Thursday, July 11, 2013

A letter on social practice by Caroline Woodard

This guest-blog comes from Caroline Woodard, a Brooklyn-based artist and organizer. The following was a letter written to MacDowell on supporting social practice . For more information on Caroline, please visit

Dear John,

MacDowell was my first major residency, so I am thrilled that you are expanding your understanding of contemporary art to include long-term, process-heavy, socially engaged art. When I made a project for other Fellows, I felt a bit out of place, so I want to humbly offer the following suggestions for supporting what are now called social practices, as I think this working style deserves the time and commitment that MacDowell offers.

To clarify the types of projects that might get support, I have outlined 3 types of social practices as I see them today, from short-term engagement to long-term engagement, with recommendations tailored to these approaches.

1. The Stranger Approach: this is where an artist/group act as a catalyst for unconventional interactions and/or conversations. The artist serves as an “excuse” for otherwise difficult partnerships, meetings, or actions. The artist remains separate from the group, community, or site that s/he interacts with. For example, the Ghana Think Tank connects groups in conflict by creating platforms for dialog and action:

To support the Stranger Approach, you could ask artists to submit a Letter of Inquiry, and then ask the top 5 artists to submit site-specific proposals. If you want to lead the field and model this after architectural proposals, you should pay these artists to submit well-researched, site-specific proposals.

2. The Embedded Approach: this is where the artist/group work in contexts that are not sanctioned or codified as art-contexts, where s/he slowly builds relationships or has previously established relationships.

To support the Embedded Approach, you could solicit artists who are interested in doing a weekend, week-long, or month-long retreat with the group that they s/he is already embedded within. This would mean housing the group as they visit MacDowell together. Alternatively, you could ask artists if they are interested in embedding themselves in the Garden, Kitchen, Administration, or other existing social format at MacDowell. For example, Maureen Connor embedded herself in the Queens Museum and Ukeles is artist is residence in the Sanitation Dept of NYC:

CUP option: ask Peterborough groups what kind of artists they might want to work with, or what their issues are, and then make a call to artists based on what your local groups actually want.

3. The Lifetime Approach: this is where the artist/group build long-term projects in/with/for participants, often blurring the line between art/life completely. These artists are so embedding in the location and/or group they work in/with/fpr that there would be no way for this artist/group to do the project at MacDowell. Often, their projects become housing options or institutions of their own right. For example: or or

To support the Lifetime Approach, you could offer the artist/group a residency of a weekend, week, or month to reflect upon the work done so far. Clearly, they cannot do a whole project at MacDowell or in NH (unless they are already from the area), as these are lifetime projects, not short term interventions. Outcomes might include a publication, sanity and clarity for improved work, and group strengthening (if it’s a collective or participants, non-organizers can be invited). For example:

General recommendations:

- TIME: Social practices take time to develop. Do not think you are going to get a Lifetime project if you invite someone for a month. A month will give you a Stranger approach only.

- LOCATION: If you house this artist downtown in an apartment, rather than in a space away from the community they are working in/with/for, chances of deep relationship building will be improved.

- PARTICIPANTS: Social practices must incorporate ethical considerations. Please ask artists engaged in social practices to submit recommendation letters from prior participants, and consider bringing in participants of past projects as part of the reflection process or retreat for the Lifetime Approach. Please read Ben Kinmont’s work with Laurel George and students: Towards Ethics in Project Art (a free PDF is available online)

- INTENTIONS: If you are looking to work with social practice artists as a kind of community outreach for your institution, please enumerate your expectations and goals in advance. Artists are not necessarily going to fulfill your goals, and you can be more clear about this if you have a direct conversation about it.

Thank you so much for your time and consideration,

Caroline Woolard

2008 MacDowell Fellow

No comments: