Group project for Socially Engaged Art and Digital Practice, Fall 2018. Collaboration with Jason Yung.

Performed once with a group of eleven participants, October 30, 2018.

Prompt

Construct a short proposal for a “real-world” [Socially Engaged] project that you would like to do, including concept, execution and practical considerations.

Instead of delivering a presentation, we decided to demonstrate our project in class. It is a participatory piece designed for a small-to-medium-sized group.

The Piece

A group of participants are asked to place terms within a space defined by two orthogonal binaries. The terms and binaries are chosen to elicit expression of the participant's social and political values. They are also intended to create discomfort from the vulnerability of displaying ones values before a group, and in particular by using terms that are both politically charged and open to interpretation - thus, one participant cannot know what another means when placing a term in a particular location, so all risk being misunderstood. A sweet spot between ambiguity, abstraction, and concrete significance is sought when choosing the terms and the two framing binaries.

All participants place terms simultaneously over the course of several minutes. When all terms have been placed, one artist outlines the placed terms and connects them into a network structure as they see fit. The other then reproduces this structure as an abstract shape using ink and brush. The lights are lowered, and participants are asked to gather around the resulting representation, and honor it with a moment of silence. Participants are then asked to bow together to the representation, and the piece ends.

The title, The Transmutation of Value, refers to the transmutation of the participants' individual values into a collectively realized representation in ink, abstracted from its intellectual origin, yet materialized from abstract values into concrete form. The ritual of honoring the representation is meant to resolve the discomfort created by examining one's own values and exposing them to others, while also honoring the diversity of values among the participants.

We believe the setup and ritual could be fruitfully re-applied in many different versions. Different choices of terminology or binaries could be used to grapple with different sorts of values, and evoke different kinds of social or introspective discomfort. However, for our one group performance we used the following:

Binaries

  • Progress / Regress
  • Realistic / Unrealistic

Terms

  • Socialism
  • Capitalism
  • Identity
  • Equality
  • Freedom
  • Security

Performance on Oct 30, 2018

Script

Jordan: The piece we will be performing is called -
Both: “The Transmutation of Value.”
Both: bow

Jordan: draws axes (all watch)

Jason: passes out stickies
Jason: You are all receiving six terms, please place them on the board as you see fit. There will be a 5-minute time limit.
Jordan: sets up timer on phone

all participate in placing on the board

time is called

Jordan: slowly traces shape on board
Jason: sets up ink, paper, candle

Jordan: lights candle
Jason: turns off lights

Jordan: Now, let’s gather around and take a moment of silence to honor this representation that we have created together.
30-60secs of silence

Jason: Now, let us all bow to this representation in reverence and respect.
all bow

Jason: blows out candle
Jordan: turns on lights

Process

Starting Points

Theme: Metamodernism. Which is: a recent philosophical and intellectual movement attempting to move beyond postmodernism by incorporating both modernism and postmodernism. A label for the time we live in politically and culturally, in which postmodern irony and deconstruction has birthed nihilism and an inability to agree on reality, but we know modernist grand narratives cannot be trusted either (though many of us are falling prey to them.)

Ideation

Discussions back and forth about modernism and postmodernism in psychology, politics, religion/spirituality. Jason proposes, in various forms, a critical question: what values do people want to hold, or for society to hold, going forwards? For instance, what would the platform of a new political party be? Or the tenets of a new religion? After deconstruction, what should we reconstruct?

I ask, how can we use a socially engaged art piece, a social interaction, to get at people's internal tension between constructivist and deconstructivist ways of thinking? Can we, in some more meaningful and more accurate process than simply asking them, get at their values? An idea occurs to me: a large venn diagram displaying some binary - say, "what I hold to be sacred / what society holds to be sacred" - and participants can write anything on sticky notes and place them on the diagram. Structured, but open-ended. See what patterns emerge. More to the point, hope people leave the experience thinking about the binary we posed.

Iterative Design

Jason and I test variations on each other.

Deliberately challenge the binary (postmodernism) by allowing for both/and. But point out the meaningfulness of the binary.

We're still not very satisfied. Jason discusses a desire to let participants form/express their own structure of values/ideas, but within constraints. How to do this? I have a thought: replace discrete venn diagram structure with a continuous space. I place two binaries on the board, forming orthogonal axes: subjective/objective, certain/uncertain. I write out a list of realms of truth: science, ethics, spirituality, art, politics, morality,...

Jason fills it out. He then proposes a second dimension to the experience: once completed, trace the placed stickies into an abstract shape, then reproduce this shape on a piece. This would become a ritual, in which the value structure of the person or group completing the piece would be made material yet abstracted from its context, then honored with a moment of silence.

We then iterate on various sets of terms and binaries. Jason wants to bring things more into the concrete realm, particularly politics, in order to bring out group tension that can then be resolved by ritually honoring the values. Eventually we settle on the terms and binaries used in the performance.