Tuesday 09/09

Whose Terms? A Glossary for Social Practice: OUTCOME

by Emily Baierl, tagged with Whose Terms?, Emily Baierl, outcome, social practice, glossary
Cover Image:

Diagram of a statistical mediation model. From Elkhart Group Ltd. Statistical Consulting (“Research, n: An activity where you ask big questions and let us find the right answers.”)

Emily Baierl contributes to our collective glossary-building with an entry on OUTCOME, the final of seven successive posts on terms associated with social practice, initiated via an open call.

It is a testament to the malleability of contemporary art discourse that one of the clichés of writing in and around it entails taking a “bad object,” discredited or mothballed by theorists past, and resuscitating it through a deft sleight of hand. “Outcome” might be thus ripe for critical reconsideration as a corrective in light of dominant notions of art as intuitive, idiosyncratic, indeterminate, and un-regulatable—in other words, notions of art as (non-) normatively neoliberal.

An insistence upon demonstrating a verifiable outcome in art contexts is usually met with a hasty accusation of instrumentalization, except in social practice, where social and political effectiveness are accepted—if insufficient—criteria for evaluation. For historian of participatory art Claire Bishop, “outcome” is a dirty word for all modes of art-making because it points not only to the subsuming of art under government policy, but also to the ameliorative and reformist tendencies of practices rooted in ethical criteria.

So how, then, did “outcome” and its means-ends logic seep into social practice? I can’t say for sure, but I suspect it is symptomatic of art’s promiscuous interdisciplinarity and the willingness of artists to transgress disciplinary boundaries in search of funding. While all funders to some extent take part in quantifying and reporting on the outcome(s) of their support, grantmakers that don’t typically or specifically provide funding to artists are unlikely to heed the art field’s taboos against instrumentality.

Since the imperatives of fundraising and day-to-day administration frequently bleed into content, I endeavor to trace my own administrative path vis-à-vis “outcome.” I recently recorded a short interview with Sacha Yanow, Director of Art Matters—an organization that has long been a proponent of a no-strings-attached model of arts funding—where I work as a part-time arts administrator. I include a short excerpt of one of Yanow’s responses as an example of a funder’s non-prescriptive definition of “outcome,” according to logic internal to a practice or project:

We define “outcome” in terms of an artist-driven agenda (for lack of a better word) focused on process. We define “outcome” differently from artist to artist, based on how they define it.… There isn’t one particular measure a work must satisfy when it comes to social and political engagement. We feel like we’re very open to what that means.

Previously, I worked as a National Institutes of Health–funded researcher (read: full-time, independent city contractor) for a large-scale sociological study of affordable housing in New York, where I was frequently tasked with visualizing conceptual diagrams and statistical mediation models. With gloriously baroque flowcharts, I traced the hypothesized pathways by which Mayor Bloomberg–branded housing policy might trickle into other domains—as education outcomes, health outcomes, or economic outcomes. Under the guise of objectivity and “data-driven policy,” the findings of this research were promptly incorporated as sound bites for the promotion of business-as-usual housing policies.

Might there be another way of understanding “outcome” in the context of social practice—besides as a false marker of objectivity (the research definition) and beyond its collision/collusion with the “nonprofit industrial complex” (the funder definition)? I cling steadfastly to the term as an antidote to the unsatisfying micro-political and ostensibly open-ended approach of much work that is engagé. Perhaps “outcome” can serve as a conduit for a hybrid type of research that is not limited to model-making or rigid empiricism, but is rigorous, replicable, and always already confounded by the real that exceeds it.

Emily Baierl is a curator based in New York City.

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