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The Art of Practice

practice verb

1a : CARRY OUT, APPLY
practice what you preach

b : to do or perform often, customarily, or habitually
practice politeness

c : to be professionally engaged in
practice medicine

2a : to perform or work at repeatedly so as to become proficient
practice the act

b : to train by repeated exercises
practice pupils in penmanship

intransitive verb

1 : to do repeated exercises for proficiency
2 : to pursue a profession actively
3 archaic : INTRIGUE
4 : to do something customarily

practice noun

1a : actual performance or application
ready to carry out in practice what they advocated in principle

b : a repeated or customary action
had this irritating practice

c : the usual way of doing something
local practices

2a : systematic exercise for proficiency
practice makes perfect

b : the condition of being proficient through systematic exercise
get in practice

3a : the continuous exercise of a profession
b : a professional business

As Webster’s dictionary tells us,  practice is both a noun and a verb. My thinking follows the denotations of the word: For me,  art practice is both something that I do and something that I have. 

My practice begins with reading, research, and writing. Often, a work begins with a word or a phrase that prompts and image, or an emotional reaction that defies words. I then move to collecting journalistic and archival photos as references, a nod to my continuing relationship with my first profession.  Last comes experimentation in my studio, in which I (re)solve questions relating the philosophical (why), technical (how, which mediums), relational, spatial, temporal, and practical aspects of the series of works.

Concept map for Carceral Archipelagos series.

Through my art practice, I seek to give voice to and bear witness to truths. Playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht wrote that there are five difficulties in truth-telling: (1) courage to tell the truth, (2) keenness to recognize the truth, (3) skill to manipulate the truth as a weapon, (4) judgement to select those in whose hands the truth will be effective, and (5) cunning to spread truth among many. There are also corollary difficulties in truth-listening, about which Brecht did not write; I ponder both truth-telling and truth-listening in my work. Amidst the noise of the everyday, there can be a place of contemplation, if only we are courageous enough to enter it.  

Truth-listening and truth-telling both serve a larger purpose. Curator Rosa Martinez wrote, “The artist may be a healer, an inventor of worlds, a worker who activates social relationships, a researcher seeking lost paradises, an electrician generating new connections, a theoretician studying cultural identities and their displacements, or a laborer dismantling the hermetic constructions of the powers that be.”  

Martinez’s statement offers a challenge to me as an artist, to rise to those larger purposes. I accept that challenge. In my work, I am sometimes an inventor, sometimes an activator/activist, sometimes a connector, sometimes a researcher, theoretician, philosopher. In all of these, I try to create a space critical thinking, critical feeling, critical reflection that may lead to a re-imagining of possibilities.

The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the failures of all the systems that capitalism has built, deficiencies which people of color have long known. The inequities of and the violence within these systems—economic, health care, housing, employment, education, criminal legal— are in full view.

I believe that art can help us imagine, prepare for, and bring about the post-(fill in the blank) world.  Whether one defines it as post-SARS-CoV2, post-Trump, post-democratic, post-global, or something else, our society is at one of those paradigm-shifting points in history. The direction of the shift, the values on which it will be based, and who benefits, are all fundamentally connected to power, race, policy, and place. It is an opportunity to plant seeds for the overthrow of the social order in favor of new, more equitable and just systems. 

As Angela Davis has said, “You have to act as if it is possible to radically transform the world.  And you have to do it all the time.”

Seeds need space. Art-based processes can be an effective means to open space for reimagining the praxis, grammar (and rhetorics), aesthetics, and geographies of entrenched and failing systems.  Arts-based processes also can be well-suited for delving into concepts of community resilience, resistance, and restoration.  

And yet, we also must resist the hubris in the notion of transformative power of art. We are not geniuses but rather servant-artists holding space for collective contemplation, construction of social meaning, and pursuit of social action.