How Social Practice Breathed Life Back into My Art

“I’m interested in conversations around the economics of what we value. And how to create work that speaks to new systems of value.”

Justin Maxon

For this conversation I got to sit down and speak with artist Justin Maxon about his practice. We cozied up on our sofa as the late afternoon Fall sun cast shadows on the walls of our home. In addition to being an alumni of PSU’s Art and Social Practice program, Justin is also my partner of almost eleven years. Conversations about art and making are a constant, and one of the things that we connected around early on in our relationship. In fact, the project we delve most into in this conversation, A Field Guide to a Crisis: Strategies for Survival from People in Recovery (FGC), is the first project we have officially co-conceptualized together, though we have of course both influenced each other’s work deeply throughout the years. 

To give you a little more context to help orient you in our conversation, FGC is an ongoing socially engaged project that began in 2020 at the beginning of COVID-19. It functions as a teacher’s training tool by mentoring people residing in sober living homes in Eureka, CA to become “educators in resiliency.” Participants get the opportunity to identify, present, and teach their own crisis resilience skills through lesson plans, instructional videos, and public presentations.

Who do we normally turn to in a crisis? This project challenges us to rethink the voices that are elevated in times of crisis. Society traditionally turns away from people dealing with a substance abuse disorder, out of projected stigma. This work flips that narrative by activating the unique skills that individuals have developed in their recovery process. The program aims to build confidence, self-esteem, and resilience in its participants by uplifting lived experience to the status of expert knowledge.

You can now order the project’s first publication here

What you’ll read below is a conversation you might overhear on any given day if you spent time with us.

A Field Guide to Crisis: Strategies for Survival from People in Recovery website landing page

Marina Lopez: Hi.

Justin Maxon: Hi.

[both laugh]

Marina: So here we are, sitting on our sofa for a conversation for SoFA. 

Justin: [laughs] Yup we’re taking this quite literally. 

Marina: Well, thanks for being a willing participant…Like you had a choice. I want to start by asking, how do you explain social practice to non-artists?

Justin: The way that I start this definition is by just comparing it to other mediums of art that most people understand. Most people know what painting is, what drawing is, what sculpture is, right? They’re not questioning those mediums of art. So I’m like, all right, well, social practice art is a form of art just like painting, drawing, sculpture is, but it comes from art movements that deprioritize object making. And the aesthetics of the art is more reliant upon the ways in which people relate to each other. And that becomes the art form. So, social practice art is art that is conceptual in nature, meaning that the idea of the art is more important than the object itself. So it’s conceptual art where the aesthetics are about how people collaborate around the themes and the topics that the artist is exploring.

Marina: Yeah totally. I always love hearing you explain social practice to people because it also helps me better understand what it is. It’s also helpful for me to remember the art movements and artists that helped to inform social practice. Things like Fluxus, or even land art, and maintenance art. I enjoy that there’s this element of the “everyday” that’s often drawn out through socially engaged projects. I also love that the participants creating art within social practice projects are often considered “non-artists.” So there is this reframing that happens around, Who is an artist? Who gets to make art, and who gets to experience it? 

May I ask you just a really straightforward question? 

Justin: Sure. 

Marina: Can you describe your practice in two sentences?

Justin: No.

[both laugh]

Marina: You’re hilarious. So it would be safe to say you are engaging with the social practice term, “refusal.” Fair enough. 

For those who don’t know you, can you share about your background as an artist? Because I think that your journey and practice is really shaped by the experiences you’ve had both as a person but also in the mediums you’ve worked in.

Justin: Yeah. My background is in documentary photography— longform storytelling using photography as a medium. I have a 12+ year career in that. And then at some point in that process, as you know, I just recognized how problematic the power dynamics were that existed within the ways in which I was operating, in the spaces that I documented. I became really aware of the hierarchy that existed in terms of who is in charge of whose narrative, and who benefits from the telling of those narratives. Because in traditional photography the photographer is the one who’s in control. And then they’re also the one that gets the most out of the interaction with whomever’s being photographed, right? They are often the one who gains social and even financial capital from creating those images. 

Marina: Mm-hmm. 

Justin: I basically stopped taking pictures for a number of years because of the conflict that realization around those dynamics surfaced in me. I didn’t know how to reconcile my relationship with power and privilege as a white maker. So yeah, it wasn’t until I was in the Art and Social Practice program that I was able to really build the skillset I needed for me to work in a way that was more in integrity with my beliefs surrounding being a storyteller, especially a white storyteller. 

Marina: So what was that process like for you then, to begin to reconcile your relationship as a white maker? And what role did social practice or has social practice art played in that reconciliation?

Justin: Well, I started the process of reconciling that by not looking outside the self. Because I think that one of the pitfalls of how white people operate in systems of representation is that they often look outside of themselves. And as soon as you look outside of yourself you’re in control of someone else’s narrative. White people have had the privilege and the power to look outside of themselves. So, I felt it was necessary for me to return home— both metaphorically and physically. To work in a community and within themes that I was really personally connected to. I had a sense that that was going to help me to work within integrity. It was going to help prepare me to return to being an artist. Because when you’re working with a community that you have history with, that you understand the nuances of, you’re less likely to cause harm. And there’s a sense of responsibility within that space that you wouldn’t have if you could just leave it. If you’re part of a community, you can’t leave that community because it’s yours, so you’re much more conscientious of the impact. And then also people within that community hold you more accountable because you’re part of it. So I returned to my hometown and delved into my own history and looked for conversations that could unfold that were relevant to topical events. Things that I felt were important and issues of our time that my own personal experience could speak to or contribute to. So I think a lot of my practice comes from those personal experiences because those are the ones I feel like I have some authority to speak about.

Marina: Yeah and being with you through that process— which has taken place over several years— has been pretty incredible and has also influenced me as a person and artist in consistently asking, how do I lead and explore from a place of integrity? And that’s not to say that there won’t be points of tension in the process or work, but I think that part of that journey is also honing your ability to repair when harm has been caused. I  just have to say that I think it takes a lot of courage to do what you have done.

I think it’s interesting how when you defined social practice art, you talked about how the concept behind it is really important to the way that you’re making the art. Hearing you talk about your personal art practice, which is so deeply informed by your own personal experiences, your positionality and the communities that you have membership in, I’m curious what is it  like to create from both this kind of more technical, conceptual way of defining a broader framework, while also creating the space to have these deep and meaningful relationships? 

Justin: Yeah, that’s a good question. I think that one of the things that’s happened for me with my project A Field Guide to a Crisis, is that in the communities that I’ve worked within, a lot of the folks don’t really even care about the conceptual aspects of the project. They care about having their voice heard and about being part of a community. They care about feeling valued and having an opportunity to share that value with an outside community who may not necessarily recognize them as being valuable. These are all byproducts of the conceptual nature of the project but the participants aren’t necessarily concerned with how a project is framed in an art context. I think that for me as an artist, the way in which the participants and the folks that I work with engage in the project is a priority for me. But I’m also interested in how the work fits into a larger social context. Like conversations that exist around these topics that the project speaks about. Topics like substance abuse and the stigma around certain types of substances that are considered more taboo than others.

We live in a culture that is just full of addiction, right? A world full of craving. Like you go on social media and you experience a similar chemical response as someone using substances. But some forms, like social media, are socially accepted, whereas someone who’s seeking that same chemical validation through the use of substances is not accepted by society, and therefore they are often ostracized and pushed to the fringes of their community. So yeah, our project draws attention to the hypocrisy around the ways in which we speak about addiction in our society. It also interrogates these notions of expertise and expert voice. Like who do we in our society uphold as experts in a field? It asks, what are the forms of knowledge that a person must have and how did they learn them in order for them to be valued as having expertise? And on top of that, how does that person then monetize that value and participate within the capitalist, consumer market? 

The folks that I’m working with have a great deal of knowledge because of the experiences in their life, which to me is one of the richest forms of building knowledge and expertise. I mean, even in the traditional job market, employers will see someone’s resume and if they’ve gone straight through school from undergraduate to a master’s degree, and even a PhD, they’ll often choose another candidate who has more “real” life experience. There is this sort of unspoken understanding that life experience is extremely valuable even within a setting in which people pay so much money and place a tremendous value on the knowledge they attain through institutional learning. However, for people who have a lot of lived experience but it’s not attached to institutionalized or formalized knowledge, it’s not considered as valuable.

So I’m interested in conversations around the economics of what we value. And how to create work that speaks to new systems of value. 

Riley Clark, Skill 10: Staying Fit Wherever, Whenever

Marina: Yeah totally. I think one of the things that I really enjoy about your work is the way that you use familiar and common aesthetics and concepts and repurpose and reposition them to offer that kind of critique that you were talking about. But you do it in a way that’s not explicit; it’s implied. And so I think that it actually invites viewers into the work in this kind of disarmed way because it’s familiar. So it allows them to engage with the work first from this place of familiarity followed by curiosity, rather than feeling defensive from the start. The way I’ve seen people respond is that they often see themselves in the work that’s being created. And I think that that’s really interesting because the community that you’re working with— the recovery community— are often, like you said, pushed to the fringes of society both metaphorically, but also quite literally physically pushed out of people’s sight because we’re told that that’s the wrong way to be in the world. So it’s actually like you don’t want to see yourself in that community. And the way that our society talks about people in recovery, you don’t ever wanna see yourself in that position.

But from what I’ve heard from people who have engaged with A Field Guide to a Crisis, is that they do actually see themselves in that work and that connection and familiarity shifts the way that they then think about people in recovery. And that is beautiful. 

Justin: Can I say one thing? I don’t know what your question is, but that was a great answer!

Marina: Haha. I guess I’m just kind of reflecting back on what you said and my experience of the work. 

Justin: Yeah thank you. Sometimes it’s hard to know the impact when you’re so deep in something. 

Marina: Yeah totally I get that. Well, that was enjoyable. That was a nice change of pace where you do more of the talking. 

[both laugh]

Marina Lopez (she/her) is a Mexican American performing and social practice artist, massage therapist/somatic educator, and cultural organizer. Her experience as a bodyworker is essential to her practice as an artist because we can’t separate the art from the body that makes it. Care work is culture work. As an artist, her work is an interdisciplinary weaving of many voices that links to history, social movements, and tradition. She is a co-organizer and creative collaborator with, a group of artists and culture workers who co-create and uplift cooperative, connected and care based culture that are alternatives to exploitation, isolation, and fear that is often found in the art world. Marina seeks to create work that articulates and provides an embodied cognition of the ways in which art, culture, and care are foundational within a thriving society. Her work challenges the status quo of who we as a society uplift as expert voices, and inspires curiosity, collaboration, and solidarity. @connectivesomatics

Justin Maxon (he/him) is a visual storyteller, educator and socially engaged artist. He collaborates with communities that are connected to his own positionality and history, making design and ideation decisions with participants. His socially engaged work seeks to challenge free-market capitalism, by challenging authoritative systems of knowing through repositioning members of society within the social hierarchy. He seeks to understand how his positionality as a person racialized as white, who grew up on the Hoopa Valley Reservation in CA, plays out in his work as a storyteller. The question driving his practice is, how do you offer a critical examination to counter what bell hooks describes as “the seduction of images that threatens to dehumanize”? He answers it by returning home to the places, people and issues that informs who, what, where and how he chooses to represent.

He has received numerous awards for his work. His 8-year transmedia project in Chester, PA examines the physical, psychological, and spiritual repercussions of unresolved trauma from unsolved murder. The project, titled, Heaven’s Gain, materialized into many different visual forms: handmade mock murder case files which incorporated photography, archival material, and historical narratives; a transmedia installation, a short documentary, and a published investigative story in Mother Jones Magazine. Different components of the project have been awarded the Aaron Siskind Foundation Fellowship, a Magnum Foundation Emergency Fund Grant, the Alexia Foundation for World Peace Professional Grant, the Visura Grant for Outstanding Personal Project, the Reminders Stronghold Photography Grant, the Cliff Edom “New America Award” from NPPA, and a Salute to Excellence Award from the National Association of Black Journalists.

As a photojournalist he has worked on feature and cover stories for publications such as TIME, Rolling Stone, Newsweek, MSNBC, Mother Jones Magazine, Bloomberg Businessweek, Fast Company, Fader Magazine, The New York Times, and NPR. @justinmeadmaxon

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.

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