Susan Merrick

Artist and Interpreter. Power Language Access

Socially Engaged Practice?

The first port of call in looking at how Socially Engaged practice is ‘shown’ within the art world is to ensure I understand what others consider it to be.

So here are some links I found on Socially Engaged Practice, helpfully starting with a definition as found on the TATE website.

‘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’ [Excerpt from Tate Article 1]

My own work certainly falls into this, but up until now I have been describing the socially engaged part of my work, the research. Socially Engaged Research. But is this accurate? Is this actually the work itself?

Tom Finkelpearl outlines in his book What We Made: Conversations on Art and Social Cooperation, social practice is ‘art that’s socially engaged, where the social interaction is at some level the art.’ [Tate article 1]

My practice and work also sits well with the idea of New Genre Public Art, coined by Suzanne Lacy in 1991. This too is defined as socially engaged practice.

Lacy defined new genre public art as being activist, often created outside the institutional structure which brought the artist into direct engagement with the audience, while addressing social and political issues. [Tate Article 2]

A useful consideration of Socially Engaged Art comes from reading an article on the WideWalls website. They describe socially engaged art as something that can’t always be clearly defined, more that there are artists whose work can be described as being socially engaged…. or having socially engaged elements. If we wanted to be awkward we could say that most art becomes socially engaged as soon as we ask an audience to look at it…. but that is perhaps going off point!

Another really interesting point with regard to my current contemplation of how to show work comes again from the Wide Walls website.

‘Sometimes, we might even be speaking about socially engaged art while referring to relational art or relational aesthetics, which is not necessarily connected to social engagement in a philanthropist sense. As for all types of “relational” art practices, the conceptual or physical realization of a piece relies on human reaction; on the implicit or explicit exchange of information between the piece of art and the people who witness, or take part in it. This means that basically any kind of socially engaged art relies more on the participatory or the relational context, than the content itself – it depends on the capacity to build a relationship with its audience.’ (Wide Walls)

So if I am to begin thinking about how I show my work for the final show, I really need to keep in mind what I have found essential in my previous work. That essential to my work is to engage, and to do this considering the relational context or through participation.

Artists who are noted for working in a socially engaged way:

Ai Weiwei. A very well known artist whose work lies between or within both art and activism. This seems certainly to be a running thread within what is considered socially engaged, the element of activism.

Oreet Ashery  Performative in nature Ashery has used alter egos and performance to highlight issues of identity and culture. She continues to do this in group and participatory action that becomes performance too.

Mierle Laderman Ukeles is someone whose work I have looked at previously and her work on domesticity and culture is still referenced widely today.

Adrian Piper – her work at the Venice Biennale 2015 – archival and participatory performance – but not involving herself at all.

Rick Lowe and Sean Starowitz both consider their practice to be placing art in the background and pushing more humanitarian issues to the front. Lowe considers his Project Row Houses to be a sculpture, but it is also considered an urban improvement project.

Mark Dion – Who works with sculpture and installation – in both gallery works and public works. His public work comes from the community he works with or is commissioned to work with – but seems less related to people, than objects and issues of the community.

Artists working with Street Art, billboards and similar can all be considered to be working in this way too.

It is also necessary to consider the critiques of socially engaged art. The cross over with activism fits well here. ‘John Jordan, an art activist, once said that socially engaged art really makes no significant changes, precisely because it is called an art.’ (, 2008)

I will look into this further in my next post….

Article 1:  Tate Website, undated, [online] http://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/s/socially-engaged-practice [accessed on: 17/05/17]
Article 2:  Tate Website, undated, [online] http://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/n/new-genre-public-art [accessed on: 17/05/17]
[Online] http://www.widewalls.ch/socially-engaged-art-today/ (original links kept from the article) [accessed on: 17/05/17]
 [Online] https://www.theguardian.com/stage/theatreblog/2008/may/08/theethicsofsociallyengaged [accessed on: 17/05/17]

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