Condensations of the Social
Smack Mellon, Brooklyn
Through August 1
by Katie Anania
Anyone who’s ever become fascinated with an exhibition for the wrong reasons will sympathize with my interest in Condensations of the Social, the current group show organized by Sara Reisman at Smack Mellon in Dumbo. Reisman’s curatorial premise argues for the revolutionary potential of pedagogically and socially inclined contemporary art, for its ability to “create new possibilities for persuasion.” Among other things, the show promised a re-installation of Merle Laderman Ukeles’ 1978-80 performance Touch Sanitation, in which the artist set out to shake the hands of all 8,500 sanitation workers in New York City, saying “Thank you for keeping New York City alive” to each. To me, Laderman Ukeles’ blending of dogged seriality and tender intimacy would make Touch Sanitation the pièce de résistance of any survey or group show, and Condensations of the Social was no exception. So, full disclosure: this work became the screen and the barometer through and by which I judged all the other works, which I don’t think is what Reisman wanted to happen.
The common tie among the featured artists was their interest in making “the social” more knowable but less quantifiable. Watching Laderman Ukeles’ videotaped interviews with the sanitation workers, who unburden to Laderman Ukeles their stories of inhuman treatment by New York’s businesses and private citizens, prompts the viewer to think not about garbage but rather about the garbage workers themselves. Following a similar logic, Miladen Miljanovic’s video I Serve Art features video images of Miljanovic’s period of decompression after Bosnian military service. But the difference between the two works—one that made Touch Sanitation more problematic and thus more generative—is that Laderman Ukeles’ stubborn subject-position penetrates each scene. Her spotless hot-pink t-shirt against the drab uniformity of crowds of “san men”, her bright blond coif that serves to underscore her whiteness (and thus irremediable difference from her interviewees)—these things, when seen on film, really trouble the idea that artistic intervention into “the social” can never be completely successful.
Let Knowledge Serve the City (2010), a collective
installation by the Art and Social Practice MFA students at Portland
State University, was less quirk-rich; in fact, it felt like an
over-enthusiastic paean to local commerce. The work included a
wall-length chalkboard and typed paper notices that detailed upcoming
tutorials at the gallery on organic gardening, the story of a nearby
community bicycle shop, and directions to a handmade clothing store
several blocks away from the gallery. While these entities might effect
very real social change in the area, I challenge artists to find a way
of mapping neighborhoods like this without the resulting visual
material giving off the air of a scaled-down social networking site.
The eight-page reader that Reisman assembled to accompany the
exhibition, which included the students’ responses to questions like
“Why do you think artists are turning to pedagogical practice now?”,
was more effective at making the students appear as intellectually
sophisticated as they probably are.
Condensations of the Social also made it clear that Laderman Ukeles’ work is enjoying a reassessment because of recent debates about globalized labor. Several of the participants, Mary Mattingly and the Portland MFAs in particular, made work that manifested concerns about where labor was coming from, who was doing it, and how ethically it was being obtained. Overall, this was a productive attempt to historicize recent turns in contemporary art that otherwise feel unctuously hokey or utopian, and Touch Sanitation muscles through as an absolute theoretical centerpiece.
Katie Anania is an art critic and doctoral student in Art History.