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Text by Leah Decter

July 3, 2011

For roughly twelve years, my work has included engaged practices along with (and sometimes as part of) an inter-media studio practice. This work has ranged from large-scale capacity-building public art projects and collaborations with members of geographic communities, to gallery installations, engaged performances and public interventions. Although I was involved as an artist with The Human Billboard Project(1), (which was in turn part of Showing Up Speaking Out), I will not be reflecting directly on that in this essay. My intention is rather to look at some of the intersecting issues, questions and considerations that are implicated through engaged practices in general.

I use the term ‘engaged practices’ to describe a range of overlapping approaches to work in which artists engage with what is broadly labeled ‘community’. In this discussion, I am particularly interested in work and methods that aim to interrupt dominant social and political narratives, either overtly or in subtle ways. Variously defined as social practice, relational aesthetics, littoral art, dialogic practice, public art, new genre public art, community art, activist art, community cultural development, or social sculpture, forms of engaged art—although far from new in practice—have experienced varying degrees of acceptance within contemporary art discourse over the years. Alongside renewed interest in Joseph Bueys’ concept of social sculpture(2), writers such as Suzanne Lacy, Suzi Gablik, Nicolas Bourriaud and Grant Kester laid pivotal foundations for critical discourse around this work during the 1990s and for several years into the new century. Contributing significantly to a shift in its position within contemporary art contexts, this evolving discourse also served to broaden understandings of the roles that art and artists can occupy in society. Over this time period, engaged art practices have seen a resurgence marked by the involvement of prominent artists, burgeoning academic research and programming, targeted arts funding and critical scrutiny.

With greater numbers of artists being drawn to this work, and with engaged practices gaining a footing in contemporary art contexts, the stakes of inclusion have increased. This dynamic has been fueled by the regressive conditions of neoliberal ideology, a dominant force in political and economic discourse that manifests in part through shrinking budgets for social and cultural activities, as well as increasing restrictions on civil dissent. In this climate—a perfect storm of reduced cultural funding, increased potential for art world recognition, and greater demands on art to work in the service of social problem-solving—competing claims for legitimacy have been heightened. With the importance of validation through art criticism amplified, exactly how to approach the critique of this work has been hotly contested. The protracted public debate precipitated by Claire Bishop’s 2004 article in OCTOBER magazine, ‘Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics’,(3) was to some degree symptomatic of these conditions. Many other voices have since added to this discussion, though the entrenched positions still reverberate: some approaches to engaged practice have to prove their relevance to the art world from the margins, while inclusion is assumed for others.

This is not to say that all cultural workers who practice social engagement are necessarily interested in falling into the arms of contemporary art discourse, funding structures, and critique. Beyond the realm of art publications and international biennials, a discussion is growing about engaged practices that is little concerned with whether the work is recognized by art critics, or satisfies a pre-inscribed notion of conceptual complexity, authorial vision, and originality. In this realm, emphasis is placed on the work’s capacity to affect change, and the means by which it does so. Some view the long-held outsider status of the community-engaged artist as a key contributing factor to accomplishing meaningful social change in resistance to inequitable dominant structures.(4) Conversely, it has been argued that strategic benefits are gained when hybrid approaches incorporating art with social and activist agendas identify themselves as art practice. Finland-based group The Iconoclast Collective, now known as IC-98, advocate for this approach stating that “the world of contemporary art [is] the most flexible environment for diverse projects, being a free zone of experimentation within the society at large”, adding that “the strategy [of labeling projects as art)] works as long as the concepts of art do not come to dominate the discourse.”(5)

Whether or not this work is embraced in the avant-garde or wedded to art through a marriage of convenience, artists are increasingly venturing into forms of engagement. Some of this activity is a result of increased visibility and funding, some responds to current social and political imperatives and some is clearly due to the fact that this work is currently fashionable. Trendiness aside, this shift foregrounds some important developments, in particular a heightened interest in re-examining the role of both art and artist. The 2010 Open Engagement: Art and Social Practice conference hosted by Portland State University’s Art and Social Practice MFA program focused on questions of responsibility, intent, the potential of trans-disciplinarity, and “the social role of the artist.”(6) Goddard College’s event Making, Meaning, and Context: A Radical Reconsideration of Art’s Work, asks directly, “At this time in history, what does it mean to pursue an art practice or identify as an ‘artist’?”(7) Although these questions do not strictly settle into the domain of engagement, the overlap is both considerable and significant.

By engaging directly in public and social spheres, artists working to engage communities are by definition broadening their roles and the function of art in the social and material landscape. Discourse around the role of artists helps to relocate the focus from the relative legitimacy of different forms—a gate-keeping of sorts—to a productive critical re-envisioning of how artists participate in society. The evolution of artist Laurie Jo Reynolds’ prison-related work in the United States is a cogent example. Reynolds had for many years made work about prisons and was involved in developing a program that sends letters and poems to prisoners. It was not until one of the inmates receiving poems wrote back saying “Hey, these poems are great, but could you please tell the Governor what they’re doing to us down here?” that she began working directly toward prison reform. (8) Reynolds describes her subsequent project Tamms Year Ten, The Campaign to Reform the Supermax as Legislative Art, and proposes that artists are “uniquely qualified to change law and policy [as they] are used to attempting the impossible… know how to work with limits… and can fail grandly, and start again.” She asserts that Legislative Art “doesn’t deny you any of the… collaboration, authorship… or magical strange beauty” of art, and urges artists to “move a little closer to power [as] for some issues there may be no-one else.”(9) As Reynolds’ work illustrates, questions of the artist’s role speak not only to aspects of trans-disciplinarity, but also to issues of responsibility.

I’m not interested in focusing here on the question of whether artists have a greater obligation toward social responsibility than other citizens; the specter of responsibility also raises questions in relation to intent. Do artists who include engagement with people through their professional process have an obligation to consider the impacts of the process on those people, to ‘do good’ or at least to ‘do no harm,’ and how might this be measured?

Concepts of ‘good’ and ‘harm’ are, of course, not universal. While there may be obvious and arguably measurable choices in terms of doing harm or good, there are also many gray areas. Social change rarely comes without some level of discomfort, and strategies of discomfort are often deployed by artists and activists as effective agents of change. Where individual discomfort might teeter into the territory of harm cannot necessarily be accurately determined. Artists may be tactical about whom they intend to inflict discomfort on, ‘comfort(ing) the afflicted and afflict(ing) the comfortable’,(10) though the consequences of the experience of engagement cannot be fully controlled. As such, the risk of harm might be seen as inherent in any social engagement.

Although it can be thrilling in its potential, work that engages is messy. It is rife with complexity, uncertainty and contradiction, and is a minefield of power dynamics and ethical factors, all of which are deeply entangled with questions of doing good and harm. Contrary to what is often portrayed, even work that intends to ‘do good’ and is successful in its goals often also contends with conflict: though usually rendered invisible, this conflict is no less real. The idea that engaged art produces utopic mini-communities obscures the very real presence of discomfort and conflict with all their productive and deleterious potential. Risk, failure and conflict are as integral to this work as anything else. Given this landscape, it is crucial for artists to “consider a project’s relationship to its material consequences”,(11) recognize the implications of unintended outcomes, and make informed decisions accordingly.

While these conditions point to the need for the inclusion of ethical considerations in both practice and criticism, they should not preclude other analyses through which the work can be understood. Engaged practices are heterogeneous and hybrid in nature. As such they are inhabited by principles rooted in art discourse, as well as intersecting fields such as sociology, community development, urbanism, environmental studies, and so forth. These diverse and sometimes contradictory philosophical and methodological underpinnings can effectively inform each other to strengthen engaged art practices in conceptual and social terms. Rigid adherence to ideological doctrines squander the potential of this cross-generation while risking contrived production and instilling reductive critique that cannot address work in relation to its distinct contexts. A discursive, trans-disciplinary, self-reflexive approach to critique that can address the multiple constituents of a work would contribute greatly to increasing the rigor of these practices, and to generating work with social, political, ethical, aesthetic, and conceptual significance.

Leah Decter, June 2011
(Download as .pdf – link forthcoming)

Footnotes

(1) The Human Billboard Project was a community-engaged public intervention project which I undertook as part of Stop Violence Against Aboriginal Women Action Group, a grass-roots collective of Aboriginal and Non–Aboriginal women working to impact the issue of violence against Aboriginal women in Canada.

(2) Social sculpture is a concept developed in the 1960s by German artist Joseph Beuys. As described by the Social Sculpture Research Unit, http://www.social-sculpture.org/, it is ‘a territory where inner and outer work coincide. It emphasizes the role of imagination in transformative social process and the centrality of alternative modes of thought. Social sculpture is concerned with exploring strategies, methods and principles that enable us to see, understand and act imaginatively to shape a humane and ecologically viable world’.

(3) See: Claire Bishop’s, “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics,” OCTOBER 110, pp. 51–79; Liam Gillick’s “Contingent Factors: A Response to Claire Bishop’s ‘Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics’,” OCTOBER 115, pp.95-106; “Claire Bishop Responds,” OCTOBER 115, p. 107 ; and Jennifer Roche’s ”Socially Engaged Art, Critics and Discontents: An Interview with Claire Bishop”; Grant Kester, Response to Clarie Bishop’s article “The Social Turn: Collaboration and Its Discontents” in Artforum, May 2006; Leisure Arts Blog, and http://leisurearts.blogspot.com/2006/04/claire-bishop-aestheticethical.html, http://leisurearts.blogspot.com/2006/08/social-turn-claire-bishop-response-to.html, http://leisurearts.blogspot.com/2006/05/grant-kester-artforum-claire-bishop.html.

(4) See, among many others, Irwin Oostindie’s ”Uncomfortable Choices: Inside the World’s Most Livable City” in Access All Areas: Conversations on Engaged Arts (Visible Arts Society, 2009).

(5) Iconoclast 1998 as quoted in Leisure Arts: “ARTFORUM – New Art Practices – Cross Pollination,” http://leisurearts.blogspot.com/2006/03/artforum-new-art-practices-cross.html (accessed December 2010).

(6) Open Engagement: Art and Social Practice http://openengagement.info/archive/2010about (accessed January 2011).

(7) Making, Meaning, and Context: A Radical Reconsideration of Art’s Work http://artswork.goddard.edu (accessed January 2011)

(8) From Laurie Jo Reynold’s presentation at the Creative Time Summit 2010, http://vimeo.com/16709638 (accessed December 2010).

(9) ibid.

(10) Interdisciplinary artist Pam Hall, from a discussion following the Risks Panel at the Live in Public conference initiated by grunt gallery in Vancouver. Quoted in Access All Areas: Conversations on Engaged Arts (Visible Arts Society, 2009).

(11) Nato Thompson, “Contributions to a Resistant Visual Culture Glossary,” Journal of Aesthetics and Protest, Issue 3, 2004.

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