Artists Reclaim the Commons: Social Practice in Philadelphia

I contributed a chapter to the recent International Sculpture Center publication Artists Reclaim the Commons: New Works / New Territories / New Publics.

Here’s a snippet:

Whether institutional or artist-led, Philadelphia’s contemporary public art initiatives reject conventional, decorative forms to intervene in a physical, social, and temporal matrix defined by economic extremes. In a city where vacant lots butt up against prime real estate, where historic sites and university campuses lie adjacent to low income housing, public projects not only must respond to pressing, civic issues, but also negotiate the gap between difficult present and weighty, colonial heritage. It is almost too easy to interpret Philadelphia’s public art situation provincially, as the necessarily self-conscious production of a low-rent, tight-knit city, uncomfortably cast as New York’s “Sixth Borough.” Yet, locally grounded as it is, social practice in Philadelphia raises important, general questions about what we consider “public” and who has agency in these ever-shifting spaces. Taking political activism as a model, artists investigate who controls the city’s public resources and whose voices are heard in the public sphere. Working with and disrupting metaphorical and implied meanings of contemporary sites—through both physical and virtual means—they explore shared emotional experiences across social groups, while blurring boundaries between public and private. Their most successful work might be described as “social-specific,” a hybrid form combining the aesthetic strategies of site-specific public art and the relational strategies of social practice.

Philadelphia Social Art