“Did you hear about this underwater sculptor?” my husband asks me the other day. It is rare that contemporary art makes it on his radar, even in his rapacious daily Reddit investigations, so I was intrigued. He had come across a story about it on a blog called “Messy Nessy Chic.” The author starts: “If this doesn’t give a much needed boost to tourism in Mexico, I don’t know what will.” The post describes the work of artist Jason DeCaires Taylor, who installs life-size cast concrete human figures on the sea bed (mostly in the Caribbean) that act as slowly evolving artificial reefs. His latest work involves 403 figures spanning 420 meters. There are lots of high res shots of marine life obscuring sculpted faces, a spangle of anemone spewing from the pates of anguished frozen fishermen, a barracuda circling a child’s head. Women in bikinis blowing kisses, the artist himself, muscular, in a wetsuit. Arms crossed on a boat.

The mediation of art has been a fact of our world for a long time, ever since Walter Benjamin wrote about art’s technological reproducibility starting with the invention of lithography. Beyond physical replication, though, the facility with which artists and artworks manipulate, utilize and are defined via their mediation has merely become reflective of the ways we all exist now, through narratives we create and that exist entirely through the refracted shares and likes of a viral feedback loop. Art that claims to have some social or political efficacy (or a pretty straightforward environmental utility, in the case of DeCaires Taylor) can make a good story, and mediated narratives can be an effective means to distribute the symbolic power of a work that may not otherwise reach anyone.

I don’t know enough about coral reefs and ocean ecology to know how effectively these underwater sculptures are mitigating habitat loss. My hunch is not very much. These sculptures are less a solution than a poetic concept that changes our perception of the world, as is the traditional realm of art. What really interests me about socially-engaged art, and what distinguishes that art from something like DeCaires Taylor’s work, is that it does not stop at that – it wishes to (as Dont Rhine from Ultra-red put it eloquently) “not only change our perception of the world, but change the world we perceive.” This is not a judgment but rather a shift in understanding of the role of art, and its catalytic potential.

Therefore, the role of media in these projects shifts dramatically, becoming more of a counter-agent to the work itself. In a symbolic practice (Pablo Helguera distinguishes this from “actual practice,” some sort of scalable change intervention on society, and cautions that most socially-engaged art encompass both rather fluidly—both the “change in perception” as well as “change in the world”), media can increase audience and facilitate a perceptual shift in absentia. It can likewise mischaracterize the work, essentialize it or simply have a bad opinion of it, but because of the work’s purely symbolic potential this does not necessarily diminish its ability to shift perspective. It has no effect outside of the slippery realm of the symbolic, and whether you love it or hate it, the work is what it is and it says what it says (to you).

This is quite different in the case of socially engaged artwork. In work that strives to make actual impact on the world, that is co-produced with a temporary community, as part of or in spite of its symbolic potential, media can play a devastating part in undermining the work’s interventionist capacity (especially if it treats it as a cipher, emphasizing only its symbolic nature). It can do this in several ways. First, media tends to speculate on and predetermine expectations and outcomes, which can poison a co-productive process from within. Its narratives function best with an uncomplicated hero or visionary, which ascribes a role to the artist that he or she may be actively trying to avoid. It can place the fragile process of building trust amongst participants and the tentative construction of community within a fishbowl, wherein outside pressures and attentions can collapse a nascent collective. It can heighten existing divides. It can take time and attention away from the work at hand.

This is not to say that no good comes from media exposure (acceptance, interest from authorities or those in power, deeper understanding, financial support and resources) but it is a bit like playing with fire. It can’t be well-controlled. What happens when it goes up? Who gets burned?

Next week, two projects affected by different kinds of media inflagrations (one positive, one negative), and what it meant for them.