What is Social Practice?
When you tell people you are getting an MFA in Social Practice, they always have follow up questions. Often no matter the definition you give, your conversation partner will say something like, “So you make murals?” or “Like art therapy?” Nothing against murals or art therapy, but no, that is not exactly what we are doing here. What we are doing is varied and vast and has been going on for a while. The A+SP program at Portland State University started in 2007 and around 70 artists have graduated since then. For this edition of SoFA, each current student in the program was asked to interview a program alumnus. Through the interviews, we see glimpses of how the program changed and grew based on who was taking part and how social practice has changed and grown as a field.
I wanted to take this opportunity to crowdsource. Who better to sympathize about the challenge of defining social practice than our predecessors? How do the many alumni of our program describe the field in which we work and play and dig and live? I looked to the Terms and Topics formulated by program founder Harrell Fletcher and imposed a small self-initiated artist residency within the interviews of my colleagues. I asked them each to add the question, “How do you describe social practice to non-artists?” to their interview. Some chose to include the question in the published version of the interviews you are about to read, and others did not, but the responses they shared with me began to paint a picture of the expansive field of social practice and reminded me why I found it captivating to begin with.
Avalon Kalin, alumnus of the program’s first graduating class, told Becca Kauffman that social practice is “a tendency in art.” He also introduces a game that he and Becca play in their interview, and you can play it too. Constance Hockaday told Gilian Rappaport, “I like to take risks in public with people. I like to make magical things happen— unexpected happenings… It’s about getting the audience to take the risk with you.” Salty Xi Jie Ng claims, “The work makes you as much as you make the work.” Salty’s work feels intimate and humorous and her conversation with Nadine Hanson feels the same.
As Mark Menjivar puts it, “Some people self-identify as social practice artists, other people don’t.” Not everyone uses the term social practice. Some find it easier for themselves and their potential participants or collaborators to relate to other terms like social sculpture, social art, and socially engaged art.
Tia Kramer calls herself a social choreographer and uses the term socially engaged art because it “makes more sense in the rural context.” She shares in her interview with Marissa Perez that working with a small town community has meant explaining less often what she does, because the people around her have already been a part of it.
Overall, there is a sense that, while pinning down social practice can be difficult, it allows immense freedom in terms of how it is practiced, where it happens, and how it can serve the artist and others. You will probably notice that when many of the artists interviewed talked about how they share the idea of social practice with others, they talk about starting a longer conversation; they describe what sounds like the beginning of a relationship being formed, a collaborator being recruited, a social practice project being born.
– Caryn Aasness
The Social Forms of Art (SoFA) Journal is a publication dedicated to supporting, documenting and contextualising social forms of art and its related fields and disciplines. Each issue of the Journal takes an eclectic look at the ways in which artists are engaging with communities, institutions and the public. The Journal supports and discusses projects that offer critique, commentary and context for a field that is active and expanding.
Created within the Portland State University Art & Social Practice Masters In Fine Arts. Program, SoFA Journal is now fully online.
Conversations on Everything is an expanding collection of interviews produced as part of SoFA Journal. Through the potent format of casual interviews as artistic research, insight is harvested from artists, curators, people of other fields and everyday humans. These conversations study social forms of art as a field that lives between and within both art and life.
c/o PSU Art & Social Practice
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Portland, OR 97207
Sponsored by the Portland State University Art and Social Practice MFA Program