INTERVIEW Dr. Gregory Sholette
Dr. Gregory Sholette, New York based artist, writer and activist is interviewed by Fiona Whelan, artist and joint Coordinator of the MA Socially-Engaged Art +Further Education at NCAD, Dublin. Having met in 2016 at the Fire Station Summer School, Fiona and Gregory remained in email contact. In March 2017, Fiona sent four questions to Gregory to get his valuable insights into the state of socially-engaged art in 2017.
FW: We know from social movement theory that often when a set of unruly actions coalesce and become bureaucratised, the movement may be en route to a period of decline, which will require another intervention to unsettle the existing paradigm and create further movement. One could be justified in identifying this cycle when looking at the community arts movement of the 1970s–1990s in the UK and Ireland. As we well and truly have an international movement of socially-engaged art practice (social practice) with associated funding streams, educational structures and awards, I was hoping you could you speak of the current politics of socially-engaged art as a movement in 2017 and your observations about the particular stage it is at in its existence or any impending turns you see on the horizon.
GS: The recent and remarkable mainstreaming of political dissent across the United States, as well as in other nations, is giving me an unexpected jolt of optimism, Fiona, how about you? Starting almost immediately in the aftermath of recent presidential elections here as well as Brexit in the UK, I have never seen this kind of mass mobilisation by a very wide cross-section of people, except for the enormous protests prior to the Iraq war in 2003 and the more recent climate change demos in 2014. I noticed here that the subways have been periodically flooded at certain times and locations with young people carrying handmade protest signs who looked like they decided that their first date (all possible genders and shades) should be a rally at Trump Tower or JFK. This situation of mainstreaming is getting so normalised that, the day before International Women’s Day, a bronze sculpture entitled Fearless Girl was installed facing, or perhaps more accurately, facing down the (in)famous Charging Bull statue on Wall Street that was illegally dropped there just after the 1987 stock market crash by an Italian artist. The bull was later adopted by the city. Fearless Girl is by artist Kristen Visbal, who was commissioned by McCann Erickson, a major corporate advertising agency that devised the memorable 1970s jingle “Coca-Cola: it’s the real thing”. The aim of the (so far) temporary bronze figure is said to be to promote workplace diversity and to encourage companies to recruit women to their boards, a sentiment reflected in the plaque attached to its base that reads “Know the power of women in leadership. SHE makes a difference.”1
Considering that the company who obtained the temporary permit to install the sculpture manages some $2.5 trillion in assets, we can see just how much desire there is to push back against current conservative ideologues, even from within the 1% sectors of the capitalist class itself. We also need to consider the timing of the intervention post US elections with all the political chaos and all-too-obvious resentment towards women, people of colour and immigrants. But, paradoxically, I think maybe we progressive artists have actually been granted a unique opportunity that if played right could mean avoiding the kind of legitimating assimilation that is typical of art world dissidents from Dada to some social practice artists. Simply because the ideology of the art world requires that it both reflect the current zeitgeist, but also be viewed as taking up a position a bit further to the left of establishment cultural institutions, this could be the ideal time to intervene with a more radical agenda, one that does not allow the rising popularity of socially-engaged art, and to some extent even activist art, to settle into a comfortable pattern.
FW: I really look forward to your upcoming publication ART AS SOCIAL ACTION: An Introduction to the Principles & Practices of Teaching Social Practice Art. This publication certainly feels timely, in the context of the surge of postgraduate programmes over the last decade in the Western world in the field of socially-engaged and collaborative art practice. I believe you have six Masters programmes in the USA (one of which you teach on) and in Ireland, which is such a small country, we have three (one of which I teach on).2 For so long, practitioners engaging in this field found themselves isolated and on the margins of contemporary practice, so institutional and educational support is of course welcomed. That said, many of us can relate to Rick Lowe’s words at the Creative Time Summit in 2013 when he warned of the ‘credential generation’. Speaking to one of the themes of TransActions #2, which considers the meta-level of knowledge production in the field and its relationship to curriculum, I’d like to ask you your thoughts and possible concerns regarding this move to the professionalisation and institutionalisation of the formation of artists connected to this form of practice.
GS: Expert virtuosity, Paolo Virno explained years ago, became a virtual requirement of neoliberal capitalism and enterprise culture. It should come as no surprise therefore that there is a drive towards the credentialisation of such performativity. But, as you point out Fiona, similar types of art-making have been occurring within social practice for decades, but without the art world’s attention. This has led to frustration and even bitterness on the part of community-based artists. That said, these artists have often found themselves isolated out of choice. Many of the artists I have had contact with made no secret of their contempt for the art world, often for good reasons of course. And yet, one still has to ask just what the community-based artist wants from this very same art world that she or he so adamantly rejects. The reality is that a newer generation of very similar art practitioners have made their peace with the art establishment, at least to some degree, or in some instances have even welcomed them to the table, so to speak.
Surely this is due partly to the canonisation of Joseph Beuys, but also because of the frenzied success of relational aesthetics. But I suspect it also has to do with all of the critiques made by Kester, Kwon, Bishop and myself that too often community-based art is used by ultra-deregulated and privatised capitalist entities to plug the holes that it cut in the social safety net in order to be viable. That process of art serving capital, not unlike and also maybe not unrelated to gentrification, is now so commonplace that we seem to be witnessing its absorption into certain art projects, including Rick’s in Houston to some degree, but perhaps more visibly with Theaster Gates on Chicago’s south side or Marina Naprushkina with her Neue Nachbarschaft (New Neighborhood) “artificial institution” art project in the refugee-populated Moabit section of Berlin.3 So, while we can bemoan this tendency because it seems to mollify the rebellious possibilities stemming from resentment and ill treatment by the state within certain populations, we are faced with the real need to rethink the institution, as well as the academy, and also even the art world itself.
But now, neoliberal capitalism, the force that has caused so much damage to society, is itself become destabilised, though with no clear or sustainable alternative in sight, making its collapse a potentially catastrophic event. The rise of nationalist capitalism has got to be taken very seriously by all cultural progressives, but especially by those involved in teaching or developing socially- engaged art programmes and curricula. If a generation of dissident and resistant artist practitioners arises through such circumstances, then perhaps that is the real-world cost of being engaged in something called social practice art? I note here the work of Emma Mahony at NCAD in Dublin, who has written convincingly about not abandoning the university to neoliberal technocrats. Maybe you know her and her work? I am thinking of her text ‘Opening Interstitial Distances in the Neoliberal University and Art School’ from 2016.4
FW: Many years ago, early in my career, I met your old friend and colleague Tim Rollins during a research trip to the USA and engaged in a fascinating afternoon conversation with him about whether one has more power and influence inside or outside institutions of power. At the time we were speaking specifically about work with young people – as he had built an extensive practice engaging young people within the formal education system and I was working outside it. Alongside the multiplicity of third level programmes in socially-engaged art, there is, of course, any amount of alternative pedagogical platforms in the Global North and South operating in response to or opposition to formal structures. As you regularly reference the importance of your own teachers in your formation as an artist and activist, most notably Hans Haacke, I’d be interested in your thoughts on the political importance of occupying a position of influence on the formation of artists within the formal system or whether and how it matters where one is positioned.
GS: Hans Haacke at The Cooper Union, as well as Jean Pierre-Gorin at the University of California, San Diego, were both very important teachers to me, but other significant mentors did not have positions within academia, or if they did it was not in such high pro le schools. They were also all women, including my rst art instructor, the watercolorist Jeanne D. Burford from Pennsylvania, who is now in her 90s, sculptor and painter Charlotte Schatz from the community college I attended in the mid-1970s before moving to New York City, and the late union activist Sophie Saroff, who was 81 years of age when I met her in 1977, and who re-educated me about the labour history of the USA. There was also Lucy R. Lippard, who was both a colleague in Political Art Documentation/Distribution (PAD/D), but also someone who connected back to the 1960s and thus gave me insights into the way certain types of cultural resistance are reduplicated under different though similar historical circumstances, such as the present moment. Finally, there was Carol Duncan, a critical, feminist art historian whose writings inspired my own attempt to be a scholar of marginalised art practices, as well as an art practitioner.
My own teaching position is not so prestigious. Along with my amazing colleague, the artist Chloë Bass, and several remarkable students in the Social Practice Queens (SPQ) College CUNY MFA programme, we are attempting to develop a serious, social justice cultural initiative, despite the limited resources of an economically-challenged public university. Needless to say, decades of neoliberal defunding and privatisation have taken a toll on the system. And yet, this very week in fact, Fiona, we are launching a new, 24-credit Advanced Certificate in Critical Social Practice for people with existing graduate degrees who want to focus on a particular project within our network of assistance.5 Only time will tell us if this moves in the direction of expanding the broader goals of establishing a truly progressive art practice that will emanate outwards from our modest public educational programme located on the edge of both the mainstream art world and those influential high-profile US academic institutions you refer to in your question.
FW: In a previous interview,6 when asked how you negotiate the different identities in your role as an artist, academic and activist, you posed your own question: for who does differentiating functions into neat categories really matter, and to what ends? Not wanting to overly differentiate or place a hierarchy on the various ways you act upon your thoughts and ideas – teaching, writing, making art, campaigning etc. – I would, however, be interested to hear you say more about the power structures that surround the different territories in which you position yourself and whether you believe that in the current political climate there is a particular space that has more room for radical thought, influence and action.
GS: Few people admit to liking messiness. Cultural and academic institutions are especially repelled by disorder, at least outwardly, because, I would argue, museums, cultural establishments and universities derive a great deal of power from seemingly stabilising, categorising and containing what initially appears to be noise and disorder. Take the PAD/D archive that now resides within the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. Though it sits boxed neatly in several le folders, the archive’s actual content is quite different from the manicured narrative of the formidable cultural institution it is housed within. Developed by the informally-structured 1980s group as a resource about socially and politically engaged art, the content of the collection – which consists of posters as well as many ephemeral flyers, letters, news-clippings, photos and so forth – ranges from overtly resistant material, to documents that focus on purely formalist avant-garde art projects. It’s a bit of a mess, in other words, but a very interesting one, and interesting precisely because of its heterogeneity. How does the MoMA benefit from this rambling archive of surplus artistic activity? For one thing, it allows the museum to claim a type of completeness, even if the MoMA would be hard-pressed to ever allow this internal archival disorder to be visible within its carefully-managed public galleries right alongside the selection of art displayed therein.
This is the paradox of the relationship between signal and noise: the former cannot be defined except in relation to the latter. And while the suppression of certain types of content is always part of the establishment’s ideological policing, of course along with managing particular classes, genders and ethnicities of people and groups, it is ultimately discipline itself that makes up the real objective of institutional power. So, while the question of who benefits from differentiating agency into specific functions or categories of identification is always a political one, engaging with its paradoxes is to my mind a more empowering form of resistance than setting up defensive barricades around oneself, no matter how marginalised or far removed from the mainstream one believes oneself to be positioned. At the end of the day, the market does not care. Granted, we are confronting a very different species of capitalism now and, provisionally speaking, so-called identity politics is going to prove very important tactically, though it absolutely must be understood I think to be an interim form of ontological resistance. And that is a real challenge, because so very often we find that getting rid of the old boss only really means getting used to a new one.
- There are already petition drives aimed at keeping the work in place permanently. See Verena Dobnik, ‘“Fearless Girl” Statue Stares Down Wall Street’s Iconic Bull’, Bloomberg News (March 8, 2017).
- The courses I’m aware of in the USA are the MFA Art and Social Practice at Portland State University, MFA Social Practice at the California College of the Arts, the MFA Public Practice at Otis College, MA Community Arts at the Maryland Institute and the MFA Social Practice at Queens College in New York. In Ireland, there are three courses: MA Socially Engaged Art and Further Education at the National College of Art and Design, Dublin, the MA Social Practice and the Creative Environment in Limerick Institute of Technology and the Socially Engaged Art strand of the MA Creative Practice at the Galway Mayo Institute of Technology.
- First published in Performance Research, vol. 21, issue 6 (www.academia.edu).
- Annika Lundgren interviews Gregory Sholette on the relationship between art, activism and academism (Gothenburg, Sweden, 2015) (www.skogen.pm/archive).