Reflections on Social Practice and the Formation of the Liberated Arts Collective

By Veronique d’Entremont

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When I was notified that I had been nominated for a Social Practice Art (SPArt) grant in Fall of 2015, I was in Boston teaching a class in Community-Based Art Education at Massachusetts College of Art. My nomination was due in large part to my 3+ years of collaboration with the Youth Justice Coalition’s (YJC’s) Media Team, through which I had produced the album What’s Working is Broken–a 32 minute immersive audio composition that integrated radio journalism and personal stories of police violence, recorded during YJC organizing and protests against LAPD.

As an artist who is invested in critical arts pedagogy, collaborative processes, community organizing and using popular education strategies to center my teaching work around community interests, I tend to be wary of organizations and individuals that use the term Social Practice. Its an ambiguous term that seems to have a variety of conflicting definitions, making it hard to determine whether it is frequently misused—or whether its correct use is–in fact–as a euphemism. At times, the application of the term “Social Practice” to projects (that might otherwise be relegated to the denigrated camp of “Art Education”) appears to be a tactic to gain traction and cultural capital for this work within the market-adjacent art world. In other cases, “Social Practice” seems like nothing more than an aestheticized extension of problematic power dynamics within the non-profit industrial complex and capitalism at large.

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So often, Social Practice projects seem to fit into a neatly packaged Liberal fantasy of art–and its alleged power to transform lives that are impacted by injustice—while cozying up to the same market forces that have produced the economic injustice and inequality these projects claim to respond to. That said, I found myself caught between this theoretical position and a practical consideration; The SPArt grant could fund a media arts curriculum (“Liberation Arts”, as we decided to call it) for Youth Justice Coalition’s FREE LA High School, where I taught an art class the previous year. What good would it do FREE LA students to pass on an opportunity to connect them with resources?

With all this in the back of my mind, I submitted my proposal for the 2016 SPArt grant, hoping that a candid discussion of these concerns would be welcomed. As I was in Boston at the time of writing my proposal, my initial proposal did not have the degree of collective input from students that I would have typically liked, but SPArt was encouraging in their understanding that the final “product” of a collaboration would look nothing like the proposed idea. The focus in this initial proposal—which provided for continuing my work with youth leaders to produce a second album—soon expanded exponentially and resulted in the forming of The Liberated Arts Collective (LAC).

The following blog posts will summarize the work accomplished by LAC members Manuel Barrios, Dennis Durbin, Paul Macias, Walter Wilson and others, along with reflections and interviews with each of these individuals. On a personal level, I can say that our work and conversations together have been transformative to my pedagogical practice and perhaps even softened some of my cynicism about the “power of art.” My concerns about the funding structures and incentives around Social Practice Art remain in tact, while I and other LAC members are deeply grateful to the SPArt organization for providing the opportunity for our work together.

 

Other shout-outs:

  • Alexandra Shabtai, founder of SPArt, for her generous support, flexibility, and openness to critique and dialogue.
  • Aswad Jackson, who brought the Liberated Arts Collective to the program he was running at Ella’s Foundation and has been an invaluable resource throughout my involvement with LAC and beyond.
  • Calo Youth Build teacher Cenak, along with Cheyenne, and other students, who visited Liberated Arts Collective to interview members about their experience and knowledge of California State Prisons.
  • Dwayne Dickson, who runs Youth Justice Coalition’s “Welcome Home LA,” a re-entry project and support system built by formerly incarcerated people in order to bring others home, and was instrumental in connecting Amity Foundation students to the Liberated Arts Collective.
  • Kelly Hernandez, Liberated Arts Collective member who has continued teaching art classes at Youth Justice Coalition.
  • Luke Fischbeck and KCHUNG news, who graciously lent us the use of their recording equipment and air time.
  • FREE LA High School Students, Daisy, Kim, Jerry, Lashay, Luis, Maynor, Miraya and others who participated in LAC’s media arts class.
  • Kim McGill, Youth Justice Coalition (YJC) Lead Organizer, who invited me with the YJC Media Team in 2013 and offered thoughtful development and feedback during the process of various applications.
  • Joey Reyes, a much-beloved teacher at FREE LA High School who offered feedback, guidance, and support.
  • Jose Solis, Building Manager of Chuco’s Justice Center, source of guidance, support and sanity.
  • Oscar Santos and Decolonize LA, who invited Liberated Arts Collective members to participate in an exhibition at Human Resources and share their stories

 

 

 

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