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The Social Practice Nightmare Before Christmas
Cautionary tales about art by committee.
[These are excerpts from a Keynote lecture delivered today at the Creative Places Conference in Tuam, Ireland]
THE TUMBLR WHISPERER
The date is somewhere around 2010. The setting is a major art museum, a beloved and cherished art institution with a world-class modern art collection. In spite of its major historical importance, or maybe precisely because of the weight of history that it carries with its reputation, the museum is mostly fascinated with its own legend, and it struggles to deal with the present. Its curators can curate the best retrospectives of artists who lived a hundred years ago, yet struggle to successfully engage with contemporary culture.
The museum’s marketing strategy resembles the one of a corporate hotel or airline. Dumping information and advertisements onto the public is their way to gather interest in what they offer. They have seemingly unlimited budgets to put posters all over the city, but their interest is to sell tickets, not to engage meaningfully with visitors.
Inside the museum’s education department, one of the junior staffers is a millennial. She has a pulse on what her generation wants. One day she comes to her supervisor and suggests that they start a Tumblr page for their programs, which sounds to them like a great idea. During those early social media days, Tumblr is fairly dominant and increasingly used by people involved in the arts.
They thus turn to the Marketing department and propose this idea to them. They have never heard of Tumblr, and they don’t seem to care. During these years museums don’t really understand how to engage in the social media realm. They send them away, telling them that we can do whatever they want, thinking it will be a rather irrelevant, self- indulgent activity.
And so they launch their Tumblr page. The young educator, who as I mentioned has the generational instinct that older senior staff entirely lack, runs it in an informal way, initiating conversations, drawing interesting quotes and sharing news about what they are doing. Within a few weeks, they have tens of thousands of followers. Even though content generation was not a full-time job, the young educator runs it like an expert orchestra conductor.
Just around that time, the museum hires a communications consultant who ostensibly can help the institution improve its messaging strategy and connect with audiences, with the main purpose, of course, to increase membership, ticket and store sales. The consultant (who is paid a large sum to consult) observes all the information channels of the museum, and interviews the staff involved in online content and so forth. He then sees the Tumblr page, and he sees how successful this site has become.
A few weeks later when he presents his findings to the head of Marketing. He informs them that the museum’s messaging strategy is, in other words, incipient, out-of-touch, ham-fisted, and inconsistent. He, however, notes that the Tumblr page that the Education staff put together is magnificent, fresh, vibrant, and is having a huge success: his recommendation: that is exactly the direction that the museum should be taking.
The result of that recommendation can be expected: the Marketing department meets with the education staff. They inform them that they are going to take over their Tumblr page in order to have a more unified museum voice.
Within a few weeks, the marketing department takes over, and turns their Tumblr into a corporate airline promotional page, a dumpster of ads, vacuous superlatives and meaningless phrases about the enjoyment of art , and membership promotions.
Readers lose interest almost immediately and leave in droves. A few months later, the marketing department shuts down the Tumblr page, concluding that it was not a good use of time for the institution in the first place.
FOX CROSSING, NY
Fox Crossing, NY is a small bedroom community located about one hour and half from New York City by the commuter train. A picturesque town up the Hudson River, with a single main street and a number of small stores, the classic New York diner, a bar, a flower shop, a local library.
Two emerging curators, Mark and Sheryl, meet an older local artist— let’s call him Lee- who is very connected in the community.
They come up with the idea of doing an art weekend, whereby Mark and Sheryl will curate a project where New York artists come to Fox Crossing to present site-specific performances and installations in different locations around town. Mark and Sheryl really have a good sense of cutting-edge experimental practices in New York and assemble a really compelling group of artists. They decide to call the project the Fox Crossing project.
Each artist gets assigned a location where to do their work. Because of the artists involved it generates quite a bit of excitement. A good portion of the New York art scene, clad in trendy black attire, make their way on the train up the river to see the projects.
The installations and performances in themselves are inscrutable for the locals. It is striking to see the locals at the bar while the art crowd watches the performances unfolding, as if they felt the town had been overtaken by an eccentric cult.
And yet, the weekend is very successful. Local businesses see a good deal of cash influx from the hundreds of art world visitors and overall the atmosphere is festive and celebratory. The event is written about in the media. For all the strange aspects that the locals saw, they do enjoy the attention. A few weeks later, Lee checks back with Mark and Sheryl. He tells them that the town had loved the Fox Crossing project and they wanted to do it again the following year— which Mark and Sheryl are excited about. But this time, Lee says, they want to feature local artists.
Mark and Sheryl then change their expression. “No, see Lee, this is a curatorial project, it is important that we get to select the participating artists; that is what made it successful.” Lee replies: “we can’t exclude our artists, and many of them now want to participate. It is their town. If you don’t want to do it, then we will do it on our own, we will do next year’s Fox Crossing Project”. This time Mark and Sheryl really object. “But the title is something that is connected to our curatorial initiative”, they say. “I am sorry, says Lee, but you don’t own the name of Fox Crossing, you don’t even live here.”
Lee and the local artists launch their own Fox Crossing Project, which this time is closer to a craft fair. Artists who make ceramics, macramé, worry dolls, mittens, and handmade jewelry set up their stands.
None of the visitors from the last edition come to see the project. No press, no outside visitors, no revenue whatsoever.
After that edition, the town decides to forego any further attempts to repeat the experiment.
What I hope you might be able to appreciate is that in both instances there are two parties to a relationship. It is almost a mathematical equation: one party- the tech savvy millennial and the curatorial collective, put together something using their skills and intuition that succeeds. They do it by working in a social, cultural and economic platform that they use to their advantage and that remains, to a degree, untapped whose owners are unaware of its own potential. When they unlock that potential, something wonderful happens. The constituents connected to that platform and claim it as their own (the online presence of the museum in the case of the marketing department, and the town of Fox Crossing for its residents) are both confused and excited by the magic that happened, and after seeing how the formula has been employed they want to employ it themselves. No one really articulates this sentiment, but it is possible that they might have felt used or instrumentalized to a certain extent, which may be true. The millennial museum worker used the formidable edifice of the museum to start a conversation that became exponentially more visible because of where it was being put together. The curatorial team drew a lot of attention from the art world because of the novelty of doing an experimental art project in a different urban environment and in one that was distant enough from the art capital to feel like a journey, but not far enough to dissuade someone from going.
The constituents who unconsciously felt instrumentalized then decided to take the matters into their own hands. And the result is a failure.
If you ever watched The Nightmare Before Christmas, you might remember that Jack Skellington, the main character, finds a secret door on a tree that transports him to Christmas Town. Inspired, Jack gets the residents of Halloween Town to finally get into the Christmas spirit and make every effort to recreate Christmas within Halloween. Their efforts, however, and predictably, only manage to produce a creepy version of Christmas, a poor attempt at changing the nature of Halloween Town. They thus produce something that goes against their nature, and in its unexamined incongruence is destined to disappoint. It’s a fable if you will, about identity, and the hopes for transformation.
I have been reflecting on this story as I have observed, over the years, the way in which the language of creative placemaking has been employed in art programs throughout the world, cultural initiatives funded by public agencies or even private foundations to support art that hopefully will transform localities.
This is of course not a new phenomenon: community art programs have long existed before the rise of socially engaged art in the way that we know it today. What they stand for— the involvement of the local communities, social justice, equity and inclusion must be foregrounded and supported.
While these are sentiments and objectives that are largely shared by socially engaged art, the ideas about how to use social practice to transform cities often seem to come from a selective mindset, one where it sees only what it wants to see. For instance, all he residents of Fox Crossing saw was the crowds, the sales, the media attention; they did not care for the art, nor did they bother to understand it; in their view that component was easily replaceable by a local version. In the case of the Marketing department of the museum, it was incapable to appreciate the new forms of online communication; they thought they had the ability to do a better job than the young staffer.
So it is important to really pay attention here about what is lost when you take a selective approach at transforming social practice projects and scaling them up or even having unrealistic expectations about what an artist’s project can do.
The problem we face when we seek to scale up socially engaged art is that we encounter a confusion of criteria. How can we produce work that offers a critical perspective on an issue and produce conviviality and cooperation, while at the same time being symbolically and sensorially compelling?
That might be another secret tree door that we have yet to unlock.
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