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Scoping Out Social Practice

Since the 1990’s, “relational aesthetics” has been a buzzword in the contemporary art world.

Artists like Rirkrit Tiravanija, Philippe Perreno, Pierre Hugye, Liam Gillick, along with curators including Hans Ulrich Obrist, have championed a kind of art that considers the social relations between individuals as a site and material for artistic production.

In the current decade, the sphere of so-called relational work has extended to include “social practice,” which has come to mean everything from artists spearheading prison reform to building community row houses in Louisiana to distributing a fake version of the New York Times. Artists embedding their practices in the activities of everyday life—particularly political ones—is a big part of what “social practice” is all about.

Whether or not these actions qualify as “art” has raised some debate among critics. What can be said is that artists are finding new ways to interact with the public and to take their work outside of the “white box” of the gallery.

While approaches to socially engaged work vary, many artists of this ilk are interested in developing ways for their work to be funded and sold that does not involve the commercial art market.

* Caroline Woodard recently launched Our Goods with several collaborators, which is a website that allows users to participate in a gift economy, bartering for things they need rather than using money.

* Artist Carolina Caycedo carried out a project—with the Colombian group Colectivo Cambalache—called Museo de la calle (Museum of the Street), in which they used a street cart as a roving “museum,” from which participants could gift and take work.

Community-dinners-as-aesthetic-acts have become a popular way to circumvent the typical grant-writing exercises with which many artists are familiar. Feast in Brooklyn, Sunday Soup in Chicago, Stew in Baltimore, and Sugar City in Buffalo all serve up festive monthly meals that pay for new artists’ projects.

The artist collective W.A.G.E. (Working Artists and the Greater Economy) in New York, is working to better work conditions available for artists, who rarely have the benefits of belonging to a union or corporation.

Exhibitions, conferences, and art programs about social practice have been all the rage in recent years. The arts presenter Creative Time in New York began an annual summit in 2009 and Portland State University recently inaugurated an Art and Social Practice emphasis for its MFA program. California College of the Arts and Otis College of Art & Design host similar programs.

Recent exhibitions like Condensations of the Social at Smack Mellon and Democracy Now at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago have brought together a range of artists who make up the current and historic fabric of socially-engaged art making.