What the bloomin' hell is socially engaged art and why have I not been talking about it?

Updated: Sep 27, 2020

'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' - Tate, N.D.

Cover of Bourriaud's Relational Aesthetics. Photo Credit: Particulations.

Hello again! Thanks for spending some time looking through this blog. Today we're going to be plodding through ideas and discussions related to socially engaged art. If you have no idea what I'm on about, don't worry - hopefully I'll make this term a bit clearer for you in this blog. Feel free to check out this definition of socially engaged art before reading on if you're completely new to the term and want a little bit of background knowledge.

Let's go!

This blog is going to explore the relationship between Call Us Angels and the term socially engaged art. This should be a simple blog, where I take you through why Call Us Angels should be considered a piece of socially engaged art. However, I'm afraid this is not going to be the case. Throughout my time making and wearing trash angel wings, sharing my progress on Instagram and discussing the implications of the ecological crisis on women around the world, I have not once mentioned to fellow angels that Call Us Angels could be considered a socially engaged artwork. It wasn't until Angel S stopped me in my tracks and suggested I consider writing about socially engaged art in relation to Call Us Angels that I started to realise I could no longer hide from this term. Why have I been so hesitant to categorise Call Us Angels as a piece of socially engaged art? Am I just scared of the complexities of this term and its theories, or is there something deeper going on here? These are all questions that will be asked, and maybe even answered, as we dive into this blog.

Before diving in however, we need to ask ourselves what socially engaged art actually is - just to make sure we're all on the same page. The Tate is an artistic institution made up of modern and traditional art galleries across many different UK cities. This institution has a particularly useful educational website that includes a succinct definition of socially engaged art. On this website it states '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' (Tate, N.D.). It would seem then, that socially engaged art can be any type of art (performance, sculpture, multi-media, interdisciplinary projects etc) that positively engages with a group of people. The Tate's definition goes on to highlight that 'the participatory element of socially engaged practice, is key, with the artworks created often holding equal or less importance to the collaborative act of creating them' (N.D.). With this in mind then, socially engaged artworks focus on the interactions and collaborations that occur between artist, community and artwork, rather than the final physical outcome of the artwork itself. Using Call Us Angels as an example, a lot of the project's focus has been on the conversations and engagement had with fellow angels, either on Instagram or in 'real-life' during 'A Call to Action'. Although I have successfully made trash angel wings, the focus of the project has been on what the angels and I have learned together about the relationship between gender and the ecological crisis.

There is no denying then that Call Us Angels is a socially engaged piece of artwork. I have already used it as an example to clarify what socially engaged art means, and I will continue to reflect on the different ways this project can be categorised as such later on in this blog. Despite this, I am still nervous to categorise Call Us Angels as a socially engaged artwork. Before working out why this might be, let's first begin with the questions where has socially engaged art come from and how else can Call Us Angels be considered a socially engaged artwork?

Nicolas Bourriaud, French art critic and curator, has written Relational Aesthetics, a seminal book exploring contemporary Western art from the 1990s. As an undergraduate student studying curating and exhibiting performance, this text was my first engagement with the ideas surrounding socially engaged practices. Ever since, I have been tainted by Bourriaud's use of overly complicated language and thus have been nervous to revisit this text. Furthermore, within his book Bourriaud tends to explore artworks that occur in gallery spaces, not in public spaces. This leads me to question how useful Relational Aesthetics could be in trying to work out whether Call Us Angels, a piece of work that didn't take place in a gallery setting, is a socially engaged piece of art. Even with all these issues considered, Relational Aesthetics has actually been surprisingly useful in helping me understand the history of socially engaged art.

Bourriaud describes contemporary art as relational, meaning it is concerned with 'the way in which two or more people or things are connected' (Oxford Dictionary, N.D.). Relational art is therefore similar to socially engaged art in the sense that both focus on the relationship between art and those interacting with said art. Although admitting that 'art has always been relational in varying ways' (Bourriaud, 1998), Bourriaud explores the move of artworks towards the 'social turn' during the 60s and 70s. Despite relational art being similar in its inclusion of participation and interaction with groups of people, Bourriaud is keen to separate relational art from these past movements (like the Happenings in the 60s) stating 'relational art is not the revival of any movement, nor is it the comeback of any style. It arises from an observation of the present and from a line of thinking about the fate of artistic activity' (1998). He argues that this present time (in the case of this book, the 90s) is affected by the growth of our cities, increase in mechanisation and the resulting negative impact this has on real human relationships (Bourriaud, 1998). It is these social issues growing from the 90s that explains why relational artworks 'produce [...] relational space-time elements, inter-human experiences trying to rid themselves of the straightjacket of the ideology of mass communications, in a way, of the places where alternative forms of sociability, critical models and moments of constructed conviviality are worked out.' (Bourriaud, 1998). Bourriaud is arguing here then that relational art aims to find alternative ways to connect with people in order to disrupt society's move away from real 'inter-human experiences' (1998).

Litter picking with angels. Video Credit: Jen.

This quotation from Bourriaud not only explains why art has moved towards inclusion and participation in order to find alternative methods of communication, but it also provides an interesting reason as to why Call Us Angels should be considered a piece of socially engaged art. Within this quotation Bourriaud states that relational artworks, and therefore we can assume socially engaged artworks, try to 'rid themselves of the straightjacket of the ideology mass communications' (1998). During Call Us Angels I used Instagram, a mass communication device, to connect with other women wanting to learn more about the relationship between gender and the ecological crisis. Instead of using Instagram to share selfies or post about the latest artesian coffee I've drunk, I disrupted this social media platform's normal use. By posting daily vlogs on Instagram's stories application, starting conversations about research conducted, Call Us Angels became a socially engaged artwork as it changed Instagram into a platform where real virtual connections and real learning could take place.

These conversations and shared learning during Call Us Angels became a way for me to remove solo ownership of the project as an artist, instead allowing fellow angels to become heavily involved with the progression of said project. Coming back to Bourriaud's text Relational Aesthetics, he states 'what is collapsing before our very eyes is nothing other than this falsely aristocratic conception of the arrangement of works of art, associated with the feeling of territorial acquisition' (1998). Bourriaud emphasises that relational artworks, or socially engaged artworks, break down the power dynamics that come with owning or the 'territorial acquisition' of art (1998). In relation to Call Us Angels then, although I was the artist who came up with the initial idea for this project, and I was the artist who made angel wings out of trash, use of questionnaires and open invitations for angels to share their own thoughts about the relationship between gender and the ecological crisis, meant fellow angels decided what research we should discuss and even generated the idea to take the trash angel wings out of Instagram and into the real world.

The last way that Call Us Angels fits into the category of a socially engaged artwork that I want to explore, is the way this project experienced time. Performance academic Shannon Jackson states in her book Social Works: Performing Art, Supporting Publics that socially engaged art 'anticipates a future that cannot be known but on whose unfolding its identity depends (2011). Call Us Angels relied on the discussions, collaborations and opinions of the angels engaging with it. As previously mentioned, the opinions of these angels changed the way Call Us Angels progressed as a project - thus making the future of the project unknown. This definition by Jackson, suggesting that socially engaged artworks unfold over time, is backed up by Bourriaud who suggests that relational art 'is henceforth presented as a period of time to be lived through, like an opening to unlimited discussions' (1998). I love this description. First off, this quotation describes the way that I lived Call Us Angels. Throughout this project, I posted updates on making wings and the research I was conducting every single day. My life time became intertwined with project time (something that I explore in more detail here). Furthermore, throughout Call Us Angels I have often described the project as an open table to discuss the relationship between gender and the ecological crisis, connecting back to Bourriaud's quotation that suggests relational art is 'like an opening to unlimited discussions' (1998). With this in mind then, Call Us Angels is not only a socially engaged artwork because it created a platform for real learning and real connections with fellow angels, but also because it allowed for open discussions over a prolonged period of time.

'Instagram provided Call Us Angels with a platform for me to be ‘Charlotte’: not an expert, not an academic, not a professional artist, just plain old charlotte trying to work through these academic texts and reach out to other women to share simple, accessible knowledge about the relationship between gender and the ecological crisis.' - Charlotte Discombe, 2020

We can gather from my above exploration that Call Us Angels can really be defined as a socially engaged artwork, so why am I still so hesitant to openly categorise the project as such? This may be partly because during Call Us Angels I was physically isolated from the fellow angels involved with the project, and therefore didn't necessarily feel like the project should be classed as socially engaged. Although Call Us Angels did involve discussions, learning and sharing with a community of fellow angels on Instagram, it wasn't until a group of angels helped me take the trash wings out of the container of Instagram on the 100th day of the project that I physically experienced the significant relationship between this project and the angels engaging with it.

This isolation I felt during the project has not been the only reason for my hesitation. I've always been confused by the term socially engaged practice too. As Jackson makes clear, 'the term "social practice" [socially engaged art] is resolutely imprecise' (2011). Although the imprecise nature of the term socially engaged art allows for creative projects that use a variety of different art forms to engage communities in a variety of different ways, it does mean that discussions around socially engaged artworks become confusing because there are so many different terms that mean the same thing! Socially engaged art is also known as social practice or socially engaged practice. Throughout Call Us Angels, I didn't feel the need to bring up the question of whether this project was socially engaged or not, and I wonder whether this was because of these multiple terms. I worried that by bringing up the project's socially engaged categorisation, I would remove focus from the insightful discussions angels were having with regards to the relationship between gender and the ecological crisis, instead leaving myself and angels trying to work out what socially engaged art was and why there are so many similar terms.

Admittedly, by not mentioning the possibility that Call Us Angels could be categorised as a socially engaged artwork to fellow angels, I feel like I may have also been removing the significant responsibilities artists who make socially engaged practices have. As an artist engaging with communities, you are responsible for the care and wellbeing of your participants. Anne Pasternak, curator and museum director based in Brooklyn (NY), states that 'social practice artists create forms of living that activate communities and advance public awareness of pressing social issues' (2012). Although I see that socially engaged artworks actively involve its participants, this quotation reminds me that the artist is in charge here. I don't know how I feel about this. Although during Call Us Angels I was the person who created the Instagram, its weekly videos and its wings, it genuinely felt that I had fellow angels who were making the project happen too. I didn't want to be a leader, instead I wanted to be Charlotte - a woman trying to work out the relationship between gender and the ecological crisis with other women. Maybe this is why I have been avoiding categorising this project.

Finally, this next quotation from Jackson has heightened my worries of the responsibilities of socially engaged practices. She states 'progressive artists and critics unthinkingly echo a routinized language of anti-institutionalism and anti-statism, we can find ourselves unexpectedly colluding with neoliberal impulses that want to dismantle public institutions of human welfare.' (2011) I am acutely aware that the roll back of welfare state support has resulted in many socially engaged art projects filling in the role of Government support for communities who are vulnerable (Harvie, 2013). Call Us Angels does not explicitly go against the Government, instead it is one of those projects that may or may not 'unthinkingly echo a routinized language of anti-institutionalism' (Jackson, 2011). In our exploration of the relationship between gender and the ecological crisis, it is clear that our Governments need to do more in order to fight the battle of climate change and the ecological crisis. By stating this fact, does this make Call Us Angels anti-institutional? I'm not sure. Nevertheless, I still worry that with the stamp of socially engaged practice, Call Us Angels will fall into the neoliberal trap of filling in for Government inadequacies, finding its own ways to deal with the ecological crisis rather than forcing the Government to do so.

Asking angels what they want to find out. Photo Credit: Charlotte Discombe.

There is a lot to take in here. I'd love to know your thoughts. I am still so conflicted and confused as to why I have not been brave enough to talk about the fact Call Us Angels should be included within the category of socially engaged art. Maybe there's still a part of me that is reluctant to describe myself as an artist who needs to be responsible for the ethics, participants and complicated issues that come with making a socially engaged artwork. Perhaps with time and with confidence this will change.

What do you think?

Work Referenced:

Bourriaud, Nicolas. Relational Aesthetics, Dijon: Les Presse Du Reel, 1998.

Discombe, Charlotte. 'Reflection presentation'. Reflections, 2020, https://callusangels.wixsite.com/callusangels/my-reflections, (Accessed 2020).

Harive, Jen. Fair Play: Art, Performance and Neoliberalism, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

Jackson, Shannon. 'Performance aesthetics and support'. Social Work: Performing Art, Supporting Publics, London: Routledge, 2011, pp. 11-43.

Oxford English Dictionary. 'Relational'. Lexico, N.D., https://www.lexico.com/definition/relational, (Accessed: 2020).

Pasternak, Anne. 'Forward'. Living As Form: socially engaged art from 1991-2011, London: The MIT Press, 2012, pp. 7-9.

Tate. 'Socially Engaged Practice'. Art Term, N.D., https://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/s/socially-engaged-practice, (Accessed: 2020).

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