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Social Practice, Socially Engaged Art, Civic Practice: In Conversation with Aaron Landsman

Social Practice, Socially Engaged Art, Civic Practice: In Conversation with Aaron Landsman

The Contemporary Performance Think Tank is housed in the John Wells Directing Program MFA at Carnegie Mellon University’s School Of Drama under the direction of Caden Manson. Each year the Think Tank focuses on a set of topics concerning the fields of Theater and Contemporary Performance and conducts research and interviews to produce a paper as a resource for practitioners. This year’s topic is contemporary performing artists and companies redefining relationships with audience and pushing the formal relationships of architecture, artist, and audience. For this paper the Think Tank chose five areas on the forefront of this research to explore; Contemporary Choreography, Mixed Reality PerformancePerformance CabaretImmersive Theatre, and Social Engaged Art. Each section of this paper includes an introduction to the specific practice, a conversation with an artist, and a list of artists working in and around the specific practice. 

In Conversation with Aaron Landsman
Interviewed by Stephen M. Eckert

Aaron Landsman is a playwright and performance artist whose work is occasionally co-authored with community members. His most recent piece, Perfect City, is a long-term collaboration with young people on the Lower East Side, architectural interventionists, and activists about the politics of urban planning. City Council Meeting, another multi-city collaborative project of Landsman’s, concerns the “architecture of power, and the comedy of procedure.”

Stephen M. Eckert: Since this is for a white paper on social practice and socially engaged art in contemporary performance, let’s start with a working definition. What do you think are the necessary elements of the form? What makes it distinct from other focuses?

Aaron Landsman: Well, “social practice” and “socially engaged art” as I understand them are not necessarily interchangeable, the way you have them in your question. Social practice was a term coined by, I think Harrell Fletcher, to describe a sort of dialogic, social form of presentation from within the visual art world. Socially Engaged Art is Pablo Helguera’s term (Education For Socially Engaged Art is his book and it’s an awesome, short read). And that is more about working with communities and individuals who are not necessarily thinking of themselves as artists—often this has a more overt political agenda or ethic. There’s definitely overlap between the two (maybe something like Paul Chan’s Godot In New Orleans is a project that could be called both, as well as conceptual art) but they came from different people, with somewhat varying intentions.

Social practice is espoused most explicitly by an annual conference Fletcher started called Open Engagement. It’s also, for me, co-opted by the academic world as a piece of relatively watery jargon. Socially engaged art as discussed in Helguera, is more specific—a set of problems, conditions and questions that allow artists and communities to work together.

Which is why, maybe, I’m going on at length here, and throwing the question back to you. Which of these two is more interesting for you to research and talk about? That’s a good discussion of the pros and cons of certain approaches and names.

Last thing—both these terms come from visual art. Visual art is a bit ahead of theater in the conversation around community collaboration, aesthetics and politics. Not sure the work is better, but the conversation.

SME: Obviously within this kind of work there’s a great deal of contentious discussion surrounding these very terms. Since you brought up the differences between visual art and theatre’s approach to this topic, could you expand on that point a little more? The idea that you’re not sure which is better, but that you enjoy the conversation. Also who you think are the foundational makers or thinkers from the theatre side?

AL: I just think there is no equivalent book to Pablo’s book, Education For Socially Engaged Art, so that’s why I would say it’s a bit farther along in visual art. It just seems that no one seems to be taking Shannon Jackson and Claire Bishop and synthesizing it into something that practitioners can use. I just think Visual Art theory is generally just a little more established. So that’s just where that impulse comes from, and I think that having worked a bunch at Project Rowhouses in Houston, that was a really fundamental and very transformative experience for me and that came from a very visual art mind even though it hosted all kinds of activities, not just art. I guess for me in terms of theatre practice I feel like Boal, even Teatro Campesino, you know, non-western, U.S. forms. That’s really interesting to me. I often feel like the work that gets done in Boal’s name is kind of problematic, or at least aesthetically I’m not crazy about it, but I feel like it does involve community members and it does consider ethics and it does consider aesthetics at the same time. Probably more weighted towards ethics than aesthetics. I think Michael Rohd, have you talked to him? He’s doing something called civic practice and the big difference there, which makes for a great conversation, is that to him civic practice means that a civic body is asking for something to be dealt with via theatre. So the police department needs to deal with police violence or a battered women’s shelter needs to deal with sexual violence, or elder care facilities deal with Alzheimer’s. And him or his company, Sojourn, comes in and does work with that group of people and they do participate and do make the work. So, I feel that’s one. His work is really interesting, even though he again doesn’t do what Pablo does which is really balance aesthetics and good kind of politics and ethical concerns. But Michael’s amazing. He’s also just an amazing speaker about the work. I don’t know though. I’m not a huge fan of what the Living Theatre’s work generally looks like now, but I feel like they were trying to make rigorous work with members of the communities that they worked in, and I’m sure there’s lots I’m leaving out.

SME: And what does the crossover with visual art mean for future artistic forms?

AL: Um… Hoooo! (Laughs) I guess I’m curious why that question interests you.

SME: I think this discussion about this kind of collision between aesthetics and politics is so important and I think it’s reflected in this crossover between visual art and theatre.

AL: Right. I’m going to lump a lot of theatre together and say that so much of it presupposes a set of conditions that have to happen: like there has to be a dark room with seats and a stage. And I know tons of theatre is site-specific, and I like some of that, but I also feel like that is often about saying, “Look! We’re not in a theatre! Neat!” It kind of does a lot of the dramaturgy, and especially it’s representational. So, one of my favorite collaborators is Mallory Catlett who says she’s more interested in real communication than in representation. By that she means she doesn’t really care… She says as soon as she’s thinking about the accuracy of a representation she’s sort of done watching a show if that makes sense. And I feel that’s where the sweet spot is, where visual art and theatre conversation can make something really exciting. So it doesn’t have to be representational but it could involve a more careful dramaturgy through time in the way it’s thought out, or it could involve like even rehearsal. Like visual performance doesn’t generally rehearse. There’s a guy named Gregory Sale who is a visual artist who works with performance and very much socially engaged work in Arizona, and he collaborated on City Council Meeting with us, and he was like, “Yeah, there’s no rehearsal. You spend years crafting a gesture and then try it and see.” And there’s an interesting question of what does that do? How does that impact the people who are in the room with you watching? But there’s not a sense of practicing the gesture and so I feel that’s a place where theatre can bring something in. And for my Perfect City project we’re trying to think about can we rehearse a conversation with strangers even more loosely than City Council Meeting.

I’ve been trying to teach a workshop (to varying degrees of success) called Form, Content and Context, and I actually have people make a spreadsheet. You can take any work, something like Shakespeare in the Park’s most recent Hamlet and we’ll say formally it’s representational theatre, classical text, modern dress, whatever the trappings are. Then the content is Shakespeare’s play, and the context is a public park, free show, etc etc, and 2017. And we try to do that with any work that a student wants to make. And I feel like we often don’t take context into account as theatre-makers. It’s like once you get to the theatre there’s a certain set of behaviors that are expected. Even though visual art kind of does have the artists and practitioners and critics that think that way, like “Oh! You just go the gallery,” but I just think there’s an opportunity in that crossover.

You know one group, The Foundry Theatre, really has done what people would call social practice for years, and in a very theatre-y way. I feel like their work is really great that way.

SME: What can you tell me about your work? In what ways does it meet this definition of socially engaged work? Why do you make this work/why are you drawn to it?

AL: I can tell you the basics—which is my artist statement, which, speaking of jargony:

I construct performances using people, language, space and time. I often start with questions: how does technology affect the ways we remember? How do we perform power, and who gets to play which roles? Can the person who made you who you are, be the person who messed you up, be the person you forgive now? Some of my work is co-authored with community members over long periods of time; some is developed through ongoing relationships with other artists; all of it honors collaboration as a driving force. I write about misfits, overheard spaces and people, the ways we welcome each other or don’t. I reject the notion of branding myself to one style, approach, cause or story.

Beyond that I am currently working on Perfect City, which is focused on young people (17-25) from New York City, around issues of displacement, zoning, urban planning and policy. We meet twice per week, talk about these and other things, and everyone gets paid. And then from our conversations we evolve forms and content that seem right—a series of roundtable theatrical works for invited publics, a campaign with small business owners around the phrase “You’re Next,” and possibly some videos made with people who work within the gig and sharing economies (Uber/Lyft, Craigslist, etc).

Perfect City maybe fits the “social practice” definition used by others, but for me it’s more Helguera-inspired, because questions of authorship and co-authorship come up a lot, and how we share power is part of the conversation. Where it does seem like social practice (or conceptual art) is that it’s long term (we think of it as twenty years) and its forms are dialogic.

The other big project I’m working on is Squares, which is a collaboration among director Mallory Catlett, designer Jim Findlay, me, and a photographer named Paul Shambroom—Paul has a treasure trove of 584 found snapshots from a processing lab in Minnesota in 1976. We are making a piece around them.

SME: What do you think are the particular challenges in creating such work? Many of your projects, including Perfect City and City Council Meeting are collaborations with several very diverse groups, including those from outside of “the arts.” Do the politics/power dynamics inherent to any collaboration have particular weight in social practice?

AL: Particular challenges:

  • exploitation by white artists, sanctioned by the arts (even the experimental arts) establishment, of disempowered communities of color; same risk with regard to gender conformity.
  • power-sharing between artists and non-artist partners; who gets credit for the work, and how can you control that? If Perfect City is co-authored, but the arts world still calls it “Aaron Landsman’s project with young people on the Lower East Side,” how do we contradict that? It involves open conversations about money, withholding certain information from press and presenting partners, and empowering the co-authors to call bullshit on the way people think the art-making process really goes (lone genius creator and adoring simple minions).
  • fundraising when you don’t know the form the work will take.
  • resourcing long-term process.
  • ethically working with people who may be considered ‘at risk’—in City Council Meeting we worked with a woman whose life was going to hell and at one point I ended up on the phone with Child Protection Services in Arizona, who’d come to take her son from her. Was I qualified to evaluate her fitness as a mother? All I knew is that she was showing up for work with us.

SME: The questions you pose in making Perfect City address head-on much of the somewhat heated theoretical discussion on socially engaged work, on aesthetics versus political efficacy, and the place or purpose of art within capitalism. What insight on these questions has the project given you so far?

AL: I feel like it’s kind of hard to say except that it’s important that people get paid to think, and in a way that simple fact allows a little bit of amelioration of the distance between me as a kind of mid-career art-maker who can get fellowships based on prior work and people who maybe don’t have a college degree, but are smart and creative and inventive. There’s just so much history of work that Bishop talks about with the community art movement in the U.K. where people are basically exploited for their time because they’re community members and artists go on to claim credit. And so, at the very least being able to pay people. We pay people 18 bucks an hour for meetings and for rehearsals, and we’re having a really great intense debate about how much time then for some fall work-in-progress launches of Perfect City we can afford to give away. But I try to have really open conversations about money. Like the budget is transparent. My ability to get paid after the fact based on prior work is something I try to bring up a lot, and then also what that does is give the working group members who haven’t had exposure to a lot of different kinds of work-lives, like the idea of the self-determined work-life that in your 40s you can arrive at by doing 27 different jobs and it’s not like one prescribed thing. It’s a lot about just who we are in the room, so that’s one. And for City Council Meeting we always paid people to work with us. I guess the other part of it with Perfect City is, we think about it as a 20 year project so I’ve always said, look if you want to leave the group you can decide that you don’t want us to use the material that you brought in. You can say you own our right to perform or present stuff that you may have brought in or instigated even if it’s changed a lot since then. We can have that conversation. And everybody gets final say over intellectual property or if we publish something. It would be naive to say that that solves everything though, since I still have more access to resources, but it’s a beginning I guess.

SME: Does the fact that the resources are accessible by you, I mean it’s not that you are directly paying your collaborators, but how does that affect the politics of the work?

AL: It’s a good question. I’d say that there’s a relationship between money and time. So, the first say six months I was paying people and I’d raised all this money, and I was like, “I think we should do this!” with these round table performances, and after the group got more comfortable together there’s a sense that other people could run meetings when I was gone, and could still get paid for them. That if it’s a 20 year project, that we were working toward shared leadership, and then this year we’re going to try to raise 10 grand via a crowdsourced fundraising thing, partially so that everybody has some agency in raising the money and paying ourselves. So they’re incomplete solutions, but I think there’s evidence of trying to share power and knowledge, differences, and move in a direction rather than solve it.

SME: As someone who also writes more “play-like plays,” how is that process different?

AL: I’m not beholden to anyone else when I write. I’m basically trying to capture what I hear in my head when I wake up in the morning, the multiplicity of voices. The ethical considerations are very different (more, “will so-and-so recognize that I’m writing about them?” versus, “how can so-and-so be treated fairly and recognized for their collaboration?”). The process is often shorter, the constraints and opportunities clearer.

SME: Who else do you think is making great social practice work? What institutions are presenting it?

AL:

  • Tania Bruguera is amazing.
  • Invincible and Complex Movements in Detroit.
  • Some of Matthew Moore’s work in Arizona, and Gregory Sale (mixed feelings about the work, but happy about his process and questions).
  • Also Rick Lowe and Project Row Houses in Houston are amazing. Kind of a gold standard.
  • Autumn Knight (grew up at Row Houses and has worked on a couple of my projects) is a young artist who’s working somewhat this way.
  • Laundromat Project in NYC.
  • Caroline Woolard does great work.
  • Artificial Hells has great background on S. American work that fits this conversation—Bishop also has a great essay called “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics.
  • Clarinda Mac Low/CulturePush
  • Jill Sigman
  • Hassan Elahi (visual art but interactive/dialogic)
  • Some of Dread Scott’s work, maybe.
  • David Levine’s more conceptual work.

SME: What do you think is the future of social practice and socially engaged art?

AL: My fear is that the jargon will take over and the delightful formlessness will go away. My hope is that marginalized artists and communities will have more agency and voice.

[Created from two interviews in February and March 2017 by Stephen M. Eckert. Edited for length and clarity.]

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