Discourse and Discord

Architecture of Agonism from the Kitchen Table to the City Street

Public Symposium

April 12–14
Co-Presented with and at the Walker Art Center

In an era of cultural conservatives and the liberal elite, Occupiers and Tea Partiers, civil uprisings and government crackdowns, perhaps the one point of agreement today is there’s no shortage of disagreement. But if that’s true, then why isn’t there more debate—not online flame wars, not the televised jockeying of political candidates, but live, in-person dialogue?

That question was a starting point for this three-day symposium on agonism in the public sphere. A term unfamiliar to many, agonism describes an approach to politics that embraces difference and disagreement as an important part of democracy. As a series of talks, workshops, actions, and playful experiments, Discourse and Discord aims to explore the structures or “architectures”—whether it’s the built environment, online technologies, songs, or recipes—that can draw people together for genuine dialogue and debate. It also reinforces the notion that democracy thrives on and even requires an agonistic foundation: the friction of varied publics and participation by people of different minds, views, and beliefs.

Join with a range of other unlike-minded people to debate and discuss, disclose and expose—and find out what happens when you move beyond agreeing to disagree.

More information here.


The Street Fair


TACTICAL ORGANIZING: The Instituent Art Practice of Public Matters

A group of guest writers have been invited to contribute to Public Address throughout 2011. Sue Bell Yank is a Los Angeles based writer and arts organizer. She is currently the Assistant Director of Academic Programs at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, and adjunct faculty in the Roski School of Fine Arts at the University of Southern California. Her writing has been featured in the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest, the Huffington Post, Mammut magazine, and various arts blogs including her ongoing essay blog entitled Social Practice: writings about the social in contemporary art (www.suebellyank.com).–JA

Teenaged, bespectacled Magali Bravo confronts the camera straight on as she and her small brother make their way to school through the streets of South Los Angeles. Weaving past the chain link of empty lots, nondescript motels and broad, shadeless expanses, the pair enters three corner markets in search of fresh produce. In crisp white polo shirts and khaki shorts (dress code of choice for LAUSD public schools), Magali and her brother move with a confidence that bespeaks their belonging to the neighborhood – but her face betrays disgust at the processed food choices available. Wrinkling her nose at the camera, the only fresh “produce” she finds are a few sad crates of withered potatoes and bruised bananas on the floor of one liquor store.

Magali’s video, entitled “You Can’t Put a Price on That,” is one of five videos produced through a collaboration between an interdisciplinary artist-run collective and consulting group called Public Matters, the South Los Angeles Healthy Eating Active Communities (HEAC) Initiative, and high school students at The Accelerated School.This youth media project dedicated to exposing the challenges of healthy food access in South L.A. was only one aspect of an integrated action plan that included developing a partnership with the local city council office, creating a “youth ambassador” program at The Accelerated School, bringing together various community organizations, businesses and advocates, and culminating in two Market Makeovers. One of these “makeovers” occurred at Coronado Meat Market, a corner market run by Magali’s godfather, and her video documents members of HEAC as well as her classmates moving displays, repainting, marking clear prices, and generally redecorating the store to highlight fresh produce and healthy food options [1]. Magali was clearly the impetus behind her godfather’s participation, and her energy is palpable, infusing her fellow teens and rendering the peppiness of the thirty-something HEAC project leaders somewhat redundant.

Video: You Can’t Put a Price on That,” Magali Bravo

Public Matters, LLC, a self-described “rag-tag group of consultants” [2], is the artist-run initiative behind the production of compelling videos like Magali’s, and the connective tissue linking constituents in many-tendriled collaborations like the South L.A. Market Makeovers (2007-2009). Their goal, simply stated, is to “work with community members to create media about their neighborhoods…to develop in them a sense of ownership over these places and a belief that they can directly shape their neighborhoods’ future. The media content reflects and benefits the community that has helped create it, advancing a specific community defined agenda or initiative.[3]” Though the precise role of Public Matters shifts over time and within projects, their tendency to involve themselves in social issues of great magnitude (such as tackling South and East L.A. food deserts [4] to provide increased access to healthy food and education about nutrition) necessitates a mode of working that includes multiple partners. For Public Matters, the size and scope of these partnering institutions often matches the enormity of the problems they take on – the group has gone from working with the community organization HEAC to a research center at UCLA Center for Research in Engineering, Media and Performance, or REMAP), to a major inter-university research institute called the UCLA-USC Center for Population Health and Health Disparities. Along with huge university bureaucracies also come massive funding opportunities, and additional state and federal governmental entities to answer to – for example, the current round of East L.A. market makeovers is funded by a 5-year grant from the National Institutes of Health.

Los Compadres Market, South Los Angeles, 2007. Courtesy Public Matters, LLC.

Their lack of interest in one-offs and commitment to durational, sustainable projects that bring social benefit places Public Matters in an undefined, hybrid, interdisciplinary realm with many other artist-run initiatives that lack a traditional relationship to object-making and the commercial art market. By their university partners, Public Matters are perceived not as an artist collective, but primarily as on-the-ground liaisons with the most direct contact with schools and community organizations. They bring a way of engaging stakeholders through participatory media production that differs dramatically from traditional methods of public health messaging. From within their own organization, the boundaries between art, public health, social benefit are fluid, and become labels of convenience for different situations. Creative director Reanne Estrada maintains a separate studio practice, but sees herself engaged in a “continual practice of creative, collaborative problem-solving” in which her solo practice would suffer without Public Matters, and vice versa [5]. Mike Blockstein, principal and founder of Public Matters, very much considers the collective his art practice, and the various other consultants have diverse relationships to what they do as part of Public Matters. In his treatise on art and politics entitled Dark Matter, artist Gregory Sholette sums up this ambivalence towards definition when writing about similarly fluid practices: “I allow those who claim to make ‘art’ define it on their own terms, even if their identification with the practice is provisional, ironic, or tactical, as for example when art Steve Kurtz (with Critical Art Ensemble) insists ‘I’ll call it whatever I have to in order to communicate with someone.'[6]”

Project 3 (a.k.a. the Market Makeovers crew)

Project 3 (a.k.a. the Market Makeovers crew). Front row (left to right): Brent Langellier, Mike Blockstein, Reanne Estrada, Debra Glik, Alex Ortega, Heather Hammer, Rosa-Elena Garcia, Jeremiah Garza; Back row: Ron Brookmeyer, Nathan Cheng, Mike Prelip. Courtesy Public Matters, LLC

Team with Scientific Advisory Board

The UCLA-USC Center for Population Health + Health Disparities Team with Scientific Advisory Board + Community Advisory Board members. Courtesy Public Matters, LLC.

The interdisciplinary, shifting, and hybrid nature of Public Matters by no means implicates a lack of definition in purpose or goal. Rather, their organizational structure is tactical and deliberate, designed to maintain a nimbleness and flexibility supple enough to react effectively to a highly charged and overwhelmingly huge social issue. Perhaps for this reason, Public Matters has chosen to incorporate as an LLC rather than a non-profit – both Blockstein and Estrada worked extensively in the non-profit sector and understood the hierarchical professionalization necessary for such tax-exempt status. They were interested in forging “a new way of doing things as a social enterprise,” becoming essentially a for-profit entity but without any interest in generating profit – rather as a tactical method through which to form useful partnerships yet maintain elasticity in complex public situations [7]. By no means are they alone in this tactical organizing – Gregory Sholette explains that artists today are expert at imitating “a product particular to the post-industrial economy of our time” – the institution – which bespeaks a skill-set “that provides an edge when dealing with the society of risk beyond the longstanding adaptation to structural precariousness.[8]” In the case of Public Matters, this aptitude can be extrapolated beyond the precarity of artists’ positions as cultural producers and applied to the broader situations in which they insert themselves. In response to the “failed states” and “derelict institutions” that perpetuate problems as large as food deserts in the middle of enormous urban centers, artists “take up pieces of a broken world, transforming them into an improved, second-order social reality…[9]”

This oppositional motivation is perhaps too strong in the case of Public Matters, which is an extremely positive, collaborative, and optimistic organization. Yet the specific propensities which run through artist-initiated organizations like this that Sholette identifies, like “a propensity for flexible work patterns, developing gift-sharing networks, and a capacity for non-linear problem solving” allows artists to uniquely “mimic, exaggerate, or otherwise reshape given reality.[10]” Yet the ability of Public Matters to take on, maintain, and implement innovative projects alongside enormous university partnerships over long periods of time cannot be attributed to a flexible structure alone – in fact, issues of capacity and staffing plagues their ambition, and the work can be all-consuming. Rather, the success of the Public Matters model is related to a distinction between artistic and organizational practices that Irit Rogoff discusses in her article “Turning,” quoting a series of essays by philosopher Gerald Raunig. These essays mark a deep difference between “constituent” practice, in which an organization or collective exists to produce a series of protocols for both the representation and governance of their work (either in opposition to an existing market, or in spite of it). The problem that Rogoff identifies with constituent practice is that it is too easily pre-occupied with the processes through which an assembly is legitimated, and thus sabotages its own innovation and flexibility, opting instead for a regulatory ossification [11]. Rather, Raunig reveals practices like Park Fiction in Hamburg (and I would add Public Matters), as “instituent” practices. These organizations create “instituting events” that bring together a diversity of constituent practices (as in community organizations, schools, governmental entities, universities, individuals), and this plurality counter the closure of the processes at work. As Raunig describes, “The various arrangements of self-organization promote broad participation in instituting, because they newly compose themselves as a constituent power again and again, always tying into new local and global struggles.[12]”

This replicative capacity, the ability to re-invent themselves through a shifting diversity of strategies and networks, is why Public Matters can take on the kinds of projects they do with such limited capacity, and why they can navigate that fine line between “indulging the need to push boundaries and take risks, and being responsible to what we are charged with.” According to Reanne Estrada, this becomes the most integral part of the work, its most interesting and challenging aspect [13]. Public Matters faces a new aspect of this challenge in working with the USC Center for Population Health and Health Disparities on their current round of East Los Angeles market makeovers. The Center is charged with researching and evaluating the work on a large scale with enough rigor and integrity to someday impact policy, and this kind of research agenda and resources were never before available to an organization like Public Matters (nor similarly scaled artist-run initiatives). The research context poses both an exciting possibility for affecting change and rigorously assessing impact, but also becomes an enormous challenge to the flexible, non-linear work patterns and instituent events that defines Public Matters as an organization. They are learning now to work around concerns about data contamination, defining control and intervention areas, and other such problematics from the research perspective. Yet perhaps it is their very nimbleness and the “license to explore” that they grant to themselves and all of their participants that will allow them to adapt to this new reality as well.

[1] “Where do I get my 5?” Public Matters, LLC, http://www.publicmattersgroup.com/?page_id=721.
[2] Reanne Estrada, interview with author, June 6, 2011.
[3] “What is Public Matters?” Public Matters, LLC, http://www.publicmattersgroup.com/?page_id=2
[4] Food deserts are manifested by a scarcity of mainstream grocery stores, and where they do exist, they have poor quality produce and high prices. The South Los Angeles food desert is one of the largest in the country, spanning 60 square miles and encompassing 800,000 people. “South Los Angeles,” Public Matters, LLC, http://www.publicmattersgroup.com/?page_id=719
[5] Reanne Estrada, interview with the author, June 6, 2011.
[6] Gregory Sholette, Dark Matter: Art and Politics in the Age of Enterprise Culture (New York: Pluto Press, 2011), 5
[7] Reanne Estrada, interview with the author, June 6, 2011.
[8] Sholette, Dark Matter, 152.
[9] Sholette, Dark Matter, 153.
[10] Sholette, Dark Matter, 152-153.
[11] Irit Rogoff, “Turning,” in Curating and the Pedagogical Turn, eds. Paul O’Neill and Mick Wilson (Amsterdam and London: De Appel and Open Editions, 2009), 44.
[12] Rogoff, “Turning,” 45.
[13] Reanne Estrada, interview with author, June 6, 2011


A Machine to See With is coming to Minneapolis this week

Blast Theory’s A Machine to See With is coming to Minneapolis April 15-19, 2011. Buy your tickets now. The experience begins at an appointed location at St. Anthony Main in Minneapolis. Allow 60–75 minutes. It’s worth it.

Blast Theory, A Machine to See With

Blast Theory is a UK-based artist group (led by Matt Adams, Ju Row Farr and Nick Tandavanitj) who use performance, gaming, and interactive media to create participatory experiences that explore the social and political aspects of technology. One of their better-known works is Ulrike and Eamon Compliant, which premiered at the Venice Biennale in 2009 and invited participants to take on the persona of Ulrike Meinhof or Eamon Collins as they walked through the city directed by calls to their cell phone.

Blast Theory, Ulrike and Eamon Compliant.

While less political in its premise, A Machine to See With is similar in that it’s a cell phone led experience that takes place outside on city streets. I experienced the work when it premiered in San Jose, CA at the 01SJ Biennial last September and was able to observe and participate throughout the concept and testing phases of development. I hesitate to reveal too many specific details about the work because I want to avoid spoilers. This is an artwork that you must experience yourself.

As opposed to a site-specific work that is crafted for one particular geographic location, A Machine to See With (AMTSW) is better classified as a site dependent work. The premise of the work is the same from city to city, but the work isn’t explicitly about responding to a particular location—the narrative is a stencil overlaying a place and the artists are location scouts who scour an area to unearth the characteristics and spaces that support their narrative to the desired effect.

According to Nick Tandavanitj, the artists feel a sense of jeopardy each time they stage the piece because the work is so dependent on geographical details and physical properties of a place. When the artists arrived in San Jose (a city they had never visited—all scouting was done via Google Earth) they knew the narrative would center around a bank, but were still determining how the work would resolve. In Park City, Utah they had to scale the experience to a smaller city and make accommodations for the snow and harsh weather. In Minneapolis (which they did visit in advance), Blast Theory looked at three different locations to serve as the anchor point of the work, and admit that they could have rewritten AMTSW as a different experience at each of the three locations.

The work relies on maintaining an air of intrigue and anonymity to what is going on. Playing yourself, you are challenged to imagine the previously unimaginable and question what and who is behind every corner. Blast Theory clearly designs the work to allow spaces for people to craft their own experience. When I participated, it was left up to me to decide when and how to follow the instructions delivered to my own personal cell phone and at times the work reminded me of the “choose your own adventure” stories I used to love as a child.

Blast Theory, A Machine to See With. Still from San Jose.

Blast Theory is highly adept at blurring genres and mediums. AMTSW connects to urban gaming in that it enables interaction, but the work does not have the structure or clearly outlined goals of a game. In the context of a film festival like Sundance, the work takes on a cinematic element where the city is cast as set and participants as live actors in a reality-based action thriller.

In the end, I left feeling like the work was about taking a risk—not knowing who is playing along, but following directions anyway. As impersonal as the mechanism of phone calls seems to be, AMTSW crafts a finishing point that becomes a starting point to a moment of real personal connection with someone.

A Machine To See With is a Locative Cinema Commission from ZER01 for the 01SJ Biennial, the New Frontier Initiative at Sundance, and the Banff New Media Institute. It is being presented in Minneapolis as part of the Walker Art Center‘s Expanding the Rules of Engagement with Artists and Audiences initiative.


Speakers’ Corners

Carlos J. Gómez de Llarena, The Urban Speaker at the 2010 Conflux Festival. via Alias Arts

There are many “updates” to the traditional Speaker’s Corner, including Monica Sheets’ Free Speech Machine and Daniel Jolliffe’s One Free Minute. What I particularly like about Carlos J. Gómez de Llarena’s The Urban Speaker is the way it uses signage and the semiotics of construction sites to both call attention to the piece and to camoflauge it in the urban environment.


Re Re-discovering the center

“Sociologist William Whyte’s late twentieth-century clarion call for a “rediscovery of the center” asked us to reconsider centralized, dense public spaces rich with unexpected encounters and “maximum choice”. His appeal still echoes, but against radically different conditions. Notions of density, the public and private realms, and the experience of urban space have been re-inscribed in the purview of networked culture — the decentralized, layered, re-publicized and de-privatized conditions of virtual cooperation, coordination, and performance. The explosion of mobile media has transformed understandings and experiences of mobility and presence for technology users and non-users alike. Our social, cognitive, industrial, geographic, and economic experiences and systems have become severed or skewed from traditional anchors and re-oriented within network culture.”

from  Rediscovering the Center…Again by Nepal Asatthawasi and Germaine Halegoua via the network architecture lab

Interesting article about the interpenetration of physical and virtual space and its implications for architectural practice in urban settings.

  • “Open-air green corridors are usurping the centralized agora.”
  • “In order to further understand spatial relations within networked society, we need to look at the interstices between networked culture and urban design, what is shared and what’s at stake.”
  • “Although organized through SMS or web and cell phone based applications, political assembly still occurs in parks, plazas, and at public landmarks.”
  • “Public space is not lost within network culture; it multiplies.”
  • “there may be a more nuanced understanding of … mediated practices … once they are juxtaposed against the politics and architecture of place.”
  • “The corridor structure coincides with an imagination of space as multi-layered and composed of coexisting simultaneous spheres.”
  • “The idea that information and communication technologies do not need space and do not encourage spatial organization is inaccurate.”
  • “The center is by no means dead, but it has acquired mobility and is no longer fixed.”

Marina Abramovic – at MOMA but not on Facebook

Facebook won't let me post a link to Marina Abromovic's info on the MOMA site!!!!!! www.moma.org/visit/calendar/exhibitions/965  Add your comment

Facebook won't let me post a link to Marina Abromovic's info on the MOMA site!!!!!! www.moma.org/visit/calendar/exhibitions/965 Add your comment

I was going to write a longer response about seeing Marina Abramovic’s retrospective The Artist Is Present here on Public Address, but when I tried to do the short version – Amazing! See it! – on Facebook, it wouldn’t let me post the link to the MOMA site.

Facebook, like the Mall of America, has a public function but is not public space. It is private space.

Marina Abramovic, The Artist Is Present, MOMA from Steve Dietz on Vimeo.


From agonism to the agoratic?

Warren Sack, Agonistics: A Language GameI have to admit that ever since Warren Sack introduced me to some of Chantal Mouffe’s political philosophy with his game Agonistics: A Language Game, I have been enamored of the idea of agonistic pluralism. He wrote in his artist statement for Database Imaginary

In the 1980s, Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau had an idea: why not think about democratic discussion as a competition, an “agonistic” activity, a game? Society is recognized as impossible, as a space of endless contingencies. Establishing precise distinctions between difference and conflict, they articulated a democracy based not on hostilities where parties are enemies to each other, but on “agonism,” where parties are constructively adversarial. This theory accepts that democracy cannot be organized in a well-mannered way without room for confrontations and a multiplicity of voices.

It is an appealing vision: neither chaos nor hive mind but agonism.

In a fascinating essay, Public Art? Activating the Agoratic Condition, presented at the 48 Degrees Celsius Public.Art.Ecology festival in Delhi, Nancy Adajania, challenges

“Mouffe’s much-cited model of the public sphere, in which, as she says, “the aim of democratic institutions is not to establish a national consensus in the public sphere but to defuse the potential of hostility that exists in human societies by providing the possibilities for antagonism to be transformed into ‘agonism’.”

Adajania argues that

Mouffe’s theoretical sleight of hand is remarkably unhelpful when it comes to addressing the crises, dilemmas and the often schismatic turbulences that attend transitional societies, such as India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Turkey, Nigeria, Indonesia, Thailand, and South Korea, to name only a few. In these situations, the public domain is a scene for the battle among forces whose agenda commits them to mutual exclusion and sometimes even mutual annihilation. There is often radical disagreement on how to interpret the national past and the national future, on how to distribute power and authority, and what the nature of the State should be. In some of these situations, also, positions are taken on the basis of tactical opportunity and short-term gain rather than on that of long-held principle or reasoned conviction; where vote-bank politics, illiteracy, famine and cultivated regional asymmetries prevail, the ground of politics resembles a quicksand more than it does the floor of a debating room. As applied to such complex predicaments, Mouffe’s theories are about as useful as a Lego set to the building of metropolis.

Watching Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. Congress take remarkably antagonistic positions in the midst of a generational economic crisis, despite President Obama’s arguably agonistic vision of bipartisanship, one can’t help but think that agonism may not be Panglossian only in the “transitional societies” that Adajania cites.

Ravi Agarwal, Down and Out: Labouring Under Global Capitalism
Ravi Agarwal, Down and Out: Labouring Under Global Capitalism

In place of agonism, Adajania proposes the model of the agora:

the marketplace that is also a meeting place, a shifting weave of textures of thought, opinion, ideas and convictions; a non-hierarchical space of exchange where thought is multiplied and extended by distribution rather than imparted from a fixed source of authority. The agora of the classical Greek city-state was also, etymologically, the ‘open space’, where merchants, sailors, soldiers, artists, writers, priests, oracles, and madmen congregated and could voice themselves.

In “Public Art? Activating the Agoratic Condition,” Adajania sketches a nuanced idea of public art within an articulated notion of the public sphere and grounds her arguments in the specific artistic practice of two Indian artists, Navjot and Ravi Agarwal. Whether you buy Adajania’s agora or prefer to play agonisticly, Public Art? Activating the Agoratic Condition is a worthwhile read about experimenting wth art in public places.