Separate, Together: Making Lemonade, pt. 2
By Chris Battaglia
For many, art can be an incredibly useful tool when applied in a social context. I am engaged by a prompt I read recently in an art and social practice handbook. It reads as a challenge:
Create a project which benefits society in some way, allows yourself to have fun in the process, and which can assist you by providing food/clothing/wage to sustain creative capacity and future development of projects.Douglas Paulson in Reference Points published by Portland State University’s Art + Social Practice Program
My appreciation for this prompt – and for the underlying motivation for most social practice-based art – is to “benefit society in some way.” I begin with the fact that it is incredibly broad in scope, making it difficult to wrap my mind around the type of benefit I could bring to society. Whose society? My society? Your society? Are they different? Do I think locally, or universally? Then, if I can make it past this question, I pause in a limbo between pragmatism and idealism: “allow yourself to have fun in the process.” What a relief! Whatever action I can muster should at least bring me some joy. At this point I fall back into an uncertainty of understanding the best way to self-help “by providing food/clothing/wage.” In the end, what eases my mind is the simple concept: to sustain creative capacity and develop future projects.
Often I take on so many personal projects that the piles, both those on my desk and those in my head, become overwhelming, and in order to move forward I first need to change gears completely.
Earlier this month, before the most recent snowfall, I needed to mitigate the mental pressure, the weight of a bevy of unfinished projects, perhaps one that many artists may have felt early in quarantine. I chose to rake the yard, after months of putting it off. Intentionally looking for repetitive, physical tasks to empty my mind and tire the body, I felt a momentary glimpse of joy. Oak and maple and beech leaves carpeted the lawn. I thought of leaving the leaves in place, of allowing them to (ultimately) compost through spring/summer, and knew that this layer of life would be beneficial. But, torn by the desire for the grass to grow more vigorously, I felt I had to remove this layer. It was valuable, it was nutritious, there was nothing wrong with it, but it was getting in the way of the new growth.
Once I raked below the surface of leaf-litter, patches of bright, verdant moss shone through the dim tan and brown. All of a sudden, our home landscape emerged with unexpected pockets of springtime, pockets of life. Even the damp, dark brown of the earth without moss or grass felt teeming with life. These signs of spring’s arrival were filling my soul. I looked up with a glint of hope from the new scene and felt it wasn’t too dissimilar from the layers of mental material I had been shuffling through during quarantine. Everything before quarantine was the healthy-process-composting-leaves on the surface; good but needs a “refresh.” Everything after quarantine is the fresh dirt, the surprising things already brimming with life below the surface; I just needed to dig a little to uncover them.
And so I realized, after clearing my mind, the more distilled elements of a future “artist statement” – which always feels like an elusive thing to write about. With the penchant for working with my hands, practicing social art, and being a documentarian, I have now more focus on how I could tackle the prompt written above. The newly announced 2020 Open Call: Milestones and Stepping Stones suddenly gave me the agency to work on something small, something daily, in hopes of exploring my creative practice and subsequently sharing it with the world. By using my hands (through drawing studies, exploring the ways I will think about using my hands), applying a social filter (commentary on physical/mental effect of technology), and documenting the process, I now feel more able to participate in this social art challenge.
Maybe it was the phrase “Don’t Forget to Wash Your Hands,” in relation to this global pandemic, or maybe it was my existential raking, but I have been forced to reckon with how I must remember how to actually use my hands—and not as tools that use/get used by technology. With my smartphone, I hold the phone in my right hand, thumb in front, pinky finger as a “shelf” on which the phone rests (cf: “My Pinky Is Not A Phone Shelf”).
Holding my computer’s mouse, I realize the Darwinian downfall of my human hand becoming an extension of the computer mouse (cf: “My Hand is Not a Mouse”). Through these not-quite-daily drawing studies, I’m looking more at my hands and how they function currently and how they should function without the influence of technology. While technology is the thing that glues so many together, I think we all should be removing a little bit of attention from it to feel more alive, to feel something real.
Right now, it feels especially important to sow the seeds of needing more social art practices. There may not be opportunity for in-person versions of social practice at the moment, but we have a chance to ready ourselves for the unfurling of a league of artists who aim to shape the communities and society in which we live.
Out of prudence and necessity, though, I think of my brother-in-law, who reminded our family in the first few days of isolation that, just like those oxygen mask metaphors,
“We all ought to weigh the decisions we make against our impact as a vector on the world around us.”
And so, I think back to the artists who make art, no matter what— quarantine notwithstanding. Maybe we can truly value the work of people who will continue to create so we can enjoy, or be inspired, or support through tough times. Selfishly, I am hoping that maybe this period of time will prop up artists and local food producers and educators and healthcare workers, thus greatly diminishing “non-essential” travel, luxury-anything, or excess consumables in our world. The time we spend with others will now be forever changed because we went “without” these distractions long enough to (hopefully) see. See something. See through to our not-so-distant-future.