What's This Social Practice Art Thing?

An Interview with Artist Paul Druecke


Paul Druecke, a Milwaukee conceptual artist who enjoys a national reputation, started the Social Event Archive project in 1997. The Archive is now on display at the Milwaukee Art Museum to mark the 20th anniversary of an event that questioned how social interactions are captured on film, shared and commemorated.

Lisa Sutcliffe, curator of Photography and Media Arts at the museum, says in her introductory essay that Druecke (pronounced Drew-ka) was shocked when he discovered a snapshot that he could hardly remember. “He was so startled by the disconnect between the occasion, his experience of it and his failure of memory that he became curious about how social interactions are photographed.”

Druecke then invited the public to contribute a snapshot of a “social occasion, public or private, current or historical.” No further explanation was provided. And the exhibit offers none either. That democratic impulse, Sutcliffe says, “allowed Druecke to empower his subjects to define their own relationship to the term ‘social occasion’ through their selections.

When the project ended after ten years in 2007, it contained 731 pictures, catalogued and displayed in the order the artist received them rather than chronologically.

According to Sutcliffe, “the photographs draw our attention to universal stories and underscore cultural modes of socializing.”

Druecke’s intent was to reconsider the meaning, significance and function of vernacular photography and rescue these life-flow artifacts (now that photographs exist in digital form and are considered more as ephemera) from their lost-in-the-attic or desk drawer fate as well as having participants create a record of social behavior in late-twentieth-century America.

A Social Event Archive, according to Wikipedia, foreshadowed the role of social media, such as Instagram and Facebook, in blurring boundaries between the personal and the public. It is a platform in which the artist is able to explore the concept of the collective mind pictorially. To the extent that the project has a public role, Druecke can be classified as a social practice artist.

I became interested in the project after learning that writer and artist David Robbins had interviewed Druecke for the New Art Examiner’s April 2000 issue (vol.27, no.7). It is a revealing look at the project while it was ongoing and a useful supplement to the artist’s process.

Now that the Archive was complete, I interviewed Druecke at the museum in June.


A foursome wading in the water


Mullaney: It seems that you were once characterized as a conceptual artist. How do you now relate to being called a social practice artist?

Druecke: Funny that you should ask about that. One of the leaders in the social practice movement, Jennifer Delos Reyes and I are going to be in conversation about that here on July 27th and that will be interesting.

The Social Event Archive came into being prior to that practice existing as a term. That type of content absolutely existed prior, way before then and many artists have been exploring that intersection of public and private, high and low. But the actual term came after that and has gained an awful lot of momentum over the last, I don’t know, 10 years.


NAE: Who do you think was the figure who helped develop that concept since, as you say, there were a lot of people beforehand?

Druecke: I don’t know that there’s one. The first academic program that I learned about when I was working on a project with Harold Fletcher and Miranda July, called “Learning to Love You More,” a web-based set of assignments that allowed you to contribute.

They were taking the same idea but using this new technology of the internet. And Harold was instrumental in establishing a social practice program at Portland State University.


NAE: Social practice is a term that is quite contemporary but I wonder which of these artists, who blended public and private spheres, you would relate to? I’m thinking of Rauschenberg, Hans Haacke, Gordon Matta-Clark and Martin Kippenberger. Which of those do you feel touch on your practice?

Druecke: I’m a huge fan, and relooking over, the work of Hans Haacke in relation to this July 27th talk. The way he brings a kind of institutional critique into the work, he’s very different from mine but I also think as wanting to clarify certain relationships—the relation between the artist, institution and audience.

So, works like the real estate holding project, very controversial but also just saying take a look at these relationships and you can decide what position you want to take toward these relationships. You can take whatever position you wish but it’s a matter of clarity and I love that.

Another artist who I would put into this mix is Jenny Holzer. Her content and her identification with those LED signs that could go into these kinds of public spaces was a little eye-opening and jarring for many people but really effective. And I’ve recently started following her on Twitter and it’s curious to see the evolution of her practice and I see her practice as evolving.


NAE: Speaking of Haacke, would you put your Historical Markers project and your idea about “authority” and subverting the application process and the ability of the public to play some role in the whole project?

Druecke: I would say that the content that one expects to find on the medium, I just feel there’s so much more room for such depth and meaning and other forms of imagination. So, absolutely there is criticism in thinking how they exist in the world now. But I’d say more than that is just the realization and an interest in the potential for what they could be and there, it comes back to a certain clarity as to how they function now and how they could in other ways. Could be more poetic. For me, the markers have a certain self-awareness about what they are and how they are inserting themselves into a certain context and most of the other ones don’t have that.


NAE: The notion of “authority” seems to be important in your work. Can you please describe what role it plays in your art?

Druecke: Authority and agency are related in my work—I think of them in combination as the power to act, to bring together, to intercede. The implications are political and existential, which is to say, both outward and inward looking. I am interested in the power of presence, and the poetry of conditionality. Like so many others, I am thinking about my methodologies in the light of political upheaval.

A Social Event Archive laid the groundwork for ongoing exploration of themes such as idiosyncrasy and concord. The Archive’s structure showcases and heightens what would otherwise have been private moments. The Archive begs questions about our willingness, and capacity, to consider so many strangers’ lives as significant and meaningful for public consumption.

I am interested in the inherent tensions that arise when authority, or agency, is seen through a democratic lens. One can argue that the Archive’s authority hinges on participants’ choices to contribute to the composite portrait. The contributors are authors and their respective decisions maintain authority even as they join forces with hundreds of co-authors. Hundreds of authors representing thousands of lives palpably embodies the aforementioned conditionality and contingency. Finally, my act of initiating the Archive short-circuits the hierarchies—institutional and scholarly—associated with traditional archives.


At a mid-20th Century luncheonette


NAE: Your art also relates to the concepts of time and memory and how fallible those concepts can be. So, does your art say that our concept of history is flawed and quite relevant? You sort of make a point that it all depends on where you stand and who’s writing the history.

Druecke: I would say that, foremost for me, that is very personal and an interest in experiment for me to locate myself in this thing that feels very mysterious and also continually morphing. If I think I understand the sense of past, present and future one day, that may change the next day or the next week or the next month. So my relationship continues to change to something that, to me, feels very fluid.


NAE: How does Michelle Grabner’s essay in the catalogue that talks of the past is never past. It’s talking about the concept of the “present past” is always with us.

Druecke: I think that’s such a beautiful way to articulate what I was just trying to get at, that sense of fluidity and semantics of how we understand these things. The words we have to explain these is one thing but then there’s this whole mind/body relationship to it. Sometimes the words are trying to catch up to another intuitive understanding of what it is to be sitting here right now with such a cool, nice breeze.

I’m very interested in trying to connect my understanding of that, however temporal, to my putting something into the world in a tangible form and then that loops back to that relevant idea of what is the fact, what is the material substance that helps us track that notion of past, present and future.


NAE: Speaking of memory, just as you felt that digital photography has changed the whole concept of photography that exists in the archive, is the idea of memory itself changed because everybody is looking at “my memory,” it’s all so self-reflexive? Is memory affected by this whole internet age?

Druecke: I don’t want to dodge that but I really feel that I don’t know if I am qualified to comment on that. I don’t know.


NAE: The Archive has no narrative and doesn’t assign meaning to the project. Yet, as I went through the exhibit, people want to give some sort of meaning to the archive or individual photos. I know that you resist that. It seems man is a meaning animal, always trying to put that word onto experience. How can just the idea of viewing something or it just being there give it meaning?

Druecke: I guess that idea of what something means and to take meaning away is really important. For me, the layer that I would add onto that is that I just feel there’s a conditionality. Everything is subject to a certain conditionality that affects the “Meaning.” I understand that gets a little slippery when, all of a sudden, you go from the singular, this is what it means, to meaning philosophically. So, then well, if it’s “Meaning,” can any one of those be accurate or correct or it means everything is kind of relative based on the circumstances of its being encountered by people.

So, there I have to say again, that back and forth, that tension, I just find fascinating. I don’t see it resolved.


Three stylish ladies at a celebration


NAE: That’s what gives a work of conceptual art its edge, that it’s an either/or. Can the Archive be seen as an An-archive which Simon Reynolds calls, “a barely navigable disorder of data-debris.” It’s a collection of over 700 photographs and you don’t even know any connection. It’s not like the book, “Wisconsin Death Trip” where you have a whole bunch of photos as well but which are organized around a specific theme. So, can the archive be seen as an ana-archive?

Druecke: Well, I feel that that’s a great question tying two viewpoints together with the notion of conditionality. I just love how that individual photographs have to vie with one another and one has to negotiate not just  five or twelve different lives, that one might understand as one would in a family context or like with “Wisconsin Death Trip”, where you could organize them along certain thematic art but how they’ve come together (in the Archive) is so organic, it has a structure, though it’s random, and you’re left to confront this notion of human existence in a very structured, disorganization, which, to me, I think is one way of reflecting reality.

That’s something we do all the time. We’re aware of these people; we don’t necessarily need to interact with them and know them. How do we think of our existence in relationship to all these other people? And you know there are, in a very subtle way, there’re political implications to how one person responds to that.


NAE: Tell me, you said in the Afterword, that how when you were putting the Archive together, you were really looking at the photos as commodified, you saw them as having a “facile poignancy” and yet you come back to it, twenty or ten years later and you seem to look at them a little differently. Can you describe that difference?

Druecke: I mean I’m older and that notion of time and age and nostalgia, can affect that. But also, the whole process of doing a project with those photos builds meaning into that material over time. It’s something I’ve been thinking about recently because I realize that it’s a bit of a pattern with the historic plaques. That is a medium that I initially had no interest [in] and perhaps an aversion to; and I feel that, oftentimes unconsciously as well as consciously, I gravitate toward something I don’t understand or that seems very distant to me but, in working with it, that seems that it has potential because of me being outside of it.

And again, it’s really not such a conscious strategy but, as I look back over time, I did this project on top of another project, the naming of space in Milwaukee Blue Dress Park. There was an organization, named Friends of Blue Grass Park, that was adopting a board structure to consider the legacy of this gesture.

I mean, there again, there were 10 or 12 people sitting around a table, going over the minutest little details of something, seemed so absolutely boring to me but fascinating because so much of contemporary culture gets filtered through that board structure.


NAE: Do you feel some kind of sorrow that photography is now a past media?

Druecke: No. I’m not. I think what it is now and what it will be in 5 years that’s interesting and exciting to me.


The exhibition is on view through August 6, 2017.


TOM MULLANEY is Senior Editor of the New Art Examiner.

Paul Druecke




Jen Delos Reyes is associate ­director at the School of Art and Art History at the University of Illinois Chicago campus and a recognized authority on social practice art.

While the term “social practice” has gained wide currency in the past decade, art historian Claire Bishop writes the movement has a much longer history, starting with Dada and social movements like the Zurich nightclub, Cabaret Voltaire.

According to Reyes, the post-World War I period was a period when artists were creating social scenes around art practice. It was “a tumultuous time when artists were defining what their role in society was and how art could be involved in that reshaping.”

She identified other movements throughout the 20th century including Duchamp’s found objects, Arte Povera in Italy, Latin America’s Tropicalia, Joseph Beuys’ ideas on “social sculpture” and even Andy Warhol’s Factory as a social practice workshop.

Students at the California College for the Arts earlier defined the term as “artists working with the social as their material”. Their work cannot exist without people engaged in social intercourse. “With someone like Theaster Gates,” Reyes says.

“He (Gates) creates physical objects for exhibit purposes but his work with Dorchester Projects is so much about the neighbors and the nature of public housing. That’s work that could not exist without people.”

Socially-engaged art has changed since Druecke’s project and Nicolas Bourriaud’s term “relational aesthetics”. Since then, Reyes cites other seminal publications: Suzanne Lacy’s “New Genre Public Art” (argues that neighborhood people should be involved in creating public art) and Ted Purves’ “What We Want Is Free” (speaks to generosity and exchange in art).

Other social practice artists are Cuban artist Tanya Bruegerra’s work on power and control around immigration, Rick Lowe, whose public housing work in Houston predates Gates’ and Mark Bradford.



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