February 21, 2010

Interview with Art Practical

Art Practical is a new and ambitious platform for chronicling contemporary art and visual culture in the Bay Area. According to the website Art Practical “represents the current shifting landscape of arts journalism by serving as a juncture for critical dialogue…”  To learn more I posed four questions to the editor, Patricia Maloney.

From the beginning, your strategy has been to partner with other web-based content providers. How does this strategy reflect the larger philosophy and approach of Art Practical?

In the mission statement, I wrote that Art Practical is not a proprietor of information; our goal is to generate pathways for investigation. In additional to the original content that we produce, which appears as Reviews and Features in issues, we share content with three web-based platforms—the calendar and directory Happenstand, the podcast Bad At Sports, and the forum Shotgun Review—as well as one quarterly print publication, Talking Cure.

Shotgun Review now exists as a section within Art Practical; the other entities operate fully outside of Art Practical as well as providing us with content. Our event listings for openings and closings, as well as our editorial picks, come from Happenstand; we conduct interviews that appear simultaneously as Features on Art Practical and podcasts on Bad At Sports, and many of our Features are published first in Talking Cure. Together, we function as a coalition that provides comprehensive information and analysis of events, practices and exhibitions.

Art Practical is the site that choreographs this coalition. The idea came together via conversation with and the generosity of the people involved with the respective entities you, Joseph, and Scott Oliver (Shotgun), Lucas Shuman (Happenstand), the Bad At Sports team, and Jarrett Earnest (Talking Cure). I had no interest in duplicating their activities, but instead saw an opportunity in which we could mutually support our shared objectives. Collectively, we create visibility for individual projects and a forum for critical reflection for an audience much broader than our individual efforts.

Art Practical itself is a collective endeavor, emblematic of the collaborative spirit of the Bay Area visual arts culture, which has a long local history of incubating experimentation and innovation.  The team members that have created Art Practical and produce each issue have each played crucial roles in creating a model for visual arts criticism that is highly conscious of the audience it is serving. Perhaps more than anyone else, Stoyan Dabov, our developer, recognizes and articulates the ways in which familiar forms of communication are being ruptured. As the site evolves, he is pointing us toward embracing new approaches. The Editorial team, Hope Dabov, Vicky Gannon, Catherine McChrystal, and Morgan Peirce, work tirelessly in encouraging our writers to be creative, to find new modes of description and criticism, and to further define their personal voice. Their collaboration reflects our entire approach.

What can criticism accomplish? And how does Art Practical establish value judgments in the Bay Area, a region preoccupied with serving everyone equally?

I don’t believe that equal representation and value judgments are mutually exclusive objectives, because I don’t see criticism as a process of negation or dismissal. Instead, I believe it can encourage creative efforts and generate alternative discourses. Art historian James Elkin, in his essay “On the Absence of Judgment in Art Criticism,” asserts the need for an academic discipline for criticism, and in the process defines what criticism itself does—it “puts two kinds of pressure on a practitioner: it compels an awareness of colleagues, and it instills a sense of history of previous efforts.”

Taken from that perspective, criticism can actually support the goals of equal representation by broadening audiences and placing current artistic production in a larger context. Because this region historically has not had a lasting critical forum, Art Practical tries not only to operate as a site for criticism, but also think about what forms critical dialogue might take, how judgments form, and by what means a writer can engage diverse audiences.

It is safe for critics to limit themselves with description and their immediate reaction to what they see. What is more risky, but ultimately more valuable to both producer and audience is a rigorous and clear analysis, in which the writer understands their particular ideological and experiential influences, and identifies the perspective from which they are operating, whether that be aesthetic, art historical, political, theoretical, or otherwise. That is value judgment.

Art Practical’s contributors occupy multifaceted, overlapping roles—artists, historians, curators, students, academics—and they bring those experiences to bear in the positions they take. That is why we have over 25 regular contributors, each of whom has committed to producing multiple reviews over the course of the year. This enables our readers to identify what individual stances exist through repeat engagement. It is also why we continue to offer Shotgun Reviews as an open forum, by which any interested party might contribute. This disables the concept of the singular voice that claims ultimate authority, and instead encourages alternative, even conflicting viewpoints. Michael Newman, a colleague of Elkins, describes that process and sums up what we try to accomplish in his essay “The Recovery of Criticism.” He writes that the critic’s “inventive task” is to convert the experience of a work of art “into one with value for those with other perspectives, in the present.”

During our recent conversation you mentioned that you see Art Practical as a kind of group portrait of the arts in the Bay Area. What do you see as the site’s role in recording history-in-the-making?

This is a recurring conversation that I have with Jarrett Earnest, the founder and Editor of Talking Cure quarterly, and it informs our collaboration. He describes the partnership very elegantly in saying that Talking Cure, as a printed forum, can function as the “record of a precise moment” and “serves as an anchoring system for Art Practical.” And that has already borne out, when you consider some of the selections from Talking Cure that have appeared on Art Practical, particularly the side-by-side interviews with Peter Selz and Larry Rinder, or Terri Cohn’s interview with David Ireland. These are individuals who’ve played significant roles in the recent history of the Bay Area visual culture, worked with multiple institutions, and had or have a broad view of shifts in artistic practices here.

Online platforms have a tendency to collapse time, but might feasibly have both an immediate impact, and construct a longer view. In the short term, a review serves as a record of an event or exhibition: this artist was included in this show at this time in this space. Over the longer term, the assemblage of reviews and articles start to sketch out a picture of how the Bay Area visual arts community defines itself. That is what I mean by a group portrait, although collage might be a better term.

Already, I think someone can look at Art Practical’s content, and see some of the interconnectivity between spaces and people. And one can identify some of the characteristics that define the scene here. Many are obvious, but worth stating. They include:

  • That the artists living and working in the Bay Area see themselves as part of a community of artists, and will identify themselves as belonging to a community, although they would not include all other artists as part of their same community, or claim to share objectives or practices with all other artists.
  • Artists tend to define their communities around places, particularly the local art schools and alternative exhibition spaces.
  • Home-grown activities and spaces proliferate.
  • Artists are heavily influenced by living in an urban environment.
  • There are a significant number of international artists living in the San Francisco Bay Area, whose cultures of origins inform their practices as much if not more than their present locality.
  • Artistic practice has a tendency to overlap with lived experience. In other words, a distinction is not drawn between the goals of daily life and life as an artist.
  • The Bay Area is an incubator for young artists (more on that later).
  • The primary institutions are academic ones, particularly the art schools.
  • A great deal of currency is given to collective activities; collaboration is highly valued.
  • In the absence of a sustaining market, artists create alternative modes of display and exchange, often by means of artists’ books and zines.
  • Editioned print multiples have wide reception, but their production often flies under the radar.
  • There is a tendency to embrace progressive stances around social and political issues, but many artists still use traditional media to articulate those stances.
  • Ephemeral and social practices are encouraged, as are documenting and capturing the traces of these practices.
  • Material-based practices tend to dominate conceptual ones.

We also discussed the tendency of artists to leave the Bay Area, and the idea of the Bay Area as an incubator for young artists. What do you see as Art Practical’s role in this process.

Art Practical encourages young artists to write and to be ambitious. It also has the potential, over the longer term, to create a historical viewpoint of what they do while they are here.

Several of our contributors are freshly minted MFA or MA graduates. Some are still in school. I encourage their contributions because I believe that one of the best ways an artist can learn to speak to their own practice is to engage in discourse about other artists’ practices. Asking questions about someone’s work is a fantastic way to find the questions one needs to ask about their own, and to think about how to answer someone else’s.

A strong tenet of our mission is to enable emerging writers to refine their practice amidst those already renowned for their critical insight. To that end, we’ve created Critical Sources. Scheduled for April 24 and May 1, 2010 at The Lab in San Francisco, this is a two-part writing workshop where established critics and editors will offer strategies for analyzing and writing about the experience of a work of art.

There are multiple venues in the Bay Area, both commercial galleries and alternative exhibition spaces, which offer emerging local artists exhibition opportunities. Art Practical places their work within a critical framework from an early stage of their career, in an environment that differs from an academic setting, but one that still encourages innovation and refinement. It enables them to be ambitious in their practice, to take risk and see how the community responds. It will also, hopefully, reduce some of the derivative practices that happen now, when there is more evidence of what immediately preceded them, and as understanding develops around why certain practices emerge.

It is important to recognize that the local art schools—not just SFAI and CCA, but those especially—are major attractants for young artists, and they become nexuses for these artists. The reality is that the market, in most cases, can not sustain their careers over the long term, and Renny’s recent blog post (and the comments that follow) certainly elaborate on that. But I am less interested in the question of how to keep artists here than I am in how to capture what they do while they’re here. The San Francisco Bay Area can flourish, at least in reputation, as an incubator where young artists can experiment and develop the foundations of their practice. If they go elsewhere, Art Practical at least gives evidence to their time here, and enables a broader audience to give credit to the fact that their formative stage happened while they were part of this community.

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