On the face of it, this is a sympathetic argument. It is certainly one that is often used in texts on socially engaged art. It features prominently in Grant Kester’s classic Conversation Pieces (2004), where WochenKlausur’s project Intervention to Aid Drug-Addicted Women (1994) is singled out as an example of artists breaking a bureaucratic deadlock. Local politicians and bureaucrats in Zurich were unable to find a solution to problems relating to drug-addicted prostitutes, so WochenKlausur took them out on the Lake of Zurich on a boat and got them to talk together. On facing pages, Kester reproduces images of the boat and the boardinghouse that resulted from the intervention. In the context of the argument, the boat comes to symbolize the role of the artists as free agents and the boardinghouse the solution.
But sympathetic though it may be, an argument like this is unlikely to satisfy a politician or bureaucrat: it implicitly turns him or her into the one who has the real problem. The drug-addicted women may lead a rotten life, but the authorities that are supposed to have the power to do something about it are unable to use it to good effect. The artist, on the other hand, is portrayed as someone who is able to do something and therefore gets the hero’s role. Unfortunately, I was unable to speak to the local politician after the seminar, but I would not be at all surprised if he left with a feeling of finding himself amongst strangers.
As an art historian, I am quite naturally drawn to arguments such as the ones fielded by Claire Bishop in Artificial Hells (2012), based on the idea of antagonism. Of course Kester had very little previous art historical literature to draw on while Bishop could base her argument on an analysis of Kester’s, but the difference is telling. While Kester focuses on the type of communication used by socially engaged artists in their interaction with society, Bishop focuses on debates within the art world as well. Her argument is centered on art world concerns – object quality, artistic intention, questions of reception – and distinguishes between a primary audience, consisting of the people who are directly involved in the project, and a secondary one, consisting of anybody who is interested in the work but who has not been involved. Again speaking as an art historian, something that happened amongst strangers is returned to my world. Lovely.
Bishop does not reproduce Kester’s two illustrations of WochenKlausur’s project, but she does reproduce two of his other illustrations, not next to each other on facing pages, but underneath each other on a single one. Kester separates them with two text pages, but Bishop brings them together in what we can understand from the text on the facing page is an opposition – not necessarily one between the works, but between the ways they are read by Kester. The works are Rachel Whiteread’s House (1993-4) and Loraine Leeson/The Art of Change’s West Meets East (1992). Kester contrasts the former’s object-based approach with the latter’s dialogue-based one, but not in a simple opposition: associating Whiteread with the avant-garde tradition of disruption and Leeson with a dialogical approach beyond and outside the avant-garde as a well-known art historical form, he also claims that art historical arguments are naturally biased against dialogical practices. The avant-garde is “ours”, dialogue is “theirs”. Directly confronting the two works on one page enables Bishop to reabsorb them, and Kester’s argument, into the art discourse. As she points out, both works have form and both elicit affective responses. Even if Whiteread conceived her work in the studio and Leeson allowed it to crystallize in dialogue, the result is a form. And even if in Whiteread’s case the debate raged after the audience was confronted with the work while Leeson’s practice puts a premium on the debates taking place before the work is served for the general public, there is still a public.
Kester’s argument distinguishes between hierarchical and hierarchy-free communication, the one geared towards results and the other towards mutual understanding. His two photographs of WochenKlausur’s intervention function almost as a Derridean exergue, an introduction that inscribes the argument on the text before it is unfolded: the rocking boat of hierarchy-free communication vs. the solid foundations of the boardinghouse as a result of hierarchical communication after mutual understanding was reached. But so do the images in Bishop’s book, identical to the ones reproduced by Kester. In her case, the implication is that the same thing may be read differently, thus introducing her approach as based on the arguments employed by others, be they artists or theorists.
Bishop notes, quite rightly, that the success of socially engaged art is never measured by means of comparisons with non-art projects that attempt something similar. Nevertheless, such an evaluation was demanded by the politician at the seminar. The documentation of two phases of a single art project, as in Kester, or the documentation of the final form of two different projects, as in Bishop, cannot supply it, as both are premised on the Look of the Book.
Significantly, one of the items that featured prominently during the seminar was a book that is in the process of being produced about the work of the artist who answered the politician. Pages containing text and illustrations. I agree with Bishop that it is important to see socially engaged art as art, produced by an artist and consumed by an audience. I agree with Kester that socially engaged art implies non-art processes and subjects. But both make their arguments by means of the Look of the Book, and I agree with the politician that art projects in this particular field are consumed by others than the art world and should therefore be accountable outside as well as in. Other juxtapositions are called for: not just the opposition between object and dialogue or the similarity between the object-based and the dialogue-based as art, but also the oppositions and similarities resulting from the project’s identity as something to be decided upon by a city council, to be administrated by a bureaucracy and to be lived with by ordinary citizens, quite apart from art world concerns. For the sake of dialogue and antagonism, the politician should have been up there giving his view of the project, not in the audience asking a question. His agendas, minutes and reports should have been up there, next to the book.