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Conversation with theorist Stephen Wright on the promise of Social Practice
by Bill Kelley Jr.

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Stephen Wright

Conversation with theorist Stephen Wright on the promise of Social Practice

This conversation with Stephen Wright is a result of a series of emailed and face-to-face conversations. They took place around a set of talks, presentations and texts called “Social Practice, in Questions…” at 18th Street Art Center in Santa Monica, CA (2013). Within this programming and with the assistance of researcher Basak Comert, Curator in Residence and Editorial Advisor, Bill Kelley Jr. spoke with Wright about issues relating to what in the U.S. is being called “Social Practice.” This field of dialogical, collaborative and community-based art practices is by no means new, and has operated within various regions of the world - Latin America having a particularly rich history. Yet, it is just now capturing the mainstream art world’s attention and making notice of some much-neglected issues around art’s communicability and its pedagogical promise. The following interview was about questioning what the increasingly intertwined relationship between art and community will engender and what art’s “use” will be for the future. The following video was filmed during Stephen's presentation in April 2013 at the Otis College Graduate Public Practice studios within 18th Street Art Center's campus in Santa Monica, CA.

Stephen Wright is a Paris-based writer and professor of the practice of theory at the European School of Visual Arts. His research and writing has focused on the usological turn in contemporary practice and more recently on current debates in escapological research, particularly in contexts of collaborative, extradisciplinary practices with deliberately impaired coefficients of artistic visibility. He has curated The Future of the Reciprocal Readymade (New York, 2004), In Absentia (Brest, 2005), Rumour as Media (Istanbul, 2006), Dataesthetics (Zagreb, 2007), Recomposing Desire (Beirut, 2009), Situation Z (Marseille, 2011) and is currently preparing Withdrawal: The Performative Document as part of a series of exhibitions examining art practices with low coefficients of artistic visibility, which raise the prospect of art without artworks, authorship or spectatorship. He has held positions as programme director at the Collège international de philosophie (2000-2007), corresponding editor of Parachute magazine (1999-2005), editorial advisory committee member of Third Text (2004-12) and research fellow at the INHA (2007-2009). A selection of his writings in English may be found on the collective blog n.e.w.s.

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Bill Kelley Jr.: In the U.S. we've begun to professionalize the field of community-based, dialogically-driven art practices over the past few years. We even have a catchy name for it: Social Practice. I'm concerned with what this kind of practice can teach us, particularly with regards to earlier, more established and better understood art practices. There is something unique about what this field can offer, both methodologically and theoretically. To put it bluntly, what is the promise of Social Practice?

Stephen Wright: First of all, I think the question should be reposed in the plural -- ie., What are the promises of social practices? -- otherwise we may on the one hand inadvertently ontologize a fundamentally disparate set of praxes, pigeonholing singular practices under a misleading heading, and on the other hand, end up asserting that there is ultimately one underlying promise. And though modern English doesn't inflect adjectives to agree with nouns, it seems only fair to bear in mind that "social" should be plural too. In short, the varieties of practices we call social are not just different like apples and oranges, both of which are after all fruit; they have utterly different self-understandings, visibilities, and modes of engagement; the communities of use where they deploy are flattened if they are subsumed under the abstract concept of the "social" or "society"; and though I'm not sure they really "promise" anything per se, their desires and prospects are surely not One, but brim over in countless directions. So, many promises, if any.

I will name four. To restore use value to art. I will call this the "usological promise". To sunder art from itself. I will call this the "escapological promise." To renounce performativity in favor of mutualizing (in)competence. I will call this the "generative promise." To vacate art's own space and promise for other practices to fill and to fulfill. I will call this the promise of "extraterritorial reciprocity." My perspective here is from the position of art, for that is where social practices have come from since the notion of "practice" was first introduced into art discourse in the mid-sixties (to replace "works" and more latterly "activity") in a self-conscious attempt to escape capture as art, that is, just art... For the false promise of autonomous art was that it could have social traction when captured, performatively and thus ontologically, as art. I am advocating the obviously counterintuitive position that one cannot approach the promises of social practices from the perspective of the social, but only from the perspective of art, from which they have nevertheless wrested themselves free, because it is from art that they migrated. They have, if you like, left the land of false promises and false opportunity for what they perceive as the promises of the social -- but it is their perception that interests us in trying to name those promises. What promises did art see in migrating southwards, slipping its moorings and making its ways into the shadows of the attention economy? In trading off autonomy for the social; exchanging artworks for practices?

Above all, social practices have sought to escape the crippling prohibition of usership in art. They want to engage socially under the auspices of usership, assert rights of use, restore art's use value. All of the conceptual architecture of the mainstream artworld is founded upon Kant's imperative of "purposeless purpose" and "disinterested spectatorship." Social practices promise to repurpose art, without renouncing art; and they propose to do so by engaging a mode of relationality far more extensive and intensive than spectatorship, and which can perhaps best be described as "usership." As a category common to social practices, usership stands opposed not only to the conceptual institution of spectatorship (for in social practices there is no spectacle, and hence no spectator, only implicated users) but also to the institution of expert culture (of artists, urban planners, scientists -- epistemic chauvinists of every stripe, for whom "use" is always "misuse") and perhaps more importantly to the institution of ownership. Social practices are unowned and unowning. In a playful way, we might say they are disowning (dissolving ownership's claims) for from this perspective they began by disowning their own assigned identity as art.

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