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

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Inserções em Circuitos Ideológicos

Promoción de Julio



Stephen Wright continued: With his Insertions into Ideological Circuits -- banknotes and soda pop bottles bearing non-authorized inscriptions, recycled back into their distribution systems, in the early 1970s-- Cildo Meireles was one artist who pioneered other worlds or "circuits" where art could be sustained and prosper, with a deliberately impaired coefficient of specific visibility. I see this recycling work as exemplary of repurposing art-sustaining environments rather than expanding the existent ones. To an extent comparable to Torres Garcia, Meireles has inspired a generation of practitioners in Latin America, anxious to restore art's use value, which they insert directly into spheres of activity often far from the northerly artworld. Buenos Aires-based artist and activist Hugo Vidal's ongoing "insertions" are exemplary of this usological turn, and are embedded in that art-historical lineage as well as the political context of democratizing Argentina's public sphere. Vidal has made it his task to ensure that Julio Lopez -- a desaparecido who survived the dictatorship and who was again "disappeared" after being called as a witness in 2005, despite an ostensible return to democracy -- does not disappear from public memory. Using the label of the popular LOPEZ brand of wine as a kind of free signifier, and supermarket shelves as a kind of frame, he stamps the words "Aparición con vida de Julio," and leaves the readymade label to complete and punctuate the demand. In a kind of literal way, he allows the subaltern to signify. This type of intervention, though discrete in one respect, operates very much on the 1:1 scale, and is strikes me as exemplary of the promises of social practice.

It also exemplifies its implications, in both senses of the term. But it is perhaps the collaborative mapping projects of the Argentine collective Iconoclasistas which are most emblematic of the implications of how Torres Garcia's inversions and Cildo Meireles's insertions can have implications for social practice. In producing "inverted," repurposed maps, the duo engages in competence-crossing implicating local users of territories and their knowledge bases, suggesting that usership implies an unacknowledged cognitive privilege. The resulting user-generated cartographies are always formally intriguing, but it is the processual practice of aggregating the knowledge informing them that is truly worldmaking. They show that social practice is also the socialization of art; they demonstrate art's power when artistic competence is socialized -- sundered from itself, torn from the elitism of avant-garde practices, and injected into social practice. Logical inversions, social insertions, political implications. In a way, we couldn't be further south! And the beauty of that perspective is that it kind of dissolves the epistemic chauvinism that the Kantian north had taken for granted, allowing us to freely repurpose the building blocks of that conceptual edifice.

Bill Kelley Jr.: I agree, that theoretically speaking, an understanding of Kant and the western paradigm is central given the enduring hold of aesthetic art theory. You also mentioned Chomsky and his distinction between possessing linguistic competence and performing it and how this points to a central idea for you around art's potential to not be pressured to constantly "perform" its own "competency." If art didn’t have to “perform” itself as art, then it could be free to do truly unique and troublesome things. Do I have that right? It would seem that this has potentially important implications on art institutions and curators and how they address their constituency/community. Are there interesting case studies you know of? Are there practices in Latin America that seem related to this issue?

Stephen Wright: This is a huge issue, because it has to do with the repurposing of existent institutions, both conceptual and physical. Chomsky's insistence on competence has often been criticized as being ahistorical -- referring to an inherent, hard-wired attribute -- and thus unable to account for change in the way language is actually used or "performed." I don't think that's an insurmountable obstacle, inasmuch as competence can also be construed itself as something dynamic, constantly being informed through a kind of feedback loop by developments in performance. At any rate, that's how I would see its descriptive value with respect to social practice and the socialization of art. What attracted me most about the idea that competence need never be performed in order to exist is that it draws attention to, and provides an escape route from, an event-centered conception of art -- one of the most rarely challenged mainstays of artworld ideology, according to which art is not only made up of events (exhibitions, publications, production of works) but is itself seen as event. However, inasmuch as events are never present to themselves and to us, but exist only on the horizon or safely behind us, there's a kind of "northern" luxury in being able to afford to either ponder them or await their occurrence. On the one hand, the everyday, here-and-now perspective of usership doesn't allow this privilege. But on the other hand, without the everyday acts of usership and repurposing, there is no way to actually account for how events actually come about! Which is why I associate event with performance and competence with usership and the everyday -- something largely invisible to the event-focused attention economy but which may actually be the engine of social transformation. I happen to think that there is an extraordinary amount of art-related competence at work and at play that is simply not being performed -- that is, not being captured institutionally and performed as event. Well, if that's true, or even partially true, the implications for curatorship are immense. How is art to be curated -- cared for -- if not performatively? Can usership be invited into institutions? Will usership behave responsibly in art institutions? A few years ago, in 2010, Judy Werthein did a wonderfully understated intervention at the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Castilla y Léon called Salsipuedes / Exitifyoucan -- a great title, which kind of says it all, and becomes better still when you know that Sale si puedes is actually also a town in Argentina's Santa Fe province... The work -- which featured the "little green man," typically used to indicate museum exits, pasted all over the museum walls, running in very direction but out, and culminated with the word "ENTRADA" directly above the exit doors leading out into the street -- remained at the level of institutional critique, but very eloquently and forthrightly stated the dilemma: how does one leave the performative ghetto even if it is one's stated intent to do so?

The fact is, however, that competence-driven practice is becoming so widespread that curatorship is obliged to rethink its expert privileges and to make way for usership. One thing that these practices have in common is their scale: rather than working on reduced-scale model which determined art of the twentieth century -- encouraging art to see itself as prototype or a scale model, however monumental, of what it was addressing -- these practices have ramped up their scale of operations to the 1:1 scale. They are what they are, as well as propositions of what they are. They don't wear their art on their sleeve. Since it would be foolish to leave existent institutions for the exclusive showcasing of performative, event-based art, the challenge is how to repurpose them as useful frames for competence crossing and exchange, finding ways to instantiate art other than through the exhibition mode. It seems to me that alternative spaces, or proto-institutional structures, if you like, such as El Levante in Rosario, CRAC in Valparaiso, or the Centro de investigaciones artisticas in Buenos Aires are doing just that -- while also operating under the radar as concept-informed, collective practices in their own right.

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