Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 12, 2014
Shannon Jackson Social Works: Performing Art, Supporting Publics New York: Routledge, 2011. 310 pp.; 33 b/w ills. Paper $39.95 (9780415486019)

What constitutes live/performance art today? The terms and definition(s) have always been slippery. In the past, live art was a large, interdisciplinary umbrella that included body art, interactive installation, postmodern dance, post-dramatic theater, time-based work, and performance video. Live art has also included the work and products of artistic collectives, interventionist work, relational aesthetics, eco art, social practice, institutional critique, and, recently, reenactment. Live art is further related to a burgeoning category in academic writing that is known as performance studies and which includes contributions from scholars who locate their disciplinary home in theater, fine arts, art history, dance, anthropology, or sociology. Live art describes as well certain modes of programming—festivals, conferences, gallery exhibitions, and events. The category of live art, as Dominic Johnson noted in 2012, is a sector rather than a discipline, a way of framing a set of diverse and seemingly unrelated activities for artists, audiences, and academics alike (“Introduction: The What, When and Where of Live Art,” Contemporary Theatre Review 22, no. 1 (2012): 7).

Live/performance art thus depends upon institutional contexts and discursive frameworks in order to make sense as live art—or for that matter as “art”—instead of any myriad of things that it could be otherwise, including political protest, group therapy, community activism, individual expression, tableau vivant, farming, or construction. Live art depends on an audience that understands that what they are seeing is art and not something else. And while monographs, articles on individual artists, and artists’ books appear with great regularity, there has been until recently very little attention paid to the context, history, and institutional support of live art. Shannon Jackson’s Social Works helps to change the field by complicating and expanding the histories of live art and live art production, asking what it meant to make live art in the 1970s as opposed to today, and giving full consideration to the audiences and contexts, rather than just the artists, of live art.

Jackson covers vast territory, surveying the intersection of aesthetics, institutions, and social practice for artists and collectives as diverse as Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Santiago Sierra, Shannon Flattery/Touchable Stories, Allan Sekula, Andrea Fraser, William Pope L., The Builders Association, Rimini Protokoll, Elmgreen and Dragset, and Paul Chan. Using the writings of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Michael Fried, Theodor Adorno, Bertold Brecht, Hans-Thies Lehmann, Michel Foucault, Michael Warner, and Lauren Berlant, Jackson argues for a reconsideration of the relationship between aesthetics and social practice in order to tease out the relationships between artists, art making, and the social infrastructure that both supports and impinges upon these practices. As the title implies, Jackson is particularly concerned with what she terms the “social turn” in contemporary art, whereby visual artists have shifted to performance or performative strategies in order to implicate or engage an audience more accustomed to viewing art objects in the gallery than encountering them outside of the white cube. At stake in this debate is Jackson’s discomfort with the existing terminology and disciplinary frameworks used by contemporary critics to analyze this work. “We might discern a kind of experimental chiasmus across the arts; a movement toward painting and sculpture underpins post-dramatic theatre, but a movement toward theatre also underpins post-studio art. In such a chiasmus, breaking the traditions of one medium means welcoming the traditions of another” (2).

As a scholar trained in performance studies, Jackson was obliged to familiarize herself with the discourse, histories, and genealogies of visual art in order to interrogate this work. Jackson is most focused on the intersection between the aesthetic/formal and the social/political. In particular, Jackson is interested in the relationship between the autonomous (what is inherent to the work of art) and the heteronomous (the infrastructure in which art exists). Eager to move beyond the impasse of social art = lack of critical engagement vs. critically rigorous art = no political effect, Jackson emphasizes art that allows its audiences to imagine sustainable social institutions via work that requires interdependent support including labor, planning, and organization within the institutional determinates of art and its reception. Throughout the book, Jackson provides examples of work that straddles the visual art/theater divide in order to demonstrate how a reading informed by the expectations of art history/aesthetics and performance/theater can complicate an understanding of the aesthetic as only autonomous and the social as only heteronomous. Central to the premise of Social Works is the idea that the art/life divide articulated by artists such as Allan Kaprow can be recast in terms of art practices that support interdependent relations of obligation, care, and mutual dependence. As Jackson noted in an interview with Christina Linden, “If a political art discourse becomes too enthralled with breaking down institutions, then it ignores the degree to which we are in fact dependent upon institutions. Yes, the ‘institution’ constrains; but it also sustains. Can we stay complicated about this? My hope is that by thinking about support as a complex system, as a social question but also as an aesthetic question, we can activate a different conversation” (Art Practical 2.15 / Performance: The Body Politic [April 10, 2011]:

Jackson is thus most interested in social practices where “the exposure of the aesthetic infrastructure that supports the aesthetic object coincides with the exposure of the social infrastructure that supports human societies” (39). After an introduction outlining the structure of the book and her methodological approach, Jackson turns her attention to the difficulties inherent in understanding the art of social practice through a close reading of two very different artists/community activists: Santiago Sierra and Shannon Flattery/Touchable Stories. This chapter, an earlier version of which was included in Tracy C. Davis’s anthology, The Cambridge Companion to Performance Studies (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), is clearly the genesis of this book. In both the chapter and the 2008 essay, Jackson takes issue with Claire Bishop’s 2004 critique (“Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics,” October 110 [Fall 2004]: 51–79) of Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics (trans. Simon Pleasance, Fronza Woods, and Mathieu Copeland, Dijon: Les Presses du Réel, 2002). Fearing that Bourriaud’s definition of relational art was too lightweight, Bishop argued for the “antagonist” possibilities of art practice, by which she meant a criticality and resistance to meaning. In Bishop’s schema, certain artists, such as Sierra, or Thomas Hirschhorn, are “good,” whereas artists and collectives who attempt to “do good” through community consensus, such as Oda Projesi or Liam Gillick, are “bad.” Jackson counters Bishop’s conclusions through a close reading of Adorno’s construction of aesthetic autonomy, Laclau and Mouffe’s concept of antagonism (which differs from that of Bishop), and Jacques Rancière’s notion of rupture, a categorical crisis during which social hierarchies can no longer be upheld (much like the antagonism proposed by Laclau and Mouffe). Arguing that “an experience of antagonism—as a recognition of the limits of the objective constitution of society—are possible in both domains,” Jackson reads the work of Sierra and Touchable Stories through the lens of both Minimalism and Marxism in order to argue that “both of these forms of artistic work produce a consciousness of artistic heteronomy and social interdependence together, though the techniques by which they achieve such a coincidence differ” (60; emphasis in original).

Social Works, which subsequently interrogates projects and artists generally located within the domain of visual art, has important implications for the contemporary art world, which continues to fall back on the valorization of individual artists at the expense of understanding the context—what Jackson has termed the support—of the work in question. The book’s third chapter, “High Maintenance,” uses projects by Ukeles to demonstrate the earlier feminist and class-conscious innovations that preceded and informed relational aesthetics. In so doing, Jackson both complicates the structures of relational aesthetics and asks the reader to reconsider Ukeles’s work as a process-based engagement with maintenance institutions. Ukeles, Jackson suggests, exposes the labor involved in the dematerialized art piece, as well as the contexts that allow objects to be garbage in one instance and art in another. In the fourth chapter, “Staged Management,” Jackson uses the work of Sekula, Fraser, and Pope L. to underscore the way in which artists might grapple with the supports and constraints of institutional systems. In chapter 6, “Welfare Melancholia,” Jackson continues her examination of artists, specifically Elmgreen and Dragset, who interrogate and engage with institutionality. Taking Bishop to task once more, Jackson uses the installations of Elmgreen and Dragset to deconstruct Bishop’s argument that the art world should be more troubled by “state-based structures of instrumentalization that receive ‘prioritized government funding’ rather than art staged in ‘the relatively neutral or staged confines of gallery space’” (195). Arguing that Elmgreen and Dragset actually benefitted from government funding that first supported them and then permitted them to make work that called into question the relatively neutral space of the gallery, Jackson suggests that the ambivalence surrounding Elmgreem and Dragset’s The Welfare Show (which traveled to several cities in 2005–6) “bespeaks a larger ambivalence as artists, intellectuals, and citizens announce their suspicions of the last vestiges of liberal democracy in the same moment that neoliberal models paradoxically help that critique along” (196).

For the most part, Social Works is about work by people who were trained—and see themselves—as artists. The discussion of theater is confined to a chapter titled “Tech Support,” in which readings of the post-dramatic theater companies The Builders Association and Rimini Protokoll provide a change of pace from the other chapters in the book. Jackson’s final chapter is about Paul Chan’s Waiting for Godot in New Orleans (2007). It seems that the disciplinary silos of academic writing, no matter the interdisciplinarity of the writer, remain intact. As of this writing, Jackson’s book has been reviewed primarily in theater and performance journals such as Theatre Journal (2013), TDR (2013), and New Theatre Quarterly (May 2012). Yet Social Works deserves attention across disciplines, and outside the academy: the art world—and indeed what is left of the oppositional forces that coalesced around the Occupy movement of 2012—would do well to pay heed to Jackson’s arguments concerning the language of transgression vis-à-vis the institution. Jackson’s interest in institutions comes from her firm conviction that actions and language that are supposedly transgressive run the risk of being subsumed into neoliberal ideologies. This of course is similar to Bishop’s position. Jackson, however, is interested in engaging with artists and institutions that Bishop would dismiss as lacking criticality.

In “Working Publics,” written shortly after the publication of Social Works, Jackson states, “The language of opposition to the public sphere resonates with the language of resistance that we find in socially engaged performance studies and its allied fields. While committed to the social goals that propelled such articulations, you will see me wondering about the effects of such a language in our neoliberal moment, a moment when conservative discourse also opposed institutions. If the ‘counter’ in ‘counterpublic sphere’ is reduced to the language of opposition, then we can oddly find ourselves in league with such neoliberal forces” (Performing Research 16, no. 2 (2011): 9). Social Works thus provides the reader with a way to think around the limitations of oppositional stances and combative language that simply calls for an end to all institutions without proposing any alternatives. Jackson looks to the artists and collectives discussed in the book as providers of strategies that can be used to engage with institutional support that is positive and sustaining.

Jennie Klein
Associate Professor, School of Art and Design, Ohio University