[iDC] Social Ethics, Social Aesthetics, Social Beauty

Sal Randolph salrandolph at gmail.com
Fri Jan 11 18:27:32 UTC 2008

Hi all,

I’ve been an avid reader of the iDC list for quite some time, but a  
quiet one. When Trebor suggested that I start a thread on the list, I  
thought iDC might be an interesting group to help think through  
something that’s been on my mind lately: the relation of ethics and  
aesthetics in social artworks - you might call it the question of  
social beauty.  What follows is a very rough beginning of some  
thoughts I've been trying to develop - any responses and ideas would  
be welcomed.

I come to the subject as an artist who has been creating internet- 
mediated social architectures for the past few years, just long  
enough to be interested in getting some perspective on what I’ve  
learned and where to go from here. (I don't talk about my work very  
specifically here, but there's lots of info available through my  
website - links to it and to other sites mentioned are appended below).

Recently I had the pleasure of meeting up with a few dozen other  
social artists at the conference Open Engagement: Art after Aesthetic  
Distance held this fall in Regina, Saskatchewan.  Most of the  
conference attendees were working in the wake of a series of debates  
and discussions that have circled around the recent rise in  
visibility of social art practice.

Depending on your historical sensibility, social artworks have their  
origins in the Dada and Surrealist movements or in the opening up of  
new forms that took place in the 50s and 60s (or both).  Though  
object based art (painting, sculpture, installation) continues to  
dominate the market and much of the conversation, there has been a  
gradual increase in both the art practice and critical interest in  
social art through the intervening years, and I believe we are coming  
to a decisive moment in both.  In 1998, the curator and critic  
Nicholas Bourriaud, in his book Relational Aesthetics, promoted a  
body of artwork from the 90s which attempted to strengthen social  
relations by creating microtopian spaces in the interstices of  
commercial society.  Grant Kester's Conversation Pieces (2004)  
focused on work closer to the community art tradition, arguing for a  
dialogic approach to art-making in which the artist engages in mutual  
learning with a particular community. Lars Bang Larsen, writing from  
Copenhagen in 1999, coined the term Social Aesthetics to talk about a  
group of European artists engaged in activist and interventionist  
work.  More recently, these approaches have come under fire from  
Claire Bishop and others, notably in her essays “Antagonism and  
Relational Aesthetics" in October (2004) and “The Social Turn” in  
Artforum (2006) where she takes on Bourriaud and Kester,  
respectively. In both essays she argues for art which admits more  
dissent and discomfort, and against the idea of collapsing aesthetic  
judgment entirely into the social ethics and potential political  
effect of the work.  An interesting debate on this ethical/aesthetic  
dilemma has followed among critics and practitioners which for the  
sake of brevity I'm just going to point to with a reading list of  
links appended below.

So what's happening right now?  It seems we are in moment when social  
art practice is exploding.  In the US, two MFA programs have just  
added concentrations in Social Practice (CCA in San Francisco, whose  
program is two years old, and Portland State University in Oregon  
which started theirs this fall).  New books are coming out, notably  
What We Want is Free edited by Ted Purves (initiator of the CCA  
program), and Social Acupuncture by artist/provocateur Darren  
O’Donnell, as well as Claire Bishop's useful compendium of iconic  
texts from the 60s to the present, Participation. Social artworks  
have been increasingly common at all kinds of live events, like  
Glowlab's Conflux festival, and the Performa biennial of visual art  
performance both held recently in New York.  Jen Delos Reyes, the  
organizer of Open Engagement, was inspired in part by Harrell  
Fletcher's "Come Together,"  a summer institute which took place at  
The Kitchen in New York in  2006.  And at the same moment that Open  
Engagement was taking place in Regina a similar-yet-different  
conference on artists working with communities and in the public  
realm, Live in Public, the Art of Engagement was being held to sold- 
out crowds in Vancouver.

One thing we can say about this body of work is that even though it  
is bubbling up through current MFA programs, the work itself takes  
place largely outside of institutional environments. The 90s artists  
Bourriaud describes in Relational Aesthetics typically work in the  
context of galleries, kunsthalles and museums - most of them are  
biennial-circuit art stars. Current practice is much more intensely  
focused on public spaces and public spheres - to the extent that  
these artists work in galleries and museums, the assumption is that  
these can be seen as or made into a kind of public space.  One of  
these public spheres is the internet, specifically the social  
internet.  Laurel Beckman has pointed out the way current artists use  
the internet fluidly to create social structures in and around their  
work, linking this kind of practice to the DiY culture of punk,  
zines, and hacking, but morphing it into a newer mode of DiT- Do it  
Together.  This is a different kind of net art - not so much about  
code as about social networks.

Among many of these practitioners there is a profound loss of  
interest in the art-context - I've heard numerous younger MFA  
graduates distance themselves from the word "artist" - some for its  
elitist connotations (the assumption that artists are somehow more  
interesting or better than other people), others because the  
wranglings of art historians feel irrelevant, or because once you  
start working in public space the idea of confining yourself to the  
context of white cube and the social milieu of the art world seems  
absurdly limiting.

At the Open Engagement conference, the effect on me of seeing so much  
social practice in one place was to feel both excited and  
disconcerted. Excited to be in a group which assumed that the social  
is a valid art medium, but concerned by the a sense of the self- 
imposed limitations that became apparent only when seeing all this  
work in aggregate. The work showcased at the conference tended to be  
playful, fun, whimsical, generous, helpful and microtopian-utopian.  
As Jeff Nye said in the essay which introduced Open Engagement, “The  
implied directive for these projects could be stated as 'Be real and  
play nice.'”

To be honest, my own work could easily be seen in this way. For the  
past 10 years or so my practice has involved giving things away or  
making spaces where other people give things away, open source and  
open access structures. I bet from a slight distance it looks pretty  
darn generous, or even “nice,” but I never thought of it that way. I  
became interested in the gift not because it was sweet, but because  
it activated situations, it made unpredictable things happen. Outside  
of certain limited social contexts, a gift is a provocative gesture,  
even provoking, a kind of intervention. Deploying the gift widened  
the range of emotional responses to my work; excitement, greed, fear,  
anxiety, anger, and concern are all common, and I can tell you they  
were rare when I simply made sculptural objects.

As it happened, I went directly from Open Engagement in Regina to a  
performance art festival in Vancouver, Live Biennale. The work  
presented there included international artists from a performance art  
tradition that took for granted the inclusion of physical risk, pain,  
discomfort and fear as part of the artistic vocabulary.  I was one of  
a few social artists there, all part of a program on "Participatory  
Dissent" (curated by Natalie Loveless).  As a group our strategy  
tended toward the micro-interventionist.  The Institute for  
Infinitely Small Things shopdropped their latest publication about  
the culture of fear, "The New American Dictionary: Fear/Security  
Edition," into local bookstores.  The National Bitter Melon Council  
promoted bitterness through taste-testing of bitter melon and  
questionnaires about bitter experience.  I met with people in cafes  
and offered them free money ($50 Canadian) asking them to tell me  
whether they planned to keep it for themselves or give it away.  I  
was essentially the same artist in both Regina and Vancouver but as  
the context changed I now seemed less generous and more like an  

Since the Open Engagement and Live I’ve been re-reading the  
relational debates and thinking about the problems of conflating  
ethics and aesthetics and the problems of evaluating or thinking  
critically about social artworks.  Many of the discussions I had with  
artists at both events circled around these issues - they are urgent  
questions for anyone making work today.  If we are drawn to social  
practice by an interest in social change, it’s easy to evaluate  
projects purely on their political efficacy regardless of their  
artistic interest -- or lack thereof -- and if we're only interested  
in politics there are likely much more effective means. This is  
basically Claire Bishop’s argument in “The Social Turn,” but she  
doesn’t really offer much in the way of a serious attempt at what a  
social aesthetics might look like.

Social artworks need to function socially or they cease to exist— 
people need a reason for their participation other than the mere fact  
of experiencing an artwork. This social fuctionality puts strong  
ethical demands on social artists. If participants believe the piece  
to be unfair in some way, or potentially harmful, they naturally will  
not want to participate. The question is, does the nature of social  
artworks hold them to a uniformly postivisitic or even utopian tone?   
If participation is furthered by honesty, fairness, giving, and  
helping, does this prevent us from talking about or being interested  
in their opposites: lying, cheating, stealing and harm?

A couple of years ago I started playing online games as part of my  
research into social software, and I’ve now spent a great deal of  
time in those spaces, first World of Warcraft and more recently Eve  
Online. One of the striking things in this context is how important  
“negative” situations and emotions are to games and gaming. Strangely  
enough, not only conflict, failure, and frustration, but also  
boredom, envy, and anger are part of the fun, part of what makes them  
compelling to engage with. Eve Online has been particularly  
interesting for the relative lawlessness of its universe, and  
consequentially the way in which players can take up bad behavior as  
their game choice (piracy, warmongering, conquering, deliberate  
meanness), and how the existence of this “badness” makes life more  
interesting for the players who choose to be "good."

Darren O’Donnell, again in Social Acupuncture, makes a case for  
discomfort in social artworks. “Social discomfort, while a pain in  
the ass to endure, is often necessary if we have any interest in  
increasing our social intelligence. It’s like mental confusion: any  
learning process must encounter a period of confusion—without it  
there’s no learning. With social intelligence, discomfort and  
antagonism are hallmarks of a successful encounter.”

What I see in the work of artists who pursue discomfort is the  
possibility of personal risk, risk not just for the instigating  
artist, but for all the participants. And here’s the paradox: without  
trust, people can’t and won’t take risks, in a sense, risk pushes you  
farther into ethical territory rather than freeing you up from it.   
It’s no accident, I think, that some of the more controversial social  
artists who deal regularly in antagonisms and discomfort pay their  
participants in cash  (I’m thinking here of Thomas Hirschorn’s  
Bataille Monument, or the work of Santiago Sierra - both favorites of  
Claire Bishop).  It’s certainly a reminder that, in our society,  
money is thought to even the score, to naturally motivate people to  
do things they otherwise wouldn’t want to do.  For the rest of us the  
question remains open: how to expand the range of emotions and  
responses available while maintaining a reasonably ethical space for  
action and interaction.

So what might we want and hope for from social artworks?  If we can  
agree with Claire Bishop that simply evaluating artworks based on  
their social and political effects is unsatisfying, then what kinds  
of aesthetic criteria or social beauties might interest us?  To come  
clean about my own allegiances, aesthetically I side with minimal and  
very early conceptual artwork - I like rigor and a kind of  
philosophical pointedness. I like small, specific interventions.  I  
like open access structures.  For me the interesting part of the art  
happens not in the artist or the studio - it happens when the ideas  
and experiences of the work are let loose in the people who come into  
contact with it -- I'm more interested in what they make of it than  
what I thought I was making in the first place.  I like living in a  
world with many aesthetics.  This is why I love my city commutes -  
the arguments about what is beautiful that go on (silently) in any  
subway car as people from different subcultures bump up against each  
other.  Cities jam together all kinds of beauties.  I'd like there to  
be as many social aesthetics out there as there are visual ones.

There are a couple of good starts people have made into thinking  
about what kinds of criteria we could develop for social projects.   
Trebor Scholz included a good list for successful collaborations in  
his essay "The Participatory Challenge": start with a core group of  
users/producers, start with relevant, high quality material, keep  
contributors informed, give individuals credit, emphasise the  
benefits, allow for conflict, let the users/producers rule.  Darren  
O'Donnell made a set of criteria for beautiful civil engagement that  
includes intriguing reversals like: "Gluing the Grease and Greasing  
the Glue: conflating the imperative to grease the wheels of commerce  
with the imperative to glue the social fabric; in other words,  
hauling the community into the commercial and the commercial into the  
community to spread, or equalize, power," and "Fruitful Antagonisms:  
triggering friction, tension, and examining the ensuing dynamic in a  
performative arena where all is easily forgiven" (link to the full  
list below).  But to me, these criteria are still much more politico- 
ethical than they are aesthetic.

If part of the program of the 60s and beyond was the blurring of art  
and life (as Alan Kaprow put it), social and relational art has taken  
this to the point where many of the participants in social artworks  
many not know or care that they are art, and the makers of the work  
increasingly disavow the term.  And yet, and yet... the way this kind  
of work interrogates the purpose and meaning of what art is makes it  
the most interesting kind of art out there at the moment.

And I don't mind arguing for art, even at the risk of seeming old  
fashioned.  Art is a special kind of double vision, a mind-game which  
offers a way to see critically by seeing twice. The word "art" tells  
us to look for "artifice," in other words, a constructed situation, a  
set of purposeful choices. Or to put it differently, "art" asks us to  
look in two places at once; first we look to our experience, second  
we look at the artifice, the deliberate construction, and ask why.   
It is in the internal dialog between the experience of the  
participant and the question of the meaning and purposes of the  
situation's artificialities that the "art" occurs.

This is really the slim difference between an interesting experience  
in daily life, and an interesting art experience.  It is this reason  
the Duchamp's readymades function as artworks.  Nowadays, in museums,  
we can hardly help but see the bottle rack as a beautiful, or at  
least strange, object. But that very fact dismayed Duchamp in later  
years -- it was precisely the un-beauty of the urinal and the bottle  
rack which made them suitable for his provocation.  Yet they still  
function for us as artworks, because in addition to just looking at  
them, we know something *about* them, and it is what we know about  
them, their story if you will, that makes them artworks.

This says something about the way artworks function outside the art  
context, i.e. they can function perfectly well as interesting  
experiences alongside all those other interesting and less  
interesting experiences that are a part of life. When art leaves  
behind the major markers and signifiers of "artness" - for instance  
when there is no object to look at and no art institution to look at  
it in - it's left with this challenge: it has to be at least as  
interesting as ordinary life.

Which brings me again to the question of what criteria we might use  
to judge some of the aesthetic dimensions of social artwork.  So here  
are some of mine (very much a work in progress).

1) I will not make any more boring art.  As in John Baldessari's  
famous piece, I often write this schoolgirl lesson over and over  
again in my head.  Social artwork, like all nonmaterial, experiential  
work, is especially challenged to be at least as interesting as  
ordinary life.  Art made of objects can always fall back on the  
material presence of the thing - if it's not interesting now, maybe  
it will be sometime later.  Art that takes place in the present, amid  
the hustle and bustle of experience, has to hold its own right now.   
What "interesting" means here is of course open to debate.  At a  
minimum it would suggest some kind of activity we don't normally do  
and an experience that might change the way we think or feel about  
things. The sharper this internal shift of perspective is, the more  
interesting the work.  Maybe this is where we can especially open up  
the possibilities for feelings beyond simple pleasure - too much  
pleasure is boring.  And in the context of social artwork,  
interesting experience implies the possibility having social  
encounters we wouldn't normally have, with people we wouldn't  
ordinarily meet.

2) Inventive Form.  Art theory and criticism doesn't often focus on  
form these days, but if we wanted to talk about the formal properties  
of social artworks don't think there would really be much  
difficulty.  We could map the network connections among  
participants.  We could talk about the effects of scale (number of  
people, geography, duration in time).  We could think about the  
system of rules and expectations that make up social architectures.   
Anthropology and sociology offer all kinds of formal models that  
could be applied.  So there's no shortage of ways of thinking about  
social form, it's just that there isn't much existing discourse in  
art criticism to base it on.  Still, I think the examination of  
structure is more urgent than as just a purely formal exercise  - in  
the social arena all these forms have immediate impact on who speaks,  
who listens, and what can be said.  Maybe it's exactly in this  
question of social form that ethics and aesthetics are most  
interestingly tangled together.

3) Not too big, not too stupid.  This is a phrase some friends of  
mine invented to denote the advantages of a certain modesty of  
purpose, work that is anti-monolithic in aspiration. Social artworks  
are typically made by creating some kind of structure for  
participation. One could argue that all infrastructures are  
inherently coercive – that networks, codes, systems, organizations,  
rule sets, algorithms have biases and can never be neutral – they are  
good for some things and bad for others. Of course this is true. But  
there are a few things that can mitigate this kind of coerciveness.  
One is multiplicity of options, another is modesty of scale. We’ve  
seen this point of view in post-utopian social change movements –  
stop thinking about gigantically scaled all-inclusive solutions, and  
make things smaller and more kaleidoscopic. Many makers, many  
infrastructures. Small-scale projects are relatively easy to  
implement, much cheaper (no particular capital requirements), much  
less demanding of labor. Even better, make solutions which are  
relatively brief in time – stop worrying about sustainability and let  
ideas and projects have a shorter, more reasonable life cycle (most  
interesting things do anyway). Small scale and multiple options keep  
participation more freely chosen and mitigate the coercive dominance  
of the infrastructure – if you don’t like it, move on to another. Or  
better, just make one yourself.

4) The "you had to be there" paradox.  Social artworks take place in  
real time – when placed in an art context, people should be present  
rather than represented. Documentation is fine in the context of  
documents (books, websites) but it shouldn’t be substituted for or  
confused with the the artwork, which consists of actual people doing  
things.  On the other hand, anthropologist David Graeber suggests an  
intriguing theory of political action in his recent book Lost People:  
Magic and the Legacy of Slavery in Madagascar: "As a minimal  
definition, political action is action meant to influence others who  
are not physically present when the action is being done. This is not  
to say it can’t be intended to influence people who are physically  
present; it is to say its effects are not limited to that. It is  
action that is meant to be recounted, narrated, or in some other way  
represented to other people afterward; or anyway, it is political in  
so far as it is." I might suggest that social artworks (and this is  
something they have in common with performance works) are essentially  
political in exactly this way.  They have a double set of actions and  
functions, one for the persons present, one for those who hear about  
what happened later.  As Graeber suggests, actions recounted in a way  
that influence others have the potential for consequences that reach  
far beyond the scope of the original event.  Most of the artworks I  
count as profoundly important to me are actually not ones which I  
have experienced directly.  This leaves us with a paradox that I  
think we're better off embracing and investigating than shutting down.

5) A wide range of response-abilities.  One of the things that makes  
receiving gifts fraught (as we are likely to be aware in this season)  
is that there is only one socially appropriate reaction: pleasure.   
Artworks which attempt to control and foreclose their own  
interpretation have the same problem.   An artwork which limits its  
own interpretation limits its use as well.  If we can't make up our  
own minds about it, we can't make anything of it; it becomes inert.   
The main complaint I've heard about social artworks comes close to  
this.  Social artworks that foreground a kind of conviviality can  
make participants feel there is only one sort of appropriate  
response: social pleasure and social bonding.  Personally, one of the  
aesthetic qualities I most admire in social artworks is what I think  
of as aliveness - when the interactions of the participants develop  
beyond the situation envisioned by the artist, when the participants  
take over and really make something new happen.  This is the reason I  
keep doing this kind of work - if the piece is successful, I never  
fail to be profoundly surprised by what actually develops.


At this point, rather than a conclusion I'd be more interested in the  
way other people reading might take up these questions.  I'm sure we  
could come up with a much longer list than the above.  I know many  
people on the list come at sociality and creativity from a  
perspective outside the art world and art context, and I am  
particularly curious to know your rules of thumb and criteria for  

: : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : :

Sal Randolph

The Relational Debate

Laurel Beckman - Video Podcast of the DIY => DIT panel at UCRIA

Claire Bishop, Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics (pdf)

Claire Bishop, The Social Turn (requires free registration)

Nicholas Bourriaud from Relational Aesthetics (pdf)

Nicholas Bourriaud glossary from Relational Aesthetics

Nichola Bourriuad and Karen Moss interview

Lucas Ihlein - blog

Sarah James, The Ethics of Aesthetics

Grant Kester, Dialogical Aesthetics

Lars Bang Larsen, Social Aesthetics

Darren O'Donnell Greasing the Glue (includes criteria for beautiful  
civic engagement) (pdf)

Darren O'Donnell Haircuts by Children interview (Performa 07)

Jacques Ranciere, Art of the Possible - interview (requires free  

Radical Culture Research Collective
A Very Short Critique of Relational Aesthetics

Sal Randolph, Notes on Social Architectures as Artforms

Judith Rodenbeck - The Open Work; Participatory Art Since Silence
see also: https://lists.thing.net/pipermail/idc/2005-November/ 

Trebor Scholz The Participatory Challenge

Randall Szott - Leisurearts blog discussion of Bishop/Kester etc -  
runs over several posts

Conferences/Festivals/Programs mentioned


Live in Public: The art of Engagement

Live Biennale

Participatory Dissent

Performa 07

Open Engagement



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