Communicating Through Social Sculpture

At some point in every young person’s life they begin to learn the art of ‘code switching.’ It is this seemingly magical skill that can be like flicking on the light-switch of deep conversation with others who come from a different frame of reference. This is often generational or racial; though it can also be rooted in gender, socio-economic background, or national identity, just to name a few. For young people it’s often a trial by fire: learn to speak the language of the adults around you, or suffer the consequences. For adults, there is a bit more leeway, and in fact, there are both literal and virtual libraries to assist with ways to communicate with younger generations. Everything from child psychology courses to urban dictionary, there are resources for teachers, parents, and adults from all walks of life to decode and decipher the things that young people say. But code switching for adults is a bit different; to learn how to speak another language in your own language (purely to ease communicative woes) indicates empathy, one of the most understated aspects of all art and pedagogy (but more on that later).

To be ignorant of these other languages, or worse--to ignore them--is to play into hegemonic structures that ultimately create privilege and reinforce a dominant culture. And when a dominant culture eclipses the vocabulary of other cultures, they erase narrative, history, and over time-- collective identity. For years I’ve wondered if it was possible to construct social performances, or ‘situations’ as Tino Seghal would adamantly call them, that do more than adequately address or critique the hegemonic structures that are so easy to play into. I have always been interested in wanting to find and establish real working tools for immediate and frequent use so as to dismantle traditional power structures of communication. This is what led me to ‘Social Sculpture’ in mid 20th century. As a historical precursor of radical pedagogy, Fluxus fascinated me; and as an artist I found myself often enamored with the work of Joseph Beuys and his determined, often ranting persistence.

“Beuys’ notion of a social sculpture was rooted in polemic, founded in his experiences teaching (in themselves remarkable), and reinscribed through constant touring and lecturing, making chalk talks around the world. His very public lecture tours of the mid-1970s put the idea of an aggressive social sculpture out at a time when revanchist dictatorships were in full stride. His was a positive vision, preaching a hopeful role for art in a time when hope for many was closing down.” (Moore)

‘Social Sculpture’ as a term has been co-opted or transfigured by a number of artists and collectives for decades now. Though the political circumstances of Beuys’ time are not unlike our own, when populism and nationalism threaten to erase and silence others, now more than ever art should serve as a venue and an opportunity for problem identifying and solving.

Informed by these ideas, in 2015 I collaborated with Art Historian Hallie Scott on a piece called Talk to Me, which examined how we communicate and miscommunicate, specifically across the barriers of age and generation. This piece debuted as an interactive workshop at Pioneer Works' first annual ‘Summit on Pedagogy’. In preparing for an installation that featured teenagers and adults, immense debate was had over how these two groups would coagulate and collaborate. Both Hallie and I were hyper-cognizant of the risk of generating exploitative work at the expense of any audience, particularly young people. Another reference for us both was Art Historian Claire Bishop, who’s writing on ‘outsourcing authenticity’ was all too real.

“Artists choose to use people as a medium for many reasons: to challenge traditional artistic criteria by reconfiguring everyday actions as performance; to give visibility to certain social constituencies and render them more complex, immediate, and physically present; to introduce aesthetic effects of chance and risk; to problematize the binaries of live and mediated, spontaneous and staged, authentic and contrived: to examine the construction of collective identity and the extent to which people always exceed these categories.” (Bishop)

In Talk to Me, we worked towards allowing our audience, participants, and collaborators to be free to define their own roles and levels of engagement. This ethos reverberates through my entire artistic pedagogy, since it is largely about recognizing our common humanity. It is about seeing and understanding the world through a new lens, maybe even one we can share with one another. Developing empathy of course, is one of the prime drivers to solving communication breakdowns, and is a trait that really should be ubiquitous to the human experience--now more than ever.

‘Social Sculpture’, as it was originally intended by Beuys and his contemporaries, is a call to action: get out of your seat, stand up, and know that when you exit this room that your every action is the output of your social-political will. No matter the name or form the work takes, it should serve as a community corkboard, one that is most certainly multilingual, and one that emboldens all readers to do more than just pass it by.


Works Cited

Bishop, Claire. Deligated Performance: Outsourcing Authenticity. CUNY Academic Works. 2012

Moore, Alan W. A Brief Genealogy of Social Sculpture. Journal of Aesthetics and Protest. 2010.