Reviewed by Patricia C. Phillips

During the past ten years, there have been significant essays and books on socially engaged art, as well as a broad spectrum of social practices that emanate from the interdisciplinary interests of artists and scholars. Social Works: Performing Art, Supporting Publics projects an important, refreshingly open-minded perspective and productive space of inquiry amid often clashing ideological positions. The book is a collection of seven independent, thoughtfully coordinated essays that examine the unsettled, yet generative conditions of public life and social practices in contemporary art. Throughout the book, the author reveals infrastructure, economies, and different forms of support as bridges that span projects, passages, and prevailing positions.

Shannon Jackson, a professor of Rhetoric and Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies and director of the Arts Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, constructs a calculated and balanced performance that moves nimbly between theory and practice through critical attention to recent developments in the areas of visual art, public art, community-based practices, and variable concepts of theater and performance in the public realm.

Engaging the constitutive transitional and temporal conditions of the "social turn" in contemporary art and theater, Jackson navigates disciplinary borders to locate mutual intellectual and affective spaces of speculation, projection, and proposition. Through meticulously crafted conjunctions between fields and theories, she guides readers through a thicket of competing, often combative, rhetorical positions on social and public, ephemerality and endurance, withholding and transparency, experience and expertise, media-specificity and intermedia, and art and labor. Skeptical of polarized positions and hardened thinking, Jackson presents a nuanced and yielding exploration of active interdependencies and the busy intersections of media, forms, content, intent, location, and duration.

Jackson provides a navigable structure of specificities and continuities that shape each essay and create structural alliances across the collected texts. Negotiating precise yet expansive theoretical analysis with vividly descriptive criticism of contemporary social practices, concepts (and metaphors) of interdependency, infrastructure, and support radiate, connect, and gain momentum throughout the essays. In many of the chapters, Jackson's interpretation of selected case studies, analyzed independently and often comparatively, offer strikingly tangible evidence of different ways that individual and collaborative works frequently presage and translate theory.

Jackson's first essay, "Performance, Aesthetics, and Support," considers the background of post-studio and post-drama practices to provide a context for subsequent essays. "Quality Time: Social Practice Debates in Contemporary Art," contrasts Shannon Flattery's project Touchable Stories and Santiago Sierra's legendary projects with "human subjects." She deftly arranges a theoretical stage, citing the recent work of Claire Bishop, Grant Kester, Nicolas Bourriaud, and other scholars and theorists. Curator Bourriaud first articulated and advanced a free-range sociability of "relational aesthetics" in contemporary art (1998). If the relational has become a ubiquitous part of discourse in many different contexts and situations, it is often disputed for its "easy-listening" and ethically relaxed approach to art, reception, and interactivity.

In response, Bishop launched a relentless counterargument to Bourriaud's work while challenging others (including Kester's "conversational" thesis) who, from her perspective, privilege good intentions over critical traction in socially engaged art. Bishop calls for resistant, even antagonistic art practices that eschew interests in codependency and conviviality that potentially simplify art and efficacy. Flattery's work that engages people in open-ended and participatory exchange and Sierra's overdetermined, labored-based, and compensatory performances are contrasting evidence of social practices and entanglements between social engagement and cultural resistance, heteronomy, and radical independence. Jackson shapes a critique of perceived and defended oppositions and tensions, proposing less dogmatic and limiting ways to consider social engagement and aesthetic integrity.

In "High Maintenance: The Sanitation Aesthetics of Mierle Laderman Ukeles," Jackson considers the prodigious practice of Ukeles, the influential artist who wrote "Manifesto for Maintenance Art 1969!" and who has worked as an unsalaried artist-in-residence with the New York City Department of Sanitation for 30 years. Ukeles's intellectual restlessness, philosophical disposition, and personal circumstances (as a mother, artist, and feminist) have informed visual forms, performances, equipment-based choreography, and interventions in urban infrastructure to consider mutual habits and recursive patterns of civility and vitality. Her most legendary project, Touch Sanitation (1978), involved shaking the hands, with a spoken invocation of appreciation, of 8,500 New York sanitation workers. Jackson examines maintenance as a heterogeneous form of support and the phenomenon of garbage—the things that individuals first possess and then reject to become a massive, undifferentiated collectivity—through the idea of the theatrical prop.

In "Staged Management: Theatricality and Institutional Critique," Jackson considers expanded and contrasting conceptions of the anti-institutional and institutional critique through the work of Allan Sekula, Andrea Fraser, and William Pope.L. Her analysis of Pope.L's peripatetic Black Factory (2005) considers dynamic forms of support both provided and required to maintain the collaborative site of social mobility. Here and in other essays, different economies and scales of support that sustain this kind of work invoke intricately braided social and aesthetic questions.

There is a generous spaciousness in Jackson's writing and independent insights that preserves the complexity of issues and density of ideas yet invites readers' open and speculative response. Indeed, the book is consequential due to Jackson's capacity to orchestrate her expertise and research with more contingent and speculative forays. Jackson is an effective and distinctive interdisciplinary scholar who negotiates theoretical affinities and traditional ideas while preserving complications—questions and conditions that are chronically and constitutively unsettled. Throughout the book, she becomes an increasingly trusted guide who shares her probing inclinations and diverse interests while periodically pausing to engage and improvise within partially articulated and understood territories.

The concluding essay, "Unfederated Theatre: Paul Chan Waiting in New Orleans," is both summative and unsettled. Contrasting Chan's production of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot (2007) in post-Katrina New Orleans, sponsored by the peripatetic, independent organization Creative Time, with the New Deal Federal Theatre Project performance of Power (1937), which was staged in several US cities, Jackson uses this "improbable pairing" to develop a temporal and historically contingent analysis of the infrastructural—the ubiquitous, shared, and often overlooked frames of support—as a persistent phenomenon and sustaining aesthetic dimension.

This book is a significant resource for artists, theorists, activists, scholars, and others who are interested in the challenging vagaries and rich possibilities of public life. Her inquiry and analysis of the institutions, economies, collectivities, and contingencies seek to challenge and embolden readers to be increasingly sensitive, attentive, critical, and committed to work in the public realm. Rather than envisioning aesthetics and politics, ethically accountable work and artistic independence, community engagement and radical resistance, and the literal and conceptual as vexed and irreconcilable oppositions, she clears pathways to rethink and freshly imagine how the deeply interdependent relationships of social works have rich and exponential effects.

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