Susan Merrick and Tanja Ostojic, 2019, Berlin. Practicing to Share Series
This guide is a brief introduction to socially engaged Art and acts as a starting point for those seeking to explore this area of work further.
At the beginning of my MA in 2015 I was told ‘You can’t change the world with Art’..... I disagreed, and my practice since then has remained a constant exploration of how and what changes can be made through art practices that put ‘social debate’ at their core.
!GWAK have asked me to create this short guide as an Artist mainly working with and within a socially engaged practice. My background is in Sociology and Sign Language Interpreting and I came to Art later in life with very little formal introduction into the Art world. Doing an MA in Fine Art at 35 with two young children and a completely non-art background was incredible and challenging, but it also meant I felt compelled to ask some important questions for my practice. Who was it for? What was important? Who would have access to the work and why? Coming to the MA as a Sociologist and Linguist most certainly influenced my direction towards a Socially Engaged practice rather than a more traditional studio-based practice. *
*I am assuming here that you, the reader, are already an artist or art student, so have some idea of the many forms that art can take, and the various processes/practices that exist. Many of us are taught at school that Art is painting, drawing, sculpture and perhaps multi-media…but there is soooooo much more, and if you do not know this already there is a whole world of art exploration to uncover! If you are not an art student or are only just starting to learn about what Art is and can be, then head to some modern art galleries/exhibitions and artist run spaces and get researching, some of the links and artists provided here will help you with this research too.
As I began to formalise my practice I started, as many of us do, researching in archives, libraries and through the work of other Artists, and I continue to do this. But for me what was also important was what was missing from these records, journals, books, exhibitions and libraries.
Who enters or feels welcome in these art spaces? Who do they reflect? What real issues do they reflect? What and who are the missing voices?
I certainly did not attend galleries and exhibitions growing up in a small town near Hull in East Yorkshire, my parents and teachers knew nothing about it (even though there was loads going on Art wise in Hull at the time), and I know that this was (and is) the case for many communities. For many, Art and access to Art in your life is still considered a privilege, a luxury, and not something that people ‘need’, and certainly not something a 15 year old raver from Hull thinks has anything to do with them. My experience and understanding of what constituted ‘Art’ had no relevance to me, to my identity, so like many I could not see it’s value, and it certainly wasn’t something that anyone I knew did past school age. Luckily towards the end of school I was exposed to Sociology and discussions of place, gender, community and social structures. This struck me so acutely that it led me to University and a passion for feminism, discussion and access.
Susan Merrick, 1997, at a rave in Hull
So I guess it was inevitable that 15 years later when I did discover Art for myself, I would seek and find a different way to work. A way that could incorporate my feminist perspective and my sociological methodologies. A way that promoted collaboration with artists and non artists, that looked at voices not so loud (or totally unheard) in the art world, but also work that brings the art world out of the white cube and into the spaces where these non-art voices are loud, and most importantly work that can potentially lead to social change.
This guide is intended to be a starting point for those who want to think about Socially Engaged Art practices, with what I feel are some great resources that have been shared with me over recent years.
Some of the resources here have been shared with me via a fab group of artists whom I did a workshop with in May 2020, led by Sophie Hope and Creativity Works. Their recommendations and suggested links are included and credited.
SOCIALLY ENGAGED ART: WHAT IS IT?
This type of work and practice is not new, but it has been associated with various and overlapping terms and descriptions over the years.
It’s origins are within the participatory, performative and feminist work that rose to prominence in the 1950’s and 60s. Community Art, Cultural Democracy, Social Practice, New Genre Public Art, Participatory Work….. all of these can and have been associated with or as Socially engaged work.
Key for me is in the name. You have to actually engage socially. This engagement may be the impetus for the art practice or works, or the engagement may be the work itself. Socially engaged art is usually a practice which aims to critique, provoke or change social systems, and it also involves collaborating with others in some way, usually non-artists. I have borrowed a few definitions below but also please check out the recommended articles/books/resources as they go into far more depth about the definitions and the difficulties when trying to define it exclusively.
“Socially engaged practice describes art that is collaborative, often participatory and involves people [and process] as the medium or material of the work….Socially engaged practice, also referred to as social practice or socially engaged art, can include any artform which involves people and communities in debate, collaboration or social interaction.” (Tate Website)
“Socially Engaged art functions by attaching itself to subjects and problems that normally belong to other disciplines, moving them temporarily into a space of ambiguity. It is this temporary snatching away of subjects into the realm of art making that brings new insights to a particular problem or condition and in turn makes it visible to other disciplines.” Helguera (2011)
SOCIALLY ENGAGED ART: WHAT DOES IT LOOK LIKE?
There are I believe as many different ways to show socially engaged art as there are Artists who work in this field. So the best way to begin is by giving some examples of Artists and projects.
Carrie Mae Weems
LaToya Ruby Frazier
Mierle Laderman Ukeles
Perhaps not all of these Artists would describe their work as socially engaged, but their work has all been referenced in such a way and would be a great start to anyone interested in exploring this field further. These Artists challenge social structures or social norms, they challenge pedagogy and institutional structures, they take risks, they critique art practice or use activism to provoke debate and social change.
Across 2016,17 and 18 I ran a project called Statements in Semaphore. It was a socially engaged project. I used conversation and workshop spaces as my research, alongside performative and film/camera based methods to consider hidden women’s voices. I worked with 3 organisations (Women In Prison, Deaf Hope and You Trust Hampshire) and through these organisations collaborated to varying degrees with several groups of women and 6 artists. The women were living in either Prison or in a Domestic Violence Refuge, some of whom I was invited to work with, others I sought out myself. What I wanted from this project was to connect the Art world and these organisations, to open up conversations around the issues faced by these women, to consider what changes the women and organisations wanted to see happen, and to find ways to critically consider these through my practice. **
**In a previous edit I wrote here that I did not change the world, meaning that the changes the project instigated were small. But Jill Kennedy-McNeill wisely pointed out to me that this minimses the changes that we did make. When we talk about change, how big does the change need to be to count?
We made poetry and image work that drew out debate about a milieu of feminst issues specific to this group: anonymity, fear, lack of access to education, the circumstances that these women were living in, the social structures that enforced their invisibility and limited their choices. The work was not finite, it began conversations, provoked questions and critique for the artists, for the organisations and for the women whom we worked with. It didn’t produce a neat packaged product at the end, we didn’t have a clean shiny exhibition. We made film work that explored issues, we made poetry that we sewed onto clothing, we wrote messages on a T-shirt from the women to Holloway prison and I took these back to the closed site, reading the messages out to the prison gates and rooftops. I made large banners of some of the women doing semaphore signals (arm signals that spell out letters), signalling to the world that they have something to say. I took these banners and tied them along the sides of the institute for education in London…where they were pulled down after an hour…
This work was not something that could have a price tag attached, that wasn’t the point. What it did was bring together thoughts, ideas and critiques from a whole range of women. It facilitated the sharing of images, words, experiences and concepts that could then provoke further discussion in wider debates around violence against women. The organisations we worked with were able to use the work produced and the discussions raised to highlight some of their campaign messages and to push for change more widely.
Susan Merrick, Twelve Days of Conversations, 2017 (25 Banners)
Socially engaged practices are varied, they may have messy aesthetics, they resist or utilise forms of working, they are collaborative, thoughtful, thought provoking, critical, questioning. Artists in this field ask questions about authorship, power and control, constantly having to be reflective in order to examine their own methods and ethics.
Here are just a few examples of Artists/projects using socially engaged practice. I won’t describe each one in full, as their own sites do a far better job of that than I can, but you can drop onto each of these links to see the vast range of work within this field.
Lorraine Leeson has been working in this field for several decades, she teaches on the subject as a senior lecturer at Middlesex University and has written widely on socially situated practices and runs the arts organisation CSpace.
Pablo Heloguera is a Mexican Artist living in New York, whose work is mainly a socially engaged practice and also writes and teaches. In 2003 he established “The School of Panamerican Unrest”: a nomadic think-tank that physically crossed the continent by car from Anchorage, Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, making 40 stops in between. Covering almost 20,000 miles, it is considered one of the most extensive public art projects on record as well as a pioneering work for the new generation of artworks regarded under the area of socially engaged art.
Harold Offeh spent a week exploring Fleetwood’s historical Victorian market. Over the course of week Offeh toured the market meeting the traders and customers through a series of interviews and conversations. The recordings reveal a range of characters and histories that reflect a rich, diverse and active community. We hear about the products, the day to day experiences and the personal tragedies and triumphs of the traders. Featuring: John Richmond, the dapper hat and glove outfitter. Chris from the Einstein Initiative spiritual centre and a fortuitous encounter with showbiz legend and Fleetwood resident, Sid Little. http://www.haroldoffeh.com/
Anis Joslin is a UK based Artist and filmmaker that I worked with briefly last year. She often works on socially engaged projects. Her project Messy Business is an ongoing collaboration with Artist Sara Cole and a group called Joining Hands Joining Hearts in which a film was made to share the voices of the women in the group who wanted to shout loud about their experiences, share them with others and ultimately encourage others to speak up.
R.M Sanchez is a UK Artist who is also a founder of the Social Art Network in the UK.Sanchez-Camus is a UK-based Artist, born in New York City to parents who emigrated from Chile. Their work explores interaction, public spectacles, social systems, the body politic and urban imagination. The practice can be understood in four layers that mutually compliment and inform each other: collaborative making, psychogeographic explorations, visual arts and social practice.
Black Quantum Futurism (BQF) is a new approach to living and experiencing reality by way of the manipulation of space-time in order to see into possible futures, and/or collapse space-time into a desired future in order to bring about that future’s reality. This vision and practice derives its facets, tenets, and qualities from quantum physics and Black/African cultural traditions of consciousness, time, and space. Under a BQF intersectional time orientation, the past and future are not cut off from the present - both dimensions have influence over the whole of our lives, who we are and who we become at any particular point in space-time. Our work focuses on recovery, collection, and preservation of communal memories, histories, and stories. Run by Camae Ayewa (Rockers!; Moor Mother) and Rasheedah Phillips (The AfroFuturist Affair; Metropolarity)
The Drawing Shed is an organisation set up by visual artists Sally Labern and Bobby Lloyd. I have met and chatted with Sally several times and her work is a fantastic example of social art practice. Sally’s work is very wide ranging but she has a real interest in cultural equity, sharable methodologies (and open transparent practices) and imagination. http://www.thedrawingshed.org/
I recently met artist Fiona Campbell through the Creativity Works workshop I mentioned earlier and she has shared some of her work with me which can be found here:
Run by Paula McCloskey and Sam Vardy and based in Sheffield, UK and Ballyshannon, Ireland; ‘a place, of their own’ is an experimental contemporary art and spatial practice. They exploit the meeting of these fields to investigate contemporary conditions and create new spaces, imaginaries and subjectivities.
And there are so many more!
To find more:
Search on a.n.org.uk for more articles on artists who work with a socially engaged practice.
Join SAN on Facebook
Get on the mailing list for arts organisations who work in this way and check out the books and articles I recommend further down the guide.
Susan Merrick, 2019. Conversations with Aldershot
SOCIALLY ENGAGED ART: WHO SUPPORTS IT?
There are so many art and social organisations, artist collectives, online magazines, funding pots etc who now talk, write about, support, encourage and fund Socially Engaged Projects. As with any form of Art you need to do your research and find the right spaces for you and your practice. There is some great critical discussion about Social Art practices too, which is why I urge you to do some reading. Check out Lorraine Leeson or Pablo Helguera’s books to get a good sense of what Socially engaged work is and what kinds of projects and tools there are available. Read Claire Bishop’s ‘Participatory Hells’, Tom Finklepearl’s What We Made: Conversations on Art and Social Cooperation or Grant Kester’s Conversation Pieces: Community and communication in modern art for some theoretical discussion on the area. Consider Sophie Hope’s thoughts on Cultural Democracy in her thesis ‘Participating in the wrong way?’ and how it can be usefully incorporated by socially engaged practitioners to ensure that their work remains critical.
Susan Merrick, 2019. Conversations with Aldershot
https://www.facebook.com/socialartnetwork/ (UK) This is the Social Art Network in the Uk set up by R.M. Sánchez-Camus and Eelyn Lee , an open group of artists and organisations who work within the field of social art in the UK. In 2018 and 2019 they ran a conference in Sheffield and a workshop at Tate Exchange which brought together a whole host of projects and conversations in the area of social art in the UK.
https://www.socialpracticesartnetwork.com/ (USA) The American network of social art practitioners.
As with any Art practice this field has its share of challenges, not least the fact that there are many critics, academics and artists within art institutions and art schools who still do not give it as much credibility as other more traditional practices. I attended several workshops, as well as the UK's first Social Art Summit back in 2018. I have also had many conversations with Artists. The challenges we face and how we acknowledge them, work with them or reflect on them is probably one of the more common themes of discussion. As Jill Kennedy-McNeill reminds me “one major difference between socially engaged art and studio art is that SE art both acknowledges and embraces ‘difficulty’ as praxis – its inherent in the nature of the work we do to be constantly examining and re-examining our output.” (Kennedy-McNeill in conversation with Susan Merrick, 2020).
Socially engaged practice is a practice that crosses boundaries, crosses disciplines, is often considered useful for social change, and therefore looked upon with disdain in the art world.
It doesn’t always have an aesthetic appeal.
It is often difficult to site in a gallery space.
It usually requires funding in order to happen, but then the funding criteria risk overtaking the original aims of the project.
It is often used for social and political gains.. E.g regeneration projects. This can be problematic depending on who is leading the project and why.
It can often move away from Art and become instead perhaps activism or social work. Some practitioners even sometimes leave the field of art practitioner behind and take on new roles entirely.
For a good discussion on the challenges faced within this field, visit artquest below to hear an interview with Marcelo from SAN.
Susan Merrick and Anis Joslin 2019
Image from Merrick’s Practicing to Share series
Working with social engagement is not for everyone. It can be messy, you can end up feeling like a project manager for a lot of the time, you have to be very good or experienced at communicating, with a LOT of people. It usually means collaborating, considering authorship and at times denouncing authorship altogether. It is essential to acknowledge and reflect on the ethics of the practice all of the time (although many would argue that this should be the case in all the work that Artists do!), and what that means to you and those you work with. In this type of practice it is crucial to consider all partners at play, and for most social art practitioners moving away from being the ‘centre’ of the project or work is essential. It means having a lot of discussions, with yourself, those you work with, others who work in the field. You have to be prepared for this, and the doubts, and the criticism too. And definitely for making mistakes and getting it wrong.
Think about your aims and the aims of those you are working with. Are you planning to challenge, critique or disrupt in some way? What effect will this have? Who wants this disruption? For whom will it disrupt or benefit?
Consider the power relations involved. Who holds the power? Does that feel right? Does it work with your aims?
Are you being funded? What is the funding criteria and does this truthfully fit with the project aims?
There are far more resources and examples of works and artists than I have provided here, and some of the links I have suggested will allow you to explore this. What I will say is that this community of artists and practitioners are amazing. I have met and spoken with people from all over the world who are working or writing in this field and honestly, so many people are open about their practice and ready to share. If you want to work in a field where artists, audiences, participants all become collaborators and aim to support one another, whilst also critiquing failing structures or systems and finding new and alternative paths, then this is the field for you!
Susan Merrick is a multi-disciplinary Artist. She is interested in conversations, language and communication, in questioning whose voices are heard, and in the access and spaces that can challenge or facilitate this.
With a background in BSL/English Interpreting and Sociology she makes work, projects and collaborations exploring these themes, utilising a context-based mix of social engagement, live art, public installations, filmmaking and photography.
Susan has an MA in Fine Art from UCA Farnham and is presenter of the Woman Up! Podcast in collaboration with Desperate Artwives and the Women’s Art Library, Goldsmiths. She is an associate Artist with Chapel Arts Studios and was the recipient of ACE and National Project Grants for 2017, 2018 and 2019.
FB: Susan B Merrick
With special thanks to Jill Kennedy-McNeill who kindly peer reviewed this guide! Her work is awesome, check it out herehttps://www.jillkennedy-mcneill.com/portfolio-2
Lorraine Leeson - ART:PROCESS:CHANGE, 2018, Routledge
This is a great place to start. Lorraine has been creating work within a social practice since the 70s. This book not only describes the projects she has led and the work that has come out of it, but it introduces and frames ‘socially engaged’ work, and where it has come from, it’s ‘place’ within the art world, the challenges faced by practitioners and the scope of this area of work going forward.
Pablo Helguera: Education for Socially Engaged Art, 2011
This is described (and I agree) as a ‘a highly readable book that absolutely needs to be in the back pocket of anyone interested in teaching or learning about socially engaged art’. This is a brief guide to techniques, materials and the tools of socially engaged art. Very readable and useful!
64 Million Artists with Arts Council England. 2018. Cultural Democracy in Practice. Available from: https://www.artscouncil.org.uk/publication/cultural-democracy-practice
Claire Bishop - Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, 2012
Shannon Jackson: Social Works: Performing Art, Supporting Publics, 2011
In 2019 SAN collaborated with Kickstarter to consider new ways of funding social art. This is an article exploring some of the artists who gained funding in this way, talking about their practice.
A collaborative Funding Resource, this is growing and is a public resource that is awaiting population. Worth keeping the link to review as it grows but also add to it if you can!
Hope, S. 2011. Participating in the Wrong Way? Practice Based Research into Cultural Democracy and the Commissioning of Art to Effect Social Change. Birkbeck, University of London, Doctoral Thesis. Available from: http://sophiehope.org.uk/research/ (and her reading list for this thesis is great too!)
Hope, S. 2009. What Ever Happened to Cultural Democracy? Available from: http://www.networkedcultures.org/index.php?tdid=157
A blade of grass - online magazine - USA https://www.abladeofgrass.org/articles A relatively new organisation, this american initiative has some fantastic articles considering social art, artists working within the field and current projects.
A list of resources put together by a collaboration called Hand In Glove, in 2015, in the USA.