Chapter 2: Exchange as Art

Exchange as Art: What Happens in an Exchange?

“What exactly is taking place in an exchange? What changes in an exchange? And why are some contemporary artists organizing their work around different types of interpersonal exchange? These questions seem generative and important as we endeavor to open up spaces in our classrooms, where social-relational, emotional, and interpersonal realms of teaching, learning, and collaborative artmaking can thrive.”  

-From Unfolding Practice

In the above quote, we point toward movements in contemporary art variously called Social Practice Art, Participatory Art or Socially Engaged Art Practice. And while we find a great deal about theses types of practices and the different philosophies behind them to be promising and positive forces in teaching and learning environments-specifically the ways that they act as democratizing, interpersonally connecting and creatively catalyzing forces in learning communities, we are also aware of critiques being leveled against these practices. Some of the push-back focuses on the idea that while some social practice art endeavors to offer a criticism of and alternative to global capitalism and other hegemonic political systems, the work is often firmly situated in and sponsored by the very elite systems of patronage and capital it is critiquing. Another critique centers on the deep and long-standing tradition of community based art which has existed all over the world. Often, traditional community art is not recognized or is seen as something other, when participatory art practices are discussed, when in fact community art has been quite effectively accomplishing some of the stated goals of social practice art for many years. There are a great deal of resources, books and online discussions currently taking place about social practice, participatory and socially engaged art practice. Authors Ted Purves, Claire Bishop, Grant Kester, Shannon Jackson and Nato Thompson are all writing thoughtfully about these issues, as are others.



Exchange in Practice: Links

In Unfolding Practice, we included several short narratives describing projects involving teachers, learners and artists. Each project centered around various kinds of exchanges. Below are some links to each of those projects.

The Shelter Project:

Todd Elkin, Washington High School, Fremont CA, USA

Ariel Roman, East Oakland School for The Arts, Oakland CA, USA

Arzu Mistry and Jackson Poretta, Drishya School, Bangalore, India




Assessment As Dialogue:

Todd Elkin, Washington High School, Fremont CA, USA


Bangalore STEAMERS, an initiative by Project Vision:


Jack Watson’s Students’ Collaborative Concept Wall:


Artists and Gentrification: Not all Exchanges are Equal

“…and the small industries of the inner cities were being replaced by artists and the smooth affluence that sometimes follows and imitates artists.” -Rebecca Solnit  (quoted in Unfolding Practice)

One troubling and problematic dynamic of contemporary human exchange is the role artists play in the processes of gentrification and displacement. Artists have traditionally sought out urban areas in which rent and studio spaces are inexpensive. Often these incursions into what are often communities of color are the initial stages of what later becomes wholesale displacement of communities. There is  great deal of discussion and activism around these issues now. Here are a few resources examining gentrification from different angles:

Publication: Martha Rosler’s Culture Class ( e-flux journal books, Sternberg Press, 2013)

Article: Why we painted over Berlin’s most famous graffiti (

Web: The Bay Area’s  Anti-Eviction Mapping Project (

“What Do We Do With a Difference?”

“Talk to people you know. Talk to people you don’t know. Talk to people you never talk to. Be intrigued by the differences you hear. Expect to be surprised. Treasure curiosity more than certainty.” -Margaret Wheatley

One important aspect to consider when thinking about what goes on when we have different types of exchanges with each other is the question of how we deal with our differences. The poem below, What do We Do With A Variation, by James Berry, sums it up:

What do we do with a difference?

Do we stand and discuss its oddity

or do we ignore it?

Do we shut our eyes to it

or poke it with a stick?

Do we clobber it to death?

Do we move around it in rage

and enlist the rage of others?

Do we will it to go away?

Do we look at it in awe

or purely in wonderment?

Do we work for it to disappear?

Do we pass it stealthily

Or change route away from it?

Do we will it to become like ourselves?

What do we do with a difference?

Do we communicate to it,

let application acknowledge it

for barriers to fall down?

Scholar Anthony Appiah contends that our encounters and exchanges with others would do well to be informed by Honor Codes. In his recent book, The Honor Code, Appiah explores how throughout history notions of honor have driven moral revolutions. At their root, honor codes are informed by fundamental notions of mutual respect. The organization Facing History and Ourselves creates thoughtful and incisive curriculum around these and other important issues.

Web: (Facing History)

Web: (Anthony Appiah discussing The Moral Code)