Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

Review of What We Made by Tom Finkelpearl

Posted 13 Aug 2014 / 0

WhatWeMadeFinkelpearlI study cooperation. I can say this honestly only with some caveats. I am very interested in what allows cooperation to evolve in biological systems, as cooperation seems to defy the Darwinian imperative to serve the needs of self-replication and yet is unexpectedly prevalent in nature. In particular I am interested in human cooperation, which is beyond the scope and scale of cooperation displayed by any other species. I have read a lot about the science — both theoretical and empirical — that seeks to understand the basis of cooperation. I teach a course in The Evolution of Cooperation. Some of my own scientific work relates to cooperation, and I hope to do more of this kind of work in the future. Cooperation is one of my chief scientific interests.

I also teach at a school of art, design, and architecture. My reason for being is simple: to be robustly-educated graduates, my students must not only become well-versed in their creative crafts, they must also have the social and cultural context for their “work”. Scientific understanding can provide important context, some of which is more obvious than others. As an ecologist it is easy for me to foster an understanding of the ecological impact of human creations — from t-shirts to buildings — that can allow my students to make “sustainable choices” in their design work. It is no surprise that an Ecology for Architects course is required in this program, or that many of the design fields (industrial, interior, and fashion) suggest that their students take Ecology. Even my courses in Evolution — a field that has struggled to establish relevance in mainstream society — can apply to the design fields, as the concept of adaptation and slow modification of form in response to an environmental “challenge” resonates with designers. But the Evolution of Cooperation? What relevance does this have for my students? Is there a way to make a meaningful connection between the scientific study of cooperation and the creative making that occupies most of the waking hours of my students?

These are questions that I have been struggling with, so over the last semester and summer I went looking for answers in Tom Finkelpearl’s What We Made: Conversations on Art and Social Cooperation. Dedicated to understanding how contemporary art is incorporating cooperative practices, this book introduces us to a variety of projects that span several different continua across which we might consider works of art “cooperative”. The book itself is presented in an interesting form: rather than narratively describing and analyzing each work, Finkelpearl presents a series of dialogues between himself, protagonists and participants in the works themselves, and an occasional outside expert (including our own Chair of Social Science and Cultural Studies Gregg Horowitz). I do not usually choose to read the work of rising social figures (mostly because I have no clue about what is rising socially), but it appears that Finkelpearl is the exception: he was recently named Commissioner of Cultural Affairs by our new mayor Bill DeBlasio. He has also been the executive director of the Queens Museum for more than a decade.

There are a lot of really interesting works presented here. A number of the works harness cooperation to make art:

Many of the works profiled create space for public works and public interaction under the guise of art:

A couple of the works involve what I would call “cooperative education”:

The remainder of the work described here is what I would call “participatory art”, where the artist acts as context setter, place creator, and/or opportunity maker:

As the many conversations in this book make clear, all of this art is remarkable. But why is it remarkable, and what does that have to do with cooperation? There seem to be a few consistent answers provided to this question. The first is that these works are not meant to be owned by individuals: these are ephemeral works, or works that create more permanent objects of value that cannot be owned by a collector. The second is that these works blur the line between artist and public, in particular in regards to “who creates”. Many of these works demonstrate the potential of everyday people to create work, particularly when invited to do so as part of a larger social “event” or “project”. The third is that these works often serve the public good: they create both tangible and intangible benefits that do not accrue to any particular individual but to the society itself. All these attributes of these work are — in my estimation — laudable and valuable. But they also point out how far down the capitalist rabbit hole mainstream art has plunged. If work that is not designed to create scarce objects that can garner enough hype to generate high monetary value is “remarkable”, art appears to be losing its social value. I do get it: artists have to earn a living, and most of these projects call into question the economic viability of “artist” as a vocation. Reading this book causes me to yearn wistfully for a potentially-imaginary time in which the government funds “public works art”, keeping artists gainfully employed as the create social good.

But I wonder if any of this work has a lot to do with social cooperation. Finkelpearl clearly has a clearly done his homework: in both his introduction and conclusion he talks about how the science has begun to understand cooperation and its precarious-but-nonetheless-prevalent nature. But these artists do not give him a lot of opportunities in which to apply this understanding, because very little of this art seems at all informed by what we know about social dilemmas and the nature of evolved human cooperation. As such, the promise of this book for me — that it would discuss art that is informed by an understanding of the nature of cooperation — was unmet.

One issue is the question of whether participatory art should also be called “cooperative”. One dynamic that was prevalent in so many of the works described was the artist-public duality. For these artists to be called artists they need to bring something unique to the table, and in most cases these artists brought vision: they had conceived of a situation, an event, or a structure that would create the resulting (and admittedly impressively diverse) “work”. This to me is art that invites the input of the public, and not the same as art that fosters cooperation. I grant that an artist cannot even be called an artist if she does not contribute vision, but art truly aimed at exploring cooperation needs to bring a different vision. That vision has to be related to how to create situations that make people think about the nature of cooperation; an added bonus would be a vision that actually fostered cooperation. Some of the works described in What We Made feature the latter vision, but few even touch the former.

Assuming that Finkelpearl has done a good job of curating the best examples of works that touch on social cooperation, I have to conclude that art has a long way to come before it can really say something about cooperation or even change the way we think about cooperation. To really get at the core issues behind cooperation, works need to better explore the nature of a social dilemma — in both its positive and negative personas — in order to help viewers and participants to better appreciate the social dilemmas we face as individuals and as a society. Cooperation is — at its core — about situations that create mutual benefit; here many of the works in What We Made might have something to say, but few of the conversations even get at the question of what is mutually beneficial (ironic given that there is always this overhanging tension surrounding the question of who gets more out of the work, the artist or the public?). In a lot of these works, cooperation seems to serve the artist: harnessing the cooperative efforts of others, the artist produces a work that she might not have been otherwise capable of making. To see that as cooperative, I need to better understand the agency of participants in these projects.

For artists, cooperation is an exciting frontier: based on this book’s collection of works, it seems to me that virtually no one is making works that are really meeting the promise of exploring the nature of social cooperation. It is amazing just how far artistic making has separated itself from the cooperative ventures of humanity and the rest of the natural world. In a word, conventional art and design are fiercely individualistic. An artist who manages step out of the individualistic persona of artist and seed works that truly explore cooperation will be breakthrough visionary.

A Major Post, Activism, Art & Design, Books, Collaborative Art, Communication, Cooperation, Emotion, Empathy, Environmental Justice, Play, Public Art, Social Diversity, Social Networks

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