May 24, 2013

About "Face": A Debrief of Our Social Practice Art Experiment

As the inaugural foray into the world of “social practice” pedagogy, my experimental art theory course, Art as Social Practice, yielded some expected aesthetic results and raised a few theoretical issues for future consideration. The project that was collaboratively developed in tandem with eighteen Corcoran College of Art and Design undergraduates was urban, public engagement culminating in an “art event” that modestly invited further viewer participation. Ironically perhaps, this quietly climactic display of the students’ photographic production provoked some unexpected tangents of latent disruption by this public audience through their willful sarcasm and humor. It is this realization that the always unpredictable public can re-direct any “social event” through their interaction by raising unforeseen issues which continues to make social practice art a living, evolving form.

The course syllabus required my young initiates to each come up with an idea for a social practice art piece; our textbook was Creative Time’s Living as Form: Socially Engaged Art from 1991-2011 which references some of the best examples of the social practice movement. After reading all of the proposals, I selected five of the strongest in terms of potential and we then discussed the “pros and cons” of each of these.

One proposal was called “Can I take something from you?” In brief, class members would disperse into the public realm and ask strangers "Can I take something from you?" The item could be anything the person was willing to part with – pocket change, book of matches, empty coffee cup – and students would compile this "bounty" into a space where the person could later pick-up their items. This proposal ostensibly examined our obsessive need for possessions and the vulnerability of the "give-away." 

Another proposal focused on social identity and involved exhibiting photographs of people of different races and cultures, to then elicit comments and gather data on whether people were “prejudiced” based on their personal assumptions about race, religion, ethnicity, etc.

During a brainstorming session, we spontaneously combined these two separate proposals into a unique third project where the students would go into the streets of Washington, D.C., approach random people an ask, “Can I take your photograph?” Students would explain, “This is an art project where your photo will be exhibited along with other people’s photos, and at the exhibit the public is invited to write comments about what the photos may reveal or suggest about a person.” This new proposal now referenced ideas about “social identity” and stereotypes, and about how an individual’s “look” might function semiotically to project a social identity, whether correct or not.

This new project became the one the class decided to do and as I began working with the class collaboratively on it’s development we began to deal with what we needed in terms of technical and logistical questions of presentation, textual accompaniment, media communication, promotion and presentation design. Because this project involved relatively simple photographic reproduction, rudimentary display and the possibility of public participation I felt it had strong possibilities for success as a social practice experiment. Out of the many suggested titles for this project, “Face Values” was selected that best conveyed the issue of the "surface" perception of people and the relationship of that initial response to one’s actual social identity.   

As we progressed with our project's creative development, further questions arose about societal issues of prejudice; how “socially constructed” opinions about individuals based on the surface aspects of appearance and “style” might not reflect their “true” identity and how our perceptions became biased through prejudicial stereotyping.

Early in our preparatory discussions the issue of “negative” comments came up. In essence, if we encourage the public to make comments about the persons in the exhibited photographs, students were aware that some of the comments could be negatively driven by animosity toward a gender, or a race, or one’s sexual orientation. The logical assumption was that the photographs would encompass a range of sexes and ethnicities, and that these would be undoubtedly “stereotyped” or “niched” within prevailing social identity roles. Addressing the “negativity issue” and possible solutions, one student submitted the following response in regards to censoring negative comments:

“We are concerned about the responses but I think that censoring takes the teeth out of the project. I think the writers should [be] free to speak openly. Besides removing the teeth of the project it also makes the project mute if we censor as the point is to show the harm and inaccuracy of our judgment based on the looks of a person. I think this needs to be communicated so people feel free to be truthful.”(1)
Students were adamant that one’s “judgment” of a person based upon a single photograph alone might perhaps be flawed but that “freedom of speech” should be upheld at our event. A compromise solution was reached with the decision to use Post-It notes for the public’s comments. Thus, should anyone at our event be so outraged at a comment we had the ability to excise it from the exhibit, but the Post-It could be preserved for our documentation.
Another topic that came up fairly quickly was the question of the intention behind our proposed social practice art project. What were we trying to say, if anything, about social identity and stereotype? One student addressed this succinctly:
“The event needs to be recognized again, not as ‘educating’ the public because we are not experts, and even though some of us may know more about these issues than others, we are in no place to be expert voices on the topic. We are merely there to help guide realizations. […] Before the event we need to communicate that this is just an experience, we are not trying to solve the problem, merely spread the awareness that people stereotype, and oppress others’ individuality by enforcing their own categories on other people.”(2)

To that end, in the weeks prior to the now scheduled event date, students researched social identity, stereotypes and “profiling,” and even physiognomy, the “pseudo-science” of facial interpretation. Somewhat overwhelmed with the existing volume of knowledge on these topics, some students became worried that we needed a more goal-oriented approach, or that we should document the expected public comments and match that to our “participant subjects.” We decided then to ask the people we photographed to describe themselves in their own words and to transcribe those “self-descriptions” with the corresponding photographs. These self-descriptions would be in a so-called “Truth Book” next to thumbnails of the participants’ photographs.

This did not resolve the “expert” issue, however, so I asked for volunteers to become “specialists” in social identity issues such as race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation. These students would functionally provide some practical information on the night of the event to any of our viewing audience who had further interest or questions about these topics.

It was further decided that we needed a textual hand-out, a “take-away” that students could give the participant subjects that would help to outline our goals for the project as well as give the date, time and space of the event. The idea of textual communication of our “mission statement” was eloquently expressed in another student’s paper:

“We need to be able to communicate a clear and concise mission statement. Once we decide exactly what it is we are trying to say with this project, a simple, but bold, statement will help us define the project, our purpose, and what we hope people can take away from our work. This project involves participation at various stages. We are asking strangers to participate by allowing us to photograph them, then we are asking the people who come to our ‘art space’ to participate by interacting with the images that we have taken and add comments, ideas, words, or opinions to our visual display. We need to be very clear with exactly what it is we want people to do. Of course the beauty in participation art is the uncertain, and not knowing exactly how people are going to react and interact, but having a clear and concise direction to give to our audience is vital. The clearer we are the better our audience will understand our intentions and be willing to participate.”(3)

With this combination statement of intention/event announcement designed and assembled by Graphic Design students, and our “Photography Guidelines” as defined by Photography students, we trekked through the streets of Washington, D.C. and began searching for and photographing willing subjects. A goal of five photos per student was decided upon and all principle photography took place the week of May 1-8, 2013.

My former student and now good friend, Reuben Breslar, contributed his extensive installation design experience that enabled us to quickly install the “Face Values” exhibit at Studio 1469. Using Reuben’s self-designed templates, our student installation team was able to mount our final count of 73 color 8x10 images to three walls with painter’s tape. Sufficient space was left between and below the two rows of photos on each wall for the Post-It note comments; two tables placed in the center of the gallery held Post-It’s and pens for visitors to use.

Mother Nature was not kind to us the evening of our opening as a hard rain fell throughout most of the two hour event. Still, we had perhaps 50 visitors who enthusiastically grabbed pens and Post-It’s to contribute their comments. Four student “Docents” worked the room helping visitors understand our motivations for the project “without spoon-feeding our audience.” The point was “to get the visitor to think about how we (they) identify ourselves (themselves) and others through social identities and stereotype.”(4)

As one student had noted before our event, participatory art as a socially engaged action incorporates the uncertainty of “not knowing exactly how people are going to react and interact.” Without “spoon-feeding” our intentionality or providing “meaning” to this art project, we did provide textual and verbal directions to give visitors a sense of what we hoped would develop during their interaction; docents invited visitors to post comments, as well as asking questions after Post-It notes began to appear around the photos: “Do you agree with the Post-Its that are already up there?”

In retrospect, these sorts of tactics, even though done in good faith for a “positive” experience, more than likely affected the resulting interactions from visitors. Perhaps it would have been a “truer” experience for the visitor to simply do what they wished to do – to post or not, to write or draw directly upon the photos, or just to converse and ask questions. Speaking from seven years of my own participatory art experiences, this is a challenge for anyone seeking public participation. That uncertainty becomes a mute obstacle that you believe must somehow be cajoled into unity with your intention. This is ultimately a learning experience for every participatory art practice, and has now become a teachable moment through my direction of the “Art as Social Practice” coursework.

As I mentioned above, the most relevant aspect of this “Face Values” piece for me were those posted comments that seemed to be, as the Brits say, “having a laugh.” Whether in jest or not, speculation about a participant subject’s social identity such as “creepy neighbor” or “probably has piercings” went beyond our request for conjecture about the person. Perhaps this reveals a “mob” tendency to anarchy. Or, it may simply be a sarcastic disdain for anything “artsy” by one segment of the public. Further, a shocking or mocking comment may be a visitor’s instinctual wish to “ape” our defined goals of “revealing” how we stereotype, to otherwise reveal the ugliness of stereotyping.

In our “mission statement” announcement card’s text, we may have unconsciously planted the seed for this. In that communication we boldly stated: Tendencies to judge others based on color of skin, amount of tattoos or piercings, age, sex, sexual orientation and gender has become so ingrained into our everyday lives that we make assumptions without thinking critically about ourselves and the others with whom we interact.”(5)

If the anticipated actions of a visitor to a participatory art piece are consciously and/or unconsciously telegraphed, there is the probability that those visitors will deliver what is expected of them. Both my class and myself will be researching this area of the psychology of participation for future projects. Without a doubt, these future social practice endeavors ought to be prepared for the immersive, analytical and sensory experience that occurs when art takes on this living form.  

IMAGE: Page from the “Truth Book” that contained all 73 thumbnails of our participant subjects alongside their self-descriptions; design by Raksa Yin, with assistance from Martin Nera.

1. From unpublished paper by Amanda Hevener, submitted for class assignment on April 16, 2013.

2. From unpublished paper by Bryana Robinson, submitted for class assignment on April 20, 2013.

3. From unpublished paper by Windrose Stanback, submitted for class assignment on April 16, 2013.

4. From “Docent Preparation” document given to student volunteers.

5. From “Face Values” announcement card; written by Bryana Robinson and edited by MCB.