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Final Public Oral Exam of Margo Handwerker

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Princeton University School of Architecture 
Announces the Final Public Oral Exam of Margo Handwerker
Art/Work: The Systems-Oriented Artist Expert, 1968-1984

Thursday, November 29, 2018, 1:00 p.m.
S-118, Architecture Building

Edward Eigen (Harvard), advisor
M. Christine Boyer
Sylvia Lavin
Spyros Papapetros 

Art/Work: The Systems-Oriented Artist Expert, 1968–1984 examines the pivotal but neglected Systems art movement and its impact on contemporary social practice. Systems artists were responding in particular to the emerging modern environmental movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Their ecological thinking, inspired by cybernetics, referred both to their environmental activism and to the importance of regulation for governing systems, including a “maintenance” art system informed by ritual studies. 

These artists’ ability to make their art nearly indistinguishable from the systems that they sought to interrogate established a mode of expertise that “social practice” artists would later inherit. However, as social practice gained momentum in the mid-1980s with the rise of neoliberalism, it brought with it from Systems art a murky conflation of the activist-artists’ expertise and their capacity to deliver service, the consequences of which we see now in contemporary art criticism, arts funding, and art making. Absent an account of Systems art’s role in the development of contemporary social practice with regard to regulation in particular, the latter movement tends to overemphasize correcting and solving social problems.

By examining Systems art, we discover not only how this “ethical turn” in social practice emerged, but also how to reframe the social practice movement, moving away from its emphasis on deliverables and, instead, toward a particular kind of artistic expertise. The emphasis within Systems art was not on creating a more holistic artist who has expertise in multiple fields; rather, it was on being an artist who functions, as an expert, within a whole system of other fields of expertise that might work together. The Systems artists’ transdisciplinary methods, which appear to embrace de-specialization, actually reinforce the emphasis on part-to-whole relationships so characteristic of the cybernetic era - the same quality that was also influencing the artists’ ecological subjects. In light of this history, the “ethical turn” within social practice is not a flaw, but rather points to the significance of systems of governance that are shared and renegotiated over time.

A copy of the dissertation is available for review in S-110