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Social Practice and Relational Aesthetics

Seventeen Jamaican men, ranging in age from a young adolescent to a senior, as well as a white male in his mid-20s, pose in front of a partially completed concrete structure. Their clothes are soiled from the hard labor. Each man is either grinning or looking serious. In the background a woman, wearing a headscarf, sits on a toppled tree and looks at the camera.

What strikes me is the fact that in our society, art has become something which is related only to objects and not individuals, or to life. That art is something which is specialized or which is done by experts who are artists. But couldn’t everyone’s life become a work of art? Why should the lamp or house be an object, but not our life?


   --Michel Foucault

Residents of Copperwood, St. James, an informal settler community in Jamaica, build a bus shelter to announce their nascent citizen's association and intent to gain legal ownership of their land.

Foucault observes that modern art has the peculiar nature of seeming to be detached from our everyday lives. He therefore asks for an engagement with art that Nicolas Bourriaud terms relational aesthetics. Rather than a discrete, autonomous work that transcends its context, relational art is wholly comprised of its particular environment, social context, and audience. This is true of all theatre, to some degree. But relational art, or social practice, places community at the very center of its make-up. Furthermore, relational aesthetics does not just reflect community, it creates it. 


Advocacy March

Copperwood Citizen's Association: 

Public Performance and Relational Aesthetics

During my years serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Jamaica, I lived and worked with the residents of Copperwood, a young, informal settler or “squatter” community that had no access to water, sanitation, electricity, roads, or legal recognition to live on the land. As a fairly new and unplanned community, the residents lacked governmental support and even prior relationships with one another, upon which they otherwise could have relied in order to address their needs. Therefore, a handful of nascent leaders began to meet weekly under a tree in order to discuss how to organize themselves. They planned and implemented a number of community projects that facilitated a sense of cooperation, trust, and self-advocacy among the residents. They began by building roads to replace the muddy foot trails that meandered through the area and then a bus shed at the edge of their community that announced their legitimacy as residents to everyone who drove by. They continued by organizing health education sessions and holding film screenings at night with a truck that brought in electricity and a projector. Later they pooled their modest resources to lay water pipes and install public standpipes. Perhaps most importantly, they performed public demonstrations and traveled to Kingston to successfully petition the government to allow them to purchase legal title to the land. In order to purchase their property, they developed a community savings program for those without access to bank accounts. In all of Copperwood's efforts, their social works, which publicly displayed and affirmed cooperation and self-advocacy, were central to their success.


A collage of images: female hands gesturing over a pad of paper with a handwritten poem; a commercial dryer door bearing the reflection of a man photographing himself; Scott Wallin working with another man on a laptop computer with an image of a bird on a telephone wire; the same image of the bird superimposed on an image of a tunnel with a light at the end; the exterior of an apartment building in the Tenderloin District with colorful furniture hanging outside as artwork; the silhouette of a man kneeling down and videotaping an individual working at a desk; a glowing construction cone that has been placed over a ground light on the street at night.

Alternate Voices: a Digital Story Telling Project About Difference and Creativity in Community Mental Health

How do we conceive of and represent ourselves and others who receive psychiatric services for “severe mental illness?” While medical charting of patients and their treatment is necessary for clinical social work, such representation strives to speak for someone, not with that individual. It is widely argued that a medical model, embedded in pathology and institutional power, does not adequately allow people with alternative emotional and psychological experiences to speak for themselves. Through multi-media creative projects, people can perform their own representation of psychological and emotional difference through alternating and alternative texts.

The Intermedia Arts Project, created by Phillip Cha, MFT and Scott Wallin, PhD, MSW, brought together artists and filmmakers throughout the San Francisco Bay Area to develop digital storytelling and a documentary film that empowered people to create stories that reflect their unique, diverse voices that are often ignored or misunderstood. The work was presented in a number of community forums, including film festivals, in order to facilitate discussion and awareness of the artists' experiences. Although the practice did result in discrete, material artwork, the project focused on the process of creation itself and a relational aesthetics that strengthened and diversified a sense of community in San Francisco's Tenderloin Neighborhood and among consumers and practitioners of several mental health service centers.  

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