Carmen Papalia’s M.F.A. project doesn’t look much like art. For “Blind Field Shuttle,” he led his classmates across the Portland State campus in Oregon on an eyes-closed walking tour, single file, each with a hand on the shoulder of the person in front.
For the first half of the 40-minute walk, some nervous participants had panic attacks, or cried. Mr. Papalia talked about what they were passing — a fire hydrant, a brick wall, a fence — and the vulnerability they were feeling.
“By the end of the walk,” he said, “they were hugging me, hugging each other and just feeling a general sense of joy after having accomplished a seemingly impossible task by trusting in each other and in their nonvisual senses.” In a very Marcel Duchampian way, this was art because an artist was in charge of it.
“Blind Field Shuttle” is a different type of art, and Mr. Papalia was a different type of art student. Aside from being legally blind, he had no formal art training before enrolling in Portland State’s interdisciplinary Master of Fine Arts program in art and social practice.
“I wanted to learn strategies for engaging folks in caring about disability,” said Mr. Papalia, an English major as an undergraduate. He then ticked off the skills needed for social practice art: “communication, organization, presentation, negotiation and facilitation.”
The first academic concentration in the field dates to just 2005, at California College of the Arts in San Francisco. Since then, at least 10 other institutions have established master’s-level degree programs in social practice art (sometimes called community engagement, contextual practice or socially engaged art-making). Many others have added classes, minors, concentrations and certificate programs.
WHAT IS SOCIAL PRACTICE ART?
Defining social practice is no easy thing. Harrell Fletcher, who directs the concentration at Portland State, describes it in terms of what it isn’t: It is “the opposite of studio practice. It’s not all about the artist, and it isn’t assumed that work will go into a gallery.” It doesn’t have a look, like Cubism or Pop Art, and it has no central message, like Expressionism or Surrealism.
To Mark Tribe, chairman of the M.F.A. fine arts department at the School of Visual Arts in New York, it “is about artists collaborating with people in communities.” The aim is to bring about heightened awareness of societal, cultural, ecological or political issues that are of immediate concern to that community.
Think Soviet agitprop, performance art and Bansky with the social consciousness of the community organizer Saul Alinsky.
The focus of social practice art shifts with the concerns of the day. “In the 1980s, it was homelessness,” said Suzanne Lacy, department chairwoman in the graduate public practice program at Otis College of Art and Design, in Los Angeles. “Food and food scarcity is the issue du jour,” she said. Also, “you see more focus on violence against women, and water and ecology are coming up.”
Sound like plain old activism? Intent, she said, makes the art. She cites an example: the harpooning of a Toyota in front of the Bank of Tokyo to protest Japanese whaling. “That wasn’t an art project, because Greenpeace wasn’t intending it as an art project.”
WHY STUDY IT?
“You see young people increasingly want their work to matter, to have their art make a difference in the world,” said Walter E. Massey, chairman of the executive committee of the Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design. “You see more interest in social practice because both students and faculty want to go beyond the aesthetics of their art and just the making of their art.”
More professional artists, too, have made social practice their principal activity, including Jackie Brookner, Tania Bruguera, Mel Chin, Mierle Laderman Ukeles and Mary Miss.
“I’m not interested in putting up another monolithic, iconic art object, like Claes Oldenburg,” said Ms. Miss, who in “Connect the Dots” affixed blue discs to high-water marks on trees, doors and buildings in Boulder Creek, Colo., to remind residents of past floods.
Traditional programs guide students in the creation of work for exhibition and (they hope) sale. Social practice instruction presents an alternative.
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Image: The artist Carmen Papalia, who is legally blind, leads an eyes-shut walking tour called “Blind Field Shuttle.”