By Erin Goodwin-Guerrero, Spring 2008

Art as social practice is emerging in the consciousness of art students, art activists and even in the profile of public art. As a discipline, it is investigated in the curriculum of CCA in Oakland/San Francisco under the leadership Ted Purves, and at UC Santa Cruz, by students of Elizabeth Stephens. When the weeklong conference “Intervene, Interrupt”, scheduled for May 12 – 17, at UC Santa Cruz and throughout the Bay Area, was being planned , it seemed perfect match for Susan O’Malley, Assistant Curator at the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art. O’Malley had studied with Ted Purves in the graduate program at CCA and she organized an exhibition that would become an extension of the conference.


This Show Needs You Curator, Susan O’Malley (left) and Sara Thatcher, (center) who created The Distributed Exhibiton, talk to gallery visitors in a lunchtime chat.

Currently at the San Jose ICA, This Show Needs You asks its visitors to become more than passive viewers. It is large and complex – partly exhibition, partly performance and partly a link to other exhibitions, events, performances and activities, as uplifting as spiritual regeneration, as noble as social intervention and as mundane as cooking and canning. It aims to be a model for a broad kind of artist/art/viewer dynamic. The gallery visitor and artist, as well, are asked to embrace many unspoken mottos and sparsely articulated directives — among them, “Art is life. Live artfully and save the species.” “Everyone is an artist.” “Live your life as a performance.” “Love, share, free your emotions and senses to live intensely.” “Rediscover your native senses.” “Take the risk to go where you have not been before.” “Build community.” “Give your art and heart to the community.” “Work in the community.” “Find art in the community.” ” Communicate and collaborate.” “Change the world.”


Garments from Annie Sprinkle and Elizabeth Stephens’ Gold wedding are part of the history of their annual remarriage performance.

From participation in sewing the wedding garments for a symbolic wedding to participation in programs for the homeless, the possibilities for art being humane and accessible emerge. The artists give permission for their community to create the art along with them, and to take something away from the experience that is theirs to use, enjoy and pass along to the next person. Everyone is an artist.

From Dada, to Fluxus and “happenings”, to Arte Povera and on to performance art and art interventions, the somewhat populist notion that art cannot be limited to what is seen in a frame or stands on a pedestal, that art will not be contained within the elitist framework of monied patronage and traditional formats, is one that has recurred under many headings since the beginning of Modernism. Often comical or satirical in hindsight, the work of artists who challenge the norms of form usually have serious social intentions. Certainly, Postmodernism’s Marxist strategies — calculated forgeries of valuable canvases and pop reproductions of silvery plastic bunny birthday balloons or Brillo boxes– while aimed at the art marketplace, were also intended to have an impact on a larger structure surrounding art.

If visual artists have a long history of mostly working individually, it is not the same, of course, in music and theatre. Perhaps there is a growing connection among artists to the performing arts. Perhaps artists, as the perpetual bellwethers of society are demonstrating how to revitalize a community that is stuck to its electronic devices and increasingly isolated from social interaction. Within art-as-social-practice, there may also be a natural current of democracy and community rebuilding in response to eight years of Republican disasters and our hopes for a turn of fortune. Maybe we are really desperate for inklings of hope that common people can make a difference, and it must be made clear that it can happen, through art, at the very least.

Coordinating and installing this show must have been an incredible effort – a lot of concepts had to be made accessible, a lot of material had to be written, formally disparate art forms had to be roommates, and egos of many sizes must have been reckoned with. The artists presenting in This Show Needs You range from the nationally known — Linda Montano and Annie Sprinkle, to emerging talent with a local reputation, to previously unknown talent. Some of the participating artists could only be seen as part of an intimate and personal experience, intended to be primarily between the artist presenting to and collaborating with a “curator” who is the business or home owner, not necessarily educated in art.


Sara Appelbaum worked with students at Notre Dame High School to create a bonding experience for the wearers of an endless sweater-circle connected at the sleeves.

The installation in the ICA is loaded and spare at the same time. Everywhere there are hints of what can be discovered elsewhere. Reading, following maps and recipes, attending to events and installations in the community and returning to the gallery time and time again are all requisites of your involvement. The savory issue arises of how to live art as a discipline and whether it is possible to save the “aha” moment that occurs in the creation of a work of visual art or even an exhibition, while many cooks are stirring the broth. Can art be created everyday and by everybody? If so, will it be dumbed-down to an unrecognizable level as art? Or, as frequently happens in a slightly new context, there may be only a few outstanding works that are so rich with challenges and executed on such a thoughtful and skillful level that we are stunned. The seminal works may be rough around the edges. How excited you are about what you see and experience, and whether it changes your view of art in society may be one measure of the importance of the this show. Or we might ask how does it further the end of socially engaged art itself? Another more old-fashioned and simple measure may still apply – how effective/skillfully executed is the form and how significant the content?

As one aspect of this Show Needs You, veteran performance artist Linda Montano, based in upstate New York repeated an “endurance” performance she had done previously in which she spent two days blindfolded and silent in the gallery. Visitors were invited to sit in silence with her. This experience allowed her a sense of renewal, and heightening of the senses that are freed from the “static” of the visual — the most distracting of all. The next two days she remained blindfolded but invited visitors to sit with her and receive advice and counseling. Montano recounts that she met with visitors and “listened to their souls”.


Linda Montano and workshop participants confer after How to Become the Performance Artist of Your Life. Montano stressed laughter.

On the next Saturday, she gave a two-hour workshop that offered to show participants “How to Become the Performance Artist of Your Life”. Montano’s contribution to the community that was willing to engage was deeply spiritual. From the advantage of maturity, many passages in life, her recent experiences with aging parents, and her journey through the art world, Montano’s work seemed to address the need to make art significant, substantial, genuine and compassionate. In the workshop, a seven minute long laugh was produced, also suggesting a final strategy for dealing with life’s major challenges.

Michael Smit, born in the Netherlands, now based in Palo Alto asks “How have you been an artist today?” Through interviews in the gallery (where, clearly, he is bound to be interviewing self-proclaimed artists) to interviews at unexpected locations on the street, Smit or his surrogate interviewers ask this open-ended question. The basic assumption that one has indeed, in some manner, been creative, been an artist, liberates his subjects to contemplate their acts. Joseph Beuys taught us “Everyone is an artist”.



Michael Smit interviews people to determine how they have been an artist that day.

Sometimes Smit’s interviews produce exactly that new insight in the subject being interviewed, and sometimes the interviewer himself learns of surprising acts of living art that are just as rewarding as an outcome of the interview. The Flat Tire Project was one such action: The subject informed Smit that she collected nails in the street wherever she found them to prevent flat tires by unknown passing motorists. She now has an enormous jar of varied nails that she plans to use to make something.

Smit was once a painter. He recalls that as a child in the Netherlands, there were many Nazis whose education was excellent, whose tastes in the arts were superb, and whose enjoyment of the arts was extensive. It taught him that simply creating art and giving it to the world could be an empty gesture that in no way left the world a better place. In 2004, he gave up painting to make the world his studio, to create new meaning through dialogue, and to change the world through art. Smit sees his actions both as performance and an action that impacts the world. He documents each of his interviews out of respect for each person, but not as a means to producing a product.

Suzanne Cockrell and Ted Purves with Joe McHenry bring us the Lemon Everlasting Backyard Battery Project. An appealing canning table laden with canning jars filled with bright yellow lemons introduces gallery visitors to the concept of an artful cooking and canning and sharing of something that is emblematic of California’s domestic landscape: the lemon tree in our front yard. During the run of the exhibition, community members brought in their own lemons and a lemon-preserving workshop was held at the ICA. Participants left with a selection of recipes for pickled lemons.


Sharing fruit, canning methods and recipes for canned lemons is a metaphor employed by Suzanne Cockrell and Ted Purves with joseph McHenry.

Sharing the fruit of our lives, sharing recipes and ceremonially consuming the outcome, in community, is a fundamental ritual found in many seasonal celebrations going back to pagan times. Yet everything about this familiar ceremony begins to be seen slightly differently in the context of this exhibition.

Sara Thatcher produced The Distributed Exhibition – several more exhibitions within the larger exhibition. Also a graduate of the CCA program of Art as Social Practice, Thatcher proposed to lure ICA visitors out into the community to join in arts experiences that had already begun there. Thatcher met with churches, community school art teachers, the owners of local businesses and local homeowners, and the president the neighborhood association to ultimately create a match between eleven artists and community sites. The local hosts chose artists from their proposals, backgrounds and artistic directions, and collaborated or sometimes wrestled forth projects that were wide-ranging — humorous performances, or more traditional exhibitions and art such as mural painting, or activites that stretched the notion of “art”, such as home haircuts or a local history lecture in an historic building now housing a bike shop and bike “museum”.


Piero Passcantando created a history mural behind the Bicycle Express with help from the owners and intimate community surrounding it.

In Thatcher’s Distributed Exhibition, under the direction of guest artist Sarah Appelbaum, and art teachers Ted Key and Leslie Rice, a bonding experience in the form of an endless sweater knitted together at the sleeves was created by a class of girls from Notre Dame High School. Artist Julia Goodman took junk mail from the neighbors and home of Anne Sconberg and Mark Henderson and recycled it into a hand-made paper sculpture. Piero Passacantando worked with the owners of Bicycle Express and neighbors, to flesh out local history of the site on William Street. Together with neighbors of all ages he painted a mural that combines views and incidents of the site’s history over a period of 150 years. Artist Adrienne Skye Roberts collaborated with Amber Lopez of the DiModa Salon to offer haircut experiences that would challenge the prevailing fashion dictum and conformity of beauty salons for seven women.

I looked at the range of contributions to this curious exhibition by both the artist and public alike and found them to be overwhelmingly strong efforts. There was, indeed, a great range of levels of success, formal resolution, community involvement, seeming importance and appeal to public participation. At its opening, I found the juxtaposition of This Show Needs You to the cool, clean, designed and impersonal sculptural forms on the walls and pedestals, seen in the next room of the ICA, to be startling: the culmination of Modernism’s reductivist esthetics and art objects seen in contrast to the necessarily slippery definition of Postmodernism’s art as social practice!

Innumerable other artists and participants in This Show Needs You continue to explore the role of the artist vis-a-vis viewer and/or community in the creation of art. Some of their projects end with the exhibition and others seem open-ended. Art as social practice may be a timely and sorely needed bane that parallels the phenomenon of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. Everyone at once seems to understand it and need it at some level. As an artistic practice with a history, it appears to be finally growing up to assert its adult presence in protest to many social ills spawned by the industrial age.

Reference, also: Passions Spring Eternal, by Julia Bradshaw in this Spring’s ARTSHIFT. Bradshaw looks at the wedding preparations of Annie Sprinkle and Elizabeth Stephens, as a component of This Show Needs You.

Contact: Susan O’Malley <susan@sjica.org>

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