Practice, to Practice

by Esther Neff

(previously published Oct 17, 2012)

“Practice” is a term generally used to describe an artist’s way of doing things; their ever-evolving art-making processes as structured by ideology, theoretical concerns, practical considerations, techniques, methodology, disciplinary influences, and the daily functions of the individual(s) “maintaining” or “pursuing” this practice.  The idea of “practice” may be used as an umbrella term for interrelated parts of art-making, referencing disciplinary rehearsal towards mastery of technical components (as in, the violinist practices the violin), but also involving modes of production (how art is made, how its making operates in conjunction with social, economic, and political structures), and how the artist makes the work itself (as in, the painter gessoes aluminum sheets), with an emphasis on the relationships between these and an artist’s deliberately constructed conceptual framework for each and all.

In the past 40 or so years, ideas of “artistic practice” have been formalized by educational theory and psychology to describe frameworks for learning art-making. New ways of thinking about how an individual becomes an artist were necessary as institutions took over the education of artists from systems of private apprenticeship and amateur emergence. In addition to providing a conceptual argument for institutional artist education, theories using the term “artistic practice” are now often geared towards helping young artists make their aesthetic and formal choices consistently, and to help them develop cohesive “voices” or “visions” beyond their technical training, i.e. to develop a factory a la Andy Warhol inside which consistently viable and valuable artistic products are produced.

Towards this end, conception of this practical framework called “practice” has encouraged educational curriculums to assist students in designing individual practices, with design largely involving the translation of institutionally-imparted “information” into a productive synthesis of existing components. Likewise, these conceptions are applied to educating “the public” about art, and “knowledge of art” at large. John Falk and Lynn Dierking in Learning From Museums write that “As our society is increasingly inundated with information each individual needs to learn qualitatively and quantitatively better strategies for dealing with information.” For them, as for many educators at museums, universities, and conservatories, “information” describes the documented processes and contexts of well-known artists throughout history, theoretical positions and statements from art criticism, history, and theory, and existing artwork or its documentation and criticism. “Better strategies for dealing with information” then becomes the application of this autonomous, institutional “art sphere” information to individual art-making processes. This schema allows educational institutions to offer these “existing informations” as tools or applicable considerations to be purchased by students. It also helps professional artists to market their art as a product of legitimized and communicable processes, as “information” is consistently set into institutional vocabulary (dialectic, or rhetoric), and mimetically distributed (every art-world individual maintains the same set of facts, amounting to an education).

Problematics embedded in these institutional conceptions variously include reinforcement of strictly capitalist modes of production, discouragement of art that can’t be “explained” or otherwise given value based on past value of similar canonical products, discouragement from generative theorization and theory stemming from non-art-historical/non-canonical sources, the misconception of learning as a “filling of an empty vessel,” etc. These schemas of homogenization, autonomization, education, and hierarchization ultimately discourage artists from synthesizing and controlling their own culturally responsive practices. Moreover, we could certainly argue (similarly yet totally differently than Claire Bishop does in her recent Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship,) that institutional conceptions of practice prevent artists from effectively functioning as agents in the co-construction of human culture.

Still from Chelsea Knight’s video work ‘Frame’

Moreover, reactions to these institutionally-formalized conceptions of “practice” have caused many artists to reject intellectual considerations in their own practices and to cease exploration of art history and theory across contexts, fields, and sources. Thus, we may find ourselves denying our constantstate of learning in the world and through our art-making processes. We must remember that not all learning theories advocate the development of a single, set-in-stone, marketable, “A Practice” based on a “dealing with” information; the extent to which “A Practice” can be/should be sustained throughout time by an individual, can be/should be borrowed as a framework by another individual, or can be/should be analyzed as such, are debates that emerge from conception of “A Practice” as an artistic product in and of itself, something an artist or artist group “has” rather than something that he/she/they practice(s) as a course of action. We must remember that we are responsible for our own practices. Even constructivist epistemologist Lev Vygotsky, who is often credited with the conception of “framework” as a way of seeing/perceiving concepts, argues that learning happens through social interaction and that “information” is only viable during the active processes/practice of its synthesis. For Vygotsky, and perhaps for many actual working artists, practice is the action of framing, not a set of rules constructing a frame.
There is nothing to master, there is only performance.

My thinking about these “frames” for “practice” has been recently stimulated by the work of Lital Dotan and Eyal Perry, and their Glasshouse Project. Currently central to their project’s work is been a series of “homage” performances, with artists invited to create work in response to, and influenced by the performances, theories, and practices of artists like Ana Mendieta (September), Allan Kaprow (October), and next, Rirkrit Tiravanija (November).  

Ivy Castellanos performing during HOMAGE TO ANA MENDIETA, September 2012

Ivy Castellanos performing during HOMAGE TO ANA MENDIETA, September 2012

These exhibitions are not meant to educate a public or to educate individual artists through re-performance of the works of well-known performance artists. Re-performance is part of a debate that continues to frame artistic practice as a set of something, a product, or a factory for producing products (see Istvan Meszaros). As such, “re-performance” is currently being masticated by arguments over context, liveness, and location of the author. These arguments maintain some confusion, as they are additionally framed by “performance art,” a discipline so “practice-based” in the Vygotsky sense that its products are nearly impossible to define as such (and we like it that way.)

What Dotan and Perry invite artists to do is 1.) Consider frameworks of practice and education themselves, i.e. the very modes of learning that artists practice, 2.) identify “practical” decisions in the work of others and in their own work and 3.) engage in artistic research as part of personal practice outside of institutional learning.

This month, PPL are working at Glasshouse in homage to Allan Kaprow. As we develop this night of performance (which has already been framed as such, ruling out practice of many of Kaprow’s modes) I am attempting to follow my own neural and practical pathways towards synthesis of information (which is unlimited and un-framed) and translation (via subjective association) of it into artistic practice. More than any other “influence,” Kaprow encouraged his students and fellow artists to practice in practice, to perform by performing, to learn by learning. It’s not easy; my own mind tries to frame decisions about what we will actually do in the space through a Lacanian lens (Imaginary, the Symbolic and the Real = Fraud, Absence and Impossibility), for example, just as Kaprow’s quote “The point is to do something that doesn’t even remotely remind you of culture” glares at me from the top of the piano (see below).

PPL include Esther Neff, Jessica Bathurst, Michael Newton, Brian McCorkle (seen above in documentation of PPL Help the Water, photo by Geraldo Mercado)

PPL include Esther Neff, Jessica Bathurst, Michael Newton, Brian McCorkle (seen above in documentation of PPL Help the Water, photo by Geraldo Mercado)

Ultimately, my core focus as an artist working in this situation (in homage to Kaprow, as ourselves, in that space, etc) is to practice framing as an act.  I want to research the timing of artistic decisions throughout situations, to experience different relationships between spectators, artists, and participants, and to work against representation, sure. However, those interests must function as frameworks for collective practicing of practices. After October 26th is over, PPL may decide to transfer similar frameworks into our ongoing opera project Any Size Mirror is a Dictator, but ultimately we do not intend to permanently learn how to do something, not how it should be done based on Kaprow’s views, nor how ‘an artist’ should ‘deal with’ the ‘information’ of his past practices.

Our practical research will be free and open to the public, taking place over the course of 4 hours:

HOMAGE TO ALLAN KAPROW
Friday, October 26, 2012
7pm-11pm

Glasshouse Projects
246 Union Avenue
Brooklyn, NY

Eyal Perry (left) and Lital Dotan (right)

Eyal Perry (left) and Lital Dotan (right)

Glasshouse Project is an artistic home-laboratory of artists Lital Dotan & Eyal Perry. It’s aim is to promote artistic experiments that are based on performance and installation art in the domestic space. The space is constantly transforming from a home into a stage, a playground, a classroom and so on, making the domestic environment a platform of constant physical and mental exploration.

Since 2007, the project and the home it utilizes have evolved, moving between residential and commercial venues in Tel-Aviv, Israel, San-Francisco, USA and elsewhere in Europe. Now, Glasshouse Projects has moved into a two-floor apartment in Brooklyn. With a large storefront gallery and all rooms, including kitchen, bedrooms, and outdoor patio open to artists, Glasshouse hosts performance evenings and an international residency program, where artists from around the world are invited to create performance art projects.

Additionally, Glasshouse TUESDAYS will occur next week:

On the Blurring of Art and Life/ Lecture & Discussion


Tuesday, October 23, 8pm

Eyal Perry will discuss Allan Kaprow’s Happenings.

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