At the node between art discourse and systems of action

At the node between art discourse and systems of action

As my concept for a web platform for social practice artists and other forces aimed at social change takes shape, my attention also goes to what may help us better understand some aspects of intervening in the social arena.

To start, what happens when social practice artists approach communities:

  • How do they relate to the current global economic system while aiming at empowering groups and villages?

  • What kind of philosophy do they espouse while enabling poor or marginal communities to move as positive agents in their daily lives?

  • Do they oppose the free market rules or do they go with it; is there even a third possibility...

  • How do we assess their strategies vis-à-vis the difference in histories and traditions in different geographical areas?

To start exploring these questions, I thought of using a paper that Grant Kester, of the University of California San Diego, published in 2009, where he seems to suggest that neither opposition nor embracement of the capitalist system is a viable way.

Citing as an example the project by the German group Park Fiction that created an alternative park in Hamburg’s “Hafenstraße” area -- the city gentrifying harbor front --, he shows how an art collective there opted for a strategy he calls adjacency. Instead of opposing the city’s political forces – by demonstrating against the developers and the city government (angled at building condos in that area) -- or entirely separating from them, Park Fiction performed an imaginative representation of planning (with party-like hands-on planning sessions) that in the end resulted in allowing the community to take control of the land where the park now sits and to express their sense of solidarity and belonging by using the park itself.

To stress his point, Kester compares the Hamburg’s project to a project called Supergas, by the Danish art collective Superflex (you might have seen a picture of it in my first blog). In this project, Superflex worked with engineers and a sustainable agriculture organization in Tanzania to develop and market an affordable biogas generator that turns human and animal waste into a gas fuel. To do this, the art collective stayed clear from any collaboration with NGOs, in their belief that NGOs stifle creativity and initiative in recipient communities, who have now grown accustomed to receiving aid, without having to do much else but just passively sit and wait for the help to come. Superflex wanted to empower the African villagers and to this end, they sold them the biogas units, helping them become independent and entrepreneurial in the market system.
SUPERFLEX and TOA is testing the first system made in Mexico.

Superflex’s strategy though – according to Kester – translates into glossing over the fact that the real cause of Africa’s economic troubles is not the NGOs’s passivity-inducing practices, rather the harming economic restructurings imposed by the World Bank, the siphoning off of the loan funds by local government officials and private contractors into private bank accounts, the ensuing disproportionate debt and the lack of resources.

Two mindsets seem to be at play here: Kester’s, who would rather see social practice bent on breaking the neoliberal cycle where success or failure in the market system is considered the primary factor of self-worth and where, in his view, the farmer in Tanzania or Mexico, will never get the upper hand as a free market gamer, and Superflex’s, who believes there is nothing wrong in drawing the communities in Africa, Mexico and Brazil to the free-market system, because in doing so, they will become active and empowered agents.

While I think this quandary could be a good platform for a wider discussion in the months to come, I could not help but observing that the two projects cited by Kenter are like apple and oranges, and should not be paralleled in assessing social practice strategies.

By equating the Park Fiction project to the Biogas project, Kester compares two very different communities, in two very different parts of the world, with two very different socio-economic histories. While the Hamburg community is a group of people from the industrialized North with a history of opposition to the capitalist system, “a militant history of the area, which was the site of a long-term occupation during the 1980s, when local residents took control of housing in the area and fended off attacks by the German police”, as Kenter puts it, the farming communities in Tanzania and parts of Asia and Central America where Supeflex was able to take its Biogas project in subsequent years, do not share the same belligerent and self-empowered past and come from different socio-economic traditions. To Kenter’s admission, “the city’s [Hamburg], power structure, knowing the history of the area, recognized that the threat of civil disorder lay just beneath the surface” – indicating, in my view, a stronger negotiating power by the park supporters than the one held by the disenfranchised farmers in Tanzania.

The starting point in Kester’s discussion, though, is still worth pondering on:
“the proliferation of contemporary art practices concerned with building new social networks and crafting new forms of collective social interaction can be seen as the expression of a political struggle to re-think collectivity against the grain of a diminishing public sphere”.

For Kester “one of the most complex zones of contact occurs in the relationship between collective art practice and models of organization drawn from the corporate world”. So the questions he started off from, in my view, are worth further investigation:

  • What is the specific orientation of “art” outside of art institutional settings?

  • What metric do we use in analyzing this work?

  • Most importantly, what forms of knowledge are generated in the intersection between art discourse and other, parallel, systems of action?

Let’s keep the discussion going.