Ten Artists on What Social Practice Means to Them
“Socially engaged art has the capacity to coax new shared understandings out of the darkness and confusion we’re facing at the moment.”
“Can you remember the last time you woke up and didn’t think we were living through a crisis?”
R.M. Sanchez-Camus, cofounder of the UK-based social practice arts community Social Art Network (SAN), likes to ask this question at conferences and workshops. “The urgency and adrenaline [it] causes is precisely the space that socially engaged artists are inhabiting fearlessly, producing work in response to the time we are living in,” he says.
Social practice art — often defined as collaborative, community-driven work that engages with social issues — has emerged as a powerful approach for artists confronting current political and social challenges, especially in the UK. “I see this as the current avant-garde of art-making today,” says Sanchez-Camus, “working against what art has become in the era of late capitalism and market-driven economies.”
Earlier this year, Kickstarter teamed up with SAN to mentor nine artists and artist teams as they prepared to launch projects on Kickstarter. The pairing solidifies the idea that collaboration lies at the center of art-making’s future, says Sanchez-Camus. “The clear link between collaboratively made artworks and crowdfunding allows a much larger audience to participate in the making of the work and share in the incredible reward that is socially engaged art-making.”
We chatted with artists mentored by SAN, whose projects are live on Kickstarter now, about the importance of social practice art at this pivotal moment in time.
Why is social practice art crucial in today’s world, and what current issues do you hope to speak to through your work?
Shonagh Short, Visible Dirt
A pop-up art installation about the language of dirt and social inequality.
My work is all about the language of social inequality, which feels more and more important in an increasingly divided world. I see social practice art as an accessible and engaging way of highlighting these issues while actually bringing people along on the journey.
Edi Whitehead, Rewriting the Dictionary: Portraits of an Essex Girl
Showcasing the stories of women and nonbinary people from Essex.
The UK can be a very fragmented and tribal place. (I’m not saying this is new. I do not think we should falsely romanticise days gone by; we have been battling institutional issues and divisions throughout history.) We’re navigating our way through so much information that we risk losing nuance and the space to understand each other better. I’m trying to create more space for that nuance, for that considered thought. I want to give people equal footing to stand tall and be proud of who they are. I’m fighting for a better feminism.
Kay Rufai, S.M.I.L.E (SEND ME INSPIRING LOVING ENERGY)
A photographic journey across Europe to connect strangers through smiling.
As a marginalised group, we don’t have the luxury to just create art for art’s sake. There are too many challenges being faced by people who look like me and have various intersections of discriminations — the work I/we create has to be actively speaking to these biases, empowering minority groups, and creating opportunities for wider spectrums of visibility in a bid to challenge one-dimensional stereotypes, lazy, one-sided narratives, racism, xenophobia, and all forms of bigotry, which has become more rife in our society today. I hope to speak to these issues through my work, especially shattering stereotypes and misperceptions of minority groups in the wake of Brexit.
Ian Nesbitt, New Ways
A 220-mile pilgrimage on foot, collecting and sharing acts towards and visions of a positive future society.
I believe there is a dire urgency for reimagining our society, particularly in the UK right now, but also further afield. Socially engaged artists are in a unique place to take such work forward in our current social and political climate. We operate in the margins, in uncertain places; at its best, socially engaged art has the capacity to coax new shared understandings out of the darkness and confusion we’re facing at the moment. It operates alongside and within other networks, most obviously grassroots activism.
Socially engaged art has the capacity to coax new shared understandings out of the darkness and confusion we’re facing at the moment.
For me personally, at the moment, I’m looking at ways to be together. When the Brexit vote happened I knew that my work as an artist had to more directly and urgently address the upheaval in our society. At that point, I began making work that sets out to bring people together through large, collective projects focusing on what we have that we can share, rather than how we are different. Back in 2016, in the week Donald Trump was elected, I produced a text work that states, “To challenge the politics of isolation, we need tactics for togetherness.” Ultimately, this Kickstarter project can be understood as an enactment of that statement.
John Davis, Wildfire Gallery
A traveling art gallery that challenges tradition, offers a platform to artists, and engages communities.
Today’s world feels as though it is constantly turning away from art, and everyone equates it with excess, snobbery, and elitism. And they’re right. We need art to be more — not merely another tool in the hands of the powerful. At a time when divisions are rife within our society, we need art to be our shelter, to be a refuge.
At a time when divisions are rife within our society, we need art to be our shelter, to be a refuge.
The art world is a law unto itself, a home to the corrupt, the filthy rich, and the opportunist. Art has been weaponized into yet another investment to be made. It feels like a duty to be done — we need to give art back to people, to convince them that it is for them, not just for the elite, that they can own original work, and [remind them] how wonderful and special it is. Equally, beyond that, we as a society are facing huge issues — economically, environmentally, politically, and in many other ways. Social practice art has a huge role to play in helping us face, and in many cases overcome, the problems that affect our world.
Sarah Dixon and Sharon Bennett, The Bureau for the Validation of Art
A performance artwork presented by The Women’s Art Activation System that investigates who holds the power to create validation and acceptance.
Sharon Bennett: Social practice is an emergent field that brings a much wider audience and society close to artists and creating work. It’s a way to test out and experiment with new social paradigms and models, tapping into the genii of artists and bringing them out of the gallery ghettos. It is my belief that art is fundamental to being human; all small children draw and make things with their hands, live in their imaginations. If we can bring art into society in a bigger way — if we can “normalise” creative practice — we can do a huge amount of good and healing.
Sarah Dixon: In my work I am interested in looking at the customs and practices we take for granted or that go unexamined, and asking, “What power myths are being perpetuated here?” Becoming a mother was particularly significant, and I have some work addressing the way women get “invisibilised” when they have children, and how they have done throughout history. This is manifest in capitalism, in advertising, in the news, magazines, in the law, in our institutions… and in art galleries. This mismatch is deeply uncomfortable and can be damaging. In my work I want to reveal to people the ways in which they are following unwritten rules and ask them to reconsider — to ask, “Who made these rules, and why? Who do they serve?” and, ultimately, “Why am I doing this, and could I do something more fulfilling with my time?”
Yara El-Sherbini and Davina Drummond, Kick Off
A public artwork uniting women, football [soccer], craft, and collectivism.
Davina Drummond: Social practice art is crucial in today’s world because people want to be part of the creative process and be an audience to artworks that they can relate to.
We think there is a major shift in how we think about contemporary art and its role in society now. There have always been major shifts, from conceptualism to modernism, and this shift sees us moving away from traditional object-based work to meaning-making that happens through conversation and debate, which can lead to social change. This social and active engagement allows the public to be an integral part of meaning-making, where it becomes a collective act, making art accessible and inviting.
Lady Kitt and Michaela Weatherall, Small But Fierce Magazine
A magazine created with bold children who want to change the world.
As the arts are being cut in education and art funding pots get smaller and smaller each year (plus the current political situation in the UK), we need other ways to educate people, especially children, who are now more than ever becoming more aware of the political, environmental, and social changes. We want [our] magazine to be a part of the ongoing movement to change the world, one art project at a time.
Cath Colour Carver, COLOURWORXX
A magazine unveiling how colour can be used to transform cities around the world.
With global populations increasingly concentrated in cities and urban areas, there is a real need to ensure that urban environments are conducive to well-being. Cities are complex, multi-authored habitats, in need of constant renewal and care. At regular intervals we need to reevaluate how the built environment is serving the needs of its communities and enhancing vitality. Also to ensure that meanwhile use spaces [temporarily vacant spaces that can be used for meetings and events, like pop-ups] — those in-between lives — are utilised for creative and cultural purposes.
Especially in times of uncertain political or economic futures, coming together through social art is ever more important to connect with others on a human level, build trust, and forge new ways of being through understanding and unity. Through coming together to add colour — in a myriad of ways — we can spark and create new creative possibilities for a space, foster a sense of local pride, cultivate agency, and improve communication and social cohesion.
Quotes have been lightly edited for clarity.