Social practice (art)
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Social practice is an art medium focusing on engagement through human interaction and social discourse. Since people and their relationships form the medium of such works – rather than a particular process of production – social engagement is not only a part of a work’s organization, execution, or continuation, but also an aesthetic in itself: of interaction and development. Socially engaged art aims to create social and/or political change through collaboration with individuals, communities, and institutions in the creation of participatory art. The discipline values the process of a work over any finished product or object.
Artists working in social practice co-create their work with a specific audience or propose critical interventions within existing social systems to inspire debate or catalyze social exchange. The large overlap between social practice and pedagogy demonstrates the need for art education to embrace collaborative practice. Social practice work focuses on the interaction between the audience, social systems, and the artist through aesthetics, ethics, collaboration, methodology, antagonism, media strategies, and social activism. The social interaction component inspires, drives, or, in some instances, completes the project. Although projects may incorporate traditional studio media, they are realized in a variety of visual or social forms (depending on variable contexts and participant demographics) such as performance, social activism, or mobilizing communities towards a common goal. The diversity of approaches pose specific challenges for documenting social practice work, as the aesthetic of human interaction changes rapidly and involves many people simultaneously. Consequently, images frequently fail to do justice to the engagement and interactions that take place during a project.
History of terminology
Until 2005, the term "social practice" was used in a branch of social theory considering human relationships to each other and to the larger society as "practices". The term "art and social practice" was institutionalized in 2005 with the creation of the Social Practice MFA concentration at the California College of the Arts, followed by other institutions of higher education offering similar degrees. Social practice art as a medium has been referenced in the New York Times, Artforum, ArtNews, and Art Practical. As an emerging field, social practice can encompass a variety of terms: public practice, socially engaged art, community art, new-genre public art, participatory art, interventionist art, collaborative art, relational art and dialogical aesthetics.
Socially engaged art differs from its art historical ancestors in that it is not a specific movement or style, but rather a way of defining a new social order. Thousands of existing social practice projects across the world have taken vastly different approaches to their combination of publics, methodologies, aesthetics, and environments, yet these projects all share an aesthetic of human interaction and development. The end products of such works are not commodities, but rather processes for constructive social change. Some foundational characteristics of socially engaged art remain consistently relevant to a diverse range of works. For an artist or producer to create a successful social practice work, they must consider the unique context in which they are working, and identify specific characteristics of the community and environment. They must also balance aesthetic and methodology in their work, align the timeline of a project with its purpose: a quick-impact ephemeral work, or the regularity of a longitudinal work.
Community and environment
Social practice artists and producers aim to affect their community and environment in a real (rather than symbolic) way; some specifically do so in hopes of enabling social and political change. Each project is tailored to the community and environment in which it will take place. In social practice the identification of the public, or audience, precedes the project's development. It is impossible to create a project founded upon engagement and collaboration without first making assumptions as to who will be involved. Who the artist or producer wishes to engage and where they wish to engage are therefore core characteristics of socially engaged art.
Environment could be described on two primary levels: the broader community, city, or region; and the immediate space being occupied – a street, museum, studio, or other area. To understand the context in which they are working, artists and producers must develop relationships with individuals, organizations and institutions that intersect many different parts of their community and environment. One theorist makes the comparison between socially engaged art projects to exotic fruit, stating that both “usually travel poorly when “exported” to other locations to be replicated.” The community and environment are therefore not merely external influencers on a specific project – they are inherent characteristics.
Aesthetics and methodology
For much of art history, a work's aesthetic has been upheld as the primary measure of its quality. The 20th century broadened the public understanding of art to consider concept and process alongside aesthetic, and by the new millennium the tables had turned to emphasize process over product: one of the defining characteristics of socially engaged art. Process is determined by method; thus social practice producers and artists are often more concerned with the methodology rather than the aesthetic of their work. Many argue that social practice has created a new aesthetic of its own: an aesthetic of human interaction and development that is based not on spectatorship but on participation. This aesthetic captures the diverse methods employed by socially engaged art and encompasses not only traditional methods of painting, photography, architecture, and performance; but also nontraditional forms borrowed from other disciplines, such as festivals, conferences, schools, and protests.
Aesthetics are typically hierarchical, highly subjective, and greatly determined by external influencers, such as the imagery of a given culture, or the relationship between appearance and market value. To escape these external influencers, aesthetics can also be defined in terms of “aesthesis,” an autonomous realm of experience and judgment that cannot be reduced to logic, reason or morality but is of great importance to humankind. Aesthetics have the capacity to critique our beliefs and values by restructuring our perception of the world. Their application can achieve one of the core aims of socially engaged art: the definition of a new social order characterized by engagement and participation.
Methodology in socially engaged art refers to the set of practices used throughout the process and production of a project. The method is no longer a means to an end, but an end within itself: the experience of creation and experimentation is a central element of social practice. While aesthetics reframe ideas and beliefs outside of the disciplines in which we have accepted them, methodology takes the frameworks of those disciplines to produce new aesthetics. Socially engaged art has embraced conferences, urban regeneration projects, pedagogical projects, and protests, which are all frameworks borrowed from other disciplines.
While aesthetics and methodology can have conflicting interests, there are important reasons why artists and producers should seek to integrate the two. Methodology will engage the public, but aesthetics will play a large role in determining how a project is interpreted. Ultimately, the two can work together to enhance each other: the aesthetic value of a project can increase its social function, while the method can heighten the aesthetic experience through public engagement.
Longevity vs. Transience
The method and aesthetic adopted in social practice work is greatly influenced by intended timeline. Length determines the type of social and/or political change the artist aims to achieve, the types of dialogue created, and the ways in which an individual can engage with a work. The length of a project is also extremely situational. Some projects aim to have an immediate impact, while others prefer to build relationships that foster change over an extended period.
Ephemeral projects are typically characterized by temporary gatherings and occupation of space. They create situations in which social interactions are momentary and not expected to become long-lasting. The immediate impact of ephemeral works often means they take place around a particular issue or concept. Protests, festivals, conferences, or pop-up performances have all been used as mediums for ephemeral social practice work.
Longitudinal projects are those built upon regular and reoccurring social interactions and dialogue, organized with the intention to be sustained over a longer period. They typically occupy the same space, and are characterized by deeper partnerships and relationships that are gradually built over the course of the work’s existence. As a result, many long-term social practice projects include a pedagogical element in their work. Classes, urban regeneration work, schools, or institutional partnerships are all examples of longitudinal projects.
Social practice and institutions
Much social practice has taken place in the gap between the public and cultural institutions, which has been identified and acted upon as a new site for artistic intervention. However institutions, such as museums, foundations, non-profit organizations, and universities all play a significant role in supporting and amplifying social practice work. Many institutions constitute an extension of the public sphere, regardless of whether they are public or private in their ownership and operation. Partnerships between socially engaged art and contemporary institutions have thus widened the public sphere, and provided mutual benefits to the institution, the community, those engaged in the project, and the producers.
Social practice and the art market
In the traditional art world, market value and a work's collectability are deeply intertwined. This has posed a challenge to socially engaged artists seeking museum and gallery support, since many works go against the capitalist market to challenge traditional collecting practices. As a result, many socially engaged artists and producers must look elsewhere for support. The expansion of the art world in the 21st century has seen the emergence of alternative supports, such as non-profit organizations and the ever-growing biennale network. Other partners include art fairs, or commissions and residencies associated with universities, foundations, and urban regeneration. Artists and producers have also formed their own means of support, as artist-run exhibition spaces, journals and blogs demonstrate.
Social practice in the university
Universities often partner with producers, artists and theorists of socially engaged art. These relationships offer mutual benefits for both academic institutions and artists. Universities offer artists employment security, the support and validation often required for establishing grant-based and corporate partnerships, and access to a high interdisciplinary environment that not only accepts, but encourages, experimentation. Artists in turn provide knowledge, skills and research to support individuals and broader programs within the university. As producers and scholars, they generate both new theory and new practice for the field of socially engaged art.
Exhibitions and conferences
Exhibitions of social practice art often include multiple artists or art collectives, and rather than exhibiting art objects, the artist’s participatory role in their work as well as their collaboration with the public becomes the exhibition. Several conferences are held nationally and internationally to bring together artists and academics involved in the field. They have featured installation, performance art, film, dance, art talks, forums, and gallery exhibitions.
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