Das Platforms / Contemporary Art

How did I get here? The fronts and means of Social Practice

by Abbra Kotlarczyk

15 Feb 2013

It’s the afternoon of December 15th, 2012. There’s a break in the jukebox jamboree of DJ Sarah Wong’s selections aired as part of Thumbs Up!’s Power2012 final coverage that is quickly surpassed by a moment of confusion. My stream of consciousness is cut through by the hegemonic renderings of a Skype ring tone as a bad connection pushes a conversation in and out. It’s not mine.

A strange thing happens to your sense of space when a dialogue strikes up parallel to the occupation of your thoughts, when you can absorb it but you can’t penetrate it. Partial readings into the conversation that was now unravelling between Gabriel Saloman and Nicholas Perrin in the studio and Sam Gould via remote, led to questions about the a priori nature of this project and how one goes about “getting in”. Presented as part of Saloman’s regular slot When Will We Ever Learn?: Pedagogy and its Serious Problems (as in “what the fuck is its problem?”), were a series of closing statements about the nature of ambiguity, ephemerality and spaces that prompt the question, “how did I get here?”

From all initial accounts, Vancouver is a city visibly framed by an awareness of social inclusivity with an active agency towards egalitarianism. Words like ‘safe space’ and ‘sliding scale’ (and yes, also ‘free’!) stand out as indicators of the city’s unique vocabulary regarding social organization and pedagogy. In part due to the cut-and-dried approach funded by a move across seas and further aided by the sheer density of the contemporary art milieu of Berlin (the over-saturated hotbed of which I had just been plucked out of), here were ideal grounds for interrogating the convergent nature of art and life through the methodologies of Social Practices.

Having found myself somewhat confused by a recent visit to Thumbs Up!, presented by Unit/Pitt Gallery in Vancouver’s Chinatown, the many postulations presented in the context of this closing live-stream came to me in droves. Not only did they help to unpack many of the questions I had about the space itself, but they sat in as conduits for critique and a means through which to place the social and political climate of the city I was yet to know. Do the seemingly open, democratic and politicised approaches to art making in Vancouver – substantiated by projects such as The Part of No Part (221A), Pleasure & Protest, Sometimes Simultaneously: A Free School (Access Gallery) and You Are Not Alone (For I Am Here With You) hosted as part of 221A’s Curatorial Residency Program – assume an inherent, default responsibility towards a public? And what might be the relationship between primary and peripheral audiences when it comes to projects such as these?

This Is An (A) Front: A Covert Education was established by the Portland-based artist collective Red76 in the spring of 2012, as the first of a series of actions assuming the guise of “Henry”. This common name takes the form of a pseudonym, borrowed from the vocabulary of prominent anarchist artist-activist group Up Against the Wall Motherfucker! (UAW/MF) who would use the name as a call-to for many of their social and political happenings. Like much of the underground DIY punk milieu, Red76’s conceptual approach to This Is An (A) Front assumes a series of facades or skins, each incarnation recontextualised to suit its particular leaning. Initially an “American-style Pizzeria” launched in Pristina, Kosovo and funded by the US State Department, this particular action gave directive sway to a series of questions about the auspices of power that infiltrate the many micro and macro worlds that we occupy.

For its second and most recent incarnation, Red76 teamed up with Vancouver’s Unit/Pitt Gallery to present Thumbs Up!, a “used mp3 store” selling music distributed on thumb drives and a library of publications on power that also doubled as the site for its very own public internet radio station, Power2012. The project was brought to Vancouver as part of Institutions by Artists (see Aaron Harbour’s coverage of the conference here) and evidently through a symbiotic relationship with Saloman, an ex-Red76-er and Vancouver-based musician/activist. Although not self-consciously positioned within the volatile seat of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and Chinatown per se, the potential political assumptions that a project such as This Is An (A) Front might inspire, given the unique socio-political conditions of this neighbourhood, are nonetheless resounding.

In a neighbourhood of increasing gentrification bent on a strong history of community activism and known to be Canada’s poorest postal code, how might a project such as Thumbs Up! run concurrent to many of the politics specific to the immediate environment – namely issues of accessibility, power hierarchies and the definition of who a public might include? In hopes of breaching the amorphous space that was attenuated by the departure of Power2012, I was graciously introduced to and proceeded to take up a conversation with Salomon himself.

The physical space that Unit/Pitt Gallery assumed for Thumbs Up! was proposed in such a way as to embody a living and evolving state of ambivalence and to a degree, contradiction. The primary space was walled off from street level view in a bid to convert its entrance into a kind of temporary convenience store/ATM, beyond which there lay no clear indication of this being an “art gallery” at all. Both of these divisions of space existed as somewhat repellent to social inclusion, as was openly discussed on-air. Ironically and to the success of many Social Practices (this is not to lay a claim to all Social Practices as having the same intentions or application of methodologies), the direct quotation and appropriation of everyday modes of activity – such as eating, gestures of exchange and open-sourcing music etc. – seem to take on a double effect. As is the nature of power relations and the varying degrees to which hypocrisy plays into our daily existence, the many fronts and platforms that elevate these projects appear to simultaneously propagate and tear into themselves – in precisely an efficacious way. The interdisciplinary nature of Social Practices might be viewed as somewhat demanding to contextualise for some, but are ultimately a means to multiple entry points, existing largely as non-exclusive in their symbology. What these tractions might generate in people existing outside of their primary audience, as far as the conceptual rigour of the projects are concerned, is debatable. But at the very least, the methodologies of Social Practices are in many cases (again not all), intent on dismantling the rigidity of vertical hierarchies. Perhaps it could also be said, motivated by a kind of ironicization and occupation of a contemporary Rear-Guard.

While the Unit/Pitt space was regularly accessed by passers-by, many of whom would be considered to comprise the low-income community of the Downtown Eastside, Saloman deduces that “…there’s no reason to valorise it beyond being a situation that may have temporarily given low income neighbours an opportunity to have a personal exchange with the space itself…People enjoyed the music being played on the street and it didn’t seem to be experienced as a space of exclusion…that may be a success of sorts in a rapidly gentrifying neighbourhood…” [1]. Another space that could be seen to stimulate curiosity and engagement from a general public, in part due to its location but also through its assumed fronts (at once exposed and removed from public view), is The Nines. A community-oriented social enterprise and culture club founded by local non-profit organization Drop Out Video Arts (DOVA) that has taken up residence in a disused budget car dealership at the intersection of Abbott and Pender. By day a humble slow food café offering vegetarian meals at affordable prices and by night a multifarious project space host to events and meetings. To their advantage, spaces like The Nines and Thumbs Up! sit somewhere between the dominant trajectories that otherwise shape this neighbourhood.

From the perspective of Social Practices as generators of ‘other’ Utopian spaces and politics comes a fascinating conversation between Sam Gould and Stephen Duncombe under the banner of Red76’s Pop-Up Book Academy. As Gould explains, “…in this line of thinking what you have is a tool that allows you to consider your day-to-day in a different light…By removing yourself from either opposing side, by constructing the triangulated space, a space for consideration, you become present. This isn’t to say we’re asked to abandon political belief, just that we allow our beliefs to wander when moved to do so.” [2]. How do the patterns that generate this other space, namely rhythms of open/closed, legible/illegible play out in a pragmatic way in order that this space of emancipation might be pervasive? As Saloman explains: “One of the struggles of Social Practices as an art form is that it is often designed to generate its meaning through its primary audience of participants and rarely succeeds to continue generating meaning after its temporal existence of social interaction has passed.” [3]. Projects like Red76 and The Part of No Part aim to address some of these discursive shortfalls generated by the more conventional exhibition models through expansive and ongoing curatorial modalities within multiple sites of habitation.

Returning to a consideration of how Social Practices might operate across multiple contexts and communities within Vancouver, Saloman sees the local Art World, outside of those arts organizations that have successfully “committed to treating that criteria [specific to the Downtown Eastside] as equivalent” [4], as having to draw a distinct line between itself and the primary low-income communities. “The Art World…can’t reconcile that equivalency with its own aesthetic and social priorities and so those artists and groups tend to be marginalised, even when they are practically speaking part of the same system (such as Gallery Gachet which is a part of PAARC [5])”. Unfortunately, projects like the Live Biennial, which sought to creatively engage public spaces within the Downtown Eastside, were subject to considerable criticism from across the many art and non-art communities that interact with these sites [6]. Despite this fact, the many constituents that continue to separate the two communities – factors such as economic disparity and class allegiances – continue to remain an impetus for a whole gamut of art and social practitioners working in a cross disciplinary manner to dissolve some of these ethical boundaries. “It’s not to say that there is a total disinvestment in the situation that exists there, but that the criteria of judgement for a successful project is consistent only so long as it stays within the confines of an audience that is primarily other cultural producers…whose needs are more easily addressed by these kinds of artworks” [7].

It might appear somewhat hypocritical, ironic even, that a project such as This Is An (A) Front – with its self-proclaimed manifesto intent on addressing new ways to live with one another in a more egalitarian and considerate way – would see itself removed from the least empowered members of the community within which this conversation is taking place. But in a city such as Vancouver – with its diverse array of communities, each one concerned with its own politics and needs – access to cultural production that implicates a broader conversation about social organization is perhaps more effectively pursued from within, if at least these fronts can continue to grant access to spaces of emancipation beyond their primary means. To return to this notion of ‘a front’ and how it can be an effective apparatus for opening up new spaces and re-readings of existing ones is Sam Gould’s call for spaces that continue to provoke and promote questioning. A powerful image that was elicited during the final conversation of Power2012 was that of the difference between spaces of confusion and spaces of ambiguity. Where confusion is here codified as a term generating a defensive response, ambiguity by its nature is seen as more of an invitation, a strange conjuring prompting questioning. How do these spaces of ambiguity and contradiction live on after their physical presences have transformed, in order that the discussions might continue to generate new primary audiences? The ending of Power2012 and Thumbs Up! was for me, quite literally, a beginning. But more than it being circumstantial, it was through a conscientious unpacking of the many fronts and components that were posited as open invitations and equally definitive contradictions.


To access podcasts of the various discussions generated by Thumbs Up! please visit www.power2012.ca

This article appeared in Decoy Magazine, January 28th 2013

[1] Saloman, Gabriel. Conversation Notes. Vancouver, January 16, 2013.

[2] Gould, Sam. Utopian Theory: A Conversation btw. Stephen Duncombe and Sam Gould, see www.red76.com/utopiantheory.html

[3] Saloman, ibid.

[4] Saloman, ibid.

[5] Pacific Association of Artist Run Centres that stands for the representation of Artist Run Centres in British Columbia.

[6] Saloman, ibid.

[7] Saloman, ibid.