Social Practice & Community Art

Talk to the Gun, Chapter Eight:

Guns Don’t Kill People, Mistaking the relevance of proximate causation does. 

by Zachary Gough
June 2014.

Everyone from Michael Moore to Rush Limbaugh has a catchy twist on the NRA’s slogan Guns don’t kill people, people kill people to make an argument about who/what is to blame for gun violence in the US. Whether right or left, It has almost become mandatory to make a variation on the saying to make your point. Here are some of my favourites :

Guns don’t kill people, Ink kills people
Guns don’t kill people, Gun culture does
Guns don’t kill people, Gun control laws kill people
Guns don’t kill people, Liberalism does
Guns don’t kill people, Children do
Guns don’t kill people, The Media Kills people
Guns don’t kill people, Video games do
Guns don’t kill people, Dumbasses do
Guns don’t kill people, Americans Kill People

This statement, manipulated in any way you like, removes the focus from guns to some other factor at play in gun-related violence. But if we’re talking about causation, does it make sense to totally remove guns from the equation? Surely these situations are much more complex than pointing the finger of blame at a gun or at something else.

The most useful and informative perspective I’ve come across in my research is from Dr. David Kyle Johnson, an associate professor at King’s College in Pennsylvania, in his blog “A Logical Take” in which he tackles the statement from a logician’s standpoint, articulating the difference between ultimate, intermediate, and proximate causes. These terms can help us speak about situations of gun violence with more accuracy and complexity.

First, Johnson points out that no logical conclusion follows the statement. Guns don’t kill people, people kill people, and therefore…what?  There should be no gun regulation at all? All people should have their fingers chopped off? It has no conclusion. Johnson states that without an obvious conclusion, it isn’t an argument at all, so no conclusion about gun regulation follows.

Then Johnson defines the difference between ultimate, intermediate and proximate causation:

Consider the words you are looking at right now. What "caused" the words to appear as they are appearing to you right now? You might say that I, the author, did – but that is not the whole story. The whole story is long and includes my fingers typing on a keyboard, the creation of an MSWord document, me posting the words on my blog, etc. There is a long "causal chain" standing between my intention to type these words and the emission of light from your screen to your eyes. The causal chain starts with me – I am the ultimate cause. Other subsequent links in the chain—my typing, Justin’s postings, your clicking—are intermediate causes. And the light emitting from your screen is the proximate cause—the thing or event most immediately responsible for your current experience.”

The argument suggests, Johnson states, that people are the ultimate cause whereas guns are merely proximate causes when it comes to murders and gun violence, and that the proximate cause is just the last in a long chain of intermediate causes. But pointing out that guns are merely the proximate cause to a murder, as our statement does, is totally irrelevant to the issue.  Johnson uses two examples of different proximate causes of death to make his point: Bazookas don’t kill people, people kill people, and Cars don’t kill people, people kill people. Bazookas clearly should not be legal, as they’re designed exclusively for mass murder, and cars probably should remain legal because they’re useful for all kinds of things even though they are often the proximate cause of death. In either case, their status as proximate cause is irrelevant to whether they should be regulated and to what degree.  

Thus the argument "stop blaming the guns and start blaming the person because guns are only proximate causes” is guilty of the fallacy of “mistaking the relevance of proximate causation”.  

So, the next time [someone] quotes the NRA slogan, "Guns don't kill people; people kill people," in an attempt to end a discussion about gun control, do me a favor: point out that they have “mistaken the relevance of proximate causation,” pause briefly to enjoy the confused look on their face, and then patiently explain the fallacy to them.

Meme-a-thon with Pedro Reyes and the Art and Social Practice MFA Program

One meme generated during the meme-a-thon

One meme generated during the meme-a-thon

Pedro Reyes leads a participatory meme-a-thon on “Talk to the Gun” by inviting participants to create memes inspired by chapters in the book written collaboratively with the PSU art and social practice students during Assembly: A Social Practice Get-Together.

Memes can be uploaded by emailing .

  1. Attach a photo to the email.
  2. Write a caption in the subject line.

Meme generated in response to chapter eight.

Meme generated in response to chapter eight.


Excerpt from an Interview with Nadja Pelke for the Neighbourhood Spaces Blog.  


Neighbourhood Spaces Program Coordinator Nadja Pelkey is in the process of  sending out interviews to our previous Artists and gathering the responses for a Neighbourhood Spaces publication in early 2015. Here’s an excerpt from her interview with Zachary Gough whose Wellness Radio project at Huron Lodge can be streamed at

NP: Practitioners, teachers, and administrators are often tasked with measuring the impact or success of SEA projects. Whether that’s in order to report the spending of grant monies, or to form a critical language around a work or practice,  there’s a pressure to either conform to existing measures of ‘success’ (eg: audience, ability to gain funding, partnerships) or to invent some new rubric. What are your thoughts on the measurement of “success” and “impact” of SEA projects? How do you measure success in terms of your own practice?

ZG: In 2012, Australian artists Amy Spiers and Lara Thoms did a project called Lonely Hearts (http:// where they turned commercial display cases at an underground train station into sculptural dating profiles. Working with about 12 participants they collected interesting objects and photographs from their bedrooms and apartments that might convey something to possible dates passing by in transit. Here’s the bit from the website:

”After posting a call out for participants Lara and Amy have been collaborating with a diverse range of singles to develop ‘real life’ versions of their online dating profiles. By using photography and installation instead of the usual lists of attributes, the artists hope to present a different kind of profiling in the cabinets along the Degraves Street Subway”.

The participants were protected through anonymity and the public were to contact their potential dates by way of the artists’ public email. But here’s the catch, not one of the participants was successful at landing a date during the month-long exhibition. The piece was criticized for failing to deliver on a promise.

Not to say that it wouldn’t have been interesting if a relationship did transpire, but I think the project did so much more than hope to get people a date. It simultaneously offered a more human alternative to the bombardment of advertising in public transit stations and criticized the commercial experience of ‘shopping’ for a date online. It invited participants to consider their relationships to their spaces and objects in a way a lover might. In my reading of it, the project mirrors the roles of lover and spectator, and thereby presenting love/art as the thing that artist and spectator or lover and lover do together. On top of all that, it might have catalyzed a real romantic relationship, but didn’t.

One of the components of SEA that I love is it’s interesting play between representation and reality. Theorist Stephen Wright calls this a double ontology. In the past, an artist would make a representation of something to make a particular statement. An example might be useful. So let’s say, an artist paints a picture of a nursing home where all the residents are listening to the radio and on the third floor a couple residents are in their own radio booth making the radio that everyone’s listening to. The artist presents a vision about what how an aspect of the world or our society might function. In contemporary art today, many artists actually enact that change, or deliberately provoke some change in that direction. So in our example, the artist goes to a nursing home and in building a radio booth, invites residents to join in the vision.

For me when I look back on a project I don’t naturally evaluate it in terms of pass/fail. But here are some things that I do think about. Did the project happen at all? Was it creative in any way? Was it meaning for to someone? How meaningful? Specifically, What did they get out of it? Did someone’s perspective shift as a result of the project? Their behaviours? Does the project empower anyone besides the artist? Did I give it my all? What did I learn? Is the project applicable to a secondary audience as well as a primary audience? Is it more meaningful to a secondary audience than a primary audience? Was the project generative? Did everyone participate in the same way or in different ways? Did it go in unexpected directions? Did it provide answers or more questions? Was everyone treated equally and fairly?


Anna Gray and Ryan Wilson Paulsen

Anna Gray and Ryan Wilson Paulsen are people who structure their lives around reading, writing, talking, making art, and imagining things with their son. They currently live, work, and play in Portland, Oregon, where they are wondering how to invent new realisms.

April 27th, 2013

ZG: How did you come to be showing with Jane at PDX Contemporary?

RP: When I first moved to Portland I started going to galleries and she was the only gallerist who would come out and talk to me, not that I was trying to show there or anything.  She was somebody who genuinely loves art.

AG: She loves talking to people too.

RP: The first time I went in there she talked to me for an hour.  And I’m a kid, right, in shabby clothes and everything, she knew I wasn’t going to buy anything.  Later, when we started doing mail projects, we put her on the list because we thought she was an interesting person. And she took notice, she also listened to the other artists who she was representing at the time, who had become friends of ours and they put the bug in her ear I think.


ZG: Do you find that, to a certain extent, anything you offer up to her has this understanding that part of how it’s made takes into consideration the idea that it will be sold?

AG: Not always.  With the first solo show we had there, The Classroom, we were a lot more conscious about that.  We had just finished the program at PSU and were thinking a lot about education, and so we did things like design a 16-week course, wrote a syllabus, and a designed/wrote a 300-page reader, which we tried to sell in the gallery.  So what you saw on the wall was a framed copy of the syllabus and the bound reader.  Our thinking initially wasn’t to offer it in a gallery, but then the opportunity to play with the conventions of commodity and gallery space seemed interesting. We were thinking how awkward but exciting it would be if a collector bought private tutelage, or group of collectors could form a small class, or a university could buy it, I guess.  Artists like Joseph Bueys or even Harrell Fletcher talk about teaching as their art practice, so what if we push that claim and try to sell it in the same framework as a traditional art object might enter the economy.


RP:  What we were trying to do, by developing and selling a course, and alongside it in the show, to offer free ‘classes’ in the gallery on saturdays was to operate a sort of inversion. We were thinking that to sell commercially the bit that looks like academic coursework is to point to the increased commercialization and financialization of learning and to offer free saturday ‘classes’ in a space that is recognized as blue chip, art market space is to possibly demonstrate what might be done about it.

AG: I think what’s interesting about both of those things is that what they alternatively did was show that you can’t buy and sell an education, because the actual learning is an immaterial thing that you can’t find an equivalent for in dollar amount.  And equally so, you think about the gallery as this commercial zone which is totally tied up in capitalism, but it’s actually one of the few places you can go and see high quality art for free with no expectation that you purchase it or pay admission.  

RP: Well, we also have to make use of private spaces because there’s no commons left. We have to re-communize privatized space. We imagine a commons that can move. We might possibly to be able to imagine institutions that also move.  That is, they don’t fix themselves to a space or an idea and become immobile, existing to preserve only themselves and their relationships to these spaces and ideas.


RP: I mean we are anti-capitalist.

ZG: How does that work, how do you sell anti-capitalist work?

RP: We are not idealist.  We are not pure or stuck on being pure.  Well, we also live in a world.  So we try to problematize what we’re selling.  

AG: I also think that anti-capitalist notions sell really well, especially in the art world.

ZG: Isn’t that inherently a contradiction?

RP: Yes. Antinomies are everywhere. Capitalism has been described as a moving contradiction. Also, our pieces that present themselves more in the language of critique rarely sell. But its all woven in I think.  We make very tame, smooth work a lot of the time more about the ways we come to and through knowledge, reading and writing etc. but I think we try to slip this other strain of thinking underneath, or behind it.  

AG: Also, what’s with the obsession with purity? Nobody is outside and not implicated in the system of global capitalism to some degree.  What’s the expectation that if the artist is making a critique that they are somehow objective or without contradiction? It’s unrealistic. I don’t know if I would want to listen to that kind of artist.

RP: How do you forward a critique or an alternative when you’ve disappeared? What’s the point of making a critique if you’re off the grid? And that seems like what you would have to do if you didn’t want to live with compromise. We’re incredibly implicated in the system.  We teach at a University; we participate in the art market; we shop at grocery stores; we pay rent to a landlord.  

AG: Those internalized contradictions that we all have to live with are numerous and interesting.  Lamentable, but interesting.  What is this journal topic?

ZG: Paradoxes and Loopholes.  Loopholes came up as ways to get out of paradigms.  But also as a way of interacting in this current society.  It’s almost a redundant question.  Everyone needs to navigate loopholes to some extent.  If you’re a non-profit and you’re swimming upstream, trying to get something done that doesn’t fit in the capitalist framework, you almost have to find these creative ways of surviving in the world.

AG: We talk about that. We’re artists and we’re trying to find ways to be resourceful and survive. (We could be more imaginative in this respect I think.) But if we really want good role models for loopholes, we should look up to the men and women in the boardroom.

ZG: Like that’s what they do too.

AG: Fuck yeah! That’s the whole thing.  

ZG: It’s so funny, loopholes becomes not this random small thing that happens once in awhile if you’re really sneaky, but it’s how everything works.  

AG: It’s the permanent state of exception. Look at the Keystone pipeline or the Grand jury resistors, it’s all details.  Just redraw a tiny line on the map and then, the problem is solved.  We’re all using similar tactics, we just don’t have the same amount of resources.  

RP: I want to emphasize that not everything we do is in the vein of capitalist critique.  We do a lot of work around books.  We’re really interested in how imagination works, how things are translated in our minds, the experience of submersion in a text and then the process of exporting that author’s subjectivity and voice into your lived experience.  And I don’t think that’s necessarily a partisan political stance, it can have that aspect to it, but the impulse isn’t a partisan political impulse.  And that stuff sells.  It’s easy to sell it.  And if I don’t have to go into wage labor, I’ll do it.  

RP: I’m sure you’ve noticed this obsession with the creative class in the last 10, 15 years.  What we see, or what I see is that with the rise of “creativity” comes the death of the imagination.  The way that creativity exists in rhetoric now it’s so tied to technological innovation and a productivist attitude.  It has to be a productive creativity, there has to be something that comes out of it.  But let’s just stop and imagine new worlds, we don’t have to manifest them immediately.  There’s a potency to imagination that can lead to creativity, but creativity should not be the end goal.  

AG: We’ve also seen all these technologies democratized. So many people have video editing software, and all these creative tools for broadcasting and visualizing their daily life.  And it seems that there’s this blossoming of creativity, looking at youtube - people are so amazing (and so boring).  But it seems that people are just reordering things within a standard frame.  Creativity has been standardized.  

We got involved in this reading group at the end of last summer and the first text we read was called The Problem with Work, (Kathi Weeks) which is an amazing marxist/feminist critique of the work ethic in the United States.  The last chapter is all about how to develop post-work imaginaries.  She looked at the history of utopian forms, people like Thomas More who wrote Utopia and other science-fiction authors, but also other writers who were writing about the politics of hope.  Imagination started becoming super interesting.  Concurrently, we started watching our son, Calder, who has the most amazing imagination ever, and realized our own intense deficiency in that department.  

ZG: Do you two do exercises, or do you just watch him and are like, ‘wow, I want to do that too’?

AG: We should start doing exercises.

ZG: How do you cultivate imagination?  I mean, I don’t think I even thought of creativity and imagination as separate, but of course they are.

AG: I like the idea of imagination exercises.

ZG: We should come up with an exercise right now.


RP: It’s hard, imagine that.

AG: It reminds me of Tom Friedman, he kept going into his studio and would stare at a white wall for an hour, or a certain amount of time everyday, but that’s all he did in his studio.  Just forcing it on yourself, maybe?

ZG: I feel writing is a good tool for imagination.

AG: What about making it communal?  That seems really important - public imagination.  Because what we’re talking about isn’t individual reverie necessarily.  We’re talking about how to actually imagine something a different normative structure that’s feasibly put into action, and maybe even comfortably put into action.  I feel like I can imagine lots of things, but am I actually going to do them?

ZG: But those are different things.  Isn’t the beauty of a good imagination that it doesn’t have to be possible? It’s not tied to that.  Or is that not worth imagining.

RP: I think the thing is that we don’t even know what’s possible, because we’re so colonized by what we believe is possible.  And that’s I think part of the problem.  Maybe if enough of us had imaginative wondering ways it could create new possibilities, and a new kind of creativity that is not Wieden and Kennedy telling us what shit we want.

ZG: So we almost need a situation where you’re free to imagine whatever you want, and it doesn’t have to be functional, but in the back of our minds knowing that maybe we will find something that will be of use to us.  But that’s not the goal.

AG: Yes, a strategy that is indirect.

RP: Going back to Utopia, it’s interesting that it’s become a bad word.  That’s problematic to me. The writer David Graeber has this line “the problem with utopia is having only one”.  Like if we had millions, that would be amazing.  What would come out of millions of Utopias?

AG: The other thing I took away from the Kathi Week’s book was that when she was talking about utopias, and utopias created in literature and art and things, she was really critiquing utopias that are blueprints.  And she valorized ambiguous utopias.  Imaginative projects that start out not knowing what they are going to be, that have necessary holes in them.  

AG: This has made me want to take notes on Calder’s play.  The other thing that’s interesting to me, and maybe useful for developing structure for imaginative exercises: for him, there are certain things that can be pretend, and there are certain things that cannot.  But for us, those rules are really hard to determine.  He obviously has changing notions of what realism is.  So how do you establish, or destabilize the real before you attempt to have these imaginative exercises?

RP: So, this is a bamboo stick with a bit of blue tape on it.  Today it’s a sledge hammer, yesterday it was an oar, and a magic wand.  But you can’t revisit it as the object it was.  Like tomorrow I can’t say “ok, give me the sledge hammer,” he’ll be like “we don’t have a sledge hammer”.  This might not be that same object ever again.

ZG: Does he remember it as having been once a sledge hammer?

RP: Yeah.  He’ll be like “papa, it’s not that anymore!”

AG: “Get with it”.  That whole thing of objects is really interesting too. And that’s why I’m still compelled to make objects.  We could go all day without having toys, but he always is looking for something tactile to turn into something else.  

ZG: I once took a philosophy class, philosophy of aesthetics, and play came up, and we were trying to figure out what play is, and we came to this understanding that in order for play to happen, the rules have to be in flux.  Like just playing soccer is not play, but if you say “ok, now everyone can play with their hands too”, or instead of having two nets you have three nets and three teams.  It’s like those drinking card games where the winner of the round gets to make up a new rule, if you play the seven you have to take three shots or whatever.  

AG:  That seems really useful to think about in terms of play and imagination.  In terms of thinking of alternative public space, it has to function like that.  That’s where institutions become so problematic, when their rules can’t change and they can’t play any more.  

RP: The institution becomes a self-preserving island.  It loses all use value.  

AG: So how do we make an imaginative exercise?

RP: It’s almost like that’s it.  Imagine an imaginative exercise.  

ZG: If we can’t do that, our imaginations are weak.  What about imagining three interesting conversations.  Because it needs to be a chain of events.  It’s a back and forth thing, where you need multiple influences that change the outcome of the situation.  You can’t just imagine one thing, you need to imagine a set of parameters that define the outcome.  It’s kind of the creative process.

AG: Do you mean having a conversation with someone who’s not there?

ZG: A really great conversation is nice because you can’t have it alone.  So how do you imagine a nice conversation? You need to have factors, or understand these characters and their motivations, so that that can lead to this situation that you wouldn’t have otherwise thought of.  

AG: That’s also a really good imaginative exercise because it makes you realize how multiple you could be, or are already. It reminds me of something we were reading about the literary device of apostrophe--the moments in literature where a character suddenly breaks into something like “Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!” addressing some absent person, or idea, or thing or form. The character is having a projective conversation, ‘free indirect discourse’ is how it was talked about in the text.

ZG: Here’s one: Ok, you’re in a group of three and each person imagines a character, and where they are in their life.  And these three characters have a dinner party or something.  Then individually, each player writes a story of how the conversation goes over the course of the dinner, and you come back together and you have three different stories, three different characters, three different situations.  

AG: That sounds like a real-time event.  

ZG: You could do it over dinner.  And you could do it quickly, like once you have your characters, you have ten minutes to think up a scenario, then you share and do it again.  

RP: But building on the previous scenario? Like what you said, it’s this thing that takes multiple partners, to make it really good.  It’s revelatory, because it’s not all in your head.  You hear something and it changes how you were thinking about the thing.  

ZG: So you really need to be in a listening space.  

AG: It’s a little bit like an improv prop exercise.  But doing a similar structure, where everyone gets an object and there are no rules beyond that, just imagine a sculpture or a story or something.  Having something to grasp onto, another person, or a site or an object seems useful.  …  I read a really amazing article in our contemporary theory class in undergrad calledSpontaneity by Keith Johnstone, theatre theory dude or actor I think. It was about play and how important it is in improv just to say ‘yes’.  To say yes to your own impulses and those of others, just in general to embody a spirit of yesness.  

RP: The spirit of saying yes is also really scary.

AG: Especially since we’re interested in strategies of creative refusal.  Saying ‘no’ to work, or saying ‘no’ to productivist values that we’ve internalized. And this becomes important looking at the idea of immaterial labor which has been described by a number of theorists and has resonated in the art world, because of the nature of creative work I think. But, in their formulation work and labor have fundamentally changed. Our labor has been largely intellectualized, made flexible, and through devices like cell phones and social media a full-time/anywhere/on/off-the-clock kind of endeavor, therefore organization and solidarity among workers is fractured, there is nothing common to leverage or organize around, the only thing one has is the strategy of refusal--to retract your labor.  Saying no is the only thing that a lot of people have left in terms of protest.  Looking at Guantanamo, it’s fucking insane that the only thing they can do is not eat, and they aren’t even allowed to do that.  


by Zachary Gough
May 2013.

One measure of an artwork is its impact on the people who experience it. If in the Portland Art Museum tonight you see a painting that moves you, or a sculpture that angers you, or a gesture that makes you think differently, then that artwork has impacted you. But beyond evoking strong reactions, how much can an artwork matter? How far can this impact go? To what extent can an artwork change our lives? My artistic practice has followed a line of questioning that explores what makes some artworks matter more than others. This investigation has helped me to find a collection of ideas that I hold as fundamental pillars of my art practice: Meaningful art responds to the political, historical, social climate of its site; meaningful art blends the roles of audience, participant, collaborator and artist; art is something we do together, whether you like it or not; things are often just clutter; meaning is not owned, bought or sold; meaningful art benefits many people, not just the artist; meaningful art is often found outside art galleries. To build on this list, I’ll present and compare Service Media and Useful art, two recent theories that respond to developments in contemporary socially engaged art practices that illustrate to what extent an artwork can change our lives, then show how Dentistry at the Museum supports them.

Dentistry at the Museum compares the accessibility of dentistry and the accessibility of art. The goal of the project is to enable a consideration of this parallel by facilitating dental care and an art experience for different publics. It manifests as two Medical Teams International mobile dental clinics parked in the museum courtyard, one of which provides emergency dental care to underserved populations from the Museum’s neighborhood, the other gives on-site teeth cleanings to the lucky winners of a draw of museum goers. Next to the two mobile clinics in the courtyard of the museum, a waiting room is set for people preparing for treatment and for recovery afterwards. The waiting room also serves as a venue for the distribution of the zine created by the volunteers for the project, as well as the site of the collaborative-radio. All members of the public are invited to sign up to DJ a small block of time over the radio, or dedicate a song to patients receiving treatment. That audio is played inside the clinics during the piece.

In the introduction to Service Media, a collection of writings about socially engaged art practices, editor Stuart Keeler presents Service Media as a sub-classification of these broad social practices. He says “Service Media projects do not glorify the artist as a magical solver of an issue [but] each audience member can experience an urban or civic need or issue and arrive at their own understanding of the topic or situ- ation through the service or performative gesture offered by the artist” (1). Well, this is precisely my ambition for Dentistry at the Museum, to provide a service and enable a consideration of the issues related to the is- sues pertaining to the service. The second idea, the assertion that art can be useful, comes from artist Tania Bruguera. In her Introduction to Useful Art, Bruguera says “Useful Art is a way of working with aesthetic experiences that focus on the implementation of art in society where art’s function is no longer to be a space for “signaling” problems, but the place from which to create the proposal and implementation of pos- sible solutions”. She goes on: “the utilitarian component I’m looking for does not aim to make something that is already useful more beautiful, but on the contrary aims to focus on the beauty of being useful” (2). For someone like me, interested in making art that is inherently meaningful, the attraction to this idea is evident. Where Keeler’s Service Media provides a service related to an issue, Bruguera’s Useful Art goes as far as proposing a possible solution to the problem at hand. In this the ideas vary, but it’s not too much of a stretch to say that they are getting at the same thing: Art actually helps, and helping is a beautiful thing.

The people who receive dental treatment during Dentistry at the Museum will leave, I hope, a little better off than they were before. Furthermore, they will have gained access to dentistry and to the museum despite the systems that normally do little to include them. In my ideal scenario for the project everyone would walk away having received professional teeth cleaning at the museum, because dentistry is a universal need, and because the museum should serve everyone. Too often, museums exclude people who lack the ability to pay entry fees or the ability to gain the education necessary to understand the wealth of culture within the museum’s walls. Unfortunately, this project will not solve the dental crisis in Portland, nor will it open the doors of culture to all of its citizens. But I hope those of us who experience this project will have a chance to think about these issues, having experienced an artwork that makes a real step in the right direction, that actually helps. Dentistry at the Museum embodies an action: it lives as a proposed system wherein people come for art and receive dentistry, and where people come for dentistry and receive art; a system where the institutions of art and dentistry serve the community instead of shutting them out.

At another angle, in relation to Bruguera’s understanding of the beauty of something useful, this project shows the tireless work of the Medical Teams International Mobile Dental Program as a beautiful thing. MTI creatively alleviates a huge social problem. Hundreds of MTI volunteers put on dozens of clinics every week providing “free or low-cost dental care to low-income children and adults, the homeless and migrant workers who lack insurance or a realistic way to pay for treatment. [They] have 12 Mobile Dental clinics in Oregon, Washington and Minnesota. Since 1989, [MTI] has helped 211,493 adults and children through their Mobile Dental program” (3). If artworks can provide a service, if they can be useful, I think the work of MTI belongs in the halls of the art museum, an institution that is to present cultural work that matters so dearly to society.

Beyond this project specifically, artists are actively making work that seeks to serve the community in tangible ways. For the insti- tutions that represent the cultural work of these artists the doors are now open follow suit and invest in tackling the large problems facing their communities.

1. Keeler, Service Media: Is it public art, or art in Public space? (Chicago:    Green Lantern Press, 2013) p3.
2. Bruguera, Tania, Useful Art. http:// /cms/528-0- Introduction+on+Useful+Art.htm 2012.
3. Medical Teams International Mobile Dental Clinic website: what_we_do/dental_program.aspx

PSU Art and Social Practice Wednesday Afternoon Conversation Series Presents: Justin Langlois

in conversation.jpg

Friday November 25th, 2012.

Broken City Lab co-founder and senior research fellow Justin Langlois is currently an Assistant Professor at the University of Windsor and will join the faculty at Emily Carr University of Art and Design in the fall to teach social practice.  
Zachary Gough is an MFA candidate in Portland State University’s Art and Social Practice program.
The following is a transcription of a conversation between them about Justin’s work in preparation for his visit to Portland to participate in the Portland State University Art and Social Practice Wednesday Afternoon Conversation Series (PASPWACS).  

ZG: As an introduction: What has been your path to coming to make socially engaged art? What’s your background?
JL: That’s a good question. You know, the older I get, the further back I trace where the interests come from.  I’ll say that it started in highschool when I ran a monthly alternative paper. I lived in a small town of like 5,000 people.
ZG: What town was this?
JL: Kingsville, Ontario. I was doing an internship at the local paper and they basically let me work in their offices after hours on this alternative paper. I could use their computers to do layout and I could print on their presses.  I got together a bunch of friends to contribute and write this thing, and I really liked organizing it - creating that dialogue. It wasn’t the entire community, but it was a subset of a subset of the community in on that dialogue. I enjoyed the discourse and that collaboration. Then, I thought I was going to go to school for journalism and applied to go to Toronto [University], but decided against going, and instead I went into a drama and community program at Windsor[University] that I didn’t stay in either.  So, I went into filmmaking.  The connection between all of these things was really about working with other people and to various ranges, being involved in the community I guess.  As I finished my undergrad in communications and media, I started working as an intern for an organization called the Green Corridor, which was focused on artist led interdisciplinary practices about urban ecology and how we should be designing infrastructures that are a little bit more responsive to the community.  This was all based in Windsor.  That fall I got into my MFA program, a studio program, and I was kind of really bored of doing studio work alone and going through these studio visits that seemed to detached. When I was working with the Green Corridor, I spent another summer going to a bunch of meetings with business owners, community stake-holders, press and the university and doing a lot of design work. Then a lot of speculating for a range of futures around the city. I realized that this is an art practice too - to go to meetings and to talk to people in that way, you can be an artist and work like that.  So, the second year in my program I kind of switched gears and actually with the help of my partner, Danielle Sabelli, we started Broken City Lab and it became my thesis project. Things just made a lot more sense, if felt a lot more natural to be working with other people. Doing something in an art school that could be conveniently framed as art, but didn’t have to exist only in that space.  You know it doesn’t really matter to me if it was [art] or not, because it worked. I just realized, like I was saying, that the further back I looked, the more lines I see about being interested in working with other people - working towards some kind of common direction, as a way of being in the world.  

ZG:  On your website you are ‘Senior Research Fellow’, how do you juggle collaboration? Or better how do you see your role with Broken City Lab?
JL: Early on those ideas of hierarchy or whatever were a way to exert a manufactured authority for the group. I think it was easier when we first started to send email to people at the city or contacts we needed to make as a Senior Research Fellow rather than a representative from a student group.  That being said, the collaborative element of Broken City Lab, I want to say, it’s complicated, but it might actually be a lot more straightforward than other collaborative structures, because the ability of all members to commit can really range from project to project. So, maybe it’s straightforward in that it reflects the way we are all always doing more than one thing, and we figure out how to make that work. There are people who were involved early on who have since moved on to do other things on a more full-time basis, but are still involved at the edges.  I think right now there’s a handful of us that are able to work on any given project on the table right now. That being said, I think the collaborative relationships that this smaller group has been able to establish are possibly a lot richer, because they’re more constant.  I guess I feel like the work is a bit more fully shared now.  Which is really great. I saw Broken City Lab as an interesting vehicle through which to explore process, but also what could we get done as a collective entity. Now, I think we’re doing it because the people around the table still find it interesting. In my role, I still make a lot of decisions but the decisions are less hinged on just my activity at the end of the day and a bit more shared.

ZG: Do projects happen at Broken City Lab without your involvement at all?
JL: Not really. I think part of it is that everyone I’ve worked with is/was, most of the graduate students I worked with. So, everyone else has been trying to juggle being a full-time undergraduate student with five classes and a job. And I think I was just always the one with the most time and...

ZG: Investment?
JL: Yeah, I think so. I guess the funny thing is that I’m okay with how [Broken City Lab] works most of the time. Obviously it can be frustrating as I sometimes want to see where things could go if there could be more constant investment across the board at all times, but I’m also a realist, I understand people have other priorities in their lives. I also think there are a lot of different forms collaborative structures can take.  Sometimes, I feel a little bit of uncertainty about what it means to have a collaborative that’s contingent on my participation. I’m okay with that, but sometimes I wonder - ‘Should I feel guilty about that?’, Should I feel guilty about the structures I’m leaving behind me?’ When I go to Vancouver [in the Fall 2013], I don’t know what Broken City Lab is going to look like after Civic Space wraps up.  Maybe no one will be left, and maybe that’s okay. Maybe it’ll become a distributive thing or maybe it’ll just dissolve, but I’m not sure it will continue on, in its current form, without my participation.

ZG: Which brings up the question of collaborative authorship.  I think many social practice artists like to deny pure authorship, but your case as an example, without you, it not existing, maybe that’s a case for more conventional authorship.
JL: I guess I trust that each of us take out of that authorship what each of us need. It may just be personalities -- I know that I enjoy leading and rallying people around an effort and I think those personalities and roles manifest in a way that’s constrained by the frame of a conventional structure that we’re used to reading, for better or worse. I really don’t think that those things would have happened had we all not been around the table together over time, regardless of whether I felt that there was a bit more responsibility on my end at any given time or not.  I also think there’s a lot of convenient and inconvenient parts of having that authorship or shared authorship that isn’t tied just to me, which informs the practice.  To have other members pulling and adding stuff to their CV now, regardless of the time they have spent or are currently spending on projects, is fine by me. I also find it interesting to look at how that actually plays out. I know there’s a lot of things that I got to do because of working in Broken City Lab, but I’m also curious what sort of things will open up for other people.

ZG: You mentioned Civic Space and how you want to talk about that in our conversation.  Can you talk now about that decision to get a physical space and how that’s affected the work that Broken City Lab is making?
JL: Yeah I can touch on that a bit.  It’s actually the structures that had to be created and the decision to take those structures on, that I’m interested in thinking through if we discuss Civic Space. We had to make a decision to become a not-for-profit organization to get the grant to do that and there was an interesting moment where we were trying to figure out if that was the right decision. I guess it kind of came up like this: we were approached and it was suggested that it might be a good idea to apply for some funding for a longer term project.  We had played with the idea of getting space a number of times before, but we didn’t quite know what we would do with it for a longer term basis. We were ok with continuing to meet in my living room, even if it wasn’t an ideal work space, but maybe this [opportunity] could be a good moment to think about how to dig in a little bit deeper back into Windsor. Maybe naively, the thought to get a space was really driven out of wanting to do more things on an ongoing basis rather than saving up for these larger projects. Now it’s managing whatever that space is on a day-to-day basis, which results in a different type of practice evolving.  It’s been good because there are things that we’re doing in Civic Space, in terms of programming, that will exist after Broken City Lab stops being as active in the city.

ZG: I was looking at your website today and I came across the conference Homework that Broken City Lab had put together, that I hadn’t heard about before. Homework: Infrastructures and Collaboration in Social Practices was a four-day residency and a two-day conference.  What were some of the conclusions or questions that came out of that conference? and on the website there’s talk of a second conference is that going to happen?
JL: So the second conference will happen in one form or another, it’s just going to depend on what level of support we’re able to get. We could put together a conference with the funding we received from the Ontario Trillium Foundation, but we’ve also gone and asked for a little bit more money to bring different key-notes and be able to complete some of the later stage projects we wanted to be able to do through that. So it’ll happen next Spring 2013, I guess, and it would hopefully produce some kind of writing out of it that we could get into the world a bit sooner.  Admittedly, it’s funny, Homework came and went so fast, and I don’t think I had much of an opportunity to reflect on it as much as I’d hoped to.  One of my favorite parts though, was on the last day of the conference was this open, big round-table discussion where we invited Greg (Sholette) and Salem (Collo-Julin) and Marisa (Jahn) to each run an hour a half session.  I think in some ways it’s not all that different from the format you’ve proposed here, where they would each initiate that hour and a half discussion with a thought, with a question, and it would open up from there in a little passing back and forth. I guess if I could try to distill what I took away from it, if I could summarize it in a neat way, it would be that there’s a lot of younger and emerging artists that are interested in the ways in which collaboration, socially engaged work, and artist-created infrastructures overlapping.  And I think questions were very similar to what comes up all over the place, ethical concerns, questions of what we’re trying to do over a long term, if there is any thought to a longer term, what we’re building.  I really enjoyed seeing the number of younger people coming to Windsor of all places to have these conversations.  That in and of itself was really great.  I think going forward, I’m interested in trying to look at an overlay of the ways in which the arc of artist-run culture in Canada of the late 60s and 70s is paralleling some of the things that are happening now.  And thinking about how that established artist-run culture exists today and the good and bad things that that has created.  And asking ourselves, are we going to re-do that or is there something else we want to be aiming for.  And I think to me those are some of the questions I’d like to pick up in the second round of Homework.

ZG: Artist-run culture is really a Canadian culture, and something that I’ve had to adapt coming here to Portland, and making art at all, particularly socially engaged art, has a different taste a different feel because there’s no Canada Council for the Arts. And being introduced to the art world in Canada knowing that that is there, and that there are things like the Trillium Foundation. There’s provincial, municipal, regional and federal funding for arts in Canada that is not here.  So my next question then is, there’s a lot of excitement around social practice here in the US, especially on the west coast, but I’m wondering how you see social practice developing in Canada, and in particular with regards to How to Forget About the Border Completely, how does your work act in relationship to the United States?
JL: That’s kind of a funny question only insofar as I think How to Forget About the Border Completely was so concentrated on the relationship between Windsor and Detroit and in some ways trying to imagine the ways in which the two cities could have, should or one day will amalgamate and become this one mega failing city.  I think in another way it’s also, I mean a lot of the work is so personally connected in a way that I don’t think How to Forget About the Border Completely tried to assert itself as a response for everybody.  Or maybe it did but it really came out of crossing the border when we were kids and our parents locking the car doors and just driving out of town to the freeway to get to someplace outside of Detroit, and I think that’s on both sides of the border. It was like how could you reframe the relationship more at a neighbourhood level? And some of the more entertaining things that we did, that we had fun with was thinking about all these smaller pedestrian scale crossings or doing things like trying to imagine some of the ways the Canada Border Services might change their practices. But to address the first part of your question, I think that the work we do is absolutely informed by that history of artist-run culture because the funding models that we’re now able to apply to came out of that. And, there are some really exciting things emerging in Canada, also on the west coast, at Emily Carr where I’ll be teaching in the fall, that focuses on social practice and community engagement as running in parallel to a lot of their other programs. At the same time, when I go over to the US the things that I find interesting are that there’s more alignment with community development corporations or small social entrepreneurship startups that recognize something in [socially engaged artists’]work that they like more than other artists connecting with us.  And so - maybe I haven’t been out to the west coast enough - but I think that that’s an interesting over-lay in the way in which the entrepreneurialism of the US kind of points to certain things that might be interesting or viable that have a much different look [in Canada].  Overall, the most interesting part for me of what’s come out of a project like Civic Space is an understanding that the Ontario Trillium Foundation funded a space that was not necessarily closely aligned with what they’ve normally funded in the past. And so, while I’m sure that there’s numerous other projects all over Ontario that have been funded under a similar model, from here on out, there’s a new line, at least regionally. Now this [type of project] is a fundable project, an artist run space that’s focused on thinking about how creative people might be able to act as leaders in a community is now fundable by a provincial foundation. There’s a lot of questions around change that come up, especially in thinking about the work that is focused on Windsor that we’re doing. “What are you guys changing? How did you know if it was a success or not?,” and all of those things point to an immediate and really legible model of not-for-profit activity that obviously works in certain situations. And for me, we’re not changing anything on the ground as we do these things, but by deciding to be a non-profit, by deciding to try to go through these funding channels, by deciding to make certain partnerships with the city for different projects, those create different precedents that will hopefully change a longer term view of what’s legible activity, what’s artistic activity in the region.

ZG: Awesome. I want to ask you about your project Reflect On Here that you did at Kitchener City Hall with CAFKA 2011, mostly because that’s my hometown, that’s where I grew up, and I grew up a five minute walk from City Hall. I remember when they built the new City Hall and I personally have been chasing art all over the place to the east coast of Canada to Halifax, and now farthest away on the west coast in a whole other country in Portland, Oregon. And for me to see a really exciting project that you did in the neighbourhood I grew up in, socially engaged art, it really makes me question the way I’ve been living my entire life, of seeking out something elsewhere, and I think that’s a really important part of your work at Broken City Lab has been investing in Windsor and I wonder if you can remember when you decided that that’s something you wanted to do in Windsor and why not in Montreal, or Toronto, or Vancouver, or New York?
JL: Well, Windsor was the right timing.  It was 2008 and there was just this sensibility in the city that things were kind of dire, not as dire as things in Detroit, but things just really felt like there’s not a way forward that’s being articulated. There was just this sense of pause, the city was paused in that moment, and there didn’t seem like there was a way that it was going to move forward.  So, [by] just being so immediately available to do the things that we wanted to do in Broken City Lab - to translate small scale but also larger scale projects into something viable over a span of a couple of weeks, I don’t know if I thought if this was possible in other places. It was really exciting, the scale of Windsor and the sense of wanting to do something because it seems irresponsible to not have some kind of response. It seemed like the right mix of conditions and since then, the greatest part has been that we were able to meet with people we probably would have never met in another city, whether that’s somebody on city council or whether that’s the cultural affairs officer - people who have some authority to act on changes proposed as an after effect of digging in here was really rewarding. I feel we were able to go to meetings that we probably wouldn’t be invited to in other places and actually talk through ideas in an interesting way.  But early on it felt like there was really not a reason not to respond to what was happening here, it felt really urgent, I guess. And it was so naive, right! I’m saying that it felt really necessary to respond and then the response is to make an art collective and make little critiques of the way the city’s infrastructure was reacting or not.  If anything, the idea of Broken City Lab shifted from a way to articulate a critique of the city’s lack of action or specific actions to a real interest in ways to make - like Broken City Lab is maybe really Broken Citizenship Lab. How do you begin to example or offer these moments where people can feel engaged in a place that hasn’t really asked for their engagement, that nothing about the design of it suggests that you’re supposed to feel engaged, and that’s what become the most interesting thing. What does it mean to try and forefront creative activity when you’re thinking about the direction of a city and not in a creative economy way, but in really creatively responding to the place you’re in and allowing that to be more of a baseline rather than a reaction. 

ZG: This one has been coming up a lot, in relation to people talking to me about my own work.  How do you gauge success in your projects, in terms of what you said before Broken Citizenship Lab, is it the interactions with new publics there in Windsor that makes your projects successful, or is it more like concrete change which is mentioned in your mission statement? How do you measure success?
JL: The idea of success is the weirdest thing. I feel that it’s important to be doing something and not just being passively in a place. I think whatever you decide to do it’s important to be able to act on that rather than reacting or choosing to just pick up your toys and leave.  Success, though, suggests that there’s a point at which you are not successful.  And that that activity, no matter how important it might be to you, could actually not be relevant by virtue of trying to measure it against people who tried to do it before you. So, here’s what I think: of course it’s a great thing when more people show up than less people.  And it’s a really cool thing and it has been a great experience at Civic Space to be able to do projects where I hardly see anybody I know coming out to things like the Letter Library. There’s a kind of accessibility to these projects that allow people to enter it but also to experience some of the things we were hoping to develop in the project.  Which is the ability to demarcate something on the city in front of you.  So, I guess I would say that I don’t think there’s a lot of things I would describe as ‘that wasn’t successful’, I think that, and maybe it’s overly personal, but I’m still entertained by the things that I decide to do on a daily basis that are attached to Broken City Lab.  I think that’s the only measure that I’m really concerned about.  And when it’s no longer challenging or engaging it’ll just mean that it’s time to do something else, not that it wasn’t successful.  When we look at not-for-profit funding or expectations, I think it’s a huge freedom to be able to enter into certain conversations as an artist, and not have the same type of responsibilities as a social services organization has, and that’s not to say that there’s no responsability, but I think that our responsibility is to engage critically and creatively with the thing in front of you.  If that thing is a discussion about how you keep young people in the city, or about where is the school going, or if it’s about why are we building this mega pool in the downtown when there’s all these community pools closing, I think that there’s a lot of people who are trained to provide certain answers for that and being able to be an artist in that situation just helps to reframe the conversation that’s being had. Not that everyone has to be convinced, but it would be a wasted opportunity to keep entering the problem in the same way.  

ZG: Do paradoxes or loopholes play into your work, or do you seek out loopholes in some way?
JL:  I think there’s a connection there insofar as the structure of BCL itself is a way to get around things, and I think earlier on it was like the idea of being a lab and being self-connecting to the University a bit, and trying to figure out ways to step on the other side of what’s a legitimate activity in the context of an art school or in the context of trying to encourage participation.  I think that the forms and the decisions that we’ve made as a collective and the funding we’ve gone after, and the longer term projects we’ve gone after, are really about trying to tease apart and trying to find loopholes to operate in and out of. More and more though, I think there’s been so much capitalization about loopholes as a way to act and move through the world.  It almost feels like, I don’t know what isn’t a loophole.  Every decision we make is trying to get around an obstacle, and at what point isn’t that a loophole? Maybe I’m simplifying what a loophole is, and the more I say it, the funnier it sounds.  I think it’s kind of a strange thing. If the world you’re encountering is kind of a series of varying complex problems to work through or work around, I think it’s very hard to solve things. I think it’s about maintaining the right distance from the problem at hand. [...]

JL: I would really like to talk about Civic Space, even though I think in some ways it’s one of the harder projects to know because the documentation of what we’ve been doing there is kind of dispersed. I would definitely like to talk about that. How to Forget the Border might also be interesting to talk about -  it’s also so much a set of ideas and proposals - I don’t know how grounded that conversation might be.  I think something like the Storefront Residencies for Social Innovation we did back in 2010 would be good to talk through. There’s a lot of projects that I’m open to discussing. On the one hand, I think I probably have more to say on the Windsor based projects, while on the other hand I think projects out-of-town are a little more problematized.  So, if there’s an interest in exploring that, I can talk through that as well.

ZG: I almost wonder if these sort of structures, or social practice at all is an adaptive model of working in the world. Almost in Darwinian evolutionary terms, because it works, it keeps going.  One of it’s criticisms is being vague, you know social practice as a term, but that also allows it to shape shift a little bit and fit through these holes. You can spin it in different ways as you need to.  
I think the way this section of the journal section is taking shape is, well it was supposed to be theoretical, even in duchampian terms if anything can be art, then that’s the biggest loophole of all. But it’s becoming more logistical in terms of getting shit done.