Open House/Closed House (2006)

This article was written for the Panamerican Virtual Forum, a discussion group created in preparation of  The School of Panamerican Unrest in May of 2006.

Open House, Closed House:
Contemporary Art before its Communities

As a kid, in Mexico, I used to attend a community center run by my aunt named Casa Abierta (Open House). I remember making collages out of dry pasta, a yarn painting (this was in the 70s), and a hand puppet; I watched films by Marcel Pagnol and the Marx Brothers and performed in a staging of Snow White, where I was the hunter in charge of killing the heroine amid the forest but instead would give up and set her free. Maybe my experiences there did not lead me directly to choose the visual artist profession, but they did generate an enthusiastic predisposition towards art making that I believe lasts until this day.

For the majority of those who make or teach art, the time in which we were initiated in art and obediently —or disobediently— were made to join art education activities is fairly remote and hard to remember. Maybe this is why after so many years of training and theory, it is hard for us to put ourselves in the shoes of the average viewer when we ask them to be part of an art experience, whether this is of an educational or conceptual nature, either interactive or passive. Three decades later, as a visual artist, I find myself like many others trying to understand what it means to make art in conjunction, dialogue, or collaboration with communities.

The distance that separate us from the uninitiated art viewer became once again evident to me during a project in which I recently participated as a guest artist by a Mexican curatorial collective, Laboratorio 060, in the indigenous community of Frontera Corozal in Chiapas. The young curatorial group set upon themselves the ambitious task of making a public art project in this remote Chol community located in the edge of the Usumacinta river and the border of Guatemala. The place, amidst the innermost Lacandon Jungle, feels, and literally is, the last edge of Mexico, and tipifies the marginality of many towns of the Americas. After many visits and exchanges, the group established a strong relationship between the town council, which accepted the idea of having the artists do site specific interventions in the town with a very Mexican-indigenous mixture of enthusiasm, politeness, and shyness.

To this point, it is a mystery to me what in Frontera Corozal is understood by the word “curator” or “artist” —needless to say, the word “curator” does not exist in the local Chol language. It is also hard to assess the kind of meaning that the project, which is still being developed, will have in this place. It is for sure an earnest and valuable attempt from the organizers to make something productive at a place that is practically forgotten by the government and the world in general. In this regard, the town welcomes the very gesture of engagement and attention. In many instances, the kind of works that could be seen in Frontera appeared fairly entertaining to the locals, sometimes extravagant, and sometimes outright strange —as they seemed that way even to myself. Other times, the work was so hardcore conceptual that it was clear that not only did they not see the boundaries of the ‘work’ but that they would not realize that in many instances they themselves were the very subjects of it. My general sense was that amongst the participating artists —ranging from anywhere in Europe and the U.S. to Mexico and Guatemala— there was a lot of haste in getting to make the art, and little reflection or concern regarding the implications of showing a work in that particular context, as it usually is the case of projects that involve bringing contemporary artists to remote communities. The projects varied from urban renovation and community activism —the Puerto Rican artist Jesús “Bubu” Negrón opted for the construction of a street intersection in the yet unpaved town, at a huge personal and financial cost—to outright hermetic action, like the artist Miguel Ventura who wanted his work to directly embrace its disruptive nature. One artist stapled posters in people’s houses with multilingual texts announcing a conceptual art project, another did a semi-fictional census of the town and invited townsfolk to act, another tried to make the women make souvenirs in the shape of the artworks that were being made in the town.

It dawned on me how in these circumstances we overwhelmingly favor the idea of creating new works instead of bringing existing ones, under the assumption perhaps that a site specific work would better fit or dialogue with that reality. And yet, many of the projects, conceived in advance and not as a result of a local exchange, often revealed a misguided (and often arrogant or patronizing) conception of what that community was about, as well as a series of naive expectations about what would happen during their implementation. This fact sometimes forced some artists to eventually modify or change their projects altogether, but others simply went ahead with their agenda without major concern on whether their project indeed would make any sense in that context. There were too many questions: up to what point should an artist become an ‘expert’ of the social fabric of a community in order to intervene in it? To whom were these works directed to, and what were their real ambitions or objectives? What was the best way to evaluate and talk about the value of what we were doing there? If we build a road, we are doing a good social action, but is it interesting at all as an artwork? If we do an enigmatic action at a community and later document it and present it to the art world as a meaningful one, is this a satisfactory way to work?


In the art world, there is a marked contrast of attitudes around the art termed as collaborative, community-oriented, collective, etc. The art market and exhibition-oriented art criticism generally show little interest, and occasionally, disdain, for community art, maybe because they consider that it is not a kind of art that pays too much attention to the product or to the aesthetic rigor that they so much value. On the other hand, those who practice community and activist-oriented art, along with many curators and theorists, criticize the art world for their indifference, and see other kinds of art as too egocentric or insensitive to their social surroundings. It is a kind of confrontation that some see as capitalist realism vs. left-wing idealism.

It is useful to see the whole scope of public and community art as a wide range of combinations where the control of the creative process varies gradually from the entire decision-making being allowed to the group, to the complete control of the project by the artist alone. Each extreme meets different goals and faces different challenges.

The collective community experience tends to affirm local values, tradition, strengthening bonds and opening up expressive channels, while the public art that mainly reflects the individual vision of a single artist tends to provide a sort of public experience that is not necessarily the one of reflecting or reinforcing local values; rather, it usually tries to expand upon them, question and/or confront them in a new and experimental way, sometimes critical and, why not, with a certain expectation of professional rigor in form and aesthetic content. Due to the nature of each strategy, it is not surprising that community-produced art would be usually seen as something affirmative, good, or based on agreement, while the individual action is more associated with criticism, disruption, antagonism or negativism.

The problematic instances of community art take place, I believe, when we use social parameters to evaluate the artistic aspects of a work— that is, in many cases if a given activity is deemed positive or constructive as a social experiment, then it should follow that it is also “good art”. But the justifications of its purported social contribution, instead of helping their supporters, rather isolates them in a sort of positivist solipsism that lacks any significant self-criticism or evaluation. Claire Bishop, in her recent essay entitled “The Social Turn: Collaboration and its Discontents” (Artforum, February 2006) argues —and I agree— that it is vital for art with a strong social content to be regarded and discussed not only as a social action but also as art.

Another false assumption that I believe to exist within community art is that the artist can act as a neutral entity, or as an invisible “catalyst” of experiences. In my experience, when a professional artist or arts educator interacts or collaborates with a given community with small or no previous involvement with art, there is from the onset an undeniable disadvantage of experience and knowledge (but only as long as this relationship will unfold primarily in the art terrain, as I shall later explain). In reality, it is a power relationship. The artist becomes a teacher, leader, artistic director, boss, instigator, or benefactor. There are artists who try to become situation facilitators to the point of denying that what they are doing is an individual initiative at all. Bishop characterizes this tendency as an attempt of “elimination of authorship” which is grounded in anticapitalist premises and in a sort of catholic altruism, a way to redeem the guilt of social privilege— something that is worth reflecting upon particularly in what it applies to Latin American art.

I for one believe that artists can never disappear altogether, nor can they turn in to an “invisible” agent that would ostensibly help to “make grow that which is already there” —a common view amongst arts educators.  But whether it is a collaborative or an education project, it would be hard to deny that to generate productive results one requires a great knowledge of methodologies and creative strategies, as well as an experience to generate dialogue and transmit information that hardly constituted the invisibility that is aspired by a simple catalyst of experiences.

THE other side of the spectrum of public art, when artists are the implementers of their individual vision, whether alone or with the support of others, has of course its own complexities. Tensions start when the artist starts to make work in spaces outside the studio and engages with audiences that many times have no idea that they are being the subjects of an art experiment —like in the hidden camera program. Needless to say, it is critical to always encourage the individual practice in any form, since any environment can benefit from a rebellious, irrational, or simply hedonist art, free from any theory. In its best instances, public interventions by artists can acquire relevant and significant dimensions both for the contemporary art discourse and for the social environment where it is enacted.

Nevertheless, in recent years there has been a growing disgust for the manipulative nature of art that purportedly “interrogates” or “critiques” specific social spaces, when the supposed interest by the artist in that reality rather looks like strategic, born out of convenience, and sometimes even downright exploitive, instead of being a sincere attempt of understanding, dialogue, or artistic response.

Santiago Sierra, whose work is inevitable to mention in this context, is actually one of the few artists that admits this kind of convenience offered to him by the social environment: even if we may be disturbed by the apparent cynicism with which he openly accepts the paradoxes of his practice, I am even more disturbed by the attitude of other artists who, while working in a similar way, expect that their work will be valued as a artistic and/or social contribution when the work reveals a simplistic, misinformed or condescending view of the social context where it takes place. In some instances, when the artist does work in good faith, they themselves do not realize the many coercive or colonialist implications of their action. The case of certain works in Frontera Corozal illustrated this fact in my mind, such as the case of the artist who wanted to convince local women to make small replicas of our artworks and turn them into indigenous souvenirs. Another artist, making a work that was decidedly incomprehensible to the locals, openly claimed that his work was not directed to them but to the art world, in the form of documentation. This affirmation conveniently omitted the consideration that this future, converted, art audience may actually want to value the work in relationship to the kind of real impact that it had in the original context, and not in the fantasy of its documentation. This attitude does not seem to distant to me from the practice of large American museums, that in the 80s and 90s —and sometimes still today— made minimal educational efforts, but yet would photograph black schoolchildren wearing the museum’s t-shirts to “prove” their commitment to underserved communities to their funders.

The documentation of the work is thus the real gray area. Documentation is a central aspect in the process of embellishment and spinning of the experience that took place in the public space. Even though it is a common practice to consider documentation as the work in itself, there is an enormous difference for a viewer’s experience to know whether the work had a tangible impact in the ‘real’ world or if it only operated at a symbolic or imaginary level. Due to that fact, many artists are careful to keep the ambiguity between the work and the document, taking advantage of the distance of space and time, and of course, of their artistic license, in order to omit details, add others, improve the anecdote, and in some cases, outright lie regarding what happened or didn’t happen in a given place. Nowadays, at a time when the perception of a work circulates according to the form in which the anecdote circulates in the virtual world and the media, this strategy is central to a lot of art making. Many times these strategies are immediately visible as failed attempts to improve what evidently was an unsuccessful public artwork. But even if we were unable to discern the boundary between reality and fiction, this does not alter the fact that in the art world we are increasingly less interested in what actually happens in the real world as long as we are able to engage the critics, and sometimes even deluding ourselves, about the public relevance of what we are doing. For an artist who has often worked in the crevices of reality and fiction, I believe that generating myths and fictions is a completely permissible, and intrinsic, aspect of art making. But there is a serious problem when we ourselves have lost the ability to discern, or care about, the difference between documentation and self-aggrandizement. And due to the lack of critical filters to prevent this, and the way in which we have to rely often on the artist’s word, it may be impossible to know up to what point we have built a history of public art that has been written out of press releases and imaginary tales.

One could say that Latin America has been the ideal cradle for this type of artistic-social experiments, since our cultural, economic and social situation is perfect to enact such formulas: visual artists often come from middle or upper class upbringing, many times being foreigners; art is produced mainly for an audience who lives in the U.S. or Europe, and who easily fall for Latin American exoticism; there is great richness and cultural complexity in some of the poorest parts of the continent where these projects take place, labor is cheap, and the racial and social contrasts are so strong that a work of these attributes has much more dramatic results than if it were to be made at a city like Amsterdam or New York.

Paradoxically, the same ethical obstacles that prevent us from critiquing any boring or mediocre community art (which may find justification in being a positive or altruistic recreation) also prevents us from keeping an artist away from taking advantage of the good will of a given community and use conceptual art premises to make, also, mediocre art.  Due to these reasons, there is a lot of frustration in the art world, as well as an insoluble dilemma between defending the artists’ rights to express themselves and “protecting” communities from art that may be way too manipulative, misinformed, and stubborn.

This dilemma appears to be at the core of the identity crisis that is lived by contemporary art today. Amidst this crisis, the debate lies in trying to define the new parameters that should evaluate and discuss this artistic practice and the extent to which we need to adjust or expand our ethical and aesthetic expectations in regards to it.

IT seems to me that the greatest confusion originates when the artist himself is not clear about his/her role in the particular social context where the work takes place. The reflection, ideally, should start with the artist, but to even conceive enforcing a “rules of social engagement” in the artistic practice would be an impossible, apart from repressive, task. The task to effectively question this kind of art corresponds rather to the field of art criticism and the curatorial practice, which would need to learn how to better analyze and deal with the challenges that this type of art poses.

What really matters in my mind is to reflect about the ways in which the artist who is sincerely interested in understanding a certain reality and interacting with it in the public realm, could do so without having to adopt the role of savior, missionary, messiah, or field manager.

I think that one of the main problems posed by public art that interacts with communities, in all the facets that I have described, is precisely the disadvantage and power relationship between the artist and the participating audience. In order to level this disadvantage and ensure a non-hierarchical exchange, it is necessary to find common grounds that would lie outside the artistic discourse —without that implying that the artist would have to renounce to his identity or profession. If one expects this dialogue and interaction to take place in “real life” and not in the ‘fictionalized’ exhibition catalogue, the artist has then to create a infrastructure that instead of working as a “mouse trap” to the audience would work as a semi-open space that is seductive, confrontational, or both. And in the same way that the artist must assume his role, it is also important that the public should assume theirs and be in the disposition to engage with the work —something that must be facilitated by the organizers of a public art project.

The audience does not have to be infantilized or treated in a patronizing way, and the options of interaction do not have to be limited to making them co-authors nor studio assistants. The true challenge of the artist, in my mind, is to be able to find a true meeting point where both sides can enrich with the exchange. Artists do not need to, or have to, renounce to their identity, nor hide the evidence of their intrusion in the new public environment, nor condition their presence to ask permission or apologize. But if the work lacks any entry points and areas of common dialogue, and if it imposes rigid rules of engagement upon which the success of the project will depend, it will be hard to expect an effective outcome.

Public art should never be put through a quantitative process of evaluation. Yet, it is vital to confront the artistic-social equation that is proposed by an artist, and when an artist offers claims of social impact, it is valid to demand evidence to substantiate such claims and view the work with a critical eye.  This is, at the very least, a responsibility that the critic and the curator should have towards the public that would benefit an adequate contextual description of a given work.

Ultimately, art can never give us any warranties. Its value lies not in what it pretends to offer, but in what is obtained by each individual viewer. Perhaps art may or may not be just about asking questions, but neither does it function through any promises of social, educational or artistic transformation — that is the reason why so much impeccable theory engenders so much boring or mediocre art. In the public art realm, this detail becomes even more important given that there is a distance between the concept and the implementation. Even though it is important to have great aspirations for a kind of art, we can’t nor should we ever hope, to control its outcome, which is already unpredictable in the volatile public arena.

If we had to elaborate a metaphor to explain the world of public art and the artist’s interactions with a community, we could say that each artist builds a house, and that it is the audience’s choice to walk in and visit. We can choose our guests, be it a few friends or a whole village. How long we want to retain them may depend on our wishes and our talent as a host. We can ask them to help us build the house, perhaps with uneven results, or we can ask them to tell us how to do it, but maybe the house may turn out badly planned and fall over our heads. We can redecorate the house with all of our guests, but we shall watch out for the chaos of so many opinions and eventually we may have to figure out a way to put order in it. We can bore them to death with bad music and make them run away. We can inspire them to build their own houses. Or we can entice them to enter under false pretenses and lock them in, for our personal entertainment. If we are experienced, we may be able to leave a lasting memory in them. Or we can lock them outside, close the door of our house, close our eyes, and imagine ourselves amidst a great party, being praised as the greatest host who ever lived. ≠≠≠

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