitly uses Beuys’ term social sculpture to refer to his pieces consisting primarily of one-on-one conversations. Rirkrit Tiravanija creates use-spaces which are activated when people gather and hang out (his lists of materials typically includes “lots of people”). Rainer Ganahl has given a series of reading seminars on Karl Marx which bring together small groups in learning and discussion. Christine Hill’s projects Volksboutique and Tour Guide foreground social interactions as part of business-like transactions which she infuses with an idiosyncratic and personal sensibility. Identifying a trend towards art which involves interaction, gift, and interpersonal connection, Nicholas Bourriaud discussed a number of these artists in his book Relational Aesthetic which appeared in 1998. Currently there is an upswell of collaboratives and cooperatives working in the social sphere, especially in Europe—one example is the German group Finger whose “Evolutionäre Zellen” (Evolutionary Cell) project invites artists and groups from all over to contribute their proposals for new social inventions.

Some Aesthetic Principles of Social Architecture

The term ‘social architecture’ is used by Beuys briefly and interchangeably with ‘social sculpture’ but the two metaphors have interestingly different implications. ‘Sculpture’ implies an observer; ‘architecture’ implies a use. The idea of use switches the constellation of art from a hierarchical and unidirectional “communication” from artist to audience (the quotes here imply a skepticism), towards a model which is more participatory and experiential, where it matters equally what the artist has provided and what the “audience” (no longer an adequate word) makes of it.

To put it differently, sculpture and architecture can both be meaningful, but they typically mean in different ways. Nicholas Bourriaud, in his more recent book Postproduction offers, “why wouldn’t the meaning of a work have as much to do with the use one makes of it as with the artists intentions for it.” Or, Bourriaud again, quoting Tiravanija, quoting Wittgenstein: “Don’t look for the meaning, look for the use.”

With social architecture, as with physical architecture there is a kind of dialogue between use and structure. To some extent structure determines (or conditions) use, but use also reworks structure (cannibalizes, redefines, destroys, rebuilds). Use is both constructive and destructive; it always reconstructs. Contemplation, as in the traditional art experience, is neither destructive nor constructive, it takes a passive stance—the receptive. Use is ruthless and personal. Bourriaud again: “To use an object is necessarily to interpret it: to use a product is to betray its concepts.” This is the idea of use in a psychoanalytic mode (in the mode of D.W. Winnicott for whom use, destruction, and creativity are clearly intertwined). It is the kind of use a healthy infant makes of its mother, greedy and alive. It implies needs and wants which can be fulfilled, it is optimistic, it is the opposite of the depressive.

Looking further into this idea of use, it becomes clear that for social architectures to exist at all, they must be functional—in other words people have to have a good reason to be part of them (they must have a use for them). Social architectures as artworks are always functional artworks. People need a purpose for becoming part of the social organization beyond the simple fact that they are participating in an artwork, otherwise the motive force of the structure is dead.

The question of structure can also give us a bit of formal perspective on social architectures. As the German theorist Niklas Luhmann points out, structures in social systems consist of expectations. Expectations are created in a number of ways, through articulated rules and guidelines, through repeated experiences, by custom and culture or subculture, by associated physical and informational architectures. Another way of thinking of this is that structures in social architectures are imaginary: social architectures exist only because people believe they do and behave as if they do. This has interesting consequences. It means that social architectures can be either fluid or persistent entirely according to the degree that people believe in them (believe in them here means both literally believe and also in the colloquial sense of placing value in them).

Structures in social architectures are not static, but dynamic. They must be constantly created and recreated from their own material (autopoeitically to evoke Luhmann again). As artworks, social artworks are generative. A set of initial conditions is put into place, but the outcome is fundamentally unpredictable—it is generated freshly according to a set of rules (in the sense of rules of the game—here being the structures of expectation that create the ‘architecture’), and created from particular spontaneous and changing qualities of the material (the material in this case being the social desires, capacities, and interests of the participants).

One way in which participatory artworks differ from both object-based and performative artworks is that they acknowledge that the art experience of different participants will vary widely—there is no attempt to narrow or control the art experience into a single “expression” or “communication.” In this way social architectures are linked with other participatory artworks like pysychogeographical dérives, situations, relational artworks, happenings, parties and raves.

Michael Benedikt, in his lovely book “For an Architecture of Reality” talks about the possibility of an aesthetic but nonsymbolic experience of architecture: “There are valued times in almost everyone’s experience when the world is perceived afresh: perhaps after a rain as the sun glistens on the streets and windows catch a departing cloud, or, alone, when one sees again the roundness of an apple. At these times our perceptions are not at all sentimental. They are, rather, matter of fact, neutral and undesiring . . . . The world becomes singularly meaningful, yet without being “symbolical.” Objects and colors do not point to other realms, signs say what they have to and fall silent. . . . We are not conscious (“Ah, this means that…”) of reference, allusion, or instruction. These processes become transparent as their material carriers either disappear like words, or, like bells and old trees collapse upon themselves to become crisp and real and, somehow, more the things they are. Such experiences, such privileged moments, can be profoundly moving; and precisely from such moments, I believe, we build our best and necessary sense of an independent yet meaningful reality. I should like to call them direct esthetic experiences of the real and to suggest the following: in our media-saturated times it falls to architecture to have the direct esthetic experience of the real at the center of its concerns.”

Social architectures as artworks can also allow for this “direct esthetic experience of the real” – – they function as shapers of experience rather than as carriers of communication. They turn from the idea of medium and mediation towards the immediate. If the art, as John Dewey suggests, is what happens in and with experience, it opens up a wider field of how to create experiences. The need for an art object, an artifact, vanishes. As Robert Irwin put it, “to be an artist is not a matter of making paintings or objects at all. What we are really dealing with is our state of consciousness and the shape of our perception.”

This gives us the beginnings of a feeling for some of the aesthetic qualities of social artworks: they foreground use over contemplation, participation over reception, direct experience over mediated communication, and they have a dynamic, generative formal structure. And what about beauty, what kind of beauties can we imagine in this realm? We can ask if the formal structures of social architectures are beautiful, but we also have to ask if they are beautiful to participate in. We are still in the territory opened up by the Situationists in the 1960’s when they declared “The new type of beauty can only be a beauty of situations.”

Sal Randolph, New York March 2003