Issue #44, 2013

“I Think We Need To Rehabilitate Our Definition Of Art.”
An Interview with Mary Jane Jacob by Andrey Shental

Mary Jane Jacobis a curator who has actively worked with artists to expand the practice and public discourse of art as a shared process. Study into the nature of the art experience has lead to anthologies: Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art, Learning Mind: Experience into Art, Chicago Makes Modern: How Creative Minds Changed Society, and The Studio Reader: On the Space of Artists. As professor and executive director of exhibitions and exhibition studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, she is spearheaded a major exhibition and publication series on Chicago social practice.


Andrey ShentalπIn the early 90s you curated the groundbreaking exhibition Places with the Pastin Charleston that was one of the first attempts made by curators to move art out from the museums and galleries into the street and to engage with the city and its population. Did any other show that you’ve seen or any idea become a source of inspiration for this project at that time?

Mary Jane Jacob∫There were two that I can give you as inspiration and motivation. One was of the site-specific genre, Skulptur Projekte in Münster (Germany), begun by Kasper Koenig and Klaus Bussmann. It happens every 10 years, so it still exists. It had its third installment in 1987, which I had a chance to see. Luckily, the person who ultimately invited me to do Places with a Past also saw this show, so it became a foundation for our conversation. That exhibition was impressive because there were some artists, for instance, Rebecca Horn, who were dealing with the problematic history of Germany and of this city in particular during WW2. Many visitors, including myself, left with the impression that the exhibition was devoted to engaging the history and the hidden stories of that city, but in fact, if you go back to the exhibition catalogue, you find there were a lot of sculptures in public space with no contextual reference. Yet it was that site-sensitive portion that definitely opened that possibility for me and furthered work I’d already done with artists like Jannis Kounellis in old buildings around Chicago.

The second motivation was a contrary one. It came from my last official museum post at the Museum of Contemporary Art in LA. I felt that projects I was proposing there, which would engage the city and its different populations, didn’t fit with the aspirations of that new institution and did not serve the goals of the administration. So when the opportunity came up to do the show in Charleston, South Carolina, it was at the point when I felt I needed either to leave art or go into art in other way because, for me, art was dying in the museum. It could have gone either way.

πWhen one uses art as a tool to change the society, one sacrifices certain qualities usually associated with art such as aesthetics, complexity and intensity of an art piece. Why do you think we still need (paradoxically) to resort to art instead of just leaving art for something else?

∫Well, actually I don’t think we leave aesthetics. I think aesthetics are always at play in the work that the artist does, whether it is a physical object or something that is repositioned, like an action. By aesthetics I don’t mean just art or design that is pleasing, but rather something that is attuned to a sensibility and furthers consciousness. This is the reason why I’ve recently become very interested in the philosophy of John Dewey. He thought that art is something that allows us to lead our lives as more conscious beings. He was speaking within the context of American culture in the first half of the 20th century, and his ideas on participatory democracy have become interwoven into our American ethos. But his ideas speak especially well to me because he was also a great believer in the power of art to create a dynamic, beneficial, evolving society. This unfortunately is still lacking in our official national identity.

Still I think that aesthetics are not lost in everyday life. In my experience, time and again, I have seen how individuals outside the world of art have had transformative experiences when their life situations are reframed by artists. Art as a counterpoint to reality – when art becomes life or life art – can be very powerful. I can happily say that the projects that I’ve done outside of museum, such as Places with a Pastor Culture in Actionin Chicago, reaffirmed for me the importance, the very necessity, and the living existence of art. These exhibitions came at the right time professionally, at a time when to me art in museums seemed to be irrelevant and the museum was functioning like a very fancy shop. These exhibitions brought me back to art.

πDon’t you think that if you had gone straight into politics, social engineering, charity or activism, your work would have been more effective in terms of micro-political transformations of communities?

∫I think that there are many ways art can be effective. Also the political and social practices you are evoking will always be needed. We will never be so effective through any means that we will not need to urge change. Problems of poverty or injustice will always be with us, and we always have to tame them; they are not going to disappear. So we need multiple ways of addressing such concerns in life. Art can be one way. Again I come to my interest these days in John Dewey for whom art (and this might sound sentimental) reaches the soul of people and can affect individuals and effect collective society in ways that other methodologies cannot. It is also profound because art affords leaps of imagination. So, yes, I think art definitely has a place.

πI guess, you lack revolutionary or utopian thinking, don’t you?

∫I believe in a certain pragmatics, although I’m really fascinated by utopian communities. There is always a link between where we are and where we want to be. As a graduate student, for instance, I focused on the 19-century American Shakers, a religious utopian community; they were great craftsmen and farmers who led a celibate way of life. Yet while I find these communities and their drive to come into being very interesting, they are not part of my reality. We need things that make us have faith, and with that faith we might find some better solutions and make positive change. Religion is one way; art is another and there are many more.

Change is perpetual and its processes take care and constant attention. As I said earlier, we will not reach a final state in the world when no one is hungry. Still we have to move the process along, because if we wait to reach that final answer – which we could say is utopian – we will miss out on making progress that can address life now. I think artists can participate in this process through their work. Sometimes what they do eludes being labeled ’work of art’, but it can always be understood as ’the work of the artist’.

πIt is very unusual to hear John Dewey’s name in the context of contemporary. Usually, theorists refer to another pragmatist Charles Peirce and namely his typology of signs. Could you tell a bit more about Dewey’s relevance for thinking on contemporary art?

∫Dewey greatly admired works of art, the labors and achievements of individual artists, and their great capacity to speak of wider human issues, conveying a continuity of human experience. To him, art is an experiential process that leads to knowledge and from which then new cycles of knowing can unfold. He drew parallels between the work of the artist and the scientist, seeing both as processes of inquiry that have value in the world. This emergent concept of art to Dewey found parallels in living life: life could be lived in an art way. As he saw it, art had two essential uses: (1) to aid us in realizing ourselves as individuals so that we can lead satisfying lives; and (2) to help direct us as a society to live collectively to our mutual benefit, which to him was to realize the promise of democracy. So art draws us into the interior self, and at the same time, outwardly to society. Because Dewey saw that art had these greater uses, he positioned it at the core of his system of philosophy.

πDuring one of your lectures you said that you don’t work democratically, but work organically. What did you mean by that?

∫You caught me, yeah. Well, of course we have to interrogate what ’democratically’ means. Not every decision is made democratically and not every official who is a democratically elected makes every move by consensus. We think of democratic as the voice of the majority; we see it evidenced by voting. As a curator, I don’t work democratically, because I work in a terrain that demands leaps of faith and which can offer some possibilities beyond our immediate consciousness.

Contemporary art makes propositions and asks questions, provoking or visualizing ideas. So exhibitions can be experiments in which we try things out without institutionalizing them or declaring them final, fixed, correct, the best... While I do try to be open and attentive, seeking out what is going on in the field, it is always filtered to some degree through my sensibility and experience. Thus, this way of working might seem personal – more dictatorial than democratic. There is no vote on what gets selected or how things are done, although it can be a group, collaborative effort. Still the field of curating in recent years has also taken up a discursive mode, understanding that the exhibition is just a beginning point for experience, discussion, and reflection. So in its final realisation the non-democratic aspect of curating can resist becoming authoritative. By having an exhibition be a platform for spending time with some ideas, the conversation opens back up to the audience, the community, and the public.

πWhen I think about socially engaged practice I often imagine something like: an artist goes to a community and works with its members, then he or she brings to the gallery documentation or artifacts of that work and the project is done. You, in turn, emphasise the importance of working durationally within the community.

∫In one way working durationally gives art the chance to be responsive to a situation at the moment. I choose to follow those artists for whom duration and embeddedness are their practices. I also enable them to carry out such works. But what does it mean for an artist to be embedded in an actual situation? It is a living, organic thing: not carrying out a plan, but seeing where it will go. The artist and the constituency have to live the process. As an artist or curator I mean being responsible to, or better said, being present in the moment with yourself and those individuals who are involved or who will be the audience. It is always a balance between self and others.

I guess I have a problem with some colleagues in my field and maybe a sort of latent... unsettledness with deeply theoretical ideas removed from the actual experience of others to their project or the narrowness of an insider audience. As a curator, I don’t think that I’m free to do anything I want to do or just follow my individual personal academic pursuit within the public domain. Whether in a museum of public space, I feel I am responsible to the audience. I’m responsible to a kind of dialogue with the public. My primary audience is not my professional community. I know other curators who say they make exhibitions for other curators. I know that it is meant to be positive way, signifying high quality, but there is a part of me that actually gets ill when I hear that because I feel that isolates art from what it can do and who it can be for. Because art is a powerful force, I think we have to find modalities that connect us with other people outside the art world. Working with art and artists in the process of life, in everyday spaces, and over time are ways I do that.

πBut you have not only worked durationally, but also came back to the same locations.

∫Coming back was unplanned – or was a result of what emerged organically. I was resistant to returning to Charleston where I did Places with a Past,because it seemed that it could be seen professionally as doing repetitive work. But now I think the chance to come back to work in the same place and do it deeper, differently, is really extraordinary. I would never have imagined at the outset in 1991 that I would return ten years later to work and then to do so for another decade.

This happened in another way with Culture in Actionin Chicago. That project spanned about four years, from 1991 to 1994. While I continued to work in community-based art and have continuously lived in this city for some time now, my connection to this subject shifted in the last couple years. So now I am returning to the subject of social practice in Chicago. I had been resistant to take up this subject so overtly again here; I was tired of the debate of socially engaged practice and thought I would let my past work speak for itself. But encouraged by some younger colleagues I have jumped back in and with them we are taking on a project to look at histories of Chicago social practice over the last 125 years, taking a new approach to the topic that I think can impact the international discourse around social practice.

πI know that you are tired of it, but I still would like to bring you back to those debates. There are many definitions of socially engaged art such as participatory art (Claire Bishop), relational aesthetics (Nicolas Bourriaud)…

∫Dialogical art, conversation art, new genre public art...

πHow would you position your own interpretation of art among these different definitions?

∫This might sound like an escape, but I think we need to rehabilitate our definition of art.

πIn general?

∫In general! Art is a social practice. I think art is always social interaction and that happens on many levels. Even looking at things that seem conventional, a painting, can change who we are. Where we take that is our social action. While curators proclaim social practice projects and artists are labeled social practitioners with greatly regularity these days, maybe like a fad, we need to fit these efforts into an understanding of what art does and has done in general for ourselves and others. We segregate art from its history and, even more critically, from other ways of being. And in this, our field of curating still doesn’t respect enough the experience of the viewer.

I find it kind of funny that critics and writers continually need to give their own name to social practice. (A new book offers yet another term: ’social cooperation art’.) I just think of it all as social practice, not even with the word ’art’ in there. Maybe that allows us to consider who we all are participants in society, practicing life, while at the same time leaving room for the specific practice of making work and making exhibitions about the social relation of art.

πWhat were the responses from the communities with which you worked? Were there some people who perceived you as intruders or vice versa, that is, those who didn’t want you to leave?

∫There is a history of contemporary public art in the USA since the 1960s in which the appearance of works is often followed by controversy. People express displeasure with art that appears all of a sudden in their face and now they have to deal with it. I can say, however, that no artist’s works in Charleston or in Chicago were rejected by the population living there (it was not the same with art critics). That was because people were already part of the process – and for long time – through a kind of participatory democracy in which they were not just consulted, but were agents essential to the realization of the work. While the artists may have been the authors, members of the public were the generative forces within the dialogue that created the necessity that the art should exist, should come into being, and shaped it in many ways. So when the completed work was encountered, it was not foreign or offensive or irrelevant to them. It was read, known, and felt as part of their lives. Even if the work contained fictional elements, being a fabrication of an artist’s imagination or translation of life encounters, it still resonated within their lives or histories. The public found themselves reflected there, not like in a mirror, but in some way transformed. And these newly imagined or invented aspects sometimes presented life in a way that was more real than reality. It was inspirational.

Because I had that unusual chance ten years later to be invited back to work in Charleston, I met people who I did not know before. Some said to me (not knowing that I was the curator of the Places with a Past): “We had this show here back in 1991. Let me tell you about it.“ Every curator should have this gift. These residents of Charleston would go on to describe to me in infinitesimal detail the materiality of an installation and their experience, their somatic sensations, their absolute bodily passage through that work.

This taught me another profound lesson: a work that is temporary can be more lasting than one that is permanent. It all depends on one’s experience. I have never heard anybody describe a painting that they saw in a museum ten years earlier, thusly. Yet these installations that didn’t exist anymore could be described completely. This is the power of art over time. The Charlestonians I had the chance to meet later were not just giving me their aesthetic position on the work; they were having aesthetic again in the retelling, because for them the work had meaning. The art was still with them ten years later. Wow.