Stories from the Inside

Girls Drawing150x150

Understanding Socially Engaged Art, the Glue-Stick Way

For years now, each seminar course I’ve participated in as an art history graduate student has, at some point in the semester, engaged in heated conversation about socially engaged art, even when the course was on an unrelated subject. And really, why shouldn’t this keep coming up? Socially engaged art, participatory art, relational art…whatever you choose to call it, is a hot topic (and a divisive one) with many fundamental principles at stake. And since we are graduate students and we like nothing more than to complicate things, these discussions always generate more questions, propositions, proposed terminologies, and potential taxonomies than they do concrete conclusions about what socially engaged art can or cannot offer us.

After one such seminar conversation last fall, I made my way over to the damp basement rec room of a Logan Square church and sat on the floor with a few dozen artists, dancers, poets, and musicians, about half of whom were adolescent girls. The event was a meeting of Ag47, an all-volunteer, donation-funded collective of female artists that is part mentorship program, part socially engaged art project. The discussion we were having that day was about the idea of infection, and it was both concrete and abstract: our feelings about the contagious qualities of germs, yawns, moods, and trends were enumerated, and we batted around strategies for spreading, receiving, and resisting such infections.

Image: Ag47 workshop. Courtesy Katherine Robinson.

Ag47 meets a few times a month from October to April, and each year’s work is organized around a meaty central question. The collective considers the question carefully, with input from both the teens and the adults, and then works together to design a variety of interdisciplinary art projects that will help us to explore it. This year our question is: “How does the world infect me, and how do I infect the world?” So far, that inquiry has generated a dance, a ritual performance, a set of DIY musical instruments, a chapbook of poems, a variety of painting, drawing, and collage, and many fruitful conversations. Each adult in the collective acts as a mentor for one of the youth artists on every project, but the work turns out to be more broadly collaborative than that, with artists forming small, shifting groups, and building on one another’s ideas. Everything we’ve produced feels, to me at least, as though it has been generated in a way that is truly collective.

The crux of Ag47’s mission is to amplify the voices of Chicago girls. Each workshop introduces a variety of creative strategies and tools that help the teen participants to refine and express their ideas and feelings. The mentor-girl pairings around which the collective is structured provide girls with one-on-one guidance from experienced artists, ensuring a level of aesthetic sophistication in the artwork, and providing each teen with an adult who is a supportive and willing listener. At the end of each year, the projects that the group has generated are presented in a multimedia showcase, providing the girls with a forum from which to speak to their communities and have their voices heard. The object-based artworks are for sale at the showcase, and the proceeds support the next year’s projects, thereby investing the girls in the funding structure of the collective.

Girls Drawing Spring2012
Image: Ag47 workshop. Courtesy Katherine Robinson.

In these and other ways, Ag47’s work looks a lot like many of the socially engaged art projects that get discussed in my art history seminars: traditional ideas about authorship are ignored, there is a broad social mission as well as an aesthetic sensibility, and the participants (the teens at least) come from outside of the conventional boundaries of the art world. And yet, as a member of the collective this past year, my understanding of these issues has taken a turn toward something like simplicity. The ideas that my art-history classmates and I have been deconstructing and complicating and contextualizing and rethinking seem suddenly, to me, to be oddly practical, and either useful or not (depending on the week or even the hour), but I can usually tell without trying too hard. All of this is to say that, theorizing about art, and especially contemporary art, should be tempered with making or seeing or participating in it in a sustained, elbows-deep kind of way. I know that this should have been obvious to me long ago, but as a student fully entrenched in academic art history and going on five years in graduate school, it was a lesson I needed to learn.

Ag47's fabulous Showcase 2013, Infectious, is taking place Friday, April 19, 7-10pm at Hairpin Lofts, 2800 North Milwaukee Avenue, 2nd Floor.

By Cara Smulevitz, PhD student, Art History and Gender and Women's Studies.