There’s an art of conversation, to be sure, but can conversations themselves be art? They can, when the artists involved are engaging in what’s known as social practice.
Social practice projects might look like just about anything — journalism, community organizing, even a shop. The goal is to create social change by staging actions that engage people and make them think – and talk. “For me,” says social-practice artist and professor Stephanie Syjuco, “the best social practice projects actually try to attract people to join a conversation.”
Two artists, Chris Treggiari and Chris Johnson, recently went into the streets of Oakland to record conversations and make art (see their projects in the video on this page). Treggiari and partner Peter Foucault, working with the Center for Investigative Reporting, built an interactive “news” van that they used to collect stories of people they met. “We really want to get a feel for what a community is going through,” Treggiari says, “what is changing and how is it changing and what’s [their] opinion on it.”
Chris Johnson’s project, “The Best Way to Find a Hero,” focuses on acts of everyday heroism – or, as Johnson puts it, “people who are surviving and thriving and raising families against adversity.” For the work, he made a map of Oakland that includes the parts of the city that are “defined as troubled neighborhoods by developers.” Johnson threw darts at the map and then went to those addresses, video camera in hand, to document the heroic stories of the people he encountered.
Today’s social practice projects have art historical roots in participatory works from earlier eras. In Pictures Collected from Museum Visitors Wallets, Harrell Fletcher and Jon Rubin interviewed SFMOMA museum visitors about the photographs they happened to carry with them. Ten were enlarged and became part of the museum’s permanent collection. Learning to Love You More, by Harrell Fletcher and Miranda July, was an early, pre-social-media website where participants completed assignments — such as “Draw a scene from a movie that made you cry” — and viewed each other’s’ submissions. In her commission Shadowshop, Stephanie Syjuco turned an SFMOMA gallery into a store in which local artists and museum visitors were invited to explore themes of capitalism, commodity and counterfeit.
Syjuco understands that this type of art can be difficult for people to comprehend at first. “If it’s in a museum or a gallery, people seem to understand, ‘Well, that’s where art belongs.’ But when it goes out into the world and is sometimes indistinguishable from other things that happen, I think that can be really beautiful.”
“The challenge,” says Johnson, “is how do you get people to care about social issues?” For these artists, finding the answer often starts with asking the right questions.
Chris Treggiari and Chris Johnson’s projects can both be seen in the exhibit Who Is Oakland, at the Oakland Museum of California, April 11–July 12, 2015. Learn more about participatory and social practice works at SFMOMA.com.