Chats About Change: Critical Conversations on Art and Politics is five conversations addressing contemporary themes that artists and activists are developing in Los Angeles today.
"Pivoting: Ethics and Aesthetics," a panel of Elana Mann and Robby Herbst's social practice conference Chats About Change: Critical Conversations on Art and Politics in Los Angeles, presented an opportunity for artists who find themselves in the confluence of individual expression and broader social exchange to speak about their experience negotiating, or pivoting, ever-so slightly between the two things. Alternately called "public practice," "participatory art," "community art," and "vanguard works," social practice is an artistic medium that emphasizes community engagement and a conceptual application of socio-political concerns. This scope made social practice the perfect site for an examination of two sets of principles that are often thought of as incongruous.
Held at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE), "Pivoting" was a forum devoted to artists' anecdotal experiences rotating between ethics, aesthetics, and multiple roles within arts communities. The guiding question of the day was: How can one mediate the social accountability connoted by ethics and the merits of self-derived aesthetics? Multidisciplinary artist and educator Dorit Cypis, who moderated the panel, described the dynamic as such: "When you talk about a form like public practice, when you weigh the content of the public into your work, as part of the generative materials of your own practice, I think that brings up a lot of questions about ethics."
That inquiry can result in what panelist Amitis Motevalli called "the collision of ethics and aesthetics." taisha paggett, another panelist, brought a map she'd drawn describing the relationships between the concepts in her own practice as an interdisciplinary dancer and teacher. "It's all about being lateral," she said. "My own practice has been about asking really circular questions about the nature of [materials, themes, etc.] and how [they] relate in the bigger picture of my own production." She continued, "What are the micro-communities that I become in relation to?"
The panel's other speaker Adam Overton walked into the "speaker's circle" (blue tape arranged in an interrupted circle, which circumscribed the microphone stand) and described the balance between his role as an experimental artist and as an organizer in the unionization efforts of Los Angeles-area colleges. "The biggest difference between my time as an artist and my time as an activist is that as an artist, it was fine for me to remain in the realm of revolutionary thought." He explained further: "But in the realm of activism, I see firsthand that remaining only in revolutionary thought is not enough to effect change in all circumstances. And that one must cross the threshold from thought into action, together with others, and one must activate themselves and to coach others into activating themselves."
As it turned out, activation took spherical motion. Overton and everyone else who stepped inside the circle rotated in the spot like meat on a spit. That oscillation, an effort to face everyone in the room, was movement that echoed the panel's title. It also highlighted the complexity of speaking to many folks at one time, in art as well as in person. For some, it's as easy as pivoting on a dime. For others, it's a grapevine dance. And for others, like Motevalli, it's an interactive performance in Arhus, Denmark, in 40-degree weather.
Motevalli, the Project Manager of L.A. Islamic Arts Initiative, told a story about her efforts to start an art club in Arhus at the same time she staged a piece called "Jokes On Me/Stupid Muslim Joke" in the town square. She performed as the teenaged brothers of the young Muslim girls she sought to recruit for the club stood around the square and protected her against the specter of Neo-Nazi threats she'd received. The experience of being enshrouded by the young men proved not to be tangential, as it spoke to the continuous theme of relation within multiple communities at once. Like an audience member later said in the more interactive part of the panel, it's no coincidence that those chosen to lead this panel use their bodies in their work. The body is a site of public and private negotiation.
The small moments that made up "Pivoting" rendered that negotiation an ongoing, insistent thing. Cheers and punchy rock from the musical "Rent" permeated the wall LACE shares with the Cupcake Theater. The sounds provided a humorous digression from the weighty conversation, and served as an apt reminder of an outside world (although someone went next door to address the loud music, which was ironic given the community angle). Two panelists opted out of the speaker's circle and chose to sit among the audience, further addressing what it means to be of and in one's audience/community. The next workshop, "Between The Artist, The Organizer, and The Social Worker," was to be structured in various parts of the gallery, in so-called "islands of courage." It was hard for one's eyes to not drift back to the speaker's circle, itself a kind of island, not of courage but of exception. Perhaps the perforated pattern of the circle enabled those who chose to occupy that zone, like social practitioners, to better mediate the spaces inside and outside that realm.
Read our entire Chats About Change series:
Chats About Change: The Intersection of Art and Activism
Chats About Change: Critical Conversations on Art and Politics is a series of panel discussions addressing contemporary themes creative practitioners are developing in L.A.
Chats About Change: Critical Conversations on Art and Politics
The event "Critical Conversations on Art and Politics in Los Angeles" addressed the stakes for work that engages in the space of art and politics.
Chats About Change: Changing the Terms of Engagement
"Chats About Change" questions and reflects on people's relationship to the land as a colonized space.