Saturday, December 21, 2013

Social Engagement

When someone offers me a stiff one, whiskey isn’t the first thing that comes into my mind. Not Vodka either. In 2005, I was in a relationship with a recovering alcoholic, so I quit drinking -- functioning under the understanding that sobriety doesn’t happen if one’s partner drinks. Also, alcohol was making me sick. Even the couple glasses of wine or beer that I drank at art openings would lay me up. Seriously. 100°+ fevers at least once a month -- that stopped happening when I switched from moderate drinking to no drinking.

I wish I really was magnanimous. I wish I could say that I gave up the drink for love. Well, I did. But I stayed a non-drinker because after several years of swollen tonsils, suddenly not needing surgery can seem like magic. 

But I miss the social-anxiety-smoothing properties of a cocktail. I’m not shy, as such. Nude beaches? Love ‘em. Giving speeches to a full auditorium? You can’t shut me up. But I’d be more comfortable getting a colonoscopy in the middle of Times Square than hanging out at an art opening or an after-party. Maybe I should start smoking? Something to do with the hands.

Art is a drinky profession, sadly. And I suffer through the part of this job that is supposed to be fun. Or, that’s the story that I used to tell myself.

In fact, one of the things that has pushed my work towards a more socially engaged practice is that I was sick of spending the bulk of my life alone in my studio and the next biggest chunk of my life in the purgatory of cocktail banter. The thing is, I like people. I like being around people. Solitude fills me with ennui. A summer’s day in a crowded New York City park -- or even a crowded subway car -- makes me gleeful.

I started walking dogs at the Brooklyn Animal Rescue Coalition in 2007. Maybe puppies were a good substitute for booze. My boyfriend loved dogs and occasionally walked one with me. But the gratitude of the animals, released from their pens onto the streets of Williamsburg helped to balance the increasing anxiety that I experienced in the art world. Not only wasn’t I drinking, but I had been taking on more and more responsibility -- in addition to teaching and helping to run a gallery, I had also served on the boards of two professional organizations.

The dog walking coincided with two years of studio work in which I made drawings of dogs -- made entirely out of the text of political commission reports. The drawings were not about my experience, per se. But the guilelessness of the animals and my sincere love for them did complicate drawings that were entangled with the contempt that people feel for opposing political ideologies.

I’m not sure that walking the unwanted pit-bulls of Brooklyn fulfills the standard definition of social practice. Dogs may be social; but I’m pretty sure that the “social” part of social practice refers to human society. Though the fact that puppies are bred and thrown away when they pee on the rug seems like an aspect of human society to me. And I’m proud that the four months that I walked TicTac daily, for example, helped to make her calmer, more predictable, and, finally, adoptable. I fixed a problem caused by a human. And the people that worked at the shelter were nice, self-sacrificing. I started to crush on all of them and their righteous lives.

But I finished my dog drawings. I broke up with my boyfriend when he fell off the wagon yet again (and all the hurtful drama that ensued). And saying good-bye to dog after dog got harder and harder as they learned to walk calmly along side me then got adopted. I moved on.

What happened then? Economic collapse. And I decided that I needed to slowly transition out of my day-job as a gallerist. These two things aligned when I made some art about art. In retrospect, helping to run a non-profit gallery can be considered “social practice” as much as dog-walking can. So the studio work connected to my life as much as the dog drawings had.

Then my father was hospitalized. He had days, maybe hours, I was told. He got better. He was hospitalized again. He fell into a diabetic coma, briefly, while I was on duty. I temporarily moved my studio to be close to him and help my mother. I suppose if I was helping someone else’s father it could be social practice. But wanting to spend time with one’s own father is just being human. I produced a body of work that blended forward my concerns with the economic collapse and the collapse of my father’s health.

Over the next year, I rarely attended any art parties. And soon after my father died, (and unrelated to his death) my exit strategy from my day job fell apart. I quit. And years of work came to nothing. Helping to maintain a non-profit gallery had been a huge part of my practice and life. Mourning that loss was almost as hard as mourning my father -- at least on a professional level.

The rowing project that this blog records grew out of this time of loss. But on another level, the project exists as the next logical stage of my work. Each project has progressively been a more integrated reflection of research, experience, and social engagement. When I walked dogs, I wasn’t thinking of that as part of my practice. But that was because I didn’t have an expansive understanding of practice, as such. I made drawings -- and videos, and performances, and installations. Artistic practice can be performative, sure; but I didn’t really consider the research or the life that leaked into my work as art in and of itself. Practice and production were distinct.

Perhaps the fact that I live in commercially-driven New York, perhaps the fact that I was making money on my drawings lead to this schism between research and making. Or maybe it just took time for the ingredients to mingle and dissolve into each other.

Whatever the case may be, I’m now plunged into an all-consuming project in which I can’t tell the difference between social life, recreation, research, making. Now I get in a boat with eight other people and consider the experience as part of my practice. I don’t have to set up a video camera. I don’t have to be in charge of the experience. I just show up to rowing practice and participate. Some parts of my practice leave traces, ephemera. Some parts of my practice result in traditional product (like drawings). But some parts of my practice exist only as my participation in part of a community or as part of a shared experience of which I am not the conductor. These are experiences that would take place even if I had never been born.

These experiences that don’t depend on me or my specialized knowledge have been the ones that have been the hardest for me to get my head around. When I walked the dogs, I did not bring a video camera. I have only a couple of snap shots from hundreds of walks. Most of my interaction was with dogs. And that interaction was bound by rules set by someone other than me (they were set by the dog shelter). But my actions had effects: My own joy. The dogs joy. The dogs reformation into pets. My own stress relief and the drawings that found grounding in the experience. 

Part of the difficulty I’ve faced in understanding my current practice has been that my conception of art-making had always been rather traditional, with the solitary, working artist as heroic figure. I researched, then I made. I researched, then I made. And when I thought about social engagement, I imagined something akin to being a social worker -- in which an artist might be the catalyst for community members having a new experience. That does not interest me.

However, I worked for ten years in a non-profit gallery. How many shows existed because of my fundraising? How may people relied on my press releases? I curated. I designed exhibitions. Just like with the dog-walking, I was part of something that had real effects on me and on others. That does interest me. And the practice of artists like Andrea Zittel or Rirkrit Tiravanija fascinate me. I just never saw myself as approaching their geneology.

Of course dog walking and helping to run a gallery are both experiences that are part of who I am (as is my studio practice). So why consider those experiences to be separate? Why use those experiences as if they were merely references from which I might quote? The easiest answer is that maintaining those distinctions is easier.

Some 9-5 jobs can be left at the office. Even a doctor who might be on call doesn’t perform surgery in her living room. Being an artist doesn’t afford those easy distinctions -- even for those of us with the most traditionally object-based practices. Our social lives are full of openings and lectures. Our living-rooms are covered with artwork traded with friends. Even going to a movie is research and recorded as such for taxes.

The distinctions may be messy, but since I adopted a broader definition of my own practice, things have gotten messier. I worked at a gallery for years before I made any art about art. And dog-walking is hardly the most emotionally fraught of experiences. Understanding those socially engaged experiences to be part of a practice just didn’t click for me.

Sometimes I think it would be easier if I wanted to go out and rally a community and spearhead social change as the entirety of my practice. But I love making things. And, to return to the point that I was making earlier in this post, I need a reason to get out of the solitude of the studio -- and still call it work.

Unfortunately, that impulse, so simple in the abstract, isn’t as easy in practice. I joined New Bedford Community Rowing so that I could learn how to row and so that I could learn about the local community. I began volunteering with the Buzzards Bay Coalition so that I could learn about the current ecology and economy of Buzzards Bay -- and so that I could get out on the water in an engaged way (not as a recreational boater).

Joining a local sports club and volunteering at a local non-profit should be straightforward, right? But here’s the thing: I may like being around people, but I have some limitations. As a kid, I was the tiny, faggy kid that got chased home from school. In college, I managed to be sociable, but only when I was drinking. As an adult, I’ve worked either in relative isolation (alone in the gallery, alone in my studio) -- sometimes working one-on-one -- or teaching (with the rule-bound structure of a classroom to frame my interactions).

I’m not unlike some of the abused dogs that I walked at the shelter. They really want to go for a walk; they want to greet other dogs; they want to play with people. But they don’t understand the leash; when another dog sniffs them, they freak out and bite; and when a person approaches, they wonder if they’re about to get beaten -- again. Dogs are pack animals and every instinct tells them to be sociable. But experience tells the abused dog otherwise. These dogs may eventually become wonderful companions one on one. But they can never be brought to a dog park and they shouldn’t be placed in a home with kids.

Starting in second grade, I can’t recall a day at school that I wasn’t anxious or afraid. And as much as I think I’ve learned, as an adult, not to fear people, and as much as I’ve learned how to interact, I have to do so consciously.

Even if I wanted to undertake a socially engaged project in which I rallied a group of people, I don’t have the instincts to do so. I’m too awkward, second-guessing. I flinch before I smile -- no matter how genuine that smile. Even the seemingly easy project of joining a team and volunteering at a local non-profit become fraught experiences. 

A few weeks ago, the rowing team had its last on-water practice of the season. I hadn’t been able to row because of an injury. But I showed up to go out to brunch afterwards. The email invite for the brunch called it “Kegs and Eggs.” A joke, I thought. No one drinks beer for breakfast -- especially after a workout.

I got to the restaurant, opened the menu, and my eyes grew wide. The name of the brunch menu was “Kegs and Eggs.” Irish coffees and mini-Guinesses arrived. I experienced what could best be described as a form of culture shock. The TV monitors placed throughout the place were all tuned to the live coverage of the parade in Boston for the Red Sox World Series win. Half the people in the restaurant were wearing Red-Sox-branded paraphernalia. I don’t drink. I’ve never watched a baseball game. Panic began to rise.

I sat at the end of the table next to the only other artist on the team and talked about her  new studio and the construction of my boat -- which led me into talking about labor and economics. Not good brunch conversation. The rest of the table drifted in and out of conversations surrounding what to drink next, the Red Sox, winter training, club sponsorship, family. I finished my eggs and was the first to leave. As soon as I got out the door, I felt as if I could breathe again.

The rest of the team goes out for coffee or breakfast regularly. They work out at the Y. They meet at bars. Being socially engaged, for most people, means going to bars. Why did I used to think that social engagement meant getting people to register to vote or build a new play-ground, or record confessions? Are all artists as out of touch with what it means to be social?

I started working on my rowing project because I wanted to integrate my studio practice with a wider, engaged life-practice. Nothing in art school prepared me to watch the Red Sox parade without irony. But, unless I can do that, I can’t claim to be socially engaged.