by Sara Reisman
The Schoolhouse and the Bus: Mobility, Pedagogy, and Engagement is an exhibition that presents two artistic projects that encapsulate a process of translation between the unruliness of lived experience and the formulas of exhibition practice. In organizing such an exhibition, in dialogue with the artists, we as curators were forced to question how socially engaged artwork can be translated—physically, spatially, and spiritually—into the often stagnant, neutral space of a gallery. How do objects that are byproducts of an artistic process figure into the presentation of an ephemeral, relational project? To what degree does the archive of an artwork become the work itself? Featured in the exhibition are maps of Medellín and of a journey across the Americas, collages, on-the-road documentary footage punctuated by collective declarations made by community members of twenty-nine cities, video interviews with residents of Medellín, souvenirs, ephemera, and records including news articles, letters, and blog posts. These materials, some conceived as artworks, others selected to recreate an out-of-reach context, point to two projects that differ in scale, duration, and atmosphere. Larger structures have been restaged—the yellow fabric tent of a schoolhouse and an illuminated shelf displaying personal affects—to reflect the elastic characteristics of time and place, as a partial manifestation of the lived experiences that continue to comprise two socially engaged projects. Suzanne Lacy and Pilar Riaño-Alcalá’s Skin of Memory and Pablo Helguera’s The School of Panamerican Unrest, originally realized in 1999 and 2006 respectively, intersect conceptually within the exhibition The Schoolhouse and the Bus: Mobility, Pedagogy, and Engagement, having been informed by and produced within the broader geographic frame of the Americas, and specifically Medellín, Colombia.
From the beginning, both Helguera, Lacy, and Lacy’s collaborator Riaño-Alcalá, questioned the efficacy of relying heavily on the display of objects to adequately capture and represent their respective works. Questions surrounding the limitations of conventional exhibition making are acutely raised in the context of socially engaged artistic practice, where the desire to show the work, and the experiential and relational nature of the artwork, are often in conflict with the means of translating the experience into a display. Indebted to the legacy of conceptual art, artists and curators are continuously compelled to attempt this process, whether it is for visibility, legacy, art world legitimacy, or a more engaged notion of pedagogy. As Lucy Lippard has noted, “Conceptualists indicated that the most exciting ‘art’ might still be buried in social energies not yet recognized as art.”(1) Integral to any true avant-garde artistic gesture, these energies can contribute to an object being unrecognizable as art. The unknown artwork—its unknowability—can sometimes signal its potential for radicality, still raising the age-old question, “but is it art?” Even if we feel certain that it is art (because we say so), it is always worth questioning the impulse driving us to display works of art, since these social energies can never be fully re-presented as they were originally realized. As challenging as it may be to grasp and resolve these endeavors as art, the opportunity to learn from ephemeral practices, particularly human exchange, has become increasingly urgent in times of political and social instability.
Leading up to Skin of Memory (1999), artist Suzanne Lacy was approached by Colombian anthropologist Pilar Riaño-Alcalá to collaborate with a team that included architect Vicky Rameriz, designer Raul Cabra, and local artisans, contributing to a process conceived to “find alternatives to violence and strengthen civil society,” in Medellín’s Barrio Antioquia, an area ravaged by increasing violence related to the drug trade. Riaño-Alcalá invited Lacy to work within the community based on the sustained engagement and success of her decade long The Oakland Projects (1991–2001). Staged in eight parts, The Oakland Projects included The Roof is On Fire(1993–1994), which explored the tensions between youth and the police in Oakland, California, and Expectations Summer Project (1997), that examined the personal and political impacts of teen pregnancy. Lacy’s multilayered approach to engaging local youth on issues concerning their wellbeing—health, education, safety, and public policy—interested Riaño-Alcalá, who, at the time, was organizing on the community level in Medellín in response to the needs of neighborhood youth, whose experiences were fraught with the trauma associated with localized violence. The parallels between youth cultures in Medellín and Oakland are based in what Lacy and Riaño describe as “unprocessed personal losses” and “consequent paralysis and violence.”(2)
In 2003, artist Pablo Helguera began planning a four-month journey titled The School of Panamerican Unrest (2006), which would result in a road trip across the Americas. Beginning in Anchorage, Alaska, he concluded in Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, having made twenty-nine stops across two continents. At each stop—in places like Mexico City, Bogotá, Vancouver, Calgary, Mérida, and San Salvador—Helguera set up a mobile schoolhouse, where he collaborated with local organizations and individuals in participatory workshops, that were a hybrid of performance art and experiential education. Featuring readings, performances, and lectures, they were shaped by the people involved at each location. Motivated by what he has described as a lack of communication between different countries within the Americas, Helguera’s project offered an opportunity to draw connections between the vast diversity of cultural communities that make up the continent. In order to reveal the
potential relationships between these varied geographic locations, Helguera worked with local participants at each site on a community-specific basis to articulate the role and possibilities of art and culture to address the social, political, and economic issues of that moment in 2006.
The installation of Lacy and Riaño-Alcalá’s Skin of Memory is anchored by the display of a collection of personal objects, that collectively function as a community memorial. Originally presented in a bus in Medellín, the “museo arqueologico del Barrio Antioquia” was a mobile commemorative exhibition that travelled to different parts of the Barrio, crossing contested boundaries rather than having residents risk the trip, in order to safely share the project with different communities. It displayed 500 items selected and offered by participants, including currency, figurines, identification cards, stuffed animals, toys, jewelry, household items, and the clothes of those killed in shootouts. Within The Schoolhouse and the Bus, the objects featured in the mobile museum have been reduced to a partial installation of ephemera retrieved from individuals in Medellín who contributed objects in 1999, flanked by video documentation of the project. Adding to the viewer’s experience, Lacy and Riaño-Alcalá present maps, news articles, and a timeline in order to enrich our understanding of this conflicted period in Barrio Antioquia.
At the center of Helguera’s installation of The School of Panamerican Unrest is a yellow schoolhouse. Inside, an hour-long documentary of Helguera’s odyssey begins with him reflecting on then-recent events leading up to his project: September 11, the Iraq War. In the video, he posits, “I wanted to understand how the American ideals of peace, brotherhood, and unity had evolved to a project of global hegemony, and I felt, that we needed to look back at history at the time when the conscience of the new world had been founded. Where were those 19th century ideals of perfect American democracies imagined by leaders like Jefferson and Bolivar? Where was the America described in the poetry of Walt Whitman and Jose Marti?” Like the personal affects that comprise Lacy and Riaño-Alcalá’s project, Helguera’s archival material is, at times, absorbed into his artistic output. His series of collages, The Panamerican Suite, were made in a restorative, therapeutic effort, following the conclusion of the 25,000 mile trip, which left him physically and emotionally drained. They are comprised of maps, scientific and mathematical diagrams, with captions excised from book pages.
“It seems almost the same way with countries as with people.”
“We will be heroes together.”
“It involves a sense of inner time, an inward perspective.”
These statements read like a postscript, musings and reflections on Helguera’s rigorous itinerary. If we recognize that objects are limited in their capacity to re-present or capture a project, to create an atmosphere, or impart the experience of being there, are there other ways of understanding the transformative potentials of a socially engaged artwork? One approach might be to reconstruct a scene and invite the public to experience a simulation. Another might be to restage a similar project in a new place, with information about the original artwork. Additionally, we can attempt to capture some of the ripple effects of said project, to assess what, if any, connections can be made in terms of the its subsequent impact and legacy. The problem with determining impact is that social practice as an art form is continually in flux, both materially and procedurally, and does not necessarily follow a scientific method of research and evaluation assessable by standardized criteria. As an art form, our understanding of the best practices in re-presenting any socially engaged artwork is contingent on its particular components, characteristics, and relationship to context. While it is important to make a distinction between the archival components and the artwork within the exhibition, art and the archives it produces (or the archives that produce the artwork) are always inextricably linked. To reframe the question in relation to context, does all of the content of the exhibition become artwork—albeit archive-based—by virtue of being shown in an art museum or gallery? There is a tension generated by the idea that an artwork’s value—in terms of people, places, and even money—changes when it leaves the site of its production and enactment, and is brought into the gallery. Are the work’s participants relegated to artistic material, or does a gallery setting elevate the status for all involved? Is its status as art retained beyond the gallery?
The answers to these questions are subjective, and will depend on whom you ask. Ultimately, it is the aftereffects, or legacies, of Helguera’s and Lacy and Riaño-Alcalá’s projects that reflect their value in the world as art or otherwise. Both projects clearly resonate with those who experienced them directly, as well as others who learned about them after the fact. In 2011, when the Medellín Biennial MDE11 invited Lacy and Riaño-Alcalá to show Skin of Memory Revisited, it became an opportunity to extend the project, reflecting on the decade that had passed since its initiation in 1999, and to understand where it had succeeded and failed. In the years that followed the first iteration of Skin of Memory, the Victims of Armed Conflict Care Program began laying the groundwork for Medellín’s Museo Casa de la Memoria, which opened its doors to the public in 2012. Founded with support and input from many of the same collaborators involved in Skin of Memory, the Museum’s mission is closely linked to the promotion of civil society and democratic engagement, with interactive educational installations that facilitate dialogue about Medellín’s history of violence.
The effects of Helguera’s The School of Panamerican Unrest are more difficult to trace, largely because of the project’s vast geographic scope, with twenty-nine official participating communities (and other locales where he stopped). Taking Helguera’s 2008 presentation of documentation of The School of Panamerican Unrest curated by Itzel Vargas at Casa del Lago in Mexico City, one of the project’s art world echoes could be found in panamericana, an exhibition presented by kurimanzutto gallery in Mexico City in 2010 (although any connection between The School of Panamerican Unrest and panamericana was not acknowledged in promotional materials), which aimed to connect artists from different countries in Latin America. Published in 2013, Claire Fox’s book Making Art Panamerican situates the visual arts programs of the Pan American Union within the context of hemispheric cultural relations during the Cold War. Helguera was extensively interviewed by Fox, whose work illuminates the institutional dynamics that helped shape aesthetic movements following World War II.
Another example of an outcome of Helguera’s project was triggered by his stop in Mérida in the Yucatán, where he worked with La Escuela Superior de Artes. In writing about her experience with The School of Panamerican Unrest, then-director Mónica Castillo witnessed the realization amongst students of how rarely art criticism was practiced. This prompted one student, Debora Carneval, to organize critiques of artwork made in Mérida. In its Panamerican address, the city of Mérida had declared, “there is a lack of critical analysis of the art scene; that we consider that the end is not to necessarily transgress, but rather to make art as we see fit in order to reflect our ideas.”
A shared ethos of both Helguera’s The School of Panamerican Unrest and Lacy and Riaño-Alcalá’s Skin of Memory is that each was conceived to engage participants in ways that maintain their agency, whether by making declarations that reflect on local conditions, or selecting objects for display that represent collective loss. From the distance of time and place, it becomes clear that the relational nature of each artwork is supported by objects— maps, documents, newspapers, collages, videos, and souvenirs—whether it be in the production or presentation, as prompts for sustained engagement. As with any temporal form of art, the viewer must actively reflect upon the communication transmitted by the artwork, simultaneously expanding its meaning, recognizing the impossibility of a time-based, experiential artwork being singularly understood any one individual, in its entirety. This is the crux of exhibiting social practice: the art objects provide an aesthetic point of entry, but the installation is only fulfilled as socially engaged art when the dialogical prompt is activated relationally. The lesson learned might be a teachable moment in which objects are revealed to be essential, yet they never tell the whole story.
1. Lucy Lippard, Six Years: the dematerialization of the art object from 1966 to 1972, (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press), 1997 (original printing 1973), p. xxii.
2. Interview between Suzanne Lacy and Pilar Riaño-Alcalá, September 18, 2006.
PABLO HELGUERA & SUZANNE LACY ON SOCIAL PRACTICE:
The Schoolhouse and the Bus: Mobility, Pedagogy, and Engagement is the result of curatorial conversations about the role of art in society. The exhibition was co-organized by the Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation in New York City and the Art Design & Architecture Museum in Santa Barbara, two institutions focused on the belief that art and artists can transform individuals and communities. While these transformations are not always immediately visible, we believe artists have the potential to be catalysts for change, especially through dialogue that fosters mutual understanding. From our different vantage points on the east and west coasts, this exhibition reflects our desire to tease out the means and methods of utilizing art to affect change in unstable and challenging times.
Focusing on the work of two social practice artists was a natural result of our discourse, considering the field’s emphasis on community engagement, with a goal of positive outcomes in relation to social and political concerns. The more we talked and listened, the more we understood The Schoolhouse and the Bus as an opportunity for broader audiences to experience the work of important artists in this genre. Suzanne Lacy and Pablo Helguera represent two generations of socially engaged artists who have also built their careers and work on pedagogical engagement. Excerpted here, their transcribed exchange “Pablo Helguera and Suzanne Lacy on Social Practice: A Conversation,” serves as a record of the artists’ overlapping concerns and guiding principles. Over the phone, on June 30, 2017, they discussed how they approached their projects, the politics of making artwork as an outsider for a particular community, what it means to teach (and learn from) social practice, and the challenge of translating lived experience into an exhibition.
—Elyse A. Gonzales and Sara Reisman, co-curators
Suzanne: I think there is an incredibly varied set of practices that social practice artists draw upon, from community organizing to conflict resolution. As I tell my students, the ability to negotiate is a definer of success in this work.
I was invited by Pilar Riaño-Alcalá and several NGOs to support their ongoing work on building a civil society in Medellín. Pilar’s book, Dwellers of Memory, discussed local applications of “memory work” in Barrio Antioquia where youth deaths were astronomically high. I was invited to join the team because of the work I’ d done in the 90s with Oakland teenagers. It was an incredible opportunity be part of a larger process, one I didn’t initiate. My colleagues in Medellín were exploring how “the city educates.” Now, many years later, Antioquia Province is “The State That Educates”.
Pablo: When I made The School of Panamerican Unrest, I did not have a pre-established strategy. In fact, when I conceived it originally it was not meant to be a road trip: I thought it would be a series of encounters in different cities around the Americas. A lot of the project unfolded in real time. And a lot of the circumstances would have been impossible to predict until they actually happened. I had to use everything that I knew, at that point, about performance and education.
At times I was an educator, an activist, therapist, journalist, and I was the screen onto which people projected their frustrations, interests or ideas. I had to contend with performing all these different roles and learning how to perform them successfully. I also learned the importance of improvisation, of thinking on your feet as new circumstances arose and evolved.
My role as artist played in a rather predictable manner until I crossed into Guatemala. After that point, the question of whether this project was art or not became gradually less important. This was really about coming to address and engage with local issues. And to be a successful listener and activator of conversations and debates that mattered in those places at the time.
When we ask about what kind of expertise or practices we incorporate into our work, I see the artist rather as a composer—someone who does not play every single instrument but knows what those instruments can do, and how they can incorporate them successfully into a larger reflection. While we as artists have to perform many roles, the objective is not to impersonate or to supplant an actual expert, but to create gestures that help bring other disciplines into the art discourse.
Suzanne: What’s interesting is that you traced—with your body—a learning trajectory for social practice. When your project first came across my radar, I thought “this guy is positioning himself as a performer as well as a student and producer of other’s learning experiences.” You created an expanded classroom to trans-continentally explore political, pedagogic and interpersonal experiences. You also put yourself through an educational process as an artist.
Pablo: This connects to another question about the artist as outsider, specifically what kind of license do you have to enter into a cultural community that is not your own? I think this is a very delicate question that right now has become very important. Today we are witnesses of the “biennialist” syndrome—the tendency of parachuting artists into random cities and countries to make an artwork about that place, often with little engagement with the local reality. We know that a lot of site-specific work can mean well but is misguided. And yet, I think it is also important to recognize two things: one, that as artists we can never shed the condition of outsiders, and second, that this condition can be a strength when we are honest about it—meaning, when we don’t pretend to be insiders.
I always think of Paulo Freire and preaching a pedagogy, in how he approached the relationship with others, acknowledging very directly with whichever group he was working with, that we are not the same people. We have different personal histories, different cultural backgrounds, education, and perhaps social status.
Suzanne: I think you’re right, but I can nuance this a bit with my involvement as a white woman in racial conflicts and, in other countries, as a U.S. citizen in places where our government has been destructive. One has to be agile to work cross-culturally in circumstances where strong politics are at play, whether it’s a man working with women, or a free person working with prison inmates. “Difference” operates differently within various moments and contexts. Working with Pilar, I’m always very conscious of how deeply the U.S. is implicated in the politics and violences in Colombia.
It’s the degree to which you can listen, learn, co-create an analysis, and make an empathic connection through the work that positions you as a student of others. In each project I begin as a learner. What I learned in Oakland, in the early 90s, working with the racialization of youth as political signifiers in a rising neo-liberalism, brought me to Medellín, Colombia. For the “we” that typifies all my work—its collective producers—the mutual exploration in an expanded classroom that results in a project.
Pablo: Absolutely. That was really the way I thought of the school, but I never imagined The School of Panamerican Unrest advocating indoctrination of a particular view of anything. It was really like a horizontal platform for collective learning.
Suzanne: That process we are describing is often missing in colleges. The only way you get to be a good social practice artist is if you’re willing to put yourself in risky and powerless positions. Universities have a hard time producing risky experiences, but they are good at teaching representation skills suitable for museums and galleries. While there is a genuine interest in context-based social issues for young artists, the real rewards of the art world are still via a system of visual art display linked to the market.
Today, communication with the art profession is largely through some form of exhibition. It wasn’t true in the 70s, or maybe I should say it wasn’t true in my experience coming out of CalArts and entering a developing performance art scene. Since I was first in school, where we eagerly adopted portapaks and photography, the technology of presentation has developed exponentially. Where we used to use high 8 film, you can now use 70 mm cameras. Presentation is much more important, which can be a dilemma for an art practice that comes out of ephemeral ideas.
As our exhibition has been framed by the curators as involving “mobility, pedagogy, and engagement,” the idea of translation is critical: there is the art in communities, and then there are those to whom it is communicated—whether directly to people in a community, over news media, or to art professionals. In this translation from a Medellín installation and performance project to the exhibition, so many questions arise. Pablo, I’m curious about the striking visual quality of your work and how you navigate between the beautiful presentation of the work and the public sphere where the work is constructed.
Pablo: When teaching social practice, I have noticed that many students come to the field without an art background. They come from anthropology or psychology, etc. but they have no knowledge of art history nor have they made art objects. For them, all the art historical references from Duchamp to anyone else were very remote and unclear. They struggle with the visual manifestation of the things they do.
This made me value the type of traditional studio education I received, learning the basics of painting, printmaking, photography, etc. It is this proximity to making things that can be helpful in creating sensorial experiences. In addition, because I have worked in museums for 25 years, I do think a lot about how things are presented to a public and how they might interact with them, sensorially and intellectually.
I am grateful for having been exposed to traditional ways of making and exhibiting art because they offer us a tool kit for shaping experience in other ways. And I see education as part of that tool kit of course, particularly in how one considers the type of audience that one may engage with and the ways in which an experience could be meaningful to them. Last but not least, I think of ways in which this sensorial/intellectual type of engagement might manage to slow down the viewer to make the experience more meaningful.
Suzanne: That goes to that issue of being adept at communicating ideas to different audiences. Art does provide something other than the visual and, particularly in social practice, we engage with ideas of coherence, political analysis, and the “shape” of engagement. What I like about The School of Panamerican Unrestis not how beautiful the display will be, though I know it will be, but the coherency of the idea. How does the body of an artist move from one tip of a continent to the next, organizing, formulating conversation, gathering people around it…there’s an aesthetic in the idea and in the action itself.
Pablo: When I talk about enticing the public or engaging them, I don’t necessarily mean that it has to be in an aesthetic way. I think it can also be a utilitarian type of engagement where you offer them something that is useful, that is interesting, that can play a familiar function. With the SPU project I proposed a set of types of interactions that were familiar. Participants would come to talks, workshops, and civic ceremonies where we’d read speeches. At times it took the form of the political ceremony, where we would sing anthems and then read speeches. The workshops were more literary and were something that people connected with in a very basic manner.
Suzanne: Pilar and I are struggling to capture the Medellín projects for a U.S. audience. The complexity of the interacting forces and themes of that project read very differently when displayed in Colombia. In the U.S. we often think of Colombia through the lens of narcotrafficking. Our project engaged with a political trajectory, anthropological research, community development, and a national process of memory recuperation and policy formation. How do we show the complexities of violences and U.S. interventions, the nuances of relationships that we formed and that still operate over time, and the way in which social scientists are deeply engaged with constructing a civil society, all of which has led to the current peace process?
I’d be curious, Pablo, what has the process of preparing this exhibition brought up for you, as an artist? ‘Cause that’s part of the reason you and I were interested in this exhibition, to crystallize these projects in forms of display.
Pablo: One challenge that this project has always presented for me is precisely how to fit it into an exhibition. I almost gave up the idea that I could authentically transmit, or communicate what this project was. I think it’s an intractable problem, because I cannot bring people to the places and times of where this project happened. Perhaps I have a very idealistic idea of what it means to “recreate”. I do completely relate to your comments about when you present it, when you go through the motions of recreating something you did 20 years ago: it feels more like theatre. Given this, I concluded that you can only create approximations of the experience. One of my attempts at addressing this was to create an anthology of The School of Panamerican Unrest, in which I invited people who were a part of it to give a firsthand account of what they saw. I was very disciplined in not wanting to influence the views of the contributors. Some were critical of the project and that was okay. Some of them had very different views than how I saw the experience, and that was okay too. I imagine this is like the process of reconstructing a historical event. When you compile witness accounts, everybody has their different perspectives, and no single interpretation becomes the final version, but we all know that the truth lies somewhere amidst the summation of these different perspectives.
Suzanne: Yes, I can’t show everything about a multi-year project involving so many actors, but our representation of the political issues inherent in our project doesn’t yet feel complete. There’s a responsibility to communicate clearly here, one that might be a bit different from other project translations. For instance, as we are presenting actual objects representing residents’ memories of loss, if we then prominently posted photos of the owners talking about their memories of, for instance, trafficking, it would reinforce U.S. audiences’ simplistic perspectives. But if we present a timeline of the political forces over a thirty-year period, and point to locations where our project employed its strategies, the objects would read differently.
The second area I am concerned with representing is the relationality inherent over almost twenty years. This set of relationalities occurred within a timeframe within which many political events and personal experiences occurred among people who are still living and working there. I don’t know how to talk about the intimacy of common cause that we have with each other, the 75 or 80 people and beyond, who came together as a result of a variety of efforts by NGOs, social scientists, activists and educators, some of whom later entered government. This project was a symbolic manifestation of a national effort to recuperate memory as a political force in the life of the country. The experience of operating within that context was so powerful for me and I feel the responsibility of communicating it without playing into U.S. prejudices.
Pablo: I think everything has deficiencies, and the best I can do is to see them together: photographs, documents, witness accounts, and video. That is closest I can get to narrating what happened. I think we just need to accept that these are ephemeral things and difficult to frame in a clean or final narrative.