The question of what "art" is has been eternally debated from aesthetic and intellectual angles, but in terms of form and format the arguments (and their adherents) fall into two competing camps. On one hand, you have the traditional idea of art as painting, sculpture or other visual imagery on display inside a traditional gallery. On the other, there's art that takes place in – and takes inspiration from – the larger community, fusing performance and politics in a particular temporal context.
Both definitions have their place, but in Orlando it's rarely the same place. You wouldn't expect Orlando Museum of Art (our leading representative of the first category) to team up with Pat Greene, whose Corridor Project and Transit Interpretation Project were prime local examples of the second. Or at least you wouldn't have before the arrival last year of new OMA director Glen Gentele, who has energized the Loch Haven institution's outreach efforts. But that's exactly what happened last Wednesday, when OMA's Art Sandwiched In series hosted Greene and a number of fellow artists for an illuminating lunchtime lecture on the growing field of social practice art.
As I awkwardly unwrapped my Boston Bakery banh mi (it was supposed to be a bag lunch event, but everyone else was munching on the provided cookies), Greene launched into an overview of his Orlando-area community-engaged art projects, starting with 2013's TrIP (Transit Interpretation Project), which I participated in. Inspired by his pre-SunRail observation that everyone complained about public transportation, but no one used it, Greene shared a pair of 30-day Lynx passes with artists and writers who documented their bus-riding experiences. David Moran, the first TrIP participant, rode the bus from the UCF area to the Parliament House on Halloween and walked back wearing a TMNT costume, sharing his odyssey on Instagram. TrIP also inspired composer Jeremy Adams to compose a soundtrack from audio clips he recorded on bus route 313, which he hopes to expand into a multi-channel experience incorporating 20 or more routes simultaneously; the sample he shared sounded like a haunted house designed by Doctor Who. Supportive Lynx CEO John Lewis even showed up at last January's reading of a chapbook produced from the project, telling Greene, "You guys make the bus look cool, and we could never do that."
After also reviewing some of his other past concepts (2012's Walk On By Corridor Project pop-up art show and the parking lot pre-show for Deerhoof's Accidental Music Festival appearance), Greene gave a mini-grad school course in social practice art, highlighting notable practitioners from Robert Smithson (Spiral Jetty) and Dawn Weleski (Conflict Kitchen) to Theaster Gates (Carver Bank) and Rick Lowe (Project Row Houses). Greene could have easily filled the allotted hour, but he also had a surfeit of special guests on hand, including the Atlantic Center for the Arts' first community artist-in-residence, Tory Tepp, who talked about transforming public spaces through ecological art, like repurposing abandoned shopping carts into rolling gardens. Photographer Olivia Zuk, from the Sanford Project, was also present to share how she helped create the social media photo campaign in the wake of the Trayvon Martin controversy as a senior at Rollins.
If the term "social practice art" doesn't ring a bell, don't feel dumb. As Ren Morrison, director of the artist residency program at New Smyrna's Atlantic Center for the Arts, explained, there are more than 20 different names used to describe the genre, including "community-focused art," "socially engaged art" and "relational art." In fact, attendees at the Open Engagement artists conference in Portland spent three years arguing over an umbrella term. The genre encompasses three basic categories: "community art," where an artist facilitates a group art project, like the "Katrina Kids" art therapy project for displaced hurricane survivors; "socially engaged art," which tries to "illuminate, address and provoke change," like Mel Chin's Fundred Dollar Bill campaign; and "live art," which uses performance to engage audiences in exploring social issues, such as Niurca Márquez's flamenco interpretation of local Minorcan history.
Even if you've never produced in public before, if you have an idea for such a community-based project, the Awesome Foundation (awesomefoundation.org) gives away $1,000 grants every month, and you only have to answer four questions to apply. And United Arts' Artists in Communities grants (unitedarts.cc/grants) give up to $2,500 in matching funds; this year's deadline is March 5, and workshops are available to assist applicants. The key to social practice art is that it's about who and where you are. "Don't wait until you save enough money to move to Brooklyn or Portland" to be an artist, Greene says. "Social practice ... makes the whole idea of being an artist a lot more democratic. You don't have to go have lunch with an art dealer."