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Closing thoughts

July 3, 2011

Although Showing Up, Speaking Out was a Winnipeg-centric project that sought to create opportunities for as wide a range of citizens as possible, and thus focus on social issues of concern to Winnipeggers, it is a project that could have happened anywhere people seek new ways of coming together, thinking together, and taking action to make their community a more open, equal and considerate place. The inclusion of national and international artists served to bring a few fresh artistic perspectives into the city, which is a benefit for citizens at large as well as for local artists.

Overall, the artists had opportunities to build on their existing practices by working with community members in an open, experimental, and flexible environment. Unlike many community arts programs, they did not come to the project with a predefined concept; rather, they worked with community members by sharing their embodied years of experience in helping to shape conversation and the format of projects. This was an opportunity for them to make contact with community members and share not only the nature of their work, but also the wide range of ideas and skills they bring to their practice. This experience was like a mini-residency, giving time and space to create new works in collaboration.

As for me, this project provided an opportunity to better connect with fellow Winnipeggers including artists, social service organizations, and the community at large. It has also given me a chance to make an interesting contribution to the city insofar as dialogue pertaining to activist-motivated arts practices are concerned. I am still very excited about the incredible support this project generated from so many different types of groups and individuals—I’m grateful that the Canada Council for the Arts and Winnipeg Arts Council felt it was a worthwhile endeavour, and I’m thrilled others agreed.

On another personal note, this project helped me realize the goals of my practice and discover areas which ought to be developed further. There is massive potential for fostering citizen engagement with social and political issues through the arts, primarily by facilitating self-empowerment through acts that demystify issues such as power and authority. In the same way artists don’t generally sit around and wait for someone else to declare their right to practice in the public sphere, citizens should likewise feel comfortable creating, and taking opportunities to think, act and articulate ideas in public space simply because they feel motivated to get out there and try. We live in a society that is increasingly isolating, despite growth in technologies claiming to help us better connect. Mainstream media, various types of formal and informal education/socialization, and fear of authority encourage people to accept the status quo as the only option imaginable, but art reminds us otherwise. Participation in the arts, whether as an active member of the audience, or as co-producing peers with professional artists, fosters confidence and imagination, and these are things we all need tremendously.

These reflections relate to my practice in that they are the concepts that intrigue me and motivate my work as a curator. Finding new methods to bridge art and activism in ways that are welcoming/do not intimidate is my greatest creative objective. Beyond that, I am convinced that greater participation in the arts and, by extension, other areas of community experience will help achieve improved quality of life for all citizens. And on that note, especially after a project like Showing Up, Speaking Out that brought together so many different types of people and ideas, I am reminded of why I’ve chosen to live here, and that is because Winnipeggers willingly make space for intelligent, enthusiastic, and experimental creativity. I’m pleased the project happened as it did, and I am motivated to keep going. Maybe the project has encouraged others to feel this way, too?


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)


(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,, 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,,

(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,” (accessed December 2010).

(6) Open Engagement: Art and Social Practice (accessed January 2011).

(7) Making, Meaning, and Context: A Radical Reconsideration of Art’s Work (accessed January 2011)

(8) From Laurie Jo Reynold’s presentation at the Creative Time Summit 2010, (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.

SPARK Arts and Disability Network Annual General Meeting

June 19, 2011

June 23, 2011

The SPARK Arts and Disability Network Inc. is pleased to invite you to our first annual general meeting.

Our journey of three years began with the SPARK Initiative, a community art piece created by Susan Gibson in May 2008 at MAWA (Mentoring Artists for Women’s Art and ILRC (Independent Living Resource Centre). Through Susan’s initiative people were able to come together, many for the first time , to engage in dialogue about accessibility to the arts and the added challenges of working as an artist with a disability. This initiative would eventually grow into what is now officially the SPARK Arts and Disability Network Inc.

Our vision:

The full inclusion of artists and audiences with disabilities into all facets of the arts community.

Our mission:

To facilitate a network of artists and stakeholders from both the arts and disability communities that supports artists with disabilities in achieving individual artistic excellence, promotes higher visibility of these artists within all disciplines and promotes policies and practices intended to make the arts more accessible to all Manitobans.

Please join us for the SPARK Arts and Disability Network Inc. 1st Annual General Meeting:

June 23rd, 2011
4:00 pm – 6:00 pm
Reaching E-Quality Employment Services (REES) Boardroom
305-1200 Portage Avenue

Refreshments provided

RSVP attendance only by June 20th: or Ph: (204) 897-8423, Susan Gibson, Multiple Things Training

Please let us know if you require American Sign Language interpretation in advance so that we can make arrangements.

Parking can be found on Camden Place and Newman Street. There is a ramp and automatic door at the front entrance of the building and an elevator in the lobby to get to the third floor. Reaching E-Quality Employment Services is to the left of the elevator on the third floor.

‘Fly-by-night’ artists decide to stay in Detroit

June 12, 2011

This article, describing Detroit’s open embrace of artists wanting to revitalize old houses turning them into homes, was submitted by Ed the owner of the infamous (and now destroyed) Alphabet House that once sat on the lot of 89 Gertie in Winnipeg. Imagine Winnipeg worked *with* people interesed in restoring homes in creative ways, instead of  against them?

Check it out by clicking here:

School division considers introduction of new policy

May 27, 2011

The HAM-sters are unstoppable! Check out the fruit of their labour these past few months… amazing!  Congrats everyone!! There is still more to do, of course, but this is a truly wonderful development!!

Click the image to view in full-size; alternatively, click here.

Lunch and Learn: Women and Art for Social Change

March 7, 2011

Hello everyone!

This information was recently posted in the comments section of this blog; I’m passing it on through the main page to encourage attendance. This event looks like a great opportunity for discussion! See you there =-)
Manitoba Women’s Advisory Council (Status of Women) and the Winnipeg Public Library invite you to attend the following Lunch and Learn:

“Women and Art for Social Change”
A panel discussion with representatives from Sarasvati
Productions, Mentoring Artists for Women’s Art, and the
Winnipeg Arts Council.

Monday, March 21
Doors open: 11:45 a.m.
Formal Presentation: 12:05 – 1 p.m.
Millennium Library, Carol Shields Auditorium

Registration is required. To register for this free presentation, call 986-6779.
Coffee and healthy snack will be provided.

“Imagine Your Day If” lottery cards

February 6, 2011