Interview with Mary Jane Jacob

Transcript of the entire interview by Martin Krenn with Mary Jane Jacob, SAIC, Sullivan Galleries, Chicago, 10 Feb. 2014


Krenn: I would like to start by asking you about your curatorial work. You are known as being a forerunner of curatorial practice in the field of socially cooperative art. After being the chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles from 1986 to 1989 you decided to become a freelance curator and realised projects such as Places with a Past: New Site-Specific Art in Charleston for the Spoleto Festival USA in 1991 and Culture in Action, organized through Sculpture Chicago in 1993. You took a risk by leaving the museum and its institutional frame and instead organised these complex projects in the public sphere. For me two aspects of these projects are of particular relevance: first, you were working with a small number of artists for a long time period. For example you began working with artists in Culture in Action by 1991, even though the more public exhibition phase took place between May and September 1993; then some of the eight projects extended this official period. Second, all of your projects are process based; they focus on dialogue and exchange between local communities and the artists involved. Projects such as Culture in Action in Chicago, Conversations at The Castle in Atlanta or Places with a Past as well as Places with a Future in Charleston are also projects which need intense preparation, conceptually as well as practically.
You said in an interview with Paula Toppila that one of your first thoughts when you came in touch with the public through your curatorial practice was translating their community issues into art in order to tell their problems and stories differently, but you also found out that basic things such as permissions became relevant. Therefore, as you said in the interview, you had to ask the community questions such as: “Can we work with you? Can we work in your spaces?”
I think these are substantial and essential questions. And, I would consider, from that moment negotiation with the public becomes one of the most important parts in your work. Could you explain what asking these questions meant for your curatorial work in the public sphere?

Jacob: I’m touched by your use of the word essential, which is sometimes a question but also speaks to the idea of essence. I find after working in this field of public space conscientiously for more than 20 years, I’m brought back to meditate on some essential questions about art. When we meditate, of course, we posit certain answers, but there are also multiple answers and there are some questions that are un-answerable. There are questions we answer in different ways for ourselves over time or people answer in different ways. But there are, nonetheless, some questions that have always been essential for human culture and which every generations revisit. We return to these questions during our lifetime, keeping them present.
Work in socially cooperative art, as you call it, came out of my own philosophical and personal crisis of working with art in museums. The great art there wasn’t doing its job of reaching people; meanwhile the business of museums was conspiring against the art experience. As a curator I had to work in ways that both removed me from providing that art experience and contributing to that artists’ creative processes.

Krenn: Was this in the late 80’s?

Jacob: The late 80’s, yes, which seemed at the time to be a time of expansion of the business of art: the market spilling over into the corporatization of the museum, the building of contemporary art museums by signature architects, steps toward the globalization of the Guggenheim…. Whether I articulated it or not at that moment, to me, it was a crisis of “does art matter?” We can also talk about this in more sophisticated theoretical and critical ways. This ‘does art matter’ was the question I took away when I exited museum work. So I tried to understand why it matters to artists to make, why they are totally driven, and why it is important to their sense of being alive, but not in the sense of it being important to market their work to stay alive. How could art be important to audiences, to audiences in my own personal life experience, people who don’t go to museums?

In a way, I always come back to the same question, perhaps with a new clarity but also a new imperative to that interrogative form of expression: “what can art mean to other people” and “why does art matter in culture, in everyday life”.
Part of getting people’s permission to undertake a public work involves asking them if they want to be involved, as well as asking them what is important to them in their lives right now so that they might enter into a conversation with an artist to see where it would lead These are questions that are not the business of doing a public art project as much as locating the potential for the shared possibility of art. This approach has so much to offer at the same time it can bring us back to impulses at the origin of “why art?” that is, why do civilizations have art.
Our language is so imprecise and we use it in so many different ways; it’s a very flawed mode of communication. So words like negotiation can translate in the field to a list of do’s and don’t’s in working with community. To me, negotiating  permission from a community requires using one’s intuition, being sensitive to the atmosphere of the moment and place, being open to where relationships can lead. Being a curator I have had a chance to work for a long time with come individuals, not just artists but also participant-citizens, so making a work has a rhythm that is organic and responsive, while also critical and challenging for all involved.
In a way all the projects I have experience form one on-going inquiry. I think this is what artists do: they don’t just make one thing, but an oeuvre, or better yet, a practice in which one project contributes to the next. If we see what we do as a whole, then we might come to see an evolution through which essential questions are deepened, not given final answers but enacted as a deeper way of thinking and acting. I think that “why does art matter” is one of those an essential questions. I believe if I had stayed in the museum my practice would have been very different and necessarily institutionally defined. Instead I have been able to consummate relationships with artists and communities that become intertwined or reemerge in another way. I’m grateful for this practice way of being.

Krenn: I think this question of how and why art matters in culture as well as in everyday life is really one of the prime motivations for making socially engaged art.
If we go back to
Culture in Action, there was a lot of negotiation with the public, authorities and with communities. What is your role compared to the artists? Do they also have to negotiate with audiences in advance? Do you meet the authorities together with the artists or without them?

Jacob: First, we didn’t deal with very many people we would call authorities We were working in a gap with people who never have enough resources, as is always the case in American urban situations or maybe in general. We are not a socialist country and we are mixed demographically and ethnically. Some critics thought we were seeking out the disenfranchised, who have less economic safety nets, less educational opportunities, and who are more discriminated against. But you don’t have to look for the disenfranchised—we are a disenfranchised culture. I also lived through an era when I felt disenfranchised as a woman and we still fight aspects of that battle.
In Culture in Action one artists group was interested in working with labourers who work in a factory system, who have a union. Another was looking at women, which is a huge population, half the population! Another at Latino youth on the west side of the city, another took up the subject of relationships between Latinos and African-Americans. So every project had a constituency which might have arisen from a place, a location such as a neighbourhood, but others were formed out of an interest or concern. So artists approached Chicago in different ways and the population they worked with could have been hundreds of people or could have been narrowly defined. Each one of the eight projects found their people, their public, and their participants.
Mark Dion wanted to work through teaching a class to 12 high school students. However his core project, the creation of the Chicago Urban Ecology Action Group was not about youth as much as ecology. We–there was only myself and two other staff members–contacted schools, set up an application process, and went to talk to teachers and principals, seeking to involve different schools, boys and girls, different ethnicities. All the while we knew that we could depend on Mark to show up for class every Saturday, so we could be convincing in pitching the project.
Grennan and Sperandio’s project was based on collaboration with the labour union in a candy factory. It was called We Got It! and it aimed at the production of a candy bar as collaboration among 12 factory workers.
It was hard to find a unionized company that would take on the project. The company we eventually found had union and local management support, but the international headquarters—Nestle—said no. These candy bars were not about making a profit and would be an inefficient if not politically contentious use of employees’ time. It took the managing director Charles E. Brashears of the particular division in a suburb of Chicago to step in and circumvent the global corporate position, urged by the head of the local union, allowing 12 workers a week off with pay to work with the artists. That means 40 hours for each one of those people, a full time, week’s salary for 12 people. That’s a lot of money.
Then we worked out the conditions of how we would do it. One was that not to meet at the factory. I went to a board member, presented our problem, and the board member gave us his law firm’s boardroom for the entire week on the top floor of one of the city’s prime skyscraper, so that was a gift, too. The other problem was that we actually couldn’t make the candy in the factory where the artists’ collaborators worked. So we had to research other factories with the same union that we could contract to actually make the candy bar. So when we talk about negotiation, it’s not because somebody sits there and makes judgments from a seat of with power. Instead it is many parties who have to come together and bear in mind what is the essence of the project–what is its aim–and then find ways to address that aim. In this case it was about employees being empowered to determine their own self-representation. It was not about chocolate. So I guess I would step away from the word negotiation; it sounds like too legal thing. Negotiation, when it is good, moves quickly to a position of ‘we are all in this thing together’.

Krenn: I also experienced, in my own practice, situations of negotiation with the public and authorities that lead to a different, unexpected outcome, which sometimes interestingly could also be more exciting than the original intention.
So this brings me to the next point I wanted to talk about with you. I had a conversation with Christoph Schäfer and Margit Cenky, the co-founder of
Park Fiction, about the development of their project. It started as an art project by Christoph Schäfer and Cathy Skene in public space funded by the Culture Department of the City of Hamburg. But then, over the years it has taken on a life of its own. The local residents and activists were directly involved in planning and realising the project. It manifested as a real park that was made by the local people. Park Fiction stands for the production of desire as well as resistance against gentrification.
In this context I discussed the term
participatory art with Christoph Schäfer and he is quite sceptical about this term. He prefers to use the term platforms of exchange to describe a more adequate and emancipatory approach to working with the public. There is this notion of an artist being someone who is giving the voice to a minority. But this can also be very paternalistic. For Christoph the term participation is related to this form of “speaking for another person” or even worse a kind of pseudo involvement of the local public. This problem also becomes notably apparent in several city planning processes that pretend to work with local people.
What do you think about the power relations and hierarchies occurring in cooperation between artists, the public and minorities? What are your methods to avoid undemocratic power structures and hierarchical situations that can also appear in participatory art projects?
Have you ever had difficult discussions with artists, because you noticed that the project maybe goes in the wrong direction? As a curator you are also dependant on artists.

Jacob: There are a lot of points to talk about in this question, so I try to be clear. I’ll start with the last one about being dependant on the artist. It is true I am dependant on what the artist wants to do and where they are coming from. I am happy to say that I am living in an era where the relationship between the artist and curator can actually be very full and continuously dialogical. If you should talk to artists that I worked with, that is, those that  survived the process and finished a project for which I was curator, you’ll find it wasn’t an easy time! Things keep changing; the project is never over till it’s over and maybe not even then. And it can feel like a life-and-death issue because of the intensity of meaning, what’s at stake, what we care about in the process, how the project comes to embody what matters to us in our lives, and because of what’s attempted, what’s opened up and offered and then what we have to contend with.
MJJ: Sometimes that role is listening, sometimes questioning. I try not to have it be about authority, though eventually things like budget might feel that way. Instead I think of this process as co-developing and when I say that I don’t mean that I am an artist or artists are  curators. I don’t like that early 90s language of reversal of roles. Curatorial students back then were hung up on who was the artist, was I an artist too. Well, I could show you where I brought ideas into a piece, but that’s not the point. And there are many other aspects of the work where I am not there.
I think the curator is there to keep the process flowing, to help the artist flow with a process and be part of the flow, and for those involved to be absorbed in the process in their own way. Perhaps it’s best to think of this as a complementary relationship: that the curator and artist complement each other in the process. So it is very important that I am a curator and that artists are artists. The fact that we work together and even influence each other in the development of a work demonstrates that there can be a synergy in that union works, but it’s critical we come from different places when we are on that path together. And then to sustain the process, follow the unknown path which is always so intensive, so all absorbing. When that happens you see it’s about a real commitment. To me, that is the way it should be.
The so-called participatory practice of urban planning and architecture has much to learn from this in-depth art practice. I’ve been working in Charleston for the Spoleto Festival USA over some 20 years. In the middle of the 2000s an idea came up from the Mayor to create an International African American Museum. The city’s planning division hired a firm to get community input. I was appalled by their process, that is, what their profession felt was participation. They used an empty storefront and over two consecutive weekends were open for people to come in give feedback by putting up post-it notes; people were just to write down ideas without a facilitated discussion; there was no face to face relationship with the reality of how do you create communication with people.  Artists, however, have been engaging citizens through invested means of dialogue that leads to unearthing or making real meaning, sharing thought, evolving ways of being together and moving into the future. Artists and curators have been developing these practices for over decades now, but what goes for professional practice in other fields—that claim to be more substantive than art can end up meaning nothing, as well as being a waste of money in the process. Artists are still considered to be less significant and less professional in their practices because there is still a professional hierarchy in which art is less than architecture, but there are enormously rich and wise processes that have been developed through social practices.
My work beginning with Culture in Action was decidedly community based. We were not using the term social engaged art practices at that time. But even so, it really was about the community and community did not mean a neighbourhood; it meant people who shared a discourse. So that was the bond: people connected around an issues or concern that mattered to them, actual personal things which they experienced in their lives. We are very grateful they were open to us bringing it into an art discussion along with their desire for it to figure into a wider civic and social discussion.
How does this work compare to participation art, as the term is used, in regard to works in museums? But then what about Jeremy Deller’s It Is What It Is: Conversations About Iraq, which I happened to experience at the MCA here.  There was no one there talking; as I understand it, conversation happened only when the museum organized groups to come. How does that compare to the engaged and deep work of Michael Rakowitz with the Iraqi community here? I can tell you it’s a very different thing. It’s not just staged, a physical enactment of something, but ultimately disengaged; it’s real.
To me, much participatory art is not engaged, because it doesn’t ask you to do anything from your side, give of yourself. Rather you get to do something, take away something. At the beginning of this interview you said  my work involved a lot of preparation. I would say, in retrospect, that it was not so much preparation as it was about stepping into a process at in an unguarded way, not knowing how long or circuitous the path would become but staying the course. I think we were and are always in preparation for what might lay ahead. We are always in process and, at the same time, we are always seeing product or outcomes emerge along the way. I think the field of social practice has not found a way to honour the process, and listen to the process, understanding steps as they happen along the way, and what can be gained by giving yourself to the developments when attending to the process. Then the fruits of those dialogs are golden.

Krenn: There are a lot of terms ranging from ‘relational art’ to ‘dialogical art’ to ‘participatory art ‘. But sometimes I think; maybe it is not so important to discuss all these terms anymore. There are other things that are more precious than definitions. That is how I see it at the moment.

Jacob: I agree. I think that’s a very important point at this juncture in the discourse of social practice.

Krenn: In socially engaged art, some critics believe and are expecting from the artist that she or he can empower a marginalised community. Others think that this is exactly the problem of socially engaged art that these artists lose their autonomy because they have to act like social workers and help people. But my experience as an artist differs from both of these quite common views on social art. When I’ve been working with disfranchised or marginalised communities we were, in the best-case scenario, empowering each other and in the worst scenario, we had no collaboration at all. I never met, talked, discussed and developed things with people as someone who acts like a social worker; neither did they expect me to talk and work with them in such a way. It is more or less an exchange between experts from different backgrounds. When I am working with refugees we have to develop a different form of co-operation as it is when I join forces with activists and immigrants who have already settled down. So it seems to me that this notion of mutual empowerment is often overlooked in art discourse. What is your opinion about that?

Jacob: I totally agree with your position. Moreover, my problem with critics’ position is that they never take the time to hear what the public had to say. We only hear their opinions. We see the participants embodied in a work as they are represented and they have their voice there. Artists are criticized for giving these persons’ voices, but that’s a semantic many times, too: artists give a platform for the expression of voice and that important and meaningful to others, it can be validating and deeply transformative. But critics cut out that voice because it is not the professional side if things.. This leads to misinterpretation of and misassumptions about what that other, public part of exchange is all about.

Krenn: You refer to the philosophy of John Dewey in several writings. I’d like to ask you more generally about your approach to John Dewey’s concept of art as experience and what role his philosophy plays in relation to your curatorial work as well as your art theory?

Jacob: I think it has always affected my curatorial work, because it aligns with my values though unbeknownst to me in a conscious way. Yet, like many people of the United States, my public school education was indebted John Dewey work early in the 20th century. The fact that art a regular part of a public school was because of Dewey and the way it was taught as a way of looking at the world influenced me growing up. It became my way of looking at the world. There was something there: that art has a value. It was not just about a profession or for those in the profession. It wasn’t until I worked on the Buddhism project in the early 2000s that Dewey’s book Art As Experience was brought to my attention because there were aspects of Asian thought in it. The things that I find profound and important about Dewey right now for this field we are talking about, is that he believed in the social use of art, that art develops our sense to empathy and connects us with others, and that art is something which speaks about culture and through which we live our culture. When Dewey speaks about the social result of art, he means it enables us to realize democracy. He understood that democracy is a process and Dewey felt art can fit into that process because allows us to cultivate an open way of thinking and the imagination to make positive change.
As I said essential questions are never over, never ending. So we must cultivate our attention, Dewey thought, and take care of these questions in our lives. We need to continuously work at this during our lives. By probing essential questions, those at stake in our shared existence, and by holding true to values that can achieve a true democracy—and this process can be supported by our experience with art—we can better ourselves and make a more fair and equitable society. This also means looking at the values  dictating how society operates and making change.
Realizing oneself and realizing a democratic society were the two missions Dewey saw in life. These are simultaneous paths and one helps us achieve the other. They evolve together. Well, I think in social practice we are talking the same thing. It is related to what you said about your work as an exchange. It does something to you and to others at the same time. Social practice at its best is not about controlling somebody else; it is also not just about altruism. It would useful if the field could see the relationship in social practice as a co-evolution.
Another thing important for social practice is Dewey’s amazingly open definition of art. If the field could embrace that openness—and as you said the race for the right term or definition is not getting us ahead—then we could move on to the more critical, essential questions. To me, whether social practice is art or not is not an essential question. Dewey’s definition of art was experience: art is experience, not the object or even the action.
For John Dewey it was in experience that art happens. With that definition as the basis for his aesthetic theory, he looked at the many ways that people make meaning in their lives. To Dewey, what we make in and of our lives matters. That making can happen in many different ways: making a chair, a painting, a garden, a family, anything that we are consciously absorbed in and invested and through which we practice our values.
If we look at art and acts of making in a non-hierarchical way, then social practice offers many invested and meaningful examples. Dewey was also not non-hierarchical in his way of thinking about aesthetic experience: it could happen with art, nature, or anything else that proved to be meaningful to us.
So if we were to go with this broader definition of aesthetics, that is not about beauty or taste, then we actually don’t need an art object to have an art experience. If we believe that the art experience is the important thing, then that should be the focus, not whether it’s art or not. We could not worry about locating the art at all and just say the experience is there and the experience was an art experience. When we are dealing with an art form that seeks to create processes that offer deep experiences, then Dewey offers insight. Social practice is not the only art that does this, but maybe we no longer know how to look at art works in museums and have experience.
So I think we need to go back to these essential understandings, back to something more essential about where is art and where is art experience located in the world, not what one critic says is the experience of social practice is vs. another critic. There is an energy around social practice art right now, so we need to harness that and keep it going. So we need to relocate for ourselves what art does and why art matters. Dewey tries to explain that by when he says that art happens with and without professional art-world artists, and with or without conventional art objects. You can make art happen in your life and your life can be your art practice. Now if we want to take understanding and use it as a way of developing and living our life, then our life becomes our continuous art project.

Krenn: What I observe is that projects that happen outside the museum and the usual biennales are much less discussed. I think this is quite problematic because long term projects are rarely realised in biennales that dauber only for a certain period. So what is your opinion about this problem?

Jacob: On one level it is great that we have other mechanisms for these works to be realised and discussed. It is great that people write about their own stuff, publish books and do things and generate exchanges. There are many more modes of communication, than the few venues in which recognized, major critics and curators publish. Still on another level, in the end there are still maybe ten books to which students and others in the field turn—and they harbour some problematic concepts about social practice. Thus, there remains a need to re-mediate the situation, not just argue with these critics but further develop and actually overturn the ways in which social art is currently perceived, understood and taught.

Krenn: But you also mentioned that the problem of the art critique in relation to social art is that the art critics rarely talk to and about the audience.

Jacob: It is hard to do that groundwork. Maybe we are ill equipped for it. We are not sociologists but still we can sensitively have a conversation with people and listen—because they have lot to say; they have a lot of experience—the experience of art—through these projects. They could tell us something about the art that is social practice and about the art experience of this work. Maybe it would not tell us that such art projects can became a part of life and that life can become art.

Krenn: I think that it is really important that these more or less invisible moments in social art practice get more attention. For example in Innsbruck I had the opportunity to cooperate with a group of sociologists and students from the University of Innsbruck. We conceived, as well as realised, an art project together with immigrants and activists in public space which was at the same time closely monitored for research purpose only by another group of the same department. They took notes about conversations at the art installation, which would normally not be documented. The idea of the project Statt Rassimus (Instead of racism) was to initiate a discussion about the vision of a city without racism. After more than half a year of preparation and regular meetings with a group of students and activists we realised a five-day project in public space that used an electoral campaign as a “Trojan Horse” vehicle to thwart the logic of conventional election campaigns. The project’s aim was to request passers-by to actively adopt a party for anti-racism and solidarity politics. People were invited to present their ideas there at the installation as well as on our website. This was the visible part of the participation, but the research group also observed that immigrants, who were visiting the installation regularly and who had no legal status or documents were also taking part in the project. They discussed with the passers-by as well as with us their situation but for legal reasons didn’t want to become visible in the project. Nevertheless they influenced the course of the project as well as the statements by the passers-by.
Maybe we always have to keep in mind, as you said, that there are so many things that are happening in such a process or project which are of great importance but are unfortunately overlooked. Finally even the creator of a project cannot know all the other processes which may have been triggered by such a project.

Jacob: Right and they are invisible or they are the process. If we are hung up on searching for the art work according to some definition, and if we say that the process is so big and manifold that we can’t talk to the participants and public, then we will never know what this work is about. And even if we do not talk to these people, we can at least turn to our own experiences in life, practice empathy to understand how the process of experience and of art has transpired in our life. We can put some trust in our own experience. If, as a critic, you are do not literalize this in some way, either by believing that this work is art or listening to those voices that know it is and who have had the  art experience, then you stay in this world of pronouncing judgement on whether this art is right. Might it not be better to illuminate the potential of these art practices?