In Loving Memory
AVR: We are here today to talk about our mentor and friend Ted Purves who passed away July 4th. We thank Susanne Cockrell, Ted’s wife, for the honor of making this presentation, and stand here for all the students and artists whose lives were impacted by Ted.
As some of your may know Ted was many things—a scholar, a maker, and a teacher just to name a few.
NN: My first interaction with Ted was an hour-long phone call following up my application to the CCA Social Practice program. We talked about legos, star wars, reality television, and how karaoke, ice cream trucks, and exercise could be art. I immediately knew I was speaking with a curious mind, an expansive thinker, and an enthusiastically generous human. For the first time, I felt like my ideas about art were not only valid but exciting.
AVR: I, too, knew from the first time that we spoke that Ted was the kind of person I wanted to be around. I was excited, though dubious about the idea of undertaking formalized education in socially engaged art. I worried that the institutional context would imbricate me within many capitalist, individualistic, discriminatory systems that I sought, and still seek, to undermine. However what I, and I think many others, found in Ted was an educator who valued, supported, and fostered my work in such a way that I developed new vocabularies and methods for working within, alongside, and against institutional power, to craft my own space and path forward.
NN: In these months since Ted’s exit, we’ve come to find out our personal experiences were not at all unique, but consistently demonstrative of a man who exemplified the ‘social’ in social practice. Anna Martine Whitehead, our classmate commented…
For those of you who didn’t have the good fortune as we did of knowing Ted personally, he was a punk rocker, a cultural sponge, a sweet tooth, a fan of Foucault, Simmel, Katy Perry, as well as a fan of fan cultures of all kinds. He tuned in for Friday Face-offs on My Fighting Technique is Unstoppable. Ted loved baseball, ramen, and uber fashionable athleisure pants.
AVR: Ted was also a devoted Dungeons and Dragons-head, which underscored his life and work. Ted’s brother Will shared about their life-long gaming relationship
There were questions about gaming and also about life and teaching and learning and what it means to be human.
How do we create rules for this unexpected thing, this idea that exists in my mind and other folks cannot see? How do we create room in a game for new things? How do we reinvent the rules to become ourselves? How do we say this piece here, this change there, this new way of looking, this experience, would make it better, more interesting, more fun? How do we honestly and fully enter into acts of creation with another person, with other people? How do we move forward together?
I know Ted wrestled with and lived these questions and created worlds in so many ways with so many people I know and so many I never met. Those worlds roll on.
Ted, one of the original champions of social practice—in addition to his own artwork—offered readings, writings, project critiques, and shaped a point of view for the genre. But he was too midwestern to ever claim recognition for it.
NN: As an artist, Ted and his wife Susanne Cockerell collaborated under the rubric of Fieldfaring to produce works that explored topics such as generosity through gardening, co-ops, and schools. They were known especially for Temescal Amity Works, though our favorite is the recent Red Bank Paw Paw Circle, nineteen pawpaw trees, drawn from four distinct cultivars, planted within a circular berm, designed using permaculture principles in collaboration with the CGC’s School Garden Coordinator, Sam Dunlap. The Paw Paw, America’s largest—and possibly least appealing lookswise when ripe—native fruit, ripens in the fall, and has been eaten by different local cultures for many centuries.
AVR: Ted’s book What We Want is Free first published in 2005 played a crucial role in shaping and directing how many of us came to speak and think about the notion of exchange in contemporary art. When he spoke at the Creative Time Summit in 2011 Ted spoke about his decision to revisit the book with Shane Aslan Selzer in part because of his desire to place my emphasis on a discussion of form, more specifically the question of social form. To quote Ted’s talk,
“Developing critical positions around these projects that are related to other areas of social theory seems like a clear priority, and for me, this has led to a question of social form. The sociologist Georg Simmel defines social form as the mode of interaction amongst individuals through or in a shape, in which, specific content achieves social reality. This is distinct from social content which is considered to be the interest, purpose or motivation of an interaction. As such, a social form could be something like a market stall, or a protest march, or a meeting at work, or a wedding. Considering social projects from the vantage point of form moves the conversation away from a project’s quality and moves it toward a project’s capacity. What is a work’s agency? How does it operate within the social world? How does it’s status as an artwork effect it’s occupation as a social form, if at all?
“there is still a great deal of work that socially-based artworks can take on. In his essay “The Subject and Power” Michel Foucault wrote, “Maybe the most certain of all philosophical problems is the problem of the present time, or what we are at this very moment.” This sentence builds upon his reading of a question raised by Kant almost (200?) years prior. <GERMAN> which Foucault elaborated to mean, what is going on just now, what is happening to us, what is this world, this period, this precise moment in which we are living.
I am convinced that socially based art practices occupy a position that is potentially advantageous in regards to engaging with this question. These seize this advantage through the use of tools and methodologies that actively seek to plural content or meaning that a project might generate.
Tools such as; collaboration, crowdsourcing, reportage interviews, co-creative techniques, creation of convivial spaces, and detouring of management systems. All of these techniques that artists marshal to accompany social projects as also ways of articulating the “we” often at the expense of the I.
NN: The frequent relocation of these art projects into the world at large also gives an opportunity for artists to occupy long-standing social forms and repurpose them into idiosyncratic and subjective ends. Whether these forms are temporary shops or free newspapers, pushcarts, or public meetings, they possess the potential to alter our understanding of what potential these social forms might hold. Such projects might not simply inform us about the present world in which we are living, they might also generate another one, and another one alongside [that]”
Ted, an indefatigable champion of students and burgeoning voices in the field, made all of us who came to CCA, or who worked with him, feel his enthusiasm for what we were doing, and that each of us was on a vitally important path.
AVR: Ted’s approach as an educator was summed up by Elyse Mallouk (on Facebook)…I had the good fortune to have Ted as a thesis advisor in the Visual and Critical Studies program. Instead of explaining away wrong assumptions in my drafts, he offered surprising references to split them open (often from comics and punk rock, only sometimes from the art world). He relentlessly opened up closed-off thinking, without making me feel small, or corrected. This is what it means to be a good teacher.
When the paper was done, he challenged me to use my critique to start something, instead of just chopping other arguments down. He collaborated on the project that came out of that suggestion, investing his own ideas and time (and also his ephemera). His honest advice, brilliant creativity, and the sheer force of his enthusiasm helped me find my direction and gave me the confidence to put ideas into practice. This is what it means to be a good mentor.
NN: And this points to the reason we are here today, to remember Ted. He believed so deeply in the vital importance of the work we are here at the summit to talk about and the activist, revolutionary, rabble-rousing attitudes which we come to honor, engage and celebrate today.
Ted’s belief in socially engaged works was to be a champion of us all.
In the lectures, organizing, curatorial, writing projects, and artworks dedicated to social forms and participatory structures, His legacy lives on in all of us.
We all are Ted.
In Loving Memory: Theodore Rehn Purves, was presented at Creative Time X: Of Homelands and Revolutions in Toronto.
Ted was our mentor and friend.
We draw inspiration from him and miss him every day.