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The Lure of the Social

Encounters with Contemporary Artists

The Lure of the Social is an intimate and personal exploration into the key individuals, institutions, and gatherings that make up the field of socially engaged art. In this book of encounters, the reader follows Gretchen Coombs on her journey through what could be considered the most significant shift in art world practices in the last two decades.

The book navigates a spectrum: at one end, the author works closely with socially engaged artists as part of her ethnographic research; at the other, she tries to find critical distance from which to write about their art projects and the institutional structures that support their work, such as art schools and conferences. Readers are introduced to artists, their work, and the key debates and issues facing this emergent field. In the course of her study, Coombs analyzes the contradictions and paradoxes of this field of practice and gives expression to the artists working to make art relevant in times of social and political uncertainty.

176 pages | 36 color plates | 9 x 9

Art: Art--General Studies

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“‘What story do you want to hear about social practices?’ was the opening question Coombs posed to the artists she met. The responses are fleshed out in this engaging ethnography of a complex, contested field of arts practice . . . We can never get a real sense of the places, people and processes involved in social practices unless we were there, but thankfully Coombs was listening in, taking notes. The result is a collection of encounters that trace the ideas that have informed these socially engaged artists. The whispers between delegates, the discussions over lunches have informed Coombs’ own positionality and understanding of the stories artists tell. The way she has written these up allows for the contradictions felt in these practices to be aired. The book presents hope in these ‘pockets of resistance,’ that these processes and ways of working can effect change.”

Cultural Sociology

"Coombs’s important, engaging book puts the 'social' back into the often institutionalized medium of social practice. Through a series of studio visits, Coombs takes the reader behind the scenes, creating nuanced and telling portraits of some of today’s leading practitioners. Coombs's approach—at once critical and anthropological—is blissfully unrhetorical. The Lure of the Social captures the heart of one of the most important artistic movements to emerge in the twenty-first century, and one that is here to stay."

Chris Kraus, author of Social Practices and After Kathy Acker: A Literary Biography

"Artists and activists lured to the social—anyone interested in leaping the walls between art and life—will find this book a smart, accessible, and eye-opening treasure trove. It is full of fascinating projects, many new to me, presented on a first-name basis through the author's intimate discussions with the artists and facilitating organizations. The pros and cons of social practice art have rarely been so intelligently examined."

Lucy R. Lippard, author of Undermining: A Wild Ride Through Land Use, Politics and Art in the Changing West

Table of Contents


A Letter to the Preeminent Feminist Art Critic Lucy Lippard

Introduction: Art and Social Practice

Art & Social Practice: A Constellation of Influences


Contemporary Artists (and One Curartor)

Ted Purves

Come Together (Harrell Fletcher)

Jen Delos Reyes

Amy Spiers

Aaron Hughes

Gregory Sholette

Fallen Fruit: Austin Young and David Allen Burns

Chloë Bass

Gabrielle de Vietri

Carol Zou

Astra Taylor

Bek Conroy

Aaron Gach

Marisa Jahn

Nato Thompson


California College of the Arts

Otis Public Practice

The Shape of a Conference

Come Together

On and Off Stage

Field Notes

Spectres of Evaluation, Rethinking: Art/Community/Value

Open Engagement: Life/Work

Queens Museum, New York City, May 2014

A Lived Practice

Creative Time Summit: The Curriculum

Open Engagement: Place and Revolution

Creative Time Summit: The Curriculum

Civic Actions: Artists’ Practices Beyond the Museum

Creative Time Summit: The Curriculum

ENGAGE MORE NOW! A Symposium on Artists, Museums, and Publics

Open Engagement: Power

Creative Time Summit: Occupy the Future

College Art Association

Creative Time Summit: Of Homelands and Revolutions

Open Engagement: Sustainability



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