Social Arts: Sourcing from the Whole

Making Visible the Invisible Dimension of Social Transformation

Presencing Institute
Field of the Future Blog
8 min readFeb 26, 2024

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“I see a village, an ecosystem, faces bodies and echoes. I feel moved to tears, drawn in, part of. I am drawn to stare in awe, take in, connect.
I feel full, I see all of me and all of you, I am drawn to the polarities of passion.
I see transitions and liminal gateways, I feel a sense of hope and excitement, I am drawn to the dance of the shadows.
I feel excitement and trepidation, I see the chaotic vortex of change, I am drawn to the flow of time.”

— Excerpt from Resonance Practice in Social Presencing Theater, February 2024

Bringing Systems Thinking to Life

Social Arts are sets of practices, drawn from various art forms, that support transformative learning and change by making visible and bringing to awareness the less tangible patterns and dynamics of social systems. In the context of Theory U and Presencing, Social Arts are always integrated into specific contexts. They are a set of methods and practices that we bring into social contexts that matter, into the frontline of the movements, and to people who are often doing the right things with the right intention, but are lacking the tools to access what is being asked from the emerging future.

Using Social Arts practices allows us to investigate patterns of social fields and how they shift. The practices are not only brought into specific contexts, but are also embedded into a systems thinking framework and observed by a research community — a “holding space” of practitioners is part of an investigation to make visible the invisible dimension of social transformation. Social Arts have consistently shown themselves to be a powerful force for transformation, bringing systems thinking into life by making systems see and sense themselves, creating a shift in agency and opening of possibility for enacting a different kind of system.

Over the past few years, there has been a striking increase in the use of Social Arts in awareness-based systems change work. This is an exciting development in the field and it prompted our own reflection and dialogue about what we mean by social arts. What is the foundation that underlies the practice field that includes Social Presencing Theatre, Visual Practice, Social Poetics and Acoustics? Or, in other words, what is “the view” that guides the work? In this article, we share our understanding, evolved over 20 years of Social Arts practice, of what is essential to us in this work, and why this work is essential to systems transformation.

What Do We Mean by Social Field and Why is this Relevant?

The Social Arts are a social field approach to change. A social field approach is a different way of thinking about social systems. Social fields can be thought of as a web of connections and relationships that are more than the sum of the parts and that give a social system its quality or texture (read more here and here). A Social Field can be understood as having its own character and interiority and even its own intention. Viewing systems under this lens helps us to understand them as “living systems,” that have their own will and carry their own truths — much like a human being. Social Arts can help a Social Field to see and sense itself, and with that create enabling conditions for the truths of this ‘being’ to be made visible and known in service of its own transformation.

Principles of Social Arts in the Context of Theory U and Presencing

  1. Social Arts are always embedded in social contexts
    Social Arts are never the product of, or created by, a single artist. It sources from the whole of a Social Field, of which artists are a part, in the moment of creation. With that, all members of the Social Field are part of the creative process and become artists themselves. Social Arts bring aspects of the Social Field into visible structures, and transform the Social Field when it is being witnessed by the participants of that field. So it involves all participants, as source, creators, and also the ‘audience’ who is enacting that field.
  2. Social Arts are intentional and non-manipulative:
    The intention of Social Arts practices is to make visible deeper structures of a Social Field which are held in the collective inner experience. Social art is not about trying to make something happen. It cannot be determined ahead of time. Rather, it is sourced in the moment and in emergent knowing and experience. What is being expressed doesn’t want to confront or guide the audience in any direction but follows and depends on the actual condition of the Social Field at this very moment. In this way, Social Arts always work in service of what is about to emerge.
  3. Social Arts are embedded in a framework of systems thinking
    It serves the social context to see and sense the context’s own current situation, structure and relational dynamics as well as its potential future possibility. It is this seeing and sensing that becomes a powerful catalyst for deep personal and systemic transformation. The underlying belief is: “You cannot understand a system unless you change it (K. Lewin). You cannot change a system unless you transform consciousness. You cannot transform consciousness unless you can make a system see and sense itself” — Otto Scharmer.
  4. Social Arts are based on awareness
    The quality and relevance of Social Arts is highly interlinked with the capacity of the artists to become aware of the Social Field and its parts — including the artists themselves. “Technical skills” are only helpful as long as they submit to the awareness of the whole, to what is being noticed. In her book Social Presencing Theater: The Art of Making a True Move, Arawana Hayashi uses the term “True Move,” which beautifully describes what could be claimed as the most important goal for Social Artists. The capacity is to suspend judgment, to use one’s mind as only one of many senses to notice and not to “make sense“ just yet, and only then follow what is emerging from there. You can say, the artist does not decide what needs to be expressed, but rather follows what wants to become visible.
  5. The significance of resonance in Social Arts
    Resonance is a key ingredient and mechanism of Social Arts. The artistic process is based on a dance of resonance and creation. It is evoked by a resonance on the Social Field. The art then shifts the awareness and quality of the Social Field, that is in resonance with the creation, which will guide the artists into further resonance — a circular movement embedded in a space of mindful awareness and curiosity. Beside this process inherent resonance, a guided Social Resonance Process at distinct moments or as part of some of the practices (Social Presencing Theater 4D Mapping) invites a reflecting quality on what has been created. The resonance practice might be seen as the first opening to sense-making, yet retaining a phenomenological lens — interpretations or explanations would hinder the fresh and open perception of this visible mirror of the transforming Social Field. The ingredients of this practice are stillness, and the phenomenological collection of what those present perceive.

Research: Investigating the Deeper Dimensions of Systems Transformation

Social Arts can be understood as an embodied social and action research methodology to investigate the nature of social reality for a social system, as well as investigating its future potentialities, in real time. While there exist many methodologies for seeing systems, there is a lack of rigorous research methods for sensing them. As Social Arts are always embedded in context, they are embodied, experienced, and observed by the community that make up that context. The in-the-moment experience of that community is the key sensing data about the system. Simultaneously, the community is also the “holding space” where the reality coming into being is observed through the Social Arts. As participant-observers of the process, the community takes part in an investigation of social field patterns and shifts from within, with the aim of making visible the invisible dimension of social transformation. Using Social Arts as a research methodology surfaces the social field dynamics of a specific context, to inform action for that context and, at the same time, point to a more generalized pattern of the social field and social field shifts.

Why do we see Social Arts as a powerful tool for transformation?

Human minds are undeniably capable of great achievements and are highly valued as such in our society. However, the underlying principle of the mind’s functioning lies in combining previously learned knowledge in a logical way. It is a method of creating, suitable for a known world. But relying solely on the mental capacities in the context of disruption and crisis, when new and unprecedented approaches are needed, has not led to success. Social Arts are a tool for creating in this context because they operate intentionally with the unknown. In the Social Arts, the place of not-knowing is recognized as the creative moment, and the practices provide a method for suspending the mind, moving into experience (the not-knowing) and staying there long enough for something new to emerge. It is only then that the mind is re-engaged for sense-making.

Further, in order to touch upon not-yet-surfaced potential and to connect to the human innate creativity, a deeper knowing, we need to activate all “organs of perception.” Social Arts play a key role here, since they allow one to connect with a subject more directly — they can activate a felt sense of reality that often exceeds the mental capacity, which naturally would try to explain phenomena within its own limited set of concepts. Social Arts are not limited to language or education and can therefore be understood as deeply inclusive; they have the potential to connect to all members of a social field, of a living system, embracing diversity of education, culture, gender and upbringing, because they offer experiences that touch the human capacity of perception .

When art is truly sourced from the Social Field — like in Social Art — it reveals the Social Field to itself, in a way beyond the capacity of concepts and analyses.

To learn more about Social Arts in various contexts, check out Arawana’s article on Social Presencing Theater, Manish’s reflection on Poetry and collective trauma, Kelvy’s article on generative scribing and action confidence, or Jayce’s essay on visual art and collective conciousness. Find more stories in John’s article on Social Poetics, Otto’s story from the Ecosystem Leadership Program in Colombia, Kelvy’s consideration of containers, or stories of using SPT in the classroom and in youth programs. For more and to connect with us, find us online at u-school.org/social-arts.

Read the article in Traditional ChineseFrench

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