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Stephanie Diamond’s Social Practice

By (April 1, 2010) No Comment

Stephanie Diamond describes herself as an artist who uses photography, not a photographer. Indeed, her photographs are sometimes ancillary to the process of creating them. “Technically, I don’t know a lot of the photo stuff— and never really cared to.” Most of Diamond’s projects are about community gathering, or “social practice,” a movement that art historian and critic Grant Kester traces to the conceptual art and feminist art movements of the sixties and seventies. This work is often created outside the mainstream art world of galleries and museums, and, as Diamond explains, the point of the work is often the process of creating it. “These are artists who work and engage with people. That’s their process and also their medium.” Kester writes, “While it is common for a work of art to provoke dialogue among viewers, this typically occurs in response to a finished object. In these projects, on the other hand, conversation becomes an integral part of the work itself.”

Many of Diamond’s projects begin with herself as subject but simultaneously embody idea for a broader application within the community. Her project “SD All the Time,” begun in 2000, documents every photograph of her by someone else with her camera. In one, she’s posed with a friend wearing sunglasses with the tag attached to the bridge of the glasses; in another, she looks bleakly into the camera, huddled in blankets on the beach. Others look more professional; a series called “The Three Graces,” show Diamond on a riverbank, caught in playful moments, her hair whipping off to the side in one as she holds onto a short branch like a cane, smiling. In another, she’s holding onto a taller stick like a staff, her head rolling to the side, arms flung this time toward the ground, the smile remaining in traces on her face. “The Three Graces” was exhibited in 2008, at Ramis Barquet in New York. For the most part, “SD All the Time” exists on her website. But, she points out, the idea for the community is that , “it’s a model for other people who might think they look ugly in a photograph, to embrace those photographs. We all have those moments. There’s no such thing as a bad photo.” Her photographs have that snapshot quality because she shoots on film with a Leica point-and-shoot camera and has it processed at a minilab. “Images are entryways. Into memories, into someone’s world, into someone’s story.” And Diamond keeps every one of those images. Her Gowanus studio is filled with metal shelving and boxes, an archive of over 150,000 photographs she’s taken since she was 13.

Increasingly, art schools, including Otis School of Design and California College of the Arts, are offering degrees in social practice, though when Diamond was getting her master’s degree in Art Education at New York University in 2004, these programs were nonexistent or in their infancy. Suzanne Lacy, a key figure in the movement, launched the program at Otis School of Design in 2007, though she has been using social practice as a medium since the seventies. One of her most well-known pieces is the “The Crystal Quilt,” which drew attention to the undervalued leadership potential of the elderly. One part of the piece was a performance staged on Mother’s Day in 1987. Several hundred women, all over the age of 60, stood at tables arranged strategically on a large rug to look like a quilt. A recording that combined the observations of women talking about getting older played in the background, while the women at the tables discussed the themes of the piece. “The Crystal Quilt” aired live on PBS television.

One of Diamond’s projects that started with herself but quickly radiated outwards to become a community dialogue is The Listings Project, a weekly email with posts of spaces and studios to rent or sublet. It began in 2003, when Diamond was looking for a place to live. She sent an email to her contacts, asking for information about available spaces, and soon found an apartment. But the listings kept pouring in. She turned them into a weekly listserv with sixty or seventy posts per email, mostly for art studios. The list currently has approximately 3,000 subscribers, and as Diamond describes it, “It’s tapping into our community, and making a really safe, joyful experience, communally based, of connecting us through space, through studios, homes, shelter. And I really care about it, it’s not something I do for money at this point, it comes from my passion.” It has transformed from a list that Stephanie kept to herself, into something she shares to connect the communities that know her or know of her; it is both smaller in scope and more self-selective than Craig’s List, giving the weekly e-mail a personal feel.

For her recent project, “It Would Look Like…” Diamond came directly into contact with people’s stories through their homes. Project Rowhouses, a block and a half of land in Houston’s Third Ward –one of the oldest African-American communities in the city–was an abandoned stretch of rowhouses until Rick Lowe stumbled upon them in 1993, and decided to restore them to be a community art space. Now, the rowhouses have grown from seventeen to more than forty spaces, and house studio spaces, galleries, offices, and homes for single mothers. Project Rowhouses invites artists to create work that involves the rowhouses community, and the Third Ward community more broadly. In 2009, Diamond embarked on “It Would Look Like…” in conjunction with the single mothers living at Project Rowhouses.

Diamond spent three weeks in Houston. “I was really curious about these single mothers who were living among this art; they were the art in many ways. I didn’t want to go and plop myself down and say, ‘I’m a community artist. I’m going to make something with the community.’” Diamond suggested the “It Would Look Like…” project to Project Rowhouses. For the mothers who wanted to participate, she sent three questions to answer: “If you could have only one image on your wall, what would it look like?; If you could have had one photo on your wall to welcome you when you first arrived, what would it look like? and, if you choose an image for an incoming mother when she arrives at her home at Project Rowhouses, what would it look like?” Diamond took the answers to the questionnaire and went into her archives, looking for images to fit their ideas. “I asked them questions to pique their interest, make them think about something new and then their questions do the exact same thing for me with my archives. I go in and rediscover.”

Diamond arrived in Houston with a selection of photos from her archives. “The idea was that they weren’t telling me what to photograph and I wasn’t telling them what to say, but my photos and their words could come together democratically.” The mothers then chose a photograph, and Diamond had prints made. She helped them hang the image, and got to spend time with each mother: she helped one mother put together some furniture, another made her Moroccan food. Diamond took a photograph of each mother with the image she had picked, and those were the images shown in the gallery at Project Rowhouses. In effect, the photographs underwent a series of transformations—from a snapshot to an image on someone’s wall to a piece of art in a gallery. “The photo was this amazing, great community gatherer. It’s really not about a statement, not about a story I had personally connected to the photo that they had, it was about the photo bringing us together.”

Teaching is a part of Diamond’s social practice, or what Kester terms “dialogical art,” or art created through dialogue. Diamond teaches a class on the artistic process at Parsons The New School for Design and on a slushy day in mid-February, she brings her first-year college students together in a circle in a top-floor, light-filled classroom. Diamond rings a golden bowl. “Take a deep breath,” she says. “And think three fabulous things.” The students are quiet for a quick moment and then Diamond begins. Today, she and her students are discussing critiquing and editing each other’s writing. The students volunteer their thoughts without being prompted; no one talks over one another, and Diamond sits on the floor with them and listens intently. She’s a part of the circle, engaging her students through dialogue, her chosen medium, rather than standing in front of the room at the chalkboard.

Later, in her studio, huddled against the February cold over cups of tea, Diamond reflects. “Painters start with globs of color and make beautiful pictures. I can’t do that. And they probably can’t do what I do. I think I’ve really tapped into what I can do, and I like what I can do.”

Jessica Breiman
was born in Salt Lake City, Utah and raised in both Salt Lake City and Berkeley, California. She received her B.A. in Sociology and Anthropology from Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon, and moved to New York City to study Art History and Library Science. She now works for the Women’s Refugee Commission and is a fellow at the CUNY Writers’ Institute.