Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Bielak Art and Public Life statement


Autoconstrucción (self-construction): A definitely unfinished, inefficient, unstable, affective, weak, emotional, delirious, joyful, affirmative, sweaty, fragmentary, empiric, happy, contradictory, solitary, indecent, sensual, amorphous, warm, and committed index.[1]

Autoconstrucción maps the practice and philosophy of Abraham Cruzvillegas, whose work is rooted in the volcanic, urban landscape of his childhood home of Ajusco in southern Mexico City. There, buildings are in a constant state of transformation—built improvisationally based on need, availability of materials, and alternative economic systems. This mode of construction has informed Cruzvillegas’ works, which range from poems about Ajusco transposed to song lyrics sung by punk rock and folk collaborators, to conceptual sculptures using his father’s craft materials as readymades, and from using chance operations in pick-up games on the street to incorporating protest posters into his installations.

In considering changes in public art, including the shifting prominence of outdoor sculpture to social practice, I thought of Abraham. He reminds me that there are many ways to consider scale—from an object scaled to a landscape, to the depth of relationships needed to yield productive collaboration. Cruzvillegas’ practice speaks to the role of objects, the relationship between public art and political art, and the relation between affective, intimate, and partial publics. While operating in formal systems, his work is human, sensitive, and precarious.

I use Abraham’s index as a point of departure for inviting readers and interlocutors to consider what kind of index we might ascribe to public art, and to social practice.

Following, I offer a few key terms, themes, examples and questions as the starting point for an index.




Many artists operating in the public sphere use tactics of community organizing, such as Laurie Jo Reynolds’ Legislative Art, the efforts of which have contributed to shutting down Tamms supermax prison. It’s sometimes difficult to distinguish such projects from organizing itself. Does this distinction matter?



In 2012, the public symposium Discourse and Discord: Architecture of Agonism from the Kitchen Table to the City Street aimed to address and unpack agonism, looking at how it works on the ground and what kind of “architectures”—whether built environment, online technologies, songs, or even recipes—can draw people together for genuine dialogue and debate. It also reinforced the notion that democracy, and publics, requires an agonistic foundation: the friction between people of different minds, views, and beliefs.

Art and life

In July 2014, a 28-year old man was shot dead a few blocks from my house. Candles and bouquets line the corner. Grief is made visual in a daily installation. What are the bounds between life and art?

Authorship and intent


Communities, audiences, publics

Contagion and distribution

Consider Daily Tous Les Jour, a design studio focused on participation. Trained in interaction design and narrative environments, many of their projects make use of a philosophy of contagion and distribution—taking advantage of new media, public space, and the performativity of language. One of their projects is The Giant Sing Along at the Minnesota State Fair, where fair-goers participate in mass karaoke to a roster of songs pre-selected by popular vote.


In spring 2013 at a session during the Open Engagement conference for socially-engaged arts practitioners, curators and programmers addressed social practice projects inside and outside of the walls of their institutions. Many of the questions from the student-dominated audience reflected a lack of awareness of the history of performance art, political art, public art and these forms’ points of intersection. In response, I shared references including Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed, Lygia Clark and the political context of the Tropicália movement.

Dangers to forgetting history within the context of artmaking include producing boring, redundant, or troublesome new projects due to a lack of understanding of their context.


The gutter

Cruzvillegas talks about the fragmentary. Consider borders and liminal spaces. Physically, as with Gordon Matta Clark’s Fake Estates and Empty Lots, and metaphorically, as with the binational Political Equator.


As subject and working method, hospitality and its sister, generosity, run wild in social practice and its rhetoric. Witness projects such as the 2012 Liverpool Biennial, and philosophies such as Anthony Huberman’s Toast to artists.


Per Karen Mirza and Brad Butler of the Museum of Non Participation: we are all implicated.

We are complicit when we read about social turmoil, whether we take action or not. Walking down the street, we are an audience for a public artwork that may or may not have been intended for us.



I agree with Grant Kester’s assessment of the term “social practice”: “the proliferation of candidates (socially-engaged art, social practice, activist art, participatory art, relational art) is symptomatic of the diversity of a field shouldn’t necessarily be homogenized.”[2]



In 2011, Candy Chang developed Before I Die, a project inviting passers-by in New Orleans to write their own response to the prompt on a gridded wall. The project has become a hallmark for placemaking projects nationally. What would happen if members of the public didn’t pick up the chalk, or only wrote awful things? Much of public art is reliant on cooperative participation.


In June 2014, Bodies in Urban Spaces presented a mile-long dance tour through the Loop in Chicago. Dancers formed turquoise-pink geometries that snaked across oversized concrete staircases and embraced siderails of the El. Reminded of Trisha Brown’s temporal insertions into the urban landscape in the 1970s, I wondered, how does such work relate to its predecessors?  Are we more willing today to call this art? What are the roles and affordances for gesture, performance, and embodiment today in public art?


The walls of cultural institutions are increasingly porous.



Are public artists/social practice artists overly burdened by expectations that their work have social import?


Shannon Jackson: “Art always gets celebrated for and accused of making effects beyond itself. Transformation is not a social practice invention.”[3]

While transformation in a public art context is often considered in relationship to social change, public art can be held to the same standard of transcendence as any other form. Transcendence, as in the sublime—Federico García Lorca’s idea of duende, or Walter Benjamin’s aura. Consider scale of production, emotional pull. What makes this art? Would Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Gates have meant anything on the scale of garden shrubbery?


[1] Clara Kim, Abraham Cruzvillegas: The Autoconstrucción Suites (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 2013), p. 1.

[2] Grant Kester, "What is at stake when we use the term ‘social practice’? Is ‘social practice’ the best name?" Open Engagement, 22 Apr. 2014, [url=][/url]

[3] Shannon Jackson, "How do we know if social practice is being transformational?" Open Engagement, 27 Apr. 2014, [url=][/url]