January 11th, 2013 · Anthony Romero

Utopian Impulse and Social Practice

By Anthony Romero


Allan Kaprow, Trading Dirt, 1983-85/1989.* 



Art is at its core a social event, from the museum to the stage, the apartment gallery to the performance arena. Even when spectators believe themselves to be fully alone in their experience, they are in fact always in the company of others. Whether it is the other mediated through the object, the event, or the body, art relieves us of our solitude and returns us to the multitudes. What is it about this particular facet of the art experience that feels particularly important to this moment in the contemporary art world? More than a simple formal turn towards the materiality of social life or even a kind of conceptual drive to legitimize its social tendencies, the desire to reveal the social quality of art is a desire to return to the kind of performative utopias that have populated western art throughout its varied histories. In this way the social turn can be seen as a return to utopian practices and possibilities that feel particularly relevant in a tumultuous present, where revolution and change are palpable events.    


Image courtesy of InCUBATE and Sunday Soup Chicago.


Artists and performers have long relied on the sociality of art to express their political leanings to the masses. From the pre-fascist public spectacles of the Futurists to the communal utopianism of the Living Theater, performance practitioners in particular have utilized the power of collective bodies to promote their political ideologies. 

In 1922 the Russian theater director and theorist Vsevolod Meyerhold produced his first constructivist performance, The Magnanimous Cuckold, by the playwright Fernand Crommelynck. Film footage made available through Northwestern University reveals the process to be a rhythmic affair, relying heavily on Meyerhold’s own theory of biomechanics. The process, which he had begun to develop in advance of the production, is an early example of physical theater. More than this, Meyerhold’s experimentation is an attempt to understand the body in relationship to the growing emphasis of the industrial in his own social climate. Meyerhold’s desire to break with the long-standing traditions of Russian dramatic theater and to collapse the distinction between the two-dimensional theater set and the three-dimensional performance is wrapped up in the utopian vision of the Constructivist movement. Theater for Meyerhold is a site in which the utopian is enacted through the live event. In writing on the relationship between theater, performance, and utopianism, Jill Dolan has noted that “audiences are compelled to gather with others, to see people perform live, hoping, perhaps, for moments of transformation that might let them reconsider and change the world outside the theatre, from its macro to its micro arrangements.” More than this, the very act of making theater or performance allows the makers to arrive at a new understanding of their own ideology by embodying the process. Together the act of making and the act of viewing creates a performative encounter between two social bodies that reveal new ways of understanding the self through collective experience. The transformative potential of the theatrical experience coupled with the audience's desire to be transformed makes the theatrical space the premier site of social engagement and an ideal platform for displaying utopian ideologies. The utopian aim of Constructivism, that of providing modern subjects with new modes of collectivity through the revolutionary potential of industrial production, is at the heart Meyerhold’s theater.


Liubov Popova, maquette for the construction used in The Magnanimous Cuckold, 1922. Photo © Northwestern University. 

At mid-century, as visual artists experiment with the social fabric, their reliance on theatrical space was replaced by networks and newly available distribution methods. Utopian practices no longer unfolded before a seated mass but were instead performed on street corners and in storefronts. The site of change takes place through smaller and smaller experiences, eventually arriving at the micro-utopianism of Allan Kaprow’s later work.

It’s fairly well known that for the last thirty years my main work as an artist has been located in activities and contexts that don’t suggest art in any way.  Brushing my teeth, for example, in the morning when I’m barely awake; watching in the mirror the rhythm of my elbow moving up and down . . .

— Allan Kaprow, "Art Which Can't be Art," 1986.

Kaprow begins his essay Art Which Can’t Be Art with the brushing of his teeth. He writes very simply of the act of waking every morning, the turn towards the mirror, the warm face wash, and the “aromatic taste of toothpaste.” The way he is slowly made aware of himself brushing his teeth. How he has come to understand it is his arm that made the brushing motion. The way the bristles massaged the teeth. Kaprow uses this as a metaphor to describe a way of making art that does not so much strive to put art back in its life source, as so much modern art has, but to arrive naturally at the life of the artistic pursuit. The life of the individual as it is captured in the act of making. If earlier in his career Kaprow sought to make a kind of theater of the everyday, an arrangement of mundane and non-conscious behaviors that through their totalizing force as environments might reawaken the audience, then what we have in these later writings is not simply a rescaling of the work but a kind of all-out reduction to the basic principles, zeroing in on the moment of transformation. Kaprow's micro-utopian gestures seek to facilitate the desire to change the world outside the performance that Dolan recognized in theater audiences. Kaprow’s retreat from the art world was a way to restrategize and reevaluate his own utopian impulse. What he arrived at was a reimagining of the utopian spectacle, as Meyerhold and the Constructivist has presented it, as a personal theater in which the viewer and maker are collapsed into one body. In this way the individual becomes the site of social change, leading the charge out of the self and into the public realm.


Allan Kaprow, Trading Dirt, 1983-85/1989.* 


Our contemporary moment is one in which the utopian impulse has driven artists and performers to once again reveal the inherent sociality of art through practices of engagement. Oscillating between ideas surrounding theatricality, particularly the possibility of theater to initiate a transformative collective experience that incites social change in a given a community, and the micro-change of a utopianism steeped in individualism. Contemporary social practice borrows from artists like Meyerhold and Kaprow participation, hospitality, collectivity, pedagogy, and process to arrive at an individualized ideal present. Social practitioners have collapsed the social work of their predecessors into a politicized landscape of alternative living strategies, a collapse that is as much mobilized by the rapidly expanding cultural field as by a renewed belief in the possibility of art to transform and change society. Like Meyerhold, Kaprow, and the countless artists who have created encounters, situations, engagements, and the like, what drives contemporary social practice is a utopian impulse to call attention to our collective potential, one made visible through the experience of art. 

Anthony Romero is an artist and writer based in Chicago. 


*Allan Kaprow, Trading Dirt, 1983-85/1989. Activity. Reinvented for "Allan Kaprow: Precedings." Sponsored by Koninklijke Academie van Beeldende Kusten. Coast of the Netherlands. Photograph © Jeff Kelley. Courtesy Allan Kaprow Estate and Hauser & Wirth.

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