Artists as Prospectors: Ambient Acts of Alternativity


“ . . . the exteriority that interiority can’t do without, the co-operator.”
Fred Moten
In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition

“Who cares about context?” (a rhetorical question or counterargument)
Malcolm McCullough
Ambient Commons: Attention in the Age of Embodied Information

Founded in 2009, Artists in Context’s purpose is to “support research-based, multidisciplinary, embedded practices of contemporary artists and other creative thinkers who seek to invent alternative approaches to existing societal challenges. “ This ambitious and deliberately open-ended mission is infused by a structural paradoxy of pluralism with idealism about the generative capacities, attitudes, and implications of artists and collaborators who pursue contextual, often cooperative, practices in the public realm. Without establishing precise objectives or potential outcomes (which remains a dubious and problematic analysis of efficacy in contemporary art practices engaged in expanded social, political, environmental, health, or other cultural issues), there is a challenging entanglement of intent and directed aesthetics with purpose and process with “product” that may leave no visible, palpable, or residual presence.

Launched during the throes of political unrest and a global financial crisis, Artists in Context was founded on the unstable and unpredictable foundations of its own doubled dilemma. First, the discursive artists’ work that the organization supports and aggregates is alert and uncategorical, ranging from Daniel Peltz’s Unrealized Gain/Loss, which explores planning and investing for the future, embodied spirituality and generic secularity through the artist’s own financial prospectus, to Natalie Jeremijenko’s Environment Health Clinic that negotiates behavioral ecology, performance art, systems engineering, and street interventions to stimulate awareness of environmental health and sustainable futures. Second, the unique metabolism of Artists in Context’s small, loosely-coupled organization functions somewhat precariously between the predicament of ineffable self-definition (just what is the role of Artists in Context?) and the unexpected opportunities that indeterminate identity and enigmatic organizational agility create.  In an age of voracious branding, Artists in Context appears to persistently, wittingly, and consequently work within the margins and interstices, gaps and spaces of content and rhetorical conventions of different disciplines and contrastive methodologies.


Context: Extreme and Otherwise

Persistently challenged by my own vexed and unwieldy interests in deeply situated conditions, dynamic inter-related circumstances, and unsettled and ambient ephemerality, I find it constructive to contextualize the purpose of this organization and the artists’ works featured in the Artists’ Prospectus for the Nation with other practices and ideas that have been formative to my thinking. Having recently read a fascinating essay by performance studies theorist and scholar Shannon Jackson, (“High Maintenance: The Sanitation Aesthetics of Mierle Laderman Ukeles”), I am rethinking dimensions of Ukeles’s expansive and iterative practice.  The artist is the most legendary and persistent “contextual artist” I can imagine. She has worked as an unsalaried, embedded artist-in-residence for the New York City Department of Sanitation for more than 30 years. Ukeles has embraced the “extreme” context of complex and often competing urban systems, collaborating with a vast organization and using it as a platform to stage cross-sector projects that navigate and connect recursive work in utilitarian public spaces, diverse ecologies and feminist theory, contrasting economies and concepts of labor, and multiple scales and durations of integrative and essential work.

As I began to contextualize the unpretentious and subtly disruptive methods of Artists in Context, I thought of other organizational configurations and self-made systems. One vivid example is the Contemporary that was founded in Baltimore in 1989 as an ambitious exhibition program deliberately without an exhibition space. Creatively reconciling innovative institutional desire with a deficit of conventionally expected start-up resources (a gallery), its mission as a homeless organization compelled it to strategically partner, collaborate, poach, borrow, camp, or embed with other organizations to briefly (and spasmodically) intervene and creatively co-opt the mission, space, and daily operations of another entity. This process of undaunted coordination and co-habitation stimulated ongoing dialogues, unanticipated affinities, and short-term “cooperatives.”

Artists in Context shares some predispositions and characteristics of these embedded and peripatetic examples of contextualism, yet it is distinctively – and difficultly — different. Like the Contemporary, Artists in Context is ambitiously itinerant and agile, connecting to existing initiatives, enterprises, and structures to support alternative creative approaches in relationship to societal challenges and the volatilities of contemporary democracies. It necessarily and opportunistically embraces open conditions and existing systems with organizational flexibility and habitual adaptability. Without space and with an actively de-centralized project (exhibition) program, Artists in Context symbolically and contingently “occupies”. Modestly asserting a presence without a fixed ideological agenda, the organization connects to elements of extended networks of contemporary ideas, affinities, and sociability. Inherently interrogational, questions are the nutrients that drive and sustain the organization’s metabolism to produce new ways of thinking about artistic practice, the role of artists, and connective and consequential engagement.

A review of the work featured in the Artists’ Prospectus for the Nation provides striking evidence of the many dimensions, as well as different and often unpredictable character of art that exists in the public sphere. It is interesting to consider roles of artists that are pre-determined and those that gestate, emerge, and form through process. Some artists iteratively adapt and refine roles and projects; others are catalysts and pilot lights that ignite possibility so that new artists and participants can guide, develop, or continue the work. Does there need to be a “succession” plan for this kind of public and contextual work, especially when the potential scope of the work may exponentially expand beyond the vision or expectations of a single artist or small collective? What are the particular and persistent responsibilities and ethics in this work that frequently raise expectations, encourage participation, and stimulate critical education?


Deploying Context

Socially engaged art expansively rests between anything for everyone and something for someone. It occurs in specific sites and expanded fields, its duration (temporal formats) and participants (audience, collaborators) are strikingly variable, the forms it takes are diverse and discursive, and the content and issues range from the intimacies of the everyday to the intricacies of social justice and the ethics of social and economic disparity. It has conceptual and theoretical affinities with a wide range of disciplines, including education and pedagogy, anthropology and ethnography, performance and theatre history, philosophy and ethics, and sociology and communications theory.  Socially engaged art constitutively is neither formless nor fully formed. Thanks to the work of many dedicated artists and critics, there are well-documented and analyzed examples, as well as a continuing unfolding of new forms, methods, and critiques of socially engaged art. (Many of these ideas are explored in my recent essay, “Socially-Engaged Art,” in Artists Reclaim the Commons: New Works/New Territories/New Publics. Hamilton, NJ: iscPress, 2013).

Some of the works and artists who have been formative to my own thinking about this seemingly unbounded area of art practice present a compelling compendium of case studies that raise critical and generative questions. Without placing a value on ephemeral or more enduring forms, a subliminal and persistent interest is the scale and durational dimensions of socially engaged art. Yet, from the start, it must be acknowledged that duration has exceptional elasticity – and particularly in the realm of the social and contextual. There are intense passages and singularities in long-term work, yet the arc of short-term projects can produce resonances that are remarkably expansive. But all forms are shaped and revised by the many different ways that artists work with – and within – context and communities, as well as how individuals and communities assert or enfold themselves into a process.


Contextualizing Context

Is it possible to be an artist who does not work in context? Is context always – and only – the exteriority that artistic vision depends on – and requires?

If context is the condition of production, what can context produce?

Artists in Context invites viewers, participants, and artists to actively engage and interrogate ideas of context. A generally accepted, if narrowly conceived idea of context is the conditions and circumstances that mediate a work of art. Many art historians and others suggest that context includes the history and practice of an artist’s work, formal and stylistic background or precedents, the time when the work is created, perhaps the place – and notable conditions, forces, or influences — from which it derived, and other cultural and philosophical variables, including ethical, political, social, sexual, or religious ambiances.  Within the framework there is not simply or solely a singular direction, but generally this concept of context supports or influences or obstructs the work. In this perspective, the work itself does not necessarily, dynamically, or reciprocally influence, alter, or radically change context.

Artists in Context proposes and presents – and demonstrates through its projects and archive – expanded metaphors and concepts of context and why artists might deliberately and critically choose to work within it.  Artists are not simply subject to the conditions and vagaries of context, but decisively embrace it as a kind of supple material surrogate. Several generative metaphors immediately emanate from the collected work on the Artists’ Prospectus for the Nation site:

  • Rather than being an ineffable set of conditions from which the work is produced, emanates, or exists, context has a materiality that is investigated, deployed, applied, adapted, and occasionally invented and constructed. It is not simply something around the art, somehow collateral yet separate. Context frequently becomes both the embodiment and content of the work.
  • Perhaps paradoxically, in addition to the metaphor of materiality which invokes physicality, viscerality, visibility, and tactility, content also is about time, temporality, ephemerality, and endurance as conditional (rather than circumstantial) to the work.
  • Another metaphor that seems relevant and generative is context as a catalyst for cooperation that connects a series of situated and dynamic conditions, including social exchange.

Mining these prospective metaphors, it is significant to underscore that the central inquiry and key focus of the organization and the Artists’ Prospectus for the Nation is on artists in context – and not art in context. Artists animate these metaphors suggesting and revealing dynamic, mutable, and potentially transformative characteristics and qualities. Context is not in some way optional or palliative to the work of these artists; it is central to the work’s capacity and vitality.


Case Studies of Situated, Integrative, and Empathetic Thinking

While proposing a discursive and dynamic approach to context, there is a quality to situated thinking and making that drives, represents, and connects the existing, evolving, and speculative artists’ projects in the Artists’ Prospectus for the Nation. Loosely organized by thematic prompts, including the environment, health, consumption, and justice, artists’ present and enact striking examples of cross-sector research, integrative thinking, as well as the multiple, flexible, and adaptive role of contemporary artists.

“In today’s complex environment, the most successful thinkers can quickly and effectively abstract the best qualities of radically different ways of seeing . . . and apply them to the situation at hand. In doing so, these thinkers develop an ‘adaptive lens’ on the bewildering phenomenon we call the world . . . Stretching the mind to achieve both breadth and depth is a skill that will be of increasing value in our complex environment. (Mihnea Moldoveanu and Roger Martin, “Stretching the Mind: Developing an Adaptive Lens To Deal With Complexity,” in Rotman Magazine, Fall 2010).

The Institute for Infinitely Small Things, lead by Catherine d’Ignazio, with collaborators including Ofelia Rivas, Forest Purnell, Abigail Neale, Theo Gibbs, and Gretchen Gibbs, is a key example of a project that is contextual and “post-contextual”, both thickly situated and radically expansive in its scope and potential implications. Collaborating with the Tohono O’odham tribe, Erase the Border is both located – and tragically dislocating – on the Arizona and Mexico border where a 75-mile barrier was completed in 2008. Mandated by the Department of Homeland Security, a dubious regulatory instrument of containment has produced corrosive repercussions for the tribe. The fence has divided families and friends, obstructing countless social, logistical, and instrumental connections that supported the community. The project is a spoken, performative, and sonic petition calling for the removal of the barrier. If it cannot invoke immediate change, Erase the Border reveals and amplifies pressing questions about the bureaucratic abstractions of boundaries and borders and their disabling cultural consequences. D’Ignazio and her collaborators worked externally to reveal the deeply personal – and subversive – effects of oppressive interventions and isolationist solutions.

Nancy Andrews propels embodied context and somatic knowledge into an external realm of medical research and patient care.  In Loupette and the Moon, the artist presents a character with a challenging genetic disorder. Through Loupette’s story, Andrews raises urgent philosophical questions about wellness and normalcy, illness and pathology. With drawings, graphics, films, and animations, the artist embraces and advocates for the human condition as an arc – or spiral – of mutable conditions and multiple experiences. Recently, she has made work that graphically wanders through the enigmatic and impenetrable dimensions of dementia frequently experienced by people during prolonged treatment in critical care units.  The directness of her experience and authenticity of her work serve as remarkable resources for medical practitioners and researchers.

Frequently, working in and with context requires reimagining, recycling, and repurposing. Context itself is often dramatically influenced by social, cultural, and technological changes. Countless libraries have eliminated card catalogues and slide collections as networked, online systems of access to digital collections have become commonplace. At Rhode Island School of Design, where I work, a large space that once was the college’s slide room has been transfigured into an energetically-used materials resources center. Yet, two blocks away, Providence’s historic Athenaeum still has its card catalogue, however, it is no longer updated and now exists as a curiously enchanting artifact/archive. Artist Joseph Krupczynski has collaborated with librarian Doris Madsen to create the Springfield Seed Library: Cultivating Ideas for a Healthier City in the abandoned drawers of the library’s obsolete card catalogue system.  Retrofitted as a new repository of information and opportunity, the card catalogue is now a multi-dimensional platform that is an archive of community health information, seed saving, community gardening, and other information on food justice and access. Krupczynski has worked in context while radically transforming the conditions and focus of community knowledge, needs, and emergent agency.

One of the most moving projects in the Artists’ Prospectus for the Nation is a belated, posthumous retrospective of the extraordinary inventions and imaginings of a boy with autism who died when he was a teenager. Organized by Wendy Jacob and Theodossis Issaias, in cooperation with Luke Huntington Palmer’s family, Personal Kingdom examines the remarkable spaces and environments, including a “Nighttime Observatory: Elevated Platform for supervising the landscape”, “Office for Hours and Minutes: A collection of analog clocks for locating yourself in time”, “Communication Hub”, and “Water Monitor Station” that Luke imagined, with careful details and specifications, for spaces to accommodate a (his) range of human needs, emotions, and experience.


Expanding Ideas of Art Practices

We all know that attention can be momentary, distracted, and short-lived, but artists are skillful negotiators of the incidental, incremental, and consequential. Frequently intrepid planners and researchers, artists expertly – often exquisitely – energize the partial and incomplete, the unexpected and accidental.  Recently, I was interested to read that the Universitat der Kunste in Berlin has started a postgraduate Masters of Art in Context. The curriculum and students’ research is organized by four categories: artistic work in social groups, artistic practice with cultural institutions, artistic practice within public space and artistic practice in the context of media and academic visual production. While I question the narrow categorization, institutionalization, or possibly “siloed” ways that artists might choose to focus their work, the curriculum signals an expanded interest and preoccupation with artists in interface with informal and more established contexts.


Research as Transdisciplinary Probes

Inevitably, the artists’ projects in the Artists’ Prospectus for the Nation represent different philosophies and methodologies of research, but they all possess and demonstrate the mobility of implicative ideas. Traveling an axis of interiority and exteriority, infolding and unraveling, and individual/intimacy to expansive social/global networks, most projects have multiple relevancies. They also frequently engage in processes of extradisciplinary research in ways that have been generatively characterized by Brian Holmes (in his essay “Extradisciplinary Investigations: Towards a New Critique of Institutions,” He proposes concepts of “tropism” and “reflexivity” as cultural probes and processes to articulate and advance the intervening character of extradisciplinary research and practice:

“At work is a new tropism and a new sort of reflexivity, involving artists as well as theorists and activists in a passage beyond the limits traditionally assigned to their practice. The word tropism conveys the desire or need to turn towards something else, towards an exterior field or discipline; while the notion of reflexivity now indicates a critical return to the departure point, an attempt to transform the initial discipline, to end its isolation, to open up new possibilities of expression, analysis, cooperation and commitment. This back-and-forth movement, or rather, this transformative spiral, is the operative principle of what I will be calling extradisciplinary investigations.”


Animating Questions

Artists in Context and the Artists’ Prospectus for the Nation highlight the intricate network of co-dependencies that shape, foster, intervene, challenge, connect, and critique contextual art practices. It speculates how artists create maps/new cartographies of context as a medium of expression that requires practices where the process is pre-conceived yet open-ended, frequently post-formal and conceptually dynamic and adaptive.

This is art that frequently also looks like something else. Is this a diminishment of the work? Or how do we turn the tables — and talk and write more insistently about work that is so deeply connective, aesthetically-complex, and multiply-implicated? How do artists parse and navigate the official and actual structures that often are contrasting or contradictory? Artists in Context offers extensive views — prospects — of the intricate network of co-dependencies that shape, foster, intervene, challenge, connect, and critique contextual art practices.

At the Artists in Context national conference at MIT in March 2013, Kelly Dobson presented in the “Art, Technology and Empathy” panel. Dobson is developing a series of prototypes for use in healthcare, domestic, and, potentially, international settings. An untitled work is being developed with Women and Infants Hospital in Providence. The concept is small environments in neo-natal intensive care units that enable families to directly interact with their premature infants in coordination with the essential work of medical personnel. She also explores ideas of trans-subjectivity through responsive and communicative sculptures to create unexpected opportunities for people to connect emotionally and empathetically. Prior to Dobson’s presentation, panel chair Cynthia Cohen, Director of the Program in Peacebuilding and the Arts at Brandeis University, established some central ideas and questions, including: Epistemology and what counts as valid knowledge? What are the limitations of linear, rational, purposive ways of knowing that undergird most of our academic disciplines and our major judicial and economic institutions? She also proposed significant dimensions of art that connect to ideas of empathy and her own work in the peacebuilding field. She cited the concept of “paradoxical curiosity” and the desire and capacity to hold in a “generative relationship” two or more apparently oppositional perspectives.

I began this essay — series of reflections and speculations – by posing an idea and inclination for paradoxy as constitutive to the mission and organization of Artists in Context. Cohen elaborated on “paradoxical curiosity” and its relevance for art, empathy, and pursuit of peace:

“It seems at first glance somewhat contradictory that in a time when our overindulgence in technological communication devices seems to be at least as likely to alienate us from real presence to ourselves and each other as to connect us – that we in fact find in artfully wrought technological productions new resources for feelingful connection at the deepest levels.”

Let us look forward to unimaginable ways that artists (in context) will continue to critically emanate their fiercely intelligent and passionate embrace of “paradoxical curiosity” throughout the world we share.

Patricia C. Phillips

September 2013

Patricia C. Phillips is Dean of Graduate Studies and Research at the Rhode Island School of Design. Phillips’ research and critical writing involve contemporary public art, architecture, sculpture, landscape and the intersection of these areas. Since 1980 her essays and reviews have been published in Artforum, Art in America, Flash Art, Sculpture and Public Art Review, as well as in books and collected essays published by Rizzoli International Publications, Princeton Architectural Press, MIT Press, Actar Press, Bay Press and Routledge.