Contextual Practice and Social Engagement


By Mary Ebeling and Ryan McCartney

Eric Clark performance at Little Berlin’s Fairgrounds. Photo courtesy of Little Berlin.
Eric Clark performance at Little Berlin’s Fairgrounds. Photo courtesy of Little Berlin.

The following essay, originally published as part of the Citywide exhibition catalog, is the result of a discussion on Contextual Practice and Social Engagement in Philadelphia. The participants were Tyler Kline and Peter Erickson from Little Berlin (founded 2007), Yuka Yokoyama from Marginal Utility (founded 2009), and Jerry Kaba and Yvonne Lung from Practice Gallery (founded 2012). Mary Ebeling and Ryan McCartney moderated the conversation.



This Must Be the Place


Contextual Practice might be defined as the exploration of what art could be in relation to its audience, and this search takes many paths in Philadelphia’s galleries. Work both creates and exists within contexts. Art’s simultaneity calls for an investigation into the labor that manipulates the balance between the two. Much like the development of the city itself, there are several distinct avenues pursued towards reconciling the divide between the gallery and collective as an individual culture, and the surrounding streets as a greater community, a location, a home. The desire to imagine beyond traditional art categorizations, indeed the subversion of those categories, along with the ongoing work to spread these imaginings beyond the four walls of gallery spaces—help to embed the collective art community into Philadelphia’s ever-changing cityscape.


The term Contextual Practice is used loosely here, since it seems to be a potential catchall for any activity that takes place outside of a gallery’s interiors. Certainly, the term is closely linked to social engagement, as well as to the responsibilities that should, but may not accompany such engagements with communities outside of collectives. Strictly speaking, one might use the term Contextual Practice to refer solely to a manipulation of the context governing subjects or objects, but here the discussion is of hybrids. This is, after all, Philadelphia. One might start a nonprofit space here with the aim to offer the best of the commercial art sector and, at the same time, run a community garden that challenges community standards, while also programming exhibitions with unexpected and subversive qualities, in order to cause a contextual shift within the viewer.


The conversation focused on a few shared, core concerns. Participants all articulated the need for work and programming in and around their spaces to break expectations and to engage with broader contexts, especially the localities within which they physically exist. Virtually all discussed their efforts to create programming that is both relevant to neighborhood communities that may not recognize themselves as audiences, and at the same time reaching other artists, curators, and art audiences within and without Philadelphia. Finally, participants discussed how they negotiate the roles of artist-run spaces in a cultural environment that is changing, especially in gentrifying neighborhoods.


Choice Cuts


All participants discussed how their practices contrast with those of commercial spaces and, for most, this came down to how they interact with artists and the communities within which they work. It is interesting to note that the commercial space was taken to task for producing too reliable a result, for being not just consistent but often reductive in scope and in content. Participants noted that alternative art spaces offer an exhibiting artist the resources, publicity, and community of respect without the dependency of sales as a determinant factor. While these gallerists do need to raise funds in order to host artist shows in their spaces, the focus is on the immaterial qualities of developing deep and supportive relationships with exhibiting artists. Profit does not shape these relationships. As one alternative space, Marginal Utility, stated of the eponymous concept, borrowed from Peter Singer: The contributions of many make something possible, doable.


The notion of an “undefined space” seemed to be central to this fluid usage of Contextual Practice. Many participants shared the belief that highly experimental work that engages and interacts with the public sphere has the ability to disrupt or riff on more established understandings about what art is or capable of being. These kinds of work provide a unique and potentially new entry point for audiences. As one participant put it, the members were “trying to think about different ways that an audience is a part of the piece. Without the audience, it wouldn’t be a piece.” Many collectives conceive of their programming as potent spaces of interaction that allow situations to unfold, rather than sterile containers within which to display objects.


One such interaction took place at Little Berlin’s Fairgrounds (started in 2012). Part community garden and public space, part sculpture park and art space, the site has become a meeting point for differing expectations. At one event, artist Eric Clark performed in a full-body black spandex suit with a pile of hot dog buns (see following image). In documentation, a family of onlookers seems happily amused. One undoubtedly wonders: If the father and daughters had happened upon this scene after entering an enclosed space, would they be smiling and watching, or would their reaction be something entirely different?


Open Up


This leads to a question of who makes up the audience and community for these collectives, and whether there are distinctions to be made between the two. Larger concerns arose out of this discussion about how collectives engage with or destroy distinctions between “inside” and “outside” their spaces. One artist-run collective underscored the importance of “blur[ring] the boundaries between the interior and the exterior of our space.” Of course, these extensions are not without some contestations, as some in the conversation described pushback and tensions when engaging with a broader audience.


Sometimes, the differences between those inside and outside spaces become quite complicated. Machete (in print 2009–12) was a publication by the Machete Group, originally established alongside Marginal Utility. Machete was formed to dissolve the boundaries between what happens in art spaces, and in art criticism and philosophy, by organizing an interactive program in the gallery through a public discussion series and a free publication based on the discussions. While the publication made an important contribution in helping to create a critical conversation about art in Philadelphia, art communities outside Philadelphia were less interested in these discussions and more interested in what was happening more generally within the city’s art community. This experience forced Marginal Utility to rethink how they approached and expanded their notion of “community” and they began to develop and deepen relationships with and between Philadelphia-based artists and artists working in other cities.


Look and See


So how does one define an audience, realizing how difficult it is to define what an audience is, and what kind of art should reflect a diversity of audiences? One collective member recalled her experience with a young visitor who had never considered art as something for him, but who, nonetheless, was transformed by his engagement with her project: “He [said to me], ‘You kind of opened my mind, my eyes, in terms of what art is.’” In turn, the experience inspired her to be more experimental and open to uncertainty with programming. Another member added, “We’ve had some pretty crazy ideas that would bring in different demographics. It’s good to broaden the pool because it can get, I think, a little incestuous at times.”


While much of the experimental programming had led to surprising interactions with non-traditional art audiences, all participants agreed that there is still a need for more movement toward inclusivity. Many noted that when it comes to involving members and audiences from a diversity of economic and educational backgrounds, people of color, and people historically excluded from much of arts programming, Philadelphia’s alternative art spaces still have work to do. Some of this comes from ambivalence and tensions that arise out of the perception that creative classes help to drive gentrification. As one participant put it, “I think we’re not doing the wrong thing here. I think what it is, is that people [developers] are seeing what we’re doing and they’re taking advantage of it.” Another added, “I do feel like it’s an important role [for] artists to rebuild…it’s like a type of rebuilding dystopia.” Yet most acknowledged that inclusivity could only come about from a process of continued reflection on how collectives’ practices and programming engage and embed in the social and political realities of the city.


By actively seeking out and creating experiences that dissolve barriers, there is potential to change the viewpoint of a person, an artist, or an audience, and this can be transformational. Indeed, many noted that it is the pursuit of creating and having a plurality of experiences, outside of their own practice, outside of their own collectives and communities, which helps to break down barriers between artist-run spaces and audiences beyond the gallery walls.


MARY EBELING is associate professor of sociology at Drexel University. As a sociologist, she is interested in how complicated and messy things can become when people collectively work together to make ideas real and material. In her studies, Ebeling has looked at how people work in venues ranging from particle physics laboratories to marketing firms and artists collectives. Her work has appeared in several sociological journals, including Science Communication and Social Science and Medicine, as well as in edited volumes. Ebeling received her BFA in performance from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, an MSJ in journalism from Northwestern University, and her PhD in sociology from the University of Surrey (UK). The Economic and Social Research Council (UK) and the National Science Foundation have supported her research, and she is an awardee of the Fulbright Fellowship. She was a resident in the Harbor at Beta-Local, San Juan, Puerto Rico.

RYAN MCCARTNEY is an artist, curator, educator, and a director at the Icebox Project Space at Crane Arts in Philadelphia, PA. He is also a former member of Tiger Strikes Asteroid. Past curatorial projects include Winter Down (2013), The 2012 Philadelphia Pickup Truck Expo, and Moving On: Timothy Belknap, William Blackhurst, and Carolee Schneemann (2011). At the Icebox, he has overseen the editing and publication of the Never Edition (2013–14) and Language for the Common Landfill (2012). His writing has also been featured in Title Magazine. McCartney received his BFA in 2001, from the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, and his MFA in 2007, from the Tyler School of Art at Temple University.