Dysfunction in Functionality

In 2011, in her ‘Introduction to Useful Art’ Tania Bruguera defines useful art as ‘a way of working with aesthetic experiences that focus on the implementation of art in society where art's function is no longer to be a space for ‘signalling’ problems, but the place from which to create the proposal and implementation of possible solutions.’ In collaboration with the Queens Museum of Art, New York, and the Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, Arte Útil comprises various formats from research and public projects to the transformation of the Van Abbemuseum into a Museum of Arte Útil. Structured along key areas such as ‘Politics’, ‘Social’, ‘Urban Development’, ‘Scientific’, ‘Economics’, ‘Pedagogical’ and ‘Environmental’ the on-line platform introduces to artists ́ or cultural activists ́ projects, which ‘propose new uses for art within society’, ‘be implemented and function in real situations’ and ‘have practical, beneficial outcomes for its users’.

The conception of Arte Útil hits the agenda of many artists today, namely the desire of having a position that has a real impact on societal issues. With the claim for a socially effective art, beyond the politics of representation and symbolism, a long contested domain is entered, raising the question of art’s and the artist ́s social role. What can artists do for society and what do they want to do for it? In return, what can society expect from artists and what does it want them to do? Where should artists open up towards social concerns and where do they need to defend themselves so as not to be appropriated by various groups and their interests? Looking back, the desire of being ‘useful’ started to grow when art was claiming autonomy and was gradually loosing its firm ties to society. Although inherently paradox, this means that the wish for an acknowledged position (function) in society is already the expression of an increasingly dysfunctional relationship between artist and society that hit its first peak in the mid of the 19th century.

‘Dysfunctional’ means here that the role (function) of art in society has become blurred, widely undefined, less or just vaguely defined by authorities. As a result of this release art basically followed two paths: towards autonomous art, raising the concern of being independent from social expectations, even if it was always more a pretension that it complied with reality, and socially committed art, which desired to interfere directly in social developments, even if the impact was sometimes not that immense or did not take effect exactly where it was hoped for.

Both approaches, although different and ideologically played off one another for a long time, were struggling to find acceptance for art and artists in a world that seemed to have only a little need for them. Since then the growing disintegration of society has even more complicated the attempts of re-establishing closer ties between art and an increasingly elusive ‘society’. Therefore it is not surprising that there is a strong interest in a period ‘when art, science and civic society were still fused together’ – as it can be read in the project description of 1848: The New Mechanics by Grizedale Arts in 2011, and now evolved into The Uses of Art: The Legacies of 1848 and 1989 as a large scale touring project developed by Grizedale Arts and the Internationale group of museums, that responds to the current situation, which is seen in the condition of stasis ‘that prevails at a moment of declining Western influence, economic crisis, ecological anxiety and an inability for the arts to make a case for their value in society.’

To detach from this, 1848, the year of social upheaval and ruptures, of revolution, hope and change, and of new attempts of reorganising society nurtured by a general atmosphere of departure and driven by a promising yet unclear future, is taken as conceptual point of view of the project. It is connected to an on-going body of research on the social role (function) of the Mechanics Institutes and the role of John Ruskin as a social reformer and aims to re-evaluate both approaches. Particularly interesting is that 1848 has served as a utopian moment, a driving force for alternative social models at that time and today. The New Mechanics is an experiment, which approximates to shifts in the conception of ‘useful art’ from two distant points – from the mid 19th century and from the present. In addition, it ventures a look ahead, speculating about future scenarios. There are several institutions and individuals involved to provide a reflection on the relationship of art and society – the author of this text is one of them.

With this in mind I would like to focus on the massive changes in the current social parameters, elaborating two major aspects that have a strong impact on the conception of ‘useful art’ today: the growing disintegration of society and the changes in the status of art. After the loss of ‘great narratives’ and the downfall of authoritative models directed to the entirety of society, the focus of attention has shifted to communities and community work, defined by the strengthening of common values, shared identities, emotional relatedness and very often a non-utilitarian approach. In contrast, society can be characterised through (fundamental) inherent differences and means-end relationships with an organisational form that is largely based on legal structures and agreements. Such agreements are instrumental and contractual in nature and they tend towards specific ends. Today society – comprising superior agendas transcending individual or group interests – seems to be a hollow shell and rotten mainly because it is associated with a capitalist society that has culminated in the crisis Europe currently faces, whilst the allusion to community feeds the desire of living in kinship. These developments are not least mirrored in the current artistic work with and for specific communities; it is the expression of an increasing fragmentation of society, too. Today, art and artists are widely welcome, probably more welcome than ever before. And this does not only comprise art’s material products but also characteristic traits associated with art, such as creativity, authenticity, non-conformity, subversion and criticism. Former antagonism to the economic domain and to capitalism, which inspired for a long time many artists to go into opposition, has given way to highly complex and not always visible integration processes from which neither artists nor the institutions they work with are exempt. And this applies both to the conception of (more or less) autonomous and of (more or less) socially committed art. In short, the conceptualisation of either the idealistic, polar opposite domain or the not less idealistically driven intervention into social domains deteriorated at an increasingly rapid rate in the course of the twentieth century. Nowadays the growing claim for benefits and efficacy of artistic practise is based on the same pressure to legitimise, which embraces all aspects of a socio-economic reality today. In Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Fredric Jameson described this as a significant phenomenon of late capitalism: ‘[...] the cultural and the economic, thereby collapse back into one another and say the same thing [...] it seems to obligate you in advance to talk about cultural phenomena at least in business terms if not in those of political economy.’ Not only the forced branding of artists and art institutions, close collaborations between art and enterprise and powerful growth in the creative and art markets, raise urgent questions of complicity, dependencies and most importantly, the question of the possibilities of critical practice; so too the incorporation of socially engaged art projects to image policy and social work.

For some years now artists have been invited to actively engage with social transformations and with the places affected by change, to come up with proposals for new uses and changes of use and/or to stimulate participation and a sense of community. The expectations from art in these circumstances are immense. In these days artistic, socio-cultural and political aspects should come together providing it all: enhance public life, add value and pursue a particular image policy.

This friendly embrace and less friendly annexation runs the danger that artists wittingly and unwittingly support economic or social developments and participate in processes they actually do not want to back, e.g. gentrification, the transfer of previously stately tasks (and responsibilities) to communal and individual tasks, the exploitation of local skills, goods and human resources for an ever absorbing market, which is greedy for new impulses. In the light of this, a closer look into the use and usefulness of art might be helpful. Obviously artists are quite critical when a certain use or function is imposed on them or on their projects: Kristina Leko, for example, does not accept the idea that art can solve problems in other disciplines or compensate for societal deficiencies and relieve politics of its responsibilities; in her view ‘art cannot replace education systems, urban planning or other social disciplines.’ Far more she is interested in the social potential of art itself, which the artist believes has the capacity to ‘generate changes in relationships and perceptions.’ Leko vigorously distances herself from being incorporated by interests, which are not hers. Instead, she places her interest in working directly with marginalised groups14 and to develop together with them a platform that allows them to speak.

However, the artist ́s interest is not confined to her work at site, she connects local and communal agendas with global economic developments. In Cheese and Creams Leko focused on the gradual disappearance of a traditional Croatian profession, the milkmaids, whose existence was threatened as a side effect of globalization and European economic policy because their products do not match the legal requirements of selling foodstuffs. Besides researching the traditions, the conditions of labour and the impact the micro-scale economy of selling fresh cheese and cream has on the local economy, Leko set up a campaign, which comprised of actions in the public space, public debates, a petition, and an exhibition, evolving around the question of ‘Could Zagreb Milkmaids possibly join the European Union?’15 With this project the artist has managed to bring in successfully a different view on the role of milkmaids in society, connecting communal concerns with a wider economic debate. Two rivalling notions of ‘usefulness’ – that of the European economic policy and that of Leko, the milkmaids and their supporters – were played off one another asking what is useful for whom and what is not ripping into the heart of a levelling economic policy. Communal and societal, local and global agendas related to one another. In all of her participatory projects Leko engages in advocacy on behalf of groups that either occupy marginal social positions, or are being gradually pushed into them, whether this means Croatian milkmaids, Croatian and Hungarian peasant families, immigrants in Sarajevo, nursing home residents in Graz, Croatian immigrants in New York, or unemployed people in Halle. Biogas PH5 Lamp made use of the design of a lamp of which the Danish company Poulsen owns the rights. Superflex had the famous lamp by the Danish designer Poul Henningsen reproduced in Thailand and used it for their biogas project, which addresses local populations in Bangkok. Both projects were developed with communities on site and both are set in relation to a global market scrutinising unbalanced economic conditions and relations between producers and consumers. To enter and appropriate a terrain that was formerly looked at as being antagonistic – that of economy – responds to the argument forwarded by Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello that capitalism was able to modify and stabilise itself, above all through the criticism it received from art and from the social domain.

Capitalism thus assimilated certain aspects of that criticism, specifically so as to maintain precisely the necessary degree of criticism to justify and sustain itself. Beyond the assertion that artists – precisely by criticising the system, which they saw as questionable – contributed substantially to stabilising the latter, it becomes increasingly difficult to separate artistic and economic interests, especially since art’s economic potential has itself become a broader social concern as already mentioned earlier. However, these examples show that it seems overhasty to draw the conclusion that the perforation of the boundaries between art and the economy necessarily leads to art and communities being absorbed by the economy. Moreover, these projects do not accept that there is no alternative to the current economic modes whereby all areas of life are incorporated and utilised in terms of profit. Rather, they seek to intervene in economic processes, actively shaping these to emancipatory ends. This can lead to massive consequences as the examples of Guaraná Power and Biogas PH5 Lamp show: The violation of ownership and utilization rights has led to lawsuits with large companies, which have lasting many years.

Artistic appropriation does not only usurp economic modes or business strategies it also makes use of their terminology and rhetoric. In some cases one might even mistake artistic enterprises as being trapped by capitalist principles and completely infused with economic thinking – at least at first sight. When talking about their workshop at Ludlow Street in New York, Dexter Sinister refers to the model of a ‘just-in-time’ economy. They have adapted the Toyota principle, which stood for a model of flexible production as early as the 1950s and later became known as ‘just-in-time production’, proving extremely economically successful thanks to its ability to react to new demands and changes. In addition, Dexter Sinister make use of a language taken from economics, for example when they state that editing, design, production, and distribution are brought together in ‘one efficient activity.’ However, their aim is not to improve production and distribution to make more profit, but to provide a work structure, production facilities and channels of distribution beyond large publishing production and sales networks. Furthermore, the workshop ‘doubles as a bookstore, as well as a venue for intermittent film screenings, performance and other events.’ Both are intended to be merged into to The Serving Library, a project meant to reflect on the role of the library and its changes over the course of time – ‘from fixed archive, through circulating collection, to point of distribution.’

Being ‘as much about The Library as social furniture as it is a specific model, the project ultimately returns to its point of departure: as a place for learning.’21 Again, rivalling ideas and notions of the economic rub shoulders raising debates about economic models, potential alternatives, use value, efficiency and non-efficiency. The questions asked in the beginning of the text: what can artists do for society, and what do they want to do for it, what can society expect from artists, and what does it want them to do, where should artists open up towards social concerns and where do they need to defend themselves so as not to be appropriated, can be answered differently. What the various approaches presented here share however is that they insist on a difference to current economic modes, which incorporate all areas of life and utilise them in terms of profit. Kathrin Böhm, founding member of the collectives ‘Public Works’ and ‘My Villages’, places emphasis on this difference and opens up a notion of usefulness ‘that is not determined by functionality, efficiency or commercial viability.’ In her projects usefulness is placed at a disposal to be negotiated – as the products of the International Village Shop clearly show. Böhm does not look at the denial of a certain functionality, efficiency or commercial viability ‘as a privilege of art, but at art as a resort, which maintains this privilege for society. This privilege should be shared and extended rather than shrunken. Barbara Steiner

Why Artists?

“What use are poets in times of need? But you'll say they're like holy priests of the wine god, Moving from land to land in the holy night.” (Holderlin: Bread and Wine)

Commenting on this Holderlin’s poem in Off the Beaten Track, Martin Heidegger says that “times of need” are times when the presence of God has been forgotten. I want to ask the same question (why poets? why artists?) within a different context. Not in the absence of God, but when the absence of social solidarity is the cause and the origin of our present condition of need, loneliness and misery.

So my question is: why artists, why poets when misery and precariousness and gloom are marking our time? What can artists do when the majority of society seems stunned, depressed and unable to act? And finally: who are the artists? What does this word mean?

Beirut, Cairo

At the beginning of the year 2012 I spent two months in Beirut, teaching at the school Ashkal Alwan, a Master program for artists, architects and film makers. My students were coming from Egypt, Palestine, Qatar, Iraq, and most of them were engaged in the movement hurriedly identified as the Arab Spring. With their words, their art projects and works they gave me a vivid perception of what was happening in the Arab world in that period; before the full disclosure of the tragedy of the Syrian war, before the deception of the Egyptian elections. They were the expression of a culture that was simultaneously cosmopolitan, libertarian, secularist and socially oriented – and I saw them as the heirs of the global justice movement that spread at the beginning of the new Century.

Thanks to their creative use of the Internet, news of their forms of action quickly circulated in Europe and in the United States. During my stay in Beirut I felt that artists are creating the new Internationalism of our time, the internationalism of the general intellect. Only one year later, beginning 2013, I went to the Middle East again, and I spent a week in Cairo meeting friends who are still active in the art scene of the city, and I felt their sentiment of disillusionment and defeat vis-à-vis the mounting aggressiveness of fundamentalism, and of the growing power of the Muslim Brothers who did not take part in the revolution and are occupying the space opened by the revolution.

The city was chocked by pollution, frustration and destitution and the energy of the artists that I met in the small streets of the city was the only sign of persistence of a spirit of autonomy and revolt. In the crowded rooms of the art-space Townhouse, I could see My Nineties: A Panorama of Collective Memory Televised by Hassan Elhalwagy, the audiovisual performance presented by Mohammad Allam and Rami Abadir, and the works of the American artist Warren Neidich.

Who in those days was exposing his works in that place. In another art space of the city I could see Ultimate Substance by Anja Kirschner and David Panos, a video installation that speaks of geometry and life, financial violence and slavery, European crisis and ancient Greek mines.

Milano, Macao

On May 5th 2012, in the city of Milano, thousands of architects, visual artists, teachers students and precarious workers occupied a building called Torre Galfa renaming it Macao. The building, a 34 floor skyscraper in the centre of Milano, has been abandoned for 15 years by the financial group Ligresti, whose CEO is accused of corruption. The occupiers organized activities of collective creation; lecturing, performance and communication, and the building became a meeting point for the wide array of precarious cognitive workers of the city. Ten days after the occupation, on May 15th, the police dislodged the occupiers and in so doing reclaimed emptiness and waste, an action against life and activity.

It is the special mark of financial capitalism nowadays: emptying the living world in order to increase financial profits. But the occupiers did not renounce to work together, and occupied a new space in this city where Berlusconi has built the media empire financed by the money of his mafia accomplices.

Why are thousands of architects and visual artists occupying and bringing back to life abandoned theaters and buildings? Why are artists are so interested in activism and social theory, while the market invades the space of art, reducing the activity of artists to abstract work, and emptying Art of any meaning? Why has the Berlin Biennale of 2012 been largely dedicated to art-ivism and to the occupy movement? Why has dOCUMENTA(13) been conceived and assembled as a laboratory of research and experimentation in the political art of Retreating from the collapsing capitalism? Why has the Biennale of Limerick been dedicated to the social effects of the financial crisis?

New York, Sandy

In November 2012 I went to New York city, in the aftermath of the catastrophic Hurricane Sandy. I went to visit my friends of 16 Beaver, an apartment which is a sort of art gallery and a meeting point where artists and activists in 2011 placed the headquarters of Occupy Wall Street. One year after, in the gloomy days after the hurricane and floods invaded the city and jeopardized daily life of poor neighborhoods of the Lower East Side, 16 Beavers were engaged in a new experience, named Occupy Sandy. I grasped the meaning of their decision to shift from Occupy Wall Street to Occupy Sandy as a sign of the changing spirit of the movement, of the changing awareness and of a new intention. They were saying: preventing the catastrophe is impossible; the catastrophe is here.

So the task of the movement is not to fight against a coming dangerous possibility, the task of the movement is staying human in the midst of the inhuman conditions that financial capitalism is producing in our social life and in the environment. “Let’s stay human” is the sentence that can best explain the attitude of our present resistance, whilst financial capitalism is destroying the signs of humanity from the surrounding environment of metropolitan life.

Stay human

“Stay human” is the title of a book collecting reportages from Gaza whose author is the Italian Vittorio Arrigoni. Arrigoni was one of the many activists who revivedthe International Solidarity Movement (ISM), a pro-Palestinian group that works inthe Palestinian territories. In August 2008, he participated in the Free Gaza mission that aimed to break the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip. While volunteering to act as a human shield for a Palestinian fisherman off Gaza's coast in September 2008, Arrigoni was injured when the Israeli Navy used a water cannon to deter the vessel.

The next month he was arrested by the Israeli authorities after acting again as a human shield for fishermen off Gaza's coast. During the military Operation Cast Lead that lasted from December 2008 to January 2009, Arrigoni was one of the few foreign journalists covering the war. Having criticized Muslim extremists for trying to impose an intolerant fundamentalist conception of Islam in Gaza, Arrigoni was kidnapped on 14 April 2011 by suspected members of a Salafi militant group operating in Gaza known as Tawhid and Jihad. Before killing him, the captors accused Vittorio Arrigoni of "spreading corruption" and accused him of being citizen of Italy, an infidel state.

I don’t know what art is and I also think that there is no such thing as the true essence of Art. But I think that the life and death of Vittorio Arrigoni, marked by his words “Stay human” can be seen as the most consistent and moving of art works. Strictly speaking Art does not exist. Artists do. Who are they? I define artists, beyond all their differences, and particularities and idiosyncratic features, as those people who stay human in times of de-humanization.


Once upon a time the relation between art and society was based on engagement. Intellectuals came out from their sphere of golden isolation, opened the windows to the world and decided to get engaged in the social fight, They started talking about those people who live in the real world; in the farms, in the factories and so on. Now the problem of engagement has dissolved. In the sphere of semiocapitalism artists are directly involved in the process of semioproduction. They are the producers of symbolic prototypes that semiocapitalism transforms into mass-production objects, they are exploited by the industry of info-production and subjected to precarious conditions of work and salary.

The present situation is marked by the financial aggression against state schools, public health and public cultural life. The effect of the cuts is increasing ignorance, brutality and insensibility. Saudi princes, Russian killers and financial predators invest billions on Munch and Matisse and the art market is awash with money, but simultaneously the living world of artists is impoverished, starving and precarious.

Precariousness is the condition of labor in the sphere of networked and globalized value production, but it is also the prevailing perception of future when the general process of deterritorialization destroys the old forms of belonging. Artists have been the harbingers and the bearers of precariousness, as they bring precariousness in their lifestyle, in their daily struggle for survival and in the continuous dissolution and recomposition of their identity. Art has been the space where the experiment of precarious life, labor and language has been developed.

The history of the Vanguard in the 20th Century was an exercise in life and creation in a time of precariousness. The loss of the center, the uncertainty principle, the random relation between meaning and enunciation – these are the traces of precarization of the late modern soul, prophesized and transformed by aesthetic perception. Furthermore the subsumption (or inscription) of mental work into the cycle of capitalist valorization has given a new dimension to the activity of artists in the social sphere: artists are cognitive workers whose activity is subjected to the rules of market exploitation, but simultaneously they are expressing a permanent refusal of the capitalist rule, as their job is creation of meaning, while semiocapitalism provokes a separation of semiotic production from meaning, whilst at the same time the information overload provokes a cancellation of meaning.

This is why artists do not need anymore to open the windows when they want to connect with the workers, with the real world of production, exploitation and revolt: they are precarious workers, and they try to revolt.


In the sphere of precariousness and deterritorialization identity turns aggressive. The relation between the time work takes and the value of work has become uncertain, and the relation between belonging and language is shaken: a huge deterritorialization is underway and people are desperately trying to grasp at some kind of identity: national identity, religious identity, ethnic identity, all the old shit of belonging is coming back and fueling new forms of Fascism everywhere. Fascism is when a war machine is hidden in every niche and the Neoliberal cult of competition is the present incubator of Fascism.

Artists are those people who experiment in disidentification. They travel in uncanny territories of cultural contamination; they exercise the suspension of the need to belong. As the process of deterritorialization impacts on the relations between territory, community and the social sphere, artists are trying to heal the suffering that comes from this continuous and painful eradication. Those who call themselves artists are actually creating the Ultimate Internationale: the international unarmed army of non-identifiable people, of those people who are escaping identification.


The most interesting artists of the past decade – the first decade of this precarious Century - have been in my opinion those who have tried to deal with mental suffering and relational distress.Lisa Athila in video art, Jonathan Franzen in writing, Miranda July, Gus Van Sant, Kim Ki Duk, Jia Zhang Ke in cinema, have been able to express the fragmented social body and the frantic perception of time induced by precariousness. Now art is melting with the therapeutic act of re-activation of sensibility.

The main effect of Semiocapitalism – and the constant exploitation of nervous energies that semiocapitalism implies – is a sort of epidemic that is affecting the mind of society. Competition and precariousness are provoking a wave of suffering and psychopathology, jeopardizing the very premises of social solidarity. The acceleration of the rhythms of the mind and attention stress are eroding the thin film of sensibility and empathy.

Artists are creating spaces of slow communication, spaces of desertion from the daily economic war, spaces for sensuous pleasure and the re-set of the mental conditions for social solidarity. Expectations Invited by a group of artists and activists, in April 2012 I spent some days in Bucharest and delivered a speech at the Museum of Contemporary Art. When I entered the space where a small crowd of listeners were gathering I saw two words written on the wall: No hope.

According to a recent survey it seems that 58% of Rumanians declare they are nostalgic for Ceausescu. Can you imagine someone longing for Ceausescu? My hosts told me: we have been the victims of two opposing nightmares: the communist nightmare of the past and the capitalist nightmare we are suffering now.

Hope is over, for us, but the same can be said for our fellow humans all over the planet. “Give up hope, therefore, is our contribution to the emergence of a new consciousness” told me Florin Flueras, a dancer and activist who practices dystopic irony.

Hope and growth are traps and our life is taken in these traps.

Dystopic irony (dyst-irony) is the language of those who understand without cynicism that the modern promise has been trashed because of the identification of Modernity and the capitalist dogma. Dystopia is the current imagination of future and irony is the rhetorical distance from the hypocritical discourse of power based on fake concepts such as competition, austerity, recovery and growth.

“Give up hope” is a dyst-ironic provocation meaning: don’t trust the promises of power, don’t expect growth, capitalism is agonizing, if we don’t change the expectations that capitalism has produced we’ll fall into depression and fascism.

March, April 2013

Introduction on Useful Art

Useful Art is not something new. It may have not be called that, it may not have had been mainstream in the art world, but it is a practice that somehow has become a natural path for artists dealing with political art and social issues.

All art is useful, yes, but the usefulness we are talking about is the immersion of art directly into society with all our resources. It has been too long since we have made the gesture of the French Revolution the epitome of the democratization of art. We do not have to enter the Louvre or the castles, we have to enter people’s houses, people’s lives, this is where useful art is. We should not care for how many people are going to museums (and I know sometimes they count even when they only come to use the restroom). We need to focus on the quality of the exchange between art and its audience. And when I talk about audience, I have to say that while I understand and have worked in the past with the disparities and specificities of different audiences, I have found that useful art is a very efficient way to deal with both the informed and the non-informed audiences with the same level of interest and engagement. However, this also brings a lot of institutional challenges and should be acknowledged.

The prejudice with the practical usefulness of art is that it becomes design. And true enough while doing research on the term, I found that there was an exhibition titled: Useful Art in 1981 at the Queens Museum of Art, curate by John Perrault. When I talked to him to inquire more, since there was no documentation at the museum, I was told that the exhibition consisted of objects of utilitarian nature with a strong artistic design quality.

But the utilitarian component I’m looking for does not aim to make something that is already useful more beautiful, but on the contrary aims to focus on the beauty of being useful. It looks at the research of the concept and potential of usefulness itself as an aesthetic category. Why Useful Art in the headquarters of Immigrant Movement International? Because Useful Art is the medium I’m using to do this project and this is what you are going to see when you come here on a normal day. So I wanted to set up the conversation with what is mostly people from the art world today here on my methodology for this work so it can be judged from that perspective.

Useful Art is a way of working with aesthetic experiences that focus on the implementation of art in society where art’s function is no longer to be a space for “signaling” problems, but the place from which to create the proposal and implementation of possible solutions. We should go back to the times when art was not something to look at in awe, but something to generate from. If it is political art, it deals with the consequences, if it deals with the consequences, I think it has to be useful art.

Coincidentally while doing my research on the term, that I originally used in Spanish “Arte Útil” [which like in French (art utile) or Italian (arte utile) because they have a dimension that is lost in English—the fact that utile means also a tool], my friend Claire pointed to the Manifiesto de Arte Útil written by Argentinean artist Eduardo Costa in 1969. The scanned version is on our website www.immigrant-movement.us. The manifesto is actually the description of the initial two works in his series Useful Art Works, done here in NYC on March 15, 1969, as part of street works performed by a group of artists and poets.

The first of these works consisted of buying the missing metal street signs in the area of midtown New York on his own expense and placing them in the right place. The signs that read E42st, E51st, E49st, E45st, E44st, and W51st were intended to be considered as a discontinuous literary work with six lines. The second Useful Art work he made consisted of painting the subway station at 42nd street and 5th Ave. on the Flushing line—the same line you may have taken to come here today.

These artworks were intended to attack the myth of the lack of utility of the arts while being in themselves a modest contribution to the improvement of the city living conditions. Both works were performed between 2:30 and 7a.m. to avoid any problems involving the municipal laws. This shows us some of the ways in which initial Useful Art was solved. Now we are going to hear about the continuation of this research from our presenters and discuss some of the pros and cons of this practice in the following conversation. I have always said that we have to put Duchamp’s urinal back in the restroom. Now that urinal is in the restroom of the Queens Museum, you can see it and pee on it.