Free taster of subscriber-only material in the Engaged practice section.
"Each project raises new issues and concerns around the artist's ethical position in relationship to other people" says Anna Best, an artist who in her practice is interested in "expanding definitions of where art might take place, with and for whom and for how long, and the role of the artist within that".
Socially-engaged practice is a term for an approach to visual arts practice where people and social or environmental contexts and the artistic and aesthetic concerns of artists are brought together for mutual examination, exchange and experimentation.
Engaged practice appropriates the real environment and can incorporate technologies, behaviour, ecology and politics. Audience involvement is a condition of socially-engaged practice. This can range from highly experimental artist-initiated projects to organised schemes that address governmental concerns about widening audience participation in the arts and on social inclusion.
"Making art is a way of exploring things rather than stating something already known", says Anna Best.
Her projects, that range from The Wedding Project at Tate Modern to a Year of the Artist residency with [a-n] THE ARTISTS INFORMATION COMPANY, present social interaction and communication as tools that raise questions and present musings on a subject that is invisible but omnipresent during the project.
During Maurice O'Connell's nine-month research fellowship in Glasgow City Council's Development & Regeneration Services section he proposed projects that dealt with issues around the city's new development plan." Frustrating as it was at times for me to go through the process of devising and planning projects [that were never realised], these acted as a focus for discussions, whilst allowing another more meaningful conversation to be embarked on."
Just as artists and artists groups undertake residencies in prisons, government departments, research institutes, hospitals, factories, bus stations and offices, there is a growing trend for artists to instigate them within commercial environments.
Inspired by the fact that there seems to be nothing that now remains outside of capitalism, Carey Young's projects: "trace an often ironic, performative search for critical distance by going deep inside contemporary business structures." Locations for her residencies have included Xerox Research Centre Europe and a Virgin Megastore.
Sometimes the term 'consultant' would be a better description of the artist. Neal White, who did a residency with Soda at pharmaceuticals company Pfizer, feels that:
"If you are intending to go in and criticise the company, you might as well go in as a consultant, get paid a lot more and be listened to. They won't listen to you as an artist".
It's true to say that residencies in business settings can be troublesome for all concerned, as it is far harder to define the residency's impact and value compared to the other ways business and the arts work together.
Michael Atavar who spent time at The Guardian isn't convinced there is much common understanding between artists and business people: "The business environment doesn't completely understand artists and conversely we don't often fully understand the demands of business."
Richard Layzell has created his own role at software company AIT. After five years, he became the company's 'visionaire'.
"AIT see me as adding another dimension to the organisation's working life adding visual and cultural things but also the unexpected. It broadens the dimensions of what being a software developer means. My involvement has contributed to the company's success through staff morale, retention and brand. I run the quarterly company meetings and help make them amusing and quirky events for people. The way I measure success is when mild anarchy is accepted and people want more of it."
Misunderstandings can occur when the terms of reference for an artist's involvement haven't been clearly defined. Host organisations may expect specific kinds of outcome or benefit when the artist has other ideas. As a result, participants in a project may not necessarily have enjoyed doing it.
In some cases, they may end up feeling bemused, confused or even disheartened by a situation in which an artist has caused them to question their beliefs and motives.
Within Anna Best's project at [a-n] THE ARTISTS INFORMATION COMPANY, she was inviting those participating in Away-Weekend to confront their fears about doing activities that may not be fun. She rejected popular notions that art activities should provide participants with entertainment, or solutions to problematic situations. One member of [a-n]'s staff described the event afterwards as: "opening a can of worms".
There is often an element of surprise on both sides within a project. Video artist Maria Wilson who worked at Maesgwyn Special School within the Opt for Art programme in Wales commented that: "In the weeks to come I expected my ideas to be confirmed and challenged but did not anticipate how much they would be expanded and transformed. I discovered how much I enjoyed working reciprocally".
Some difficulties that emerge in artists' residencies are to do with the nature of large organisations, according to InIVA's Rohini Malik Ohon who managed Michael Atavar's residency at The Guardian:
"His time there was a complex and often contradictory experience. He spent a lot of time negotiating relationships with staff, ranging from the editorial team to the buildings manager. The difficulties he experienced were probably to do with working in a large, hierarchical organisation geared to continuous daily production and tight deadlines. Also, there is still confusion about what artists do and what counts as 'work'.
Experienced artists understand how to prepare the framework and negotiate relationships and responsibilities. However, artists new to engaged practice should identify during the planning processes whether specialist training or support is necessary, to improve the work and protect vulnerable participants.
During the late 1990s, UK arts organisation InIVA developed a series of residencies, mostly in business contexts. Explaining InIVA's approach, project curator Rohini Malik Ohon has said:
"Through the Artist-in-Research programme we aim to create opportunities for artists to undertake paid research with no expectation of a finished piece of work."
InIVA built on this experience by facilitating a Year of the Artist residency in 2000 by Michael Atavar at The Guardian. Rohina Malik Ohon felt: "It was important for Michael that there was a dialogue with inIVA, giving him support as an artist, especially concerning the project's more process-based aspects. The Guardian also recognised that inIVA's input was important in this respect."
Although some advertised artists' opportunities offer artists time to experiment and develop their own practice, many of them are more about providing designated participants with heightened social awareness, education or training. Typical residency information may say something like: "Artists will run workshops and create artworks with community groups using technology associated with their own practice".
Littoral and Platform are within a growing number of organisations that work with artists on programmes that respond to social and environmental issues. The aim is to bring a range of creative and critical strategies to bear on the complexities of real-life problems, and combat the effects of social exclusion in communities.
Significantly, engaged practice successfully straddles the divide between public and commercial sectors, providing artists with a wide range of contexts and opportunities. From a business perspective, an artist potentially offers a unique service within a context where creative thinking and innovation are recognised as the keys to business success. From the public perspective, these very same factors are instruments within social change and the empowerment of people and communities.
If you've found this brief introduction interesting and relevant, why not sign up to get access to the subscriber resources following?
As a subscriber, you'll be able to explore at your leisure a stimulating range of features and profiles of key artists, projects and organisations and associated articles from a-n MAGAZINE, providing insights and advice about the environments for socially-engaged practice, along with practical advice on the issues around professional practices.
For more information about subscribing:
First published: a-n.co.uk April 2003
Post your comment
No one has commented on this article yet, why not be the first?
To post a comment you need to login
© the artist(s), writer(s), photographer(s) and a-n The Artists Information Company
All rights reserved.
Artists who are current subscribers to a-n may download or print this text for the limited purpose of use in their business or professional practice as artists.
Parts of this text may be reproduced either in accordance with the provisions of the Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988 (updated) or with written permission of the publishers.