Socially Engaged Art

Today’s constellation lecture discussed socially engaged art and its artists. We began by exploring what socially engaged art is, how it manifests itself and whether it is effective as art or not.

Socially engaged art “depends upon the relationships that develop between artists, communities, community organisers and the organisations who deliver services within communities.The creative collaborations that result are socially engaged because they deliver locally specific and community led outcomes for and with communities. Socially engaged art is situated within the wider arena of Public Art and is defined by Miwon Kwon in, One Place After Another: Site Specificity and Locational Identity, as art- in-the-public-interest, as it foregrounds social issues, political activism and community collaborations. –

Some further research from the website provided a better break down of what socially engaged art could be. Suzanne Lucy describes the new genre of public art work to be:

  • Engaging with Culture
  • To be seeking a relationship with its audience
  • Aiming to influence social strategy

I looked into what sort of questions socially engaged art (SEG) rises and fond a guardian article discussing just this.

“Does art get in the way of social change? Is an artist’s role in working with disenfranchised communities to make art or to fix problems? Is an outreach project with excluded individuals legitimate art or a worthy cause? Who is the author of a collaborative, participatory artwork? These are just a few of the many questions raised in a panel debate last week as part of Chelsea Theatre‘s Sacred season which is focusing on participatory practices and features a range of artists, such as Lois Weaver, Leibniz, and Curious, who are collaborating with disempowered communities and “non-artists” through socially engaged projects.” – The ethics of socially engaged art.

One extract from this article I found particularly interesting is pasted below, while I feel Jordan’s view is pessimistic and disagree with art getting in the way with social change, I feel he has a point. That making works of ‘art’ that are geared towards collaboration and social change can never quite be taken seriously enough or implement any real change but instead just bring to light a problem or point.

On his good days John Jordan sees himself as a militant optimist who believes radical practices can change the world. But the Sacred debate came on a bad day. John expressed his feeling that artists are merely sticking plasters and that art gets in the way of social change precisely because it’s called art. John has chosen to operate outside of the constraints of the art world which he believes has lost its belief in the utopian vision and radical transformation. He believes rebellion is the spark and if we find different ways to open up creativity rather than playing it safe, the sparks will lead to more change than an art project ever could.

Some further reading and links later I found the SSRU or Social Sculpture Research Unit.

“The SSRU encourages and explores transdisciplinary creativity and vision towards the shaping of a humane and ecologically viable society. It engages with Beuys thinking and work, as well as those before and after him – making available some of the insights, inquiries and explorations in this multidimensional field.”

“Our work as agents of change includes a focus on connective practices, which explore the role of imagination and other modes of thought in transformative process. Informed by an expanded conception of art, we are active both within and beyond the sphere of art.”

This find after my internet forage neatly linked my own research back to the lecture with Beuys, were the lecture started. It was at this point I also realised how this topic links back to my own practise. The lighting brief I received from SEDNA lighting company for one of my Seed projects for Subject requires that I make a socio/political work of art that uses their product. One of the ideas I had concerned growing food in disused buildings and public spaces hydroponicly with LED lights, in low energy, chemical free, low cost methods. This idea transformed into public sculpture with a function – sculptures, or installations that grow food which is free to the public. The concept behind these sculptures would be to address food consumption, food wastage, land destruction and transformation, food miles, food growth energy consumption and pollution and the emergence of agri-tech. This lecture has made me realise that perhaps my idea is to make a socially engaged artwork? Maybe it is maybe it isn’t, time will tell. This has given me a boost of motivation for the project and some artists and collaborations to look at for inspiration, such as Vetch Veg – the urban utopia growing revolution, a community veg garden by artist Owen Griffiths and the movement for turning suburban garden lawns into useful veg growing space. I’ve been given a lot of projects, artists and ideas to explore in relation to my work.

This is the first time I have really tied my constellation studies back to my discipline. It is exciting me quite a bit as I feel that my work may perhaps take on a more academical tone which will not only help me progress with it quicker (I hope), but is something that has been slightly lacking in my work until now. I think…

I feel happy to be feeling more of a connection between my constellation studies and my practise.

Also this gives me a topic to write my 500 words on for this term and also ties into some of my ideas for a dissertation theme that I am considering.

Getting back to the lecture, after looking at the work of Joseph Beuys we considered Activity and Passivity in art, which asks us to examine how we interact with art. Are we mearly a passive outside obsever, standing in the gallery, thinking and questioning, experiencing the work passively. Or are we integral to the work? Do our actions as part of a group of people actively involved in a works creation or exhibition some how give us a better or just different perception of a work?

Another one of the artists and works I liked from the lecture was Ayse Erman and her work Plan B , 2011. Plan B consisted of a water purification plant as an installation. Its brightly coloured pipes pumped canal water of Venice ,where it was displayed at the Biennial, though a purification system creating clean drinking water and pumps it straight out again in to the…canal. I think this is trying to get us to consider our relationship to water and some of the problems we can find when we look hard at the present and future state of issues surrounding water pollution and security. Another way to look at it is that its a complete waste of energy, effort and time and serves little purpose to anyone even as an artwork. This is a little extreme perhaps, but it does highlight the question of should a socially engaged art work have any more to it substance to it other than being something to look at or be contemplated? Should it actuate some real world outcome with a goal to instigate change, striving to connect people, communicate ideas and create a positive real world thing.

Ayse Erman’s work Plan B also connects to some of my work. Another brief of mine is to make a medal with a theme open to the artist. I decided I would like to investigate water sustainability and its problems, a topic that has interested me since A-Level Geography. Ayse Erman’s work shall appear in my research to come of artists that inspire my project.


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