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WORK OUT at deCordova: considering politics and individual agency

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Into the wake of the 2012 Creative Time Summit, held almost exactly one year ago, was cast An Open Letter to Critics Writing About Political Art. According to its co-writers Steve Lambert and Stephen Duncombe, the letter’s addressees were shirking their duties when they bothered showing up at all. Lambert, an artist, and Duncombe, an academic, who together run programs such as the Art Action Academy, and Imagining Utopia, through their Center for Artistic Activism, lamented the underwhelming "surface commentary" of the Summit. " We don't seem to have a developed vocabulary with which to understand, and criteria with which to evaluate, political art and activist artists," they wrote. Seven questions the critic should consider were then identified: among them "Why am I writing this?" In reply, let me offer simply that the framework for criticism suggested in the Open Letter has nagged at me, demanding a worthy charge against which to test it. The Creative Time Summit distilled complex and ambitious projects into (at best, pithy) twenty minute slide presentations. Demanding a better critical response to those artworks, based solely on the quality of their documentation and the charisma of the speaker, didn't seem to me to be the right context for the discussion.

To breathe some practice into their theory, here, I'll use the Letter as a lens through which to consider WORK OUT, an exhibition curated by Dina Deitsch at deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum.1 WORK OUT directly challenges the definition of audience offered in the Letter in that it invites politically and socially engaged art practices, by artists who are also activists, advocates, and educators, into the institution. Duncombe and Lambert:

"The venue for the traditional artist is galleries and museums—controlled spaces where the art itself does not need to speak very loudly because all attention is focused on it. Political art has a dauntingly large venue: the street, the marketplace, the mass media."2

But these art practices are all too evident today to be sidelined by curators: does it have to follow that commissioning projects, and facilitating the opportunities for the participation and public discussion that form their substance, dulls the political edge of the work?

Fritz Haeg, Domestic Integrities A04, 2013. Photo: Liana Mestas.

Socially-engaged art is defined by practitioner Pablo Helguera as "a hybrid, multi-disciplinary activity that exists somewhere between art and non-art, and its state may be permanently unresolved. SEA depends on actual—not imagined or hypothetical—social action."3 [italics mine]I'm choosing to establish this term because calling WORK OUT an exhibition of political art would both generalize and overlook how much of the work operates—central to the projects proposed by Fritz Haeg, Futurefarmers, Jane D. Marsching, and Andi Sutton are participatory events, thirty programs in total. Increased programming of this kind is a boon to any museum, eager as it is to encourage attendance, and create a more unique experience for its visitors. So it makes sense that this turn in art would be welcomed by institutions, though perhaps not for the ardent politics that motivate the artists to make the work in the first place. And quite to the contrary of what Lambert and Duncombe suggest, WORK OUT, surrounded by so many other works that often operate in more visually arresting ways, runs the risk of being overlooked. DeCordova has a history of engagement with its site in Lincoln, Massachusetts. The Sculpture Park hosts a significant collection of modern and contemporary sculpture. Established in 1950 on thirty-five acres of land—including woodland waterfront once coveted by Henry David Thoreau as a potential emplacement for his cabin—deCordova recently put into action a strategic plan which places greater emphasis on the Park itself, one which reflects a not-so-recent, but also not-often-institutionalized4, sea change in contemporary art practices. Inaugurated with WORK OUT, the new curatorial stance for the Park is to favor site-responsive, flexible, time-based, participatory, and research-driven work, which considers the particular ecosystem of the parkland and the region. WORK OUT took up the challenge by commissioning projects from one collective and three artists who sustainably engage with nature and landscapes through farming and research practices: Futurefarmers and Fritz Haeg are based in California, Jane D. Marsching and Andi Sutton in Massachusetts. As the exhibition title intimates, the artists have encamped in the Sculpture Park rather than occupied the galleries: they are working outdoors. The title's nod to process is also fully intended: "to work out" suggests time passed, errors found, discoveries made, notes taken, discussed, and distributed, verbally or in writing. It welcomes risk, on the part of the institution as much as each artist, working through (and out) problems arising from the collision of concept, time, space, audience, in the public realm rather than in the studio. The politics evident in WORK OUT are both directly and indirectly rooted in the sobering reality of climate change, as well as in the importance of individual responsibility, made manifest through self-sustainable practices, advocacy, education, and research. These politics are expressed through the material simplicity of each of the four projects, through the attentiveness of the artists to their immediate environment, and their openness to interaction with strangers around the sharing of knowledge.

Jane D. Marsching, Field Station Concordia. 2013 Photo: Stephanie Cardon

The strategies the artists employ to address climate change are modest, incredibly focused, and oftentimes collaborative. There are no other ways to tackle the issue and its myriad ramifications at this point. A common sentiment, even within the scientific community and echoed by the artists, is helplessness and despair at the exponentially increasing magnitude of the problem. Jane D. Marsching's Field Station Concordia begins with a half-scale model of Thoreau's Walden Pond cabin, built from recycled pallets. It serves as the symbolic home of an individual's commitment to patient consideration, and as the contemporary base for a series of engagements. Wheeled around the Park every few weeks, it marks the site of a concentrated observation of four micro-ecosystems. Marsching calls on the knowledge of others to aid her in her study, and is equally devoted to solitary trial-and-error generative experiments. Early in the Spring, she conducted a citizen science project which recorded the leaf-out dates of the various species of trees present in the Park, contributing data to the New England Leaf-Out Project. This study, led by biologist Dr. Richard Primack, has used similar data collected by Thoreau (among several others) a century and a half ago as one baseline. Marsching has since hosted public conversations and walks, in collaboration with climate activist and writer Wen Stephenson, and Concord-based naturalist Cherrie Corey. The level of engagement she invites is mature, aimed for the most part at an older audience, primarily because she sets the bar according to her own interests. Later into the season, Marsching experimented with extracting ink from different barks and berries by steeping them in rainwater using a solar cooker. Broadsides of provocative quotations gathered from interactions and readings are printed with the ink and displayed on sandwich boards. Present two days a week, her conversations with visitors constitute much of the work. She sizes each person up as they tentatively approach her nature station. "I find out what people are curious about and then find a way into their curiosity," she says. This "way in" could take the form of a brief presentation of her research, a printmaking demonstration using plant ink, or handing the visitor a booklet which guides their own observations of the parkland. Her work and her approach rely on increasing the agency of each individual to the extent of their capacity. Crowd-sourcing data from visitors is trusting rather than didactic. The kind of participation Marsching invites is not focused on generating objects, so much as it gently encourages viewers to broaden their field of observation in relation to the site, and hopefully the world.

Keith spinning on Fritz Haeg's rug. Photo: Stephanie Cardon

The pedagogical impulse is not limited to Field Station Concordia but varies in approach throughout the exhibition. The San Francisco artist collective Futurefarmers were at deCordova for a week in July to run their Tree University. Physically and conceptually centered around a gigantic Norway Spruce toppled by Hurricane Sandy, they organized several opportunities for learning, among them, a pencil-making workshop using the tree's wood and other locally harvested materials, including mud from Walden Pond. Futurefarmers later carved three seats into the massive trunk as a nod to Thoreau's three chairs—"I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society."5 Stumps scattered around the large, round rug Fritz Haeg wound for his Domestic Integrity Field (the only project indoors) display vegetables, herbs, and cut flowers from its attendant circular A04 Garden. Keith Clougherty, a student at Boston’s School of the Museum of Fine Arts, was inducted by Haeg to tend and farm the garden, which claims some acreage in the museum parking lot. As Haeg’s proxy, he is given a fair amount of independence to run the show, freeing Haeg to manage other simultaneous iterations of the project elsewhere. The multicolored rug serves as a stage for presentations by several local farmers and for Clougherty's daily tasks, which include carding wool from Huissant sheep, and spinning it into yarn to be knit. Along with the A04 garden, he has been maintaining a library on foraging and regularly contributes his collected bounty to the hewn pedestals. Clougherty thus in turn becomes the teacher, demonstrating the skills he has learned from Haeg to an audience of all ages. There is something aesthetically (and ethically) outdated the manner in which Haeg's rug shifts a variety of living, changing sites (the Park, local farms, the A04 parking lot garden) into the pristine air-conditioned space of a gallery. It employs presentations that formalize nature as sculpture, and strip elements of their specificity by isolating them from their vital context. Furthermore, the positivity present in several of the artists' actions and the educational programming, which aim to arm deCordova's younger visitors in particular with lost skills, can come across as antiquated utopianism. Domestic Integrities and Tree University are reminiscent of past social and educational experiments in living off the land, born in part in the Concord-Boston area, a place which has since undergone a radical demographic and economic shift, from agrarian to upper middle-class. Perhaps my astonishment really stems from the fact that these gestures and this knowledge have been lost in only one or two generations, and are foreign and exotic enough for "reskilling the audience," even in a cursory form, to become internationally institutionalized as a creative practice. Yet, undeniably, the politics of arming youth with knowledge of the means of production are laudable (even if the take-home version does come in the form of a plantable exhibition program.) The warming of our planet is a universal issue. But it is also far from devoid of tensions relating to specific inequalities around power, privilege, and access, race, education, economics, and geography. Because of this, the narrowed audience of a suburban museum appears to encourage the glossing over of a complex topic, and much of the work lacks a strong measure of outrage. It brings to mind #solidarityisforwhitewomen, the viral Twitter hashtag which calls out feminists for dividing along racial and class lines. So it becomes significant that Jane D. Marsching also acknowledges Thoreau the abolitionist, and fomenter of civil disobedience, in her broadsides (some of which she recently took to a protest at the Brayton Point Coal Plant). And this is why it is notable that Andi Sutton's piece toys with our well-to-do, conscientious 21st century ethics around irresponsible gardening.

Andi Sutton, Assisted Flagration, 2013. Photo: Stephanie Cardon.

At deCordova, Sutton's Assisted Flagration makes use of a ubiquitous lawn-sculpture, the pink flamingo, to seed-bomb the Park's lawn with wildflower species native to the Carolinas. It is the most humorous and the most provocative of the projects in WORK OUT, partly because it pokes fun at our lofty definition of what sculpture is (here is a vernacular icon colonizing the hallowed grounds of an art center), and partly because it mocks our idiosyncratic lawn culture by sprouting into ugly, unruly grasses. The clay flamingos—one hundred in total—degrade under the effect of sunlight and rain, yielding their seeds, and transform from a kitsch, colorful parade, into a mournful cemetery of grey, headless, melting memorials, which stand amid the growing flowers. The knee-jerk reaction Sutton hears most often relates to a practice we all now recognize as questionable: that of planting species foreign to the area in New England soil. In actuality, Sutton worked in close collaboration with a local naturalist to identify seeds which couldn't winter over even at relatively mild temperatures. But the conversation goes beyond this initial tension between local and foreign: the project's title is derived from "assisted migration", a practice currently adopted by the City of Chicago to plant for the new climate, contingent on the rising global temperature. For Chicago a few decades from now, this temperature will be closer to that of contemporary Louisiana. Says Sutton: "Our idea of local is skewed: what is growing locally now was an invader early on." Scientists predict that Massachusetts's climate will resemble that of South Carolina's in a mere sixty years, meaning that these flowers will soon be our native neighbors. Assisted Flagration exists as evidence of our future. Far from shielding us from the inevitable transformation of our landscape, Sutton carries us toward it so that we might get better acquainted with it. Andi Sutton began her career making performances, and this was evident in the public interactions she staged for WORK OUT. Her "Field Guide to the Future" was formed through conversations with youth about specific years that extinctions might occur, but it made space for hopeful changes too. This process of anticipated mourning generated some highly specific scenarios from children—fresh water will become extinct in the year 2072, curiosity will go extinct in 2107, violence in 2132—many of whom had initially articulated a generalized fear of climate change. Born into the conversation, this younger generation needs both practical and emotional outlets to cope with a catastrophe they are inheriting, a catastrophe that must be given substance and a tangible form so that it does not just traumatize. The collaborative Field Guide was later staged as a durational performance in which Sutton read through the timeline of extinctions. The mood is undoubtedly more somber and the approach more cerebral than the hands-on workshops of Futurefarmers' Tree University. Their approach also has its merits: in an era when Thoreau's observation that "men have become the tools of their tools" rings truer than ever, engaging our youngest generation in the process of making pencils empowers them. Yet it is hard to know whether without a similar conversation to frame it, their action doesn't resonate merely as a fun activity. "What's at stake [in political art]is the transformation of all society," write Lambert and Duncombe in their Letter. I found that sentiment unduly optimistic when I read it. My reaction stemmed from my own bleak perception of how slow we are to transform, how quick we are to ruin, and my skepticism about art's potential to reverse that tendency. Nowhere do they say, however, that the transformation has to universally and immediately succeed. WORK OUT's different methodologies may draw people together temporarily to consider, to exchange, to learn, but each artist seems to propose that we disperse to patiently and diligently work out our politics and practice for ourselves. While researching and writing this response, another line from Walden drifted into view: "What is called resignation is confirmed desperation." It will be my responsibility not to be resigned, not to despair, but to keep paying attention, to reflect, and respond.


[1] I would prefer not to call this article a review because I was unable to attend the events organized by Futurefarmers during the week they were at deCordova. I can only refer to their project from hearsay and in generalities. [2] Stephen Duncombe and Steve Lambert, An open letter to critics writing about political art. 2012 [3] Pablo Helguera's 2011 handbook, Education for Socially Engaged Art, has provided further fodder and structure. [4] The often intangible nature of socially-engaged art makes it challenging to exhibit. More often than not, the institutional approach has been to present and stage related objects and documentation. Think for instance of Paul Chan's highly complex project, Waiting for Godot, which took place in New Orleans's Lower 9th Ward, and how it has been re-presented via its archive at MoMA. Increasingly, institutions are commissioning actions within their walls, or facilitating projects beyond them, which raises new questions around the relationship between the politics motivating the work and its restricted audience. [5] Henry David Thoreau was a pencil-maker by trade. Given deCordova's proximity to Concord, he unavoidably gets a fair amount of play in WORK OUT, and an exhibition devoted to the legacy of Walden is scheduled for next year. The citation is from Henry David Thoreau's Walden; or, Life in the Woods, Chapter 6, originally published in 1854. Icon image: Jane D. Marsching, Field Station Concordia, 2013. Detail.

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About Author

Stephanie Cardon is a cross-disciplinary artist from France and the United States and is the former executive editor at Big Red & Shiny. She works as a Visiting Lecturer at Massachusetts College of Art & Design and is a 2013 recipient of the Art Writing Workshop from the AICA-USA and Creative Capital/Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant Program.

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