Transgenerational Encounters and Philosophical Concepts: A Reflexive Social Sculpture Practice Exploration
1. How can my social sculpture practice explore and enter into dialogue with specific concepts of philosophy?
2. What is the relationship between human participants, more-than-human participants and experimental gesture making in my creative practice?
3. How can I best present and disseminate my findings and my practice to the communities which I feel my work may be of relevance to?
• To develop a body of work of social sculpture explorations.
• To use my practice to explore, reflect upon and articulate my social sculpture encounters in terms of anti- and posthuman philosophical concepts.
• To be able to use a reflective practice in which the material becomes the art work through a process of transformation/editing in conjunction with philosophical concepts in dialogue with the performance to reveal poiesis.
• To focus on a variety of different generational groups and find ways to interact with their plural and complex subjectivities.
• To develop a more specific lexicon to use to articulate my practice. (At present I am using the term social sculpture because it is the closest to my practice.)
In this report, I will describe my research findings to date and the changes that I have made to my project based on these findings. I will also outline the methods and methodologies that I have previously proposed and subsequently developed, as well as my intentions in relation to using, changing and building on these in the future. I will not elaborate in this report on the contextual elements of my project, as this is the basis of the draft chapter that I am submitting.
When I began to formulate my research project, my main areas of inquiry were metamorphosis, hybrid languages, life changes and transformations through time. However, as I began to conduct the social sculpture encounters, my focus progressively shifted to participatory interactions and post performance editing in dialogue with specific philosophical concepts. These concepts are those of Nietzsche and his anti-humanism (his critique of contemporary humanism), and they were the basis for Deleuze’s, Guattari’s and ultimately Braidotti’s post-humanism. I am currently working with concepts formulated by all of these thinkers.
As I have developed my research project, my social sculpture practice has slowly developed philosophical dimensions. In making my reflections on these issues a key element of the thesis, I have begun to transfer into my practice Nietzsche’s ideas from The Birth of Tragedy that stand in opposition to the principles of Socratic dialectics. I understand social sculpture to be the materialization and/or embodiment of philosophy and a philosophical activity. I came to this realization while editing the material collected during the social sculpture encounters, because during this process I found that Nietzschean (anti- and posthuman) concepts emerged. For example, through my practice, I have been able to see how every group of people has its own tragedy. During the social sculpture experiences, poiesis comes to the surface in different ways. Different groups of participants relate to each other differently, and the relationship between participants, objects, materials and the environment varies as well. When participants become overly analytical and look for intellectual associations in a dialectical frame of negotiation, the social sculpture in fact reaches its conclusion because the core of the encounter—that is, the experiencing of literal associations—loses its energy. At this point, the experience turns into a cliché, and its tragedy—the essence of the piece—fades away. I don’t decide when this end will occur; it emerges out of a need for clichéd associations that changes the participants’ mood and affects their energy. As my research project has developed, I have started to make use of reflective practice to consider how in some instances the poiesis of a piece ended or turned into comedy due to the appearance of reason and the participants’ needs to intellectualize or rationalize their actions.
Moreover, the nonstructural mode through which I facilitate experiences and reflect on them draws on posthuman elements such as a nomadic and noncentral ways of working that diverges from the Platonic idea of mimicking a divine original. In the encounters, there is no plot, plan or identity but only energy, actions and reactions that take place between people from different age groups, random objects and other elements that are naturally placed in an environment that could be based on (though is not limited to) animals, plants or the weather.
The combination of devising and overseeing social sculpture encounters and engaging in reflective practice that incorporates the philosophical and conceptual elements described above has yielded several categories of findings that are relevant to my research project.
First, the performance of my social sculpture encounters has evolved. I began to conduct the performances outside of the studio space. I started by engaging with built spaces. Furthermore, I have moved away from producing objects to producing actions and giving my former objects a new meaning through dialogic analysis. Eighteen months ago, I started exploring self-transformations. I explored possibilities by producing actions that were recorded on video. After a process of recording the sound separately, I added it to the video. Once the two elements were together, the work became a video production, in which the two elements affect one another. In that body of work, I performed my actions in different environments that conditioned the relationships featured in the piece.
I came to participatory art after having worked on actions alone. I began to use recordings of people’s comments on my performances, and I started looking for groups of people to work with. The first individuals to become involved in my artistic practice were a group from North Beach senior centre and a group of teens from Miami Beach High. During my exploration at the senior centre (November 2015) I facilitated a playful environment in which I surrendered control of the action and obeyed their control, decisions and proposals. In other words, I became material for them. I “provoked” them by bringing in a roll of white fabric and asking them what to do with it. Another tool of provocation was the camera sitting on a tripod; the seniors knew that they would be filmed, but to my surprise they liked it and they took control of the filming as well. I made audio recordings of their comments after the action and subsequently edited them into the video.
My understanding of the materials and how to use them in my pieces has also evolved. Initially, I used materials to produce a piece, and over time I started to use fewer materials as props for the action. The latest stage of my evolution in this area is to understand materials as more-than-human participants (S. Pope) and at the same time to conceive of myself as material. In so doing, I give control of the action to the participants as the encounter takes place. In my work, materials play several roles.
During encounters, materials are an active participant because they interact with human participants and cause different energies to develop. During editing, I take the material into consideration through reflective practice. After editing, I have objects, a video with sound and still photographs. The combining of video and sound creates an object, and the methods required for making this object draw on both the main technical strands of my background: video work and photographs on the one hand, and sound on the other. I understand sound as a three-dimensional piece. During the sound editing, I create form and space with the audio and look for different textures.
My evolving understanding of materials has led to a change in how I label my practice. I now describe my practice by using Joseph Beuys’s term “social sculpture” because it is a material-driven approach, as opposed to “relational aesthetics,” a concept that has no object and that involves much less in the way of materials because it is focused purely on the social. Based on this shift in terminology, I aim to create a more appropriate lexicon to use in my work.
The nature of control during the artistic encounters that form the basis of my project has also evolved. During the encounters, my role does not involve control. In contrast, once I begin to edit and reflect the recordings, my role becomes exclusively one of control. I explore the relationship between these uncontrolled and controlled aspects through the action and the piece’s participants, whether they are people, materials or the environment.
The previously mentioned incorporation of philosophical concepts in my process of reflecting on my artistic practice has also been a key development over the course of this project. I view all the transformations of myself and my practice as the metamorphosis of the human which Nietzsche discusses. My work has raised questions and statements to which I find responses from the concepts of anti- or posthumanism such as (but not limited to) nomadism; active and reactive forces; affect; arborescent schema and rhizome; and tragedy and comedy.
I use Schon’s reflective practice method to analyze my practice and to articulate my findings. I developed my own scheme based on his for my research-based practice, which involves the following steps:
During the encounter, I reflect on myself, and I reflect with the participants through dialogue. At this stage of the process, my reflection is focused on what is happening during the period that includes both the production of social sculpture and the moments immediately after during the wrap-up session following the performance. Later in my studio during editing the recordings, self-reflection based on this material occurs. It is in this space that associations with anti- and posthumanist concepts appear through reflection. The next step is preparing for the next encounter, which is influenced by the experience from past ones.
To give an example of this process in action, during my last encounter at the new place at which I performed my work (the Jewish Community Services Senior Centre of Miami Beach), I used a box of fabrics in a closet that the staff showed me, and the residents took control by deciding which material from it to use. Their choice was informed by what I showed them from my previous work. When the social sculpture exploration started, a few of them were very upset because I was not specific about what I was doing and what they were supposed to do. At the same time, I reflected on the notion of controlled/uncontrolled and how some participants decided to leave because I did not want to tell them what to do. Another group started using the fabrics as dresses, singing songs and dancing, and I reflected on them and how they began to play spontaneously. They kept dancing until we finished. Another group sat, and a few of them told me that they were not kindergarteners, that they were upset because they felt that I had confused them with kids. I took this reflection of theirs into consideration for my reflective practice and possibly for my next encounter. There was a group of 7 women who danced and enjoyed the encounter as well; they asked me to come back and to keep “playing”. During editing in my studio, my next reflections took me to the discussion of tragedy and comedy in the following way: those who complained and either left or felt mistaken for kindergarteners were the group that refused to play. Their need for understanding before participating was so strong that it led them to analyze and convert the situation into a comedy that in fact paralyzed their creativity (Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy). This same group also displayed sedentary decisions (Deleuze, Guattari): they needed to mimic something, and because I did not provide them with something to mimic, their sedentary attitude stopped them. On the other hand, the other group displayed nomadic actions. They didn’t need to mimic in order to make, they constructed the social sculpture in a more sensory and playful way, and they constructed the plot as they went along. They did not request a plot or need a previous idea to copy.
Some of my reflections focus on the differences between working with groups of teenagers and working with groups of seniors. While the seniors struggle to understand contemporary art, performance and the interdisciplinary approach as art, sometimes they are very spontaneous and free during the encounters and the post encounter reflections. In contrast, the teens are very knowledgeable and interested in performance and social sculpture. Even if they have never heard of the concept of social sculpture before, they naturally and intuitively grasp the idea. However, they struggle with participating spontaneously and without prejudices, and there are big differences in their performances between when I work with them and when I leave them to work on their own. They also struggle to give comments relating to their experiences after the action.
The methodology used in my research until now was based on Nietzsche’s triangulation. Nietzsche proposes the use of diverse approaches in order to increase knowledge, which echoes the often-interdisciplinary nature of practice-based research. The form of triangulation that I deploy in my methodology incorporates the following three angles: philosophy, social sculpture, and dialogic. More than being the third element of the triangulation, dialogic will transform the triangulation methodology into something that is more akin to circulation in its dynamics. I will use the dialogic idea in an auxiliary role to allow the philosophical concepts and social sculpture elements to reciprocally inform and transform one another. Therefore dialogic is the transmission element that transforms the triangulation into a circulation methodology.
In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari use the notion of circulation. They explain the work of the philosopher as a work of creative process, the material being the concepts that they create. They wrote this book using a structure that they refer to as a “rhizome,” a metaphor that is also supposed to indicate the way in which the book should be read. They also state that their work could be read in any order as it has been created as an assemblage of concepts that circulates with no specific order. Later on in this project, I will analyze how my process of making social sculpture is a process of making philosophy. In my work, performance becomes the process of revealing concepts of philosophy.
Recently, I have been reflecting on the impossibility of one of my main premises, namely the idea of “giving myself up” during the social sculpture encounters. Throughout the RDC1, I expressed this idea as an objective, and my practice was also grounded in it. I have now concluded that it is not possible to give oneself up. Rather, what is possible is to go to the edge of doing so (for example, as Yoko Ono did on her “Cut” piece, 1964). This conclusion does not invalidate my RDC1 discussion but rather prompts me to focus on the boundary between the possible and the impossible, which also brings in utopianism as a frame of work. I currently doubt that it is possible for me to truly give myself up, but nonetheless I will keep trying, and I will analyze my attempts to do so. During and after RDC2, instead of focusing my analysis on “giving myself up” I will focus on, explore and map out the boundary between possible and impossible as I attempt to give myself up and discover where this attempt leads me next. In his article Utopian Prospect of Henry Lefebvre, Nathaniel Coleman posits that “demanding the impossible may always end in failure but doing so is the first step toward other possibilities nevertheless”. Sometimes it is the absence or impossibility (Lefebvre) of something that actually allows us to see or understand how something functions (Michael Bowdidge). The projection to those new processes, namely utopianism, will also be explored.
Other questions that were raised after RDC1 were: How can I make social sculpture without interacting with people? Can I achieve the “social” element of a piece by myself? Can I raise awareness of the “social” by making a nonparticipatory piece? What happens to the “social” element of social sculpture when there is no human participant? These questions have parallels with John Cage’s “4:33” and the implications of removing sound from his composition. These questions in turn raise further, more practical queries: What does a social sculpture equivalent of 4:33 look like? How can I create social sculpture that raises social questions without interaction with human participants? What happens if I remove the human participants in a participatory piece? If I leave it only to the more-than-humans and or environment, will I have returned to an object-making practice? Are there examples of this potential type of social sculpture with no people present that already exist? Can I became other to myself? What kind of activities can I do (and in what order) to bring about something unexpected?
Aside from exploring the reflections described above, I also have several other objectives that I intend to pursue in relation to my research-based practice. I aim to explore ways to disseminate my findings not only in the art world, but also in educational, academic, institutional and noninstitutional environments. On a spatial level, I intend to keep exploring different environments, with a view to working more closely in nature or open urban spaces. Finally, I hope to interview and work with other artists with similar interests, and I would like to start a social sculpture platform that offers a space for interested participants to share their findings.
Humble new knowledge
In conducting this research project, my aim is to develop a new methodology, which I call circulation. This methodology departs from Nietzsche’s triangulation. The three angles of the concepts of posthuman philosophy, social sculpture practice and dialogic will compose the dynamics of the circulation methodology. I also hope to develop a more specific lexicon to be used in articulating my practice.
I am pushing up against the limits of what social sculpture practice is and can be, and I am watching it derail in different ways, as the contradictions which are in it become increasingly apparent. The research might actually be more about all the ways in which social sculpture doesn’t work… (MB)
 “Social Sculpture is a definition developed by the artist Joseph Beuys in the 1970s on the concept that everything is art, that every aspect of life could be approached creatively and, as a result, everyone has the potential to be an artist. Social sculpture united Joseph Beuys’ idealistic ideas of a utopian society together with his aesthetic practice. He believed that life is a social sculpture that everyone helps to shape.” Tate glossary of art terms, tate.org.uk
 I will unpack these concepts at greater length in the extended piece of writing/draft chapter.