© 2018 by Overwhelming Imagination 

Urbanization and Social Practice

Panel Discussion

July 5, 2016 | 9:30-12:30 

Social practice in art production solicits collaboration between individuals and groups in a society or social space. In these spaces, participants engage with one another in a shared, transitory moment. The moment is what connects participants, regardless of background or prior experiences, and reflects the desire to express unity within shared experience. The historical moment in which we live, as well as the momentary aspects of art, especially performance art, play an important role in shaping socially engaged works of art. The moment everyone shares allows participants to become active in the shared social practice art experience, encouraging a transference of this collective engagement into their everyday lives. In this way, the line blurs between art and life as participants employ a greater level of “creative criticality” in their daily experiences. 

One of the chief goals in joining the participants of the “Urbanization and Social Practice Panel” together in discussion, was to identify and problematize issues related to the expanding interest and institutionalization of social practice and its relationship to urbanization in art and aesthetics today. The resulting papers unpack such issues addressed throughout the two-day conference. 

Zandie Brockett, curator and researcher originally from Los Angeles and current associate curator of the Shanghai Project, reflects on the current situation in China. “A Space for Play: On Social Sensibility Research & Development in the Construction of Commons in Urban China” examines the massive transformation which is “permanently shifting normative social practices and network topologies” within China today. Her paper addresses artistic strategies in response to these issues, referring to a particular case study to support her thesis. Shuang Li, an artist and writer based in New York and Shanghai, presents a paper in collaboration with Murray McKenzie, a PhD researcher focusing on urban geography from the University College London, currently based in Beijing. Their “Art Labour at Large” seeks to relocate creative agency within art production, where art labour may acquire aesthetic value. Both Brockett’s and Li and McKenzie’s papers reflect on issues related to an evolving urbanized landscape within the contemporary ‘moment’ of today’s rapidly evolving China. Both presenters explore and examine urban space and the development of manufactured space, based on particular social, economic and urban factors. Collectively, these two research presentations explore the economies of art production as shaped by urbanization in this “moment” in which we live. These papers are followed by papers by two artists who live and work in the moment of performance. First, Deng Hanbin, a Beijing-based artist uses performance and other artistic mediums to create provocation. His paper, “Biological Renaissance Agenda: A Reaction to the Expansion of the Media” examines how the media of the present moment responds to his work and issues raised related to contemporary Chinese society, applying the methodological notions of performance as “happening in the very moment.” Kelly Doley, the conference resident artist, further examines these complex issues, providing insights into her research and practice as a performance artist and curator. Her practice and research is informed by feminist methodology, and shapes her active involvement in re-doing, re-looking, re-thinking and re-excavating. Her paper highlights two current research projects, “The History of Performance” and “Assembly for Alternative Futures,” delineating the theoretical framework and political context for her research. The final paper, written by Livia Andrea Piazza, an art researcher and practitioner based in Milan, presents an intriguing look at the “moment” on a micro-level. In her paper, “Thinking around the Idea of an Overwhelming Imagination,” Piazza presents a philosophical contemplation on art production, specifically performance art, based on the temporal notion of “the meantime.”  She articulates this notion as a time which is simultaneously the present moment, while at the same time is what separates us from the future. In her paper, she also asks, “What’s the place of imagination today?” 

Reflecting on the conference theme, Piazza questions how imagination might be overwhelmed within the context of art and its relationship to both reality and imagination.  

Each of these papers present ideas as a means of furthering discussion, rather than drawing any definitive conclusions, reflecting upon a momentary exchange on the positionalities and (imagined) realities of global art production today.

- Ellen Larson


Ellen Larson: The general topic of today’s discussion is urbanization and social practice, so this is a question that I will put forward to everyone. In terms of the greater social significance of these works and ideas that we are talking about, how can a general audience or perhaps society as a whole enter into these projects or ideas that we are talking about. Maybe, drawing upon what Murray just mentioned, how can a general audience or society participate in creating value in these objects? 

Shuang Li: So I wanted to talk about the exhibition at Lab 47. Its an interesting place because its located in a Hutong, which is an old neighborhood in Beijing. So a lot of the neighbors come to the openings and exhibitions. Also, the gallery has a glass door so everyone can see through it. So during the opening, I had a lot of interesting conversations with the neighbors and I can tell that they have always been at the openings because they always talked about past shows, and I think that its amazing because I heard from some artists from the past that have done socially engaged projects with the neighbors who have been at the openings. And there are actually other ways that the audience or general public can be involved, as long as the artist or the gallerist wants them to be. 

Kelly Doley: I think that a lot of the projects I am interested in or the ones that I do myself are sort of participatory in nature, and I think that they come out of this idea that we are all sharing a particular desire or need to express the same thing. Its not like artists are this separate group that have special knowledge that they need to communicate to the viewer. So, like, with the history of Performance, every time we did that performance, there were so many people there waiting to get into the circle and this sort of connects to the broader idea that people want to remember, or engage in that anecdotal fun and to talk about the broader issues of the work, but like I said, I like to think of it as a collective desire to connect to the same thing, in some way. 

Hanbin Deng: Talking about passive spectators, how to engage passive spectators, to get them to participate to create value, like for example the exhibition I talked about, “The Marriage.” It makes them use their social body to really [be] involved in the artwork. But sometimes we make participation, but they are not really involved in this work. They do not really put himself or herself inside it. So, we need to make a contract. This project is sometimes, to use John’s term, anti-social. In this way, if you marry someone, it is very casual. Because in society, you must marry someone not in a casual [way], but here it is kind of like a trick to make them involved in this project. I also think that within the digital era, the question becomes how can we make these things still hold value. After the exhibition, or after the performance, sometimes we really create something, or generate something. But we have left this space, left this utopia. But we will go back to [it] and find value, so how can we maintain this. This is the question.

Zandie Brockett: I think just to reiterate what you are saying, it is a transformation of passive spectatorship to active usage of the work and the narrative and the environment. And I think that its in this usage that you are able to develop a, as Alessandro says, a sensibility, or a level of criticality to activate your creative capabilities that you carry on into your daily life and into the context that goes beyond the performance or the encounter. I think that Matthew was speaking about this yesterday when he was showing images of the computers and the TV screens with individuals that had taken nude photos of themselves and had integrated it into the system that it is not disrupting the system in that it is still able to continue existing. And I think that it is in this process where no one has control of the outcome. You know, the individual who is putting the image online, their intention is basically to sell the object, but at the same time, disrupting what will be the reaction of this work from the spectator, or from the participant, and I think that in the end, its about the fact that no one has ownership and as a result, there is a collective ownership and understanding that shared sensibility that maybe arises.

Kelly Doley: And I think that this comes down as well to what you are saying about that performance art doesn’t need rehearsal. Like, you don’t know the outcome. All that you have inside is an idea, or its all based around the idea or an event where you cant predict what’s going to happen, but its like a provocation and things come out of it like that. 

Audience Question: I have a question about what you guys think about the relationship between public participatory works and art education. How can that possibly influence the level of participation? And also, the switch between laborer and worker to creator, and the idea of creativity and awareness of craftsmanship in between the laborer and the artist? Like, what is your opinion about the art educator’s role in this? 

Shuang Li: So, I think that the fact that in my project, the workers don’t have a lot of art education is where the project comes from, and also because I was working in a gallery when I met them, I was very intrigued to know what they think of contemporary art from the outsider and insider view. I also realized that it is almost impossible to communicate on an official level, this kind of understanding. At first I thought they were just being shy with me but after working with them on various projects and installations, I realized that maybe they are just not good at talking about it. So, I see the role of education in my project as its part of the point of the project, and also I think its very interesting that artists in Western countries, they can always talk about their works with references, but artists with the kind of Chinese education system aren’t used to that kind of self-expression mode. 

Murray Mackenzie: Shuang chose not to display any other record of the process, besides the actual object outcomes themselves, which are purely aesthetic objects. If there is a concept, it hasn’t been disclosed to us, so it challenges us in looking at them to decide if and how we should explicate them, can we read into these objects some process. This unsettles our own role as producers of value and meaning in art.  

Hanbin Deng: I am an educator. As an educator, I am going to open a school of performing art, where students will come together, to direct rehearsals and perform. Because I am always thinking about that, you need to find ways to expand media as an educator. You need to do something to educate your students, but they have been educated already day by day by the media… if we just ask the writers and the performers to get together and to discuss what we are doing and distribute all kinds of power to the audience, you can see what we are doing and decide what we should do day by day, month by month. I think that we can create a kind of democracy. I don’t know if its doable, but this is what I am thinking about. 

Kelly Doley: I was going to say that a lot of my work has a pedagogical, educational impetus to it. Its about trying to create new knowledge, so its really research driven. Its trying to generate new archives. So its seeing a problem, or seeing something missing and then trying to create something to add to that. So that’s the pedagogical, educational context to it. 

Zandie Brockett: In my mind, one of the key differences between public participation or participatory work and art education is that in art education there is still a traditional relationship between the teacher and the student, and kind of, the artist and spectator of the object, or the artist as creator of the object, which there is passive spectatorship of, and then the participatory process is something that allows the public or the participant to be able to generate knowledge for themselves that is relevant to their own context that is able to be embedded within the networks or the social spaces that they maneuver within their own day to day activities. I also think that its interesting thinking about art education is very much focused on the production of the object as the final goal, versus in participatory works, the object is a tool used to facilitate dialogue. 

Kelly Doley: I was just think about what you were talking about, like how does someone become an artist. I was thinking that its so defined to be an artist, because you have a desire to do it, so you go and do it. But then how many layers of power and privilege stop people from being able to do it. I think that this is a really interesting point that comes out of your presentation. At what point are our desires holted up by being a particular class, or race, or gender? Its kind of an interesting point. What’s his name again?

Li Shuang: Xiao Ma

Kelly Doley: Xiao Ma, yeah. Xiao Ma is easily now in this gallery but I think its such an interesting question of like, at what point will you accept that as contemporary art. 

Murray Mackenzie: And Xiao Ma is very unwilling to perform his role as an artist, too, no matter how much we ask him to do. 

Zandie Brockett: I actually have a question for Kelly.  I am very curious to have you speak more about these open spaces because I think they are actually quite similar to these spaces of play or spaces for experimentation or failure. I am wondering what you think about, or do you think that there is a way to formalize the mechanics of these spaces?  Or do you feel like they need to be held as these nebulous abstracted spaces that can never fully be defined, but at the same time, how are there ways of replicating these spaces so they can be experienced by others? I was also speaking with Matthew about this yesterday. How is intervention or interruption replicated so that... the intervener is able to have that very intimate relationship with another individual?

Kelly Doley: Yeah, all those things. I mean, I don’t have the answer but all of these spaces potentially cannot be fixed. They are all based in the moment and based on the dynamics of a particular group of people, so they are not a replica table structure that can be placed on a certain geography or group of people. And I think that is particular to performance as event and the fact that Karen doesn’t document the Gossip, it then creates this kind of mystery and rumor around what actually happens, and what did you do, and what is the point? You can’t really access it, you can only access the story of it, so it’s almost like the imagination of the holding space is not really what was so amazing about it. What was so amazing about it was the idea of taking time out of our lives to do something else. I think that if we think in those terms, it is more like a philosophical idea as well. Maybe that is the replicatible part. 

Zandie Brockett: I was thinking that its interesting that in the denial of creating an archive, you are also removing it from the realm of the possibility to produce knowledge around it that is external to the population that participated in it. As a result, it allows it to exit the institutionalized art world and it becomes, its like the value is returned to the participants…

Kelly Doley: Totally. And I think that is so important because its about reclaiming space and time for women. That’s the focus of that project. All that matters are the participants in that moment. It’s for them. I was at a talk on queer archives and Juliana Huxtable was saying a similar thing about putting on queer parties and they became really popular and you know, you have Vice photographers show up and put all these wacky people online so she stopped that and now she doesn’t document any of the parties anymore because its not about the cool picture online, but rather creating that queer space, or that party space at that point in time for those people. But it’s also important to archive this stuff, so she was saying that she hands out disposable cameras and the photos are kept within the community. So, I think that’s interesting.

Katherine Grube: Ok, I have a question for Livia. I really like how you ended your talk on this fictive space, and sort of suspended time of imagination and how that can produce… an exterior space or exteriority to the local capitalist present. I wonder if you could expand a little more on the possibilities of imagination as such in your research. 

Livia Andrea Piazza: Thank you for your question. When you say exterior space, you mean imagination as an exterior space? 

Katherine Grube: I mean, yeah. Imagination is something that is sort of, I picture it almost as a cloud…

Livia Andrea Piazza: You have created a nice image.

Katherine Grube: I mean, its sort of not a material present, right? And so, what kind of possibilities for conceptual possibilities are there? I assume that’s what you are getting at here, right?

Livia Andrea Piazza: Um, yes… Well, in my mind, I am looking how imagination is looked at today, or within a closed space, in comparison to reality, so there is reality and then there is imagination… Most of the time, art gets included in this other space as directed from reality, or more simply, it becomes entertainment, or the border between art and entertainment is also very unclear… This is a hot topic right now… I have noticed that in an abstract way, there is a widening of the texture of reality, where reality has some holes in it. And these holes are for the audience, or actually for everyone involved, there is a moment when reality emerges as constructed… as change… I don’t like to look at what is the direct consequence of artistic practice… Maybe an example can be connected to the meantime….

Zandie Brockett: I also think that the fact that social practice has become institutionalized in the past ten years has actually become quite problematic. It has developed and is kind of counter to the very premise that it was founded upon. So I think that looking at Alessandro’s project, it is interesting because there are social practice elements in it, there are relational aesthetic elements, but at the same time, there is neither one nor the other. At the same time, there is not really a term or language to describe what it is because it also is a practice and a project that is embedded within the corporate capitalist structure, and in that sense there is an interesting, fine line where its almost like sleeping with the enemy. You know, you are in bed with the enemy and at the same time, you have to find a way to constantly be maneuvering and shifting. I think that there is some kind of evolution or motion forward in that it has come out of the institution in a formal discussion. 

Livia Andrea Piazza: It is true, it’s not about judgment. I think that it is an important aspect in regards to social practice, its also maybe connected to the idea… meaning that they are subject to the same problem, that is, we are at risk to mistake the real condition of production that takes place through a matter of style… so its like, the discussion… also includes how the production of the artworks takes place, and not just… And so in this period, maybe it’s more about collaboration and how we work together… 

Audience Question: Hi, some of you might work with galleries or art institutions or art educators, but for me, as someone working in the Chinese art world, I have noticed that in the recent years, the younger generation of artists and curators are increasingly aligned with the global art world. They may not be aware of an exhibition that is happening in Tianjin which is happening 100km away, but are constantly anticipating the next Berlin Biennale, Venice Biennale, Documenta… so people are increasingly living in this increasingly homogenized global temporality of the art world. But sometimes, when I go to an art center in a Hutong I realize that people actually experience time differently and there are multiple temporalities operating in the city of Beijing alone. Another phenomenon is that many artists and curators are in denial about their own history. Last year was the anniversary of the ‘85 New Wave and the younger generation thought that this is just Chinese contemporary art. We are more interested in what is happening in Berlin, or in art from the 9th and 10th century Song Dynasty, which is the hay day of Chinese painting. So, the development of post-Cultural Revolution has been marginalized in their minds. I am just thinking that more than ever there is a need to address multiple temporalities that are operating in the art world and operating in society. I think that local temporality has sort of been ignored by the younger generation of artists in China today. This notion of the meantime can only be plural for it to be effective. More than ever before, we must engage in the local context to make any theory relevant. I am just throwing my thoughts out there. In China we say throw a brick out to get gold, so I am looking for gold. I am looking forward to your feedback and experiences. 

Zandie Brockett: I guess I will try to throw you a few flakes. I completely agree with this. I haven’t even been in China for that long, only about five years, but I think that during my time here, I have definitely noticed a segregation between a more formalized contemporary Chinese art world which is connected with a more globalized homogeneous art world, singular art world, one that is connected to the formal institutions and formally established art districts in Shanghai and Beijing, and then how there is a very large gap between that and a group of individuals and independent spaces, many of whom are here today, run and operate in a different space. But at the same time, I think that there is connection and a desire… I think that it’s interesting to look at how the independent spaces that exist in Beijing are able to connect to a more local context. I think that its also interesting how at the same time, there are contemporary Chinese professionals who think that these programming and projects might not be as “authentic” because a large percentage are comprised of ex-pats and foreigners, and how by being an ex-pat or a foreigner, they couldn’t possibly have a deep understanding of the local context or histories that exist here in China. But I sometimes find that in certain instances there is a deeper connection... Also, the lack of authenticity comes from being in the center of the city and how there is a disconnect between the population that resides in the center of the city and the average population that inhabits the majority of Beijing and how the majority of Beijingers live between the Third and the Fifth Ring Road in newer apartments, or larger residential complexes, versus older Hutong style spaces. I am also commenting and don’t think I have a particular response, but I think that there is a very interesting difference between temporalities, and I think that maybe  its also thinking about how you go about finding that meantime, or merging the two spaces together to find something that is even more authentic or engaging in the local context.

Murray Mackenzie: I think that overall, that’s sort of the argument that we need to think more spatially and more geographically about art. In Livia’s very excellent temporal discussion, she uses this idea of the meantime, of the new as emerging… and those are such inherently spatio-temporal constructs, and the same goes for contemporaneity… as Terry Smith would talk about. Victoria might know the Doreen Massey quote that I am trying to remember, but its something like, “Space is the sphere of the possibility of the existence of the multiple…” In other words, we want to talk about oppositions to others, they are always going to be inherently spatial. So we falsely treat contemporaneity as a temporal moment, but it’s a moment that is inherently within the spatial sphere. The thing is that I don’t find that art is often not that sophisticated in the way it thinks about space, especially compared to post-colonial literary ideas and things like that. For example, we have to be really careful about how we use this idea of the global, because of course it is not a flat plane, and that is more apparent in literary criticism where you have immediate problems of translation and language… I think that we need to have a much more refined nuanced idea of the positionalities of realities within art and the way that we not only participate in a global circuit of biennales and fairs, but we all have our own position within them as deeply, deeply located within our own social present.


Zandie Brockett

Deng Hanbin

Shuang Li & Murray Mckenzie