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

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América Invertida

Stephen Wright continued: It is for this reason that another of their promises is escapological. They don't escape in the spectacular (albeit fascinating) manner of Houdini. They simply do not wish to be captured as art. They want to be the real McCoy, without ceasing to understand themselves as art. In other words, they don't want to be performed as art -- they want to foil that performative, to have that capture fail. Throughout modernity, art made wonderful social-transformational promises. And never kept them. Never could. Because it was just art. The promise to sunder art from itself is the promise to escape institutional capture; to escape ideological capture; and to escape ontological capture (as art). But how does this capture occur? It happens performatively -- hence these practices promise to escape performative capture.

And this is the essence of the third, generative promise. For if they are not performed as art, then what will become of art? What will become of art's promise? For all the promises (and real interest in some cases) of performance studies, it is clear that performativity has an inherent blind spot, like any outlook; and in the wake of the ostentatious and inflationary use of that concept in any number of theoretical sauces, it is social practices which have laid its pitfalls bare. What performativity overlooks is what is being performed -- and with respect to art practices leaving the sandbox of art for the social, that can be called "competence". Now after a century of radical deskilling, to speak of artistic competence is to sound suspiciously conservative -- at least to the ears of the experts policing the confines of the field. But competence is not to be confused here with artistic métier or skill in the fine arts tradition. In fact it is to be understood as virtually synonymous with incompetence, for the promise of social practice is founded on mutualizing incompetence, inasmuch as only the ingenuousness and ingenuity of incompetence can bring a competence to the fore. As Robert Filliou once famously put it in his equivalency principle, there is in art a fundamental equivalency between the well done, the poorly done, and the not done. One might add that to the list of promises too, I suppose, but I take this generative promise more analogously from Noam Chomsky's famous distinction between linguistic competence (inherent to all native speakers of a natural language enabling them to distinguish a grammatically coherent speech act from one that is not) and linguistic performance (actualizing that competence in producing speech acts). One need never perform a competence for that competence to exist. This is an extraordinary promise that art can make in its contemporary moment of trans-social migration: it can deploy its (in)competences and self-understanding in social settings far removed from art, without ever performing them as art.

But what happens when art leaves its "own" territory? When it moves into situations of collaboration in other territories? When it migrates south, socially and epistemically speaking? Does it not make a sort of promise through its often conspicuous absence -- the way nature abhors a vacuum? This is the promise of extraterritorial reciprocity, a perhaps excessively multi-syllabic way of describing how in leaving its own territory for another, in becoming social practice, art opens up in a gesture of reciprocity a space and perhaps a promise for other social practices to fill and fulfill.

Bill Kelley Jr.: I have several questions here, but your argument that these kinds of practices are challenging to the institutions of expert culture comes to mind most immediately. One very useful thinker, with regards to what's happening in Latin America is Boaventura de Sosa Santos. Your reflection on what seemingly is a trans-disciplinary position for people having a level of "art competence" rather than artists making art, reminds me of Sosa Santos' argument that we should all be expanding our "ecology of knowledge" by looking at other (often peripheral) contact zones - to stop being so epistemologically self-centered and seek other forms of knowledge and communities, however "un-performative" they may seem. What kinds of practices in Latin America have you witnessed that possess this quality?

Stephen Wright: I tend to think of social practice, and the sort of heuristic enquiry it invites, not so much as "trans-disciplinary" -- a dynamic very much associated with the work of Félix Guattari -- as extradisciplinary. That is, outside of the established canons of academic disciplines altogether. Artworldly practice, however much it may sometimes cultivate a bad-ass attitude, has ended up very well disciplined; though it may pride itself on biting the hand that feeds it, it never bites very hard. Social practice, though by no means undisciplined -- in the sense that it must possess internal, logical and formal rigor if it is to be meaningful -- simply isn't captured by any policed, epistemic discipline. Nor does it fall back on the sanctioned institutions of academia or art for its legitimacy, but must invent its own practice-sustaining environments and engender other plausible lifeworlds of knowledge, including artworlds -- even if they are only embryonic in form. Extradisciplinarity is not so much a promise of social practice as one of its conditions of possibility and usership, and what underlies its escapological promise.

I'm not sure I would want to expand our "ecology of knowledge" so much as repurpose it. It seems to me that expansion of all kinds, including even cognitive and conceptual expansion, has reached its limits and we need to seriously consider negative growth in this realm as well: the point is less to expand the conceptual vocabulary than to reconfigure it and give renewed purchase. The dominant conceptual lexicon, like the conceptual edifices with which it dovetails, is something we have inherited from modernity -- and what's most paradoxical about it is how perfect it is: it provides us with a complete set of lexical and conceptual tools. It's just that they're the wrong tools! And they leave us ill-equipped to describe emergent practices inasmuch as they are not calibrated to name contemporary intuitions -- and can do so only at the price of systematically distorting them and formatting them to the standards of the past century. So we need to repurpose existent vocabularies of knowledge; to use words, customs, institutions differently, above all perhaps by fostering forms of conceptual migration and cross-pollination between different idioms of knowledge. I absolutely agree with Sosa Santos, though, when it comes to the crucial importance of "southern perspectives." I'm not using the term "southern" in a particularly geographical sense (though geography and epistography, as it were, do often overlap) but in a fully epistemic and hence political sense. I see usership, for instance, as having an inherently southerly perspective with respect to the more northerly self-understanding (and self-importance) of expert culture. In all latitudes and longitudes, usership stakes out cognitive and aesthetic positions "south" of legitimated expert culture. Because usership is not counter-expertise; rather, it names an entirely different cognitive relationship to objects, territories, machines, networks and so on.

I know you've heard me say this before, but I see a kind of cumulative, compounding logic in this respect that moves from inversions to insertions and implications. Joaquin Torres Garcia's 1943 painting, América invertida -- often referred to as "Upside Down World" since it depicts the continent of South America with its southern tip pointing upwards -- is undoubtedly the iconic work of Latin American modernism, standing as a literal "landmark", artistically and politically. Without it, the conceptually driven social practices which have followed would not be what they are. The work did not merely upend hegemonic cartographic representation, it decisively shifted the "idea of south" from a merely geographic to a fully political concept. Certainly, it produces a kind of perception-busting estrangement effect; but above all, it at once enabled escape from a northern overcode and made obvious that maps, images, words do not so much represent things as posit worlds -- including alternative artworlds, which as I just mentioned I see as crucial for social practitioners since they have to constitute and engage with communities of legitimation other than the existent artworld if they are to fulfill their promises.

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