RISK Exhibition Catalogue

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  • EMPATHY, ART AND SOCIAL PRACTICE

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    EMPATHY, ART AND SOCIAL PRACTICE

    FEBRUARY 10 APRIL 26, 2014

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    contEntSRISK Map

    IntroductionMary Jane Jacob

    The Quandary of Social Practice: Why Risk? Why Empathy?Amy M. Mooney and Neysa Page-Lieberman

    The Art of RISK

    Acknowledgments

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    Photo by Clare Britt.

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    introdUctionBy Mary Jane Jacob, Executive Director of Exhibitions and Exhibition Studiesat the School of the Art Institute of Chicago

    Making artthe art that comprises RISKtakes form and garners content through process. This process lives on in the individuals involved or touched by this art. All art does, or can do this, and we can even say this is the operational, Deweyian definition of art: art lives in and through those who experience it.[1] But, in fact, not all art does, not just because it might fall short of a certain level of quality or artistic achievement, but also because something in the environ-ment intervenes, taking us away from being with even great art in the moment so that we never find our centeredness with the work and the artists prompt remains unfulfilled. But this art, the art of risk, draws from what is around us so that the environment or condition in which we live enriches the work and then allows it to continue to resonate over time. Has the devolution of the art experi-ence over the 20th century into a museum encounter led us to this point where art demands a more overt relation between artists and audience as makers and participants? Did we need to take a deep breath, start again by front-loading experi-ence, building it into the process, so that the art experience might occur and endure?

    Art in this exhibition is at once there to see and not, yet to unfold as it is activat-ed and changed over the weeks on view, taking on evidences of the experiences and attesting to the use of art. Its a platform for speech, a place for lunch, a stage for others. Samantha Hill and Faheem Majeed double up, compound-ing efforts, then welcome further collaboration. Even before these activities happened they began to be enacted (or eaten) on the night the show opened. Much more will follow.but I might pause to reflect on one work more finished than others, already peopled, even though it will continue to ask questions of others and afford their engagement. Kirsten Leenaars video Under Construc-tion might deceive us by being presented in the requisite gallery black box. It surely seduces us with the beauty of the rich, velvety background against which persons perform their roles: clumsily propping up h-a-p-p-i-n-e-s-s, singing and playing games. How did those policemen get in there with these high school students and what about those other adults? None of the participants were actors, rather they are members of the Edgewater community. Their engagement testifies to the realization that it is only through the lived process that this work came

    about. Those we see giving themselvestook the riskto be part of what this artist imagined. Now in this show they project back onto us and we project ourselves onto them: empathy!

    Empathy. This happens in the creation and the experiencing of this art. The process of its makingorganic, generative, intensiveis constantly moving, re-sponding along the way rather than going accordingly to a fixed plan. It is a lived, human process. In the field we often summarize this as negotiation, but in ac-tuality it is more nuanced and more real. It is an understanding and empathy is the platform upon which this understating rests. Things tacitly known by a group or conflictually tangled with, nonetheless, go forward, because for those living the process the risk of not trying is greater than the failure of the attempt. Having seized on the urgency or necessity of the process, the work remains with them long after a show, for some forever. At once it transforms them as they transform the work, integrating the experience of it into their lives. For those seemingly less affected, beware: this work keeps doing its job and can come back in time to have an unexpected effect. So to appreciate RISKs claim that social practice reveals our mutual dependencies, is to understand that mutual does not mean the same experience for everyone. Thats the beauty of experience after all.

    But what kind of risk are we talking about? The risk of the relation. Here failure is personalized because process is embodied in persons engaged over some length of time, whether short or long, and who become known to artists as the artists become known by them. Its polar opposite to that of the gallery visitor whose experience, if known at all, is tracked in less-than-felt ways. So while the experience is risky, its the beauty of having deep, direct experience that makes it worth the risk. Yet if, as this show posits, risk emerges from an empathetic pactthe extension of ones self to another, the idea that we can feel the feelings of others, and that there is value in that bondthen there is a risk that we might not connect.

    We study the self to know the self. We know the self to forget the self.

    We forget the self to know all others.

    As the 13th-century Genjokoan of Zen Master Dgen goes,[2] we are not only in an inextricable relationship in sharing the Earth, but also we are bound to each other to realize ourselves. For Dewey, it was only as social individuals, as he termed it, that we could realize ourselves. There has been much critical conster-nation (and suspicion) around why members of the public would give themselves over to artists social practice projects. Accordingly, a reply has been that they are manipulated or exploited for the artists own careerist ends. This is part of a misguided thesis that in calling for critical distance in social practice expunges empathy from the argument. Have these critics ever fully, really, experienced social practice works, giving themselves to the process?

    Art, as Dewey saw it, was a means of making meaning, and finding meaning is what we do when we consciously live life. This, as we have seen, necessitates looking both inwardly and outwardly beyond oneself. In the early 1990s a once-powerful and fierce Chicago art collector said in my presence that he was fed-up with hearing about self-esteem art. A century before in Chicago Dewey had awoken to the power of art to engender a sense of belonging that conferred both self-affirmation and self-situatedness in society.[3] Turn-of-the-last-century immigrants in this city in Deweys time had no exclusive claim to alienation; disconnection takes many forms and springs from various sources over ones lifetime. To address this Dewey, as we today, drew upon arts exceptional ability to provide a glimpse of something greater. To put faith in the power of art is to confront the human condition of powerlessness that in the flux of life is always lurking for everyone regardless of station.

    When an artists project and the exchanges embedded in the process offer the chance to feel a sense of connectedness, there is a sensation of hope. This art, in being open to risk, models the openness to see things differently. Therein, we

    Video still by Kirsten Leenaars.

    find the potential. And in the end isnt our sense of agency more rooted in seeing potential than having power? The function of art, Dewey said, has always been to break through the crust of conventionalized and routine consciousness. Common thingsnot things rare and remote, are means with which the deeper levels of life are touched so that they spring up as desire and thought. This process is art.[4] It is these common things that are the materials of social practice and with them artists are breathing life back into the art experience.

    Yet common everyday things are not easynot in life or when they make that transformative, transgressive move into art. Its a risky operation, a task that takes care. So this socially engaged art practice has made greater demands on the curators role, but in turn helped define it in essential ways by bringing us back to this art-world jobs Latin roots: curare, to care for and to heal. In this process-based work, curators care for all the steps that make the work come into being so it can live; in this socially committed work, they care because they know this work matters. Risk and empathy are the unstable, but ultimately satisfying, foundation on which they work. This is what Amy Mooney and Neysa Page-Lieberman have undertaken and for which they showed foresight, commitment, and a good deal of courage. Now, with the artists, they pass the task on to audiences to live it.

    1 John Deweys Art As Experience (New York: Minton, Balch & Company, 1934).

    2 Frederic William Lieber, The Legacy of Empathy: History of a Psychological Concept (dissertation, Indiana University, 1995): 118.

    3 See my essay Like Minded: Jane Addams, John Dewey, and Lszl Moholy-Nagy, in Chicago Makes Modern: How Creative Minds Changed Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012): 11-29.

    4 Dewey, The Public and Its Problems in John Dewey: The Later Works, Volume 2: 1925-1927 Jo Ann Boydston, ed. (Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984): 349-350.

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    thE QUandary oF Social practicE: Why Empathy? Why riSK?Amy M. Mooney, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Art History and Neysa Page-Lieberman, Director and Curator of the Department of Exhibitions, Performance and Student Spaces, Columbia College Chicago

    RISK: Empathy, Art and Social Practice considers the reciprocal role that empathy and risk play within the context of Chicagos burgeoning social practice movement. The work included in the exhibition is divergent in medium, content and scope, but shares an interest in initiating and negotiating