What’s Love Got to Do with It… Remembering Ted Purves

What’s Love Got to Do with It…

Thus never a completeness of the One, but constitution of two worlds open and in relation with one other, and which give birth to a third world as work in common and space-time to be shared.

— Luce Irigaray, The Way of Love 1

When I was asked to write an artist’s take on creative place-making last summer for the Rice University quarterly of design and architecture Cite, I had no intention of talking about love. And then Ted Purves died.

On the one-year anniversary of his passing I thought it was about time I shared what I wrote with you, his beloved community at CCA, and the larger Bay Area.

For those of you who did not have the good fortune to know Ted, he was brilliant and generous. A man with too many accomplishments to list here, but some highlights include playing bass and singing in an Illinois punk band 2, marrying the smart and talented Susanne Cockrell, with whom he collaborated in not only raising a good and beautiful son but also in the creation of many thoughtful artworks. Ted launched the first MFA curriculum in Social Practice at California College of the Arts in 2006, which is where I met him in 2008. And, he also wrote the important What We Want is Free (2005), a book that looked to understand and contextualize a new type of art practice bubbling up in the early to mid-2000s.

This new art practice, called “Relational Aesthetics” by Nicholas Bourriaud 3 has since expanded to include everything from Joseph Beuys’s “Social Sculpture” 4 to Claire Bishop’s definition of socially engaged practice. 5 This genre of artistic practice has subsequently been instrumentally employed for some time now by non-profit and local government agencies alike, as a strategy for “creative place-making.”

The CCA Masters in Social Practices, led by Ted, was a program where practitioners of this type of work came from all over the world to passionately argue over what they felt were the most important issues to address in the field, such as what are the ethics of a socially engaged art practice? What is the moral obligation of the artist when working with or for people? Is there one? We struggled with the dichotomy that the funding and further success of many socially-engaged art projects were dependent upon gaining recognition from the very capitalist art world systems they purportedly resisted, as methodology and models of best practices were hotly debated.

Ted and I would often use the opportunity of getting our kids together at the park to continue these conversations. Over time it became apparent that my propensity for Marxist and feminist critique, almost to the exclusion of all else, frustrated the hell out of him. The frustration was often mutual — due to my misguided absolutism I regarded his thinking about the potential for inclusivity and real social change as naïve and privileged. Ten years later I have now come to the realization that his thinking was far defter and nuanced than I appreciated at the time.

I had come to San Francisco suspicious of such endeavors due to my experience working directly with the local government in Scotland on projects that deployed socially engaged artists and their practices as agents of urban regeneration. With few exceptions, it had been my experience that the majority of these well-meaning projects served to give the impression of care and investment in the regeneration of many architecturally brutalized and economically beleaguered communities. All the while, they were merely becoming a distraction to the people who lived there from the harsh fact that they were still being under-served, lacking basic infrastructure needs like working street lights, grocery stores, safe spaces for children to play, and reliable bus services.

My experience of seeing first-hand the expectations of a community dashed and the limitations of my role as an artist in preventing it or remedying it had instilled in me a deep cynicism and a harsh criticality of the assumed beatific potential of this kind of practice. This cynicism informed my thinking and the work I was producing at the time I was accepted at CCA. When I started to see these same practices adopted in my new home of San Francisco, I was alarmed. I watched as this positioning of socially-engaged art as an instrument in creative place-making exacerbated the intense gentrification already underway in the city.

Ted remained optimistic. He really did believe that done right, this work could change lives, and he embodied this optimism in every part of his life. This ethos was specifically demonstrated in the collaborative social sculpture Temescal Amity Works, which he made with Susanne Cockrell between 2004 and 2007. The project sought to explore community-built relationships by circumnavigating capitalist systems, instead building upon the cultural economies of generosity and gift-giving. Over the course of three years Temescal Amity Works serviced the community by collecting and redistributing neighborhood surplus fruit, much of it planted by Italian immigrants who settled in the Temescal district of Oakland in the 1960s. The project centered around various events that brought the community together to uncover and discuss its rich history.

Amity Works‘ central image, a mobile fruit barrow used to collect and redistribute the fruit, also served to make Ted and Susanne’s intent to build a relational economy legible. As they moved through the neighborhood with the barrow, they collected both fruit and oral histories, redistributing them back to their community and “preserved” in the form of either marmalade or history-filled postcards that were free to all.

In his essay “Blows Against the Empire,” contained in What We Want is Free, Ted proposed this gift economy based on generosity as an act of resolute resistance. A punk response to the cynicism and capitalism with which the art world seems inebriated. However, try as I might when we talked, I just couldn’t get comfortable with this approach.

Like all forms of social exchange, gift-giving is specific to the community and economy in which it is experienced. Ted saw the giving of a gift and its subsequent ties of obligation as a strategy for creating “kinship.” However, in working-class Scotland where I grew up, and in other similar cultures, a gift given from outside one’s community or class comes with an “obligation” that instead of binding together serves to delineate the “haves” from the “have-nots.” Something is now owed.

More recently, we saw this partly manifest here in Houston by way of the distrust of authorities and the Red Cross during Hurricane Harvey, with people preferring to depend on each other instead. When one party has access to privilege and resources that the other does not have (and perhaps never will), a power imbalance is injected into the exchange, with suspicion replacing gratitude and making us conscious once more of our lack.

Ted’s optimism was in itself an act of resistance to the pernicious sense of scarcity that pervades not only the art world but — as we see in current political discourse — seemingly every community, regardless of privilege or resources.

At the end of one of our particularly frustrating discussions, a weary Ted turned to me and said: “Sure, it’s easy to point out what’s wrong with these practices. It’s easy to make critical work that merely points a finger at their failings and sort of simultaneously pats yourself on the back for being smart in figuring it out. But what are you offering in these broken models’ stead? What really are you giving us? What are you willing to risk? And where is your generosity?”

This challenge to turn away from cynicism towards a more generative, generous practice produced a feeling of unease in me and spurred me to action. I realized I was feeling paralyzed and exhausted making work that only reflected what was lacking in the various methodologies and practitioners of socially-engaged art. How could this circulatory negation ever add anything positive to the discourse? As a result, I have spent the ensuing years attempting to embrace Ted’s challenge in my own practice, which brings me back to the question:

What does love have to do with all this?

It is my proposition that a radical love, one predicated on our assumed mutual perfection and not our lack, may offer a strategy towards a new methodology for the engagement of artists and creative place-makers attempting to take up Ted’s challenge. In her book The Way of Love, French feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray eloquently describes an interpersonal relational model thus: “[…] constitution of two worlds open and in relation with one other, and which give birth to a third world as work in common and space-time to be shared.” This model repudiates a presumptive lack in either party as they enter the relationship, in exchange for an active constantly negotiated and co-created state of becoming. Language and culture are created, not by a collapsing of the space between two to become one, but by a respectful attendance to the space between both. Community and “artist” subsequently conjuring a third space that is in a constant state of negotiation and becoming.

What unites us is a common need for connection. The work, the real creative place-making is to make a space for that connection. As we look to the rebuilding of not only our city of Houston but cities across the country, it is my assertion that we need to acknowledge this collective need as the solution. Not a gift, but many gifts, a process of exchange, a becoming, together. If expanded upon as a foundation for socially-engaged work in service to creative place-making, I believe this approach could hold the answer to the fraught class/privilege issues that arise for me in the radical gift ethos Ted championed.

As I write this almost ten years after my conversation with Ted, in a community still dealing with the aftermath of one of the worst disasters in its history — my beloved adopted home city of Houston — I am struck by the urgency with which our collective creative communities, now more than ever, must turn away from the alienating cynicism of late-capitalist culture and find a way to conjure Irigaray’s “third world as work in common and space-time to be shared.”

Ted’s challenge, “what are you offering in these broken models’ stead? What really are you giving us? What are you willing to risk? And where is your generosity?” seemed to me to be momentarily answered when the people of Houston came together in the aftermath of Harvey.

However, the question now is how do we sustain this? How do we resist the pitfalls of gentrification as we rebuild? How do we, as artist and architects, act as agents on behalf of existent cultures in the neighborhoods worst hit — which are also unsurprisingly among the most under-served neighborhoods in town — and in service to them? And what lessons learned from NOLA after Hurricane Katrina can we put into place to stop the price-gouging of rents and opportunistic land grabs by developers? I don’t have the perfect answers to these questions. And if Ted was still with us he probably wouldn’t either, but I know if I’d called him he would have pushed me to reach for better solutions. If we practitioners of socially-engaged art and creative place-making mindfully go forward with the intent to conjure Iriagary’s “third world as work in common and space-time to be shared,” it is my assertion that we can build upon the radical love that transformed strangers into fleets of people risking their lives for the unknown/unknowable Other, and conjure the culture of generosity and radical love that Ted challenged me to create all those years ago.

As it turns out, the question is not “What’s Love Got to Do with It…” but “what are you going to do with your love?”

  1. 1Irigaray, 2004, p. 10.
  2. 2The Breeders — Things Happen. Eight-song cassette released 1985. Illinois’ own ’80s DIY punks… nearly wiped from the face of Midwest rock history… Champaign’s original Zen Punks. The Breeders evolved out of Two-Fat — a punk/ska cover band formed by CU high schoolers Ted Purves and the Peltz brothers (fifteen-year-old Jonno on drums and seventeen-year-old James on guitar). In 1983, the band re-formed as a power trio with Andrew VanDusen on guitar and vocals and decided to concentrate on original material and a more distilled, harder sound. A year later they added second guitarist Glenn Graham. After renaming themselves (The) Breeders, they recorded the now much-fetishized Zen Punk 45 EP, and fought for recognition/gigs in the ’80s music landscape dominated by hair metal and oldies frat rock bands. They created their own scene, booked their own shows in far flung bars and church basements, eventually playing with bands such as X, The Minutemen, Articles of Faith, Offenders, M.I.A., and Tales of Terror, as well as with bands who remain only as whispered legends of downstate punk/post-punk rock, including the Nameless Dread, the Didjits, Ack-Ack and the Blood Farmers. (Dusen, ?)
  3. 3Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, 1998.
  4. 4Joseph Beuys (born in 1921 in Krefeld, died in 1986 in Düsseldorf) developed the “expanded concept of art” and the theory of the “social sculpture.” He is internationally recognized as the most important and influential German artist in recent years. Begun by Joseph Beuys’s for documenta 7, 7000 Eichen — Stadtverwaldung statt Stadtverwaltung, is distributed throughout the entire city. It took five years to clear the wedge-shaped pile of rocks on Friedrichsplatz and realize this social sculpture. The artist made his gift to the documenta city dependent on the condition that 7000 trees, each accompanied by a basalt stele, would be planted at 7000 locations all over the city. Like no other work of art in the world, the mature, still growing aesthetic organism intervenes radically and sustainably in the visual, ecological and social structure of the urban habitat in readily comprehensible ways. The forestation of the city was realized through constructive cooperation involving the artist, local government, and the citizens of Kassel. (documenta, n.d.)
  5. 5“This expanded field of relational practices currently goes by a variety of names: socially engaged art, community-based art, experimental communities, dialogic art, littoral art, participatory, interventionist, research-based, or collaborative art. These practices are less interested in a relational aesthetic than in the creative rewards of collaborative activity-whether in the form of working with preexisting communities or establishing one’s own interdisciplinary network. It is tempting to date the rise in visibility of these practices to the early 1990s, when the fall of Communism deprived the Left of the last vestiges of the revolution that had once linked political and aesthetic radicalism. Many artists now make no distinction between their work inside and outside the gallery, and even highly established and commercially suc­cessful figures like Francis Alÿs, Pierre Huyghe, Matthew Barney, and Thomas Hirschhorn have all turned to social collaboration as an extension of their conceptual or sculptural practice. Although the objectives and output of these various artists and groups vary enormously, all are linked by a belief in the empowering creativity of collective action and shared ideas.” (Bishop, 2006)
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