In early December, I was lucky enough to be invited to a conference in Florence, Italy on socially-engaged art. The gathering was organized by NYU in conjunction with Creative Time to explore whether or not there were enough issues of note embedded in political, public, and participatory art practices to warrant a university research center dedicated to their study. Our resounding and unanimous conclusion as a group can be inferred by the breadth of these next blog posts I am undertaking—so many revelatory threads of commonality (in solidarity and in concern) emerged that I would like to begin to unpack and ruminate on each in a series of vignettes, in the hope that helpful patterns become clarified and saturated. As my thinking on these subjects shifts, as I ponder how socially-engaged art is both a symptom and an actor of its context, how it can be a lens through which to makes sense of our ever more quickly shifting society, how it can illuminate discrepancies of power and intervene upon them, my conclusions will evolve along with these iterative posts. We are none of us static.

But right now, at this moment, the following conversations concern me. I am gratified that they do not address the tired old questions of “Is this art?” and “How do we measure what good it does?” and “Should this be the realm of artists or social workers?” (though I won’t promise those topics didn’t come up in the conference at all), but rather become touch points for the work itself. In other words, these analytic categories emerge from what people are actually doing out in the world, not from some old-fashioned notion of what art should be and how these works fit into that paradigm. These are just some threads that jumped out in comparing quite diverse practices globally (I literally wrote in my notes “just some of the threads”). I suspect some of them will fade into obsolescence quite soon, some of them will gobble up other categories, all of them are overlapping and porous. But for the sake of a list, and because I like the neatness of lists:

  • Mediation (the role of the media in these works, how their narratives are expressed symbolically)
  • Co-production (the extent to which the “vision” and “goals” of the work rises collaboratively from all participants rather than being determined by an artist or institution)
  • Negotiation (how exchange works in these practices as opposed to a “charity” or “volunteer” paradigm)
  • Methodology (the extent to which there is a clear—if flexible—methodological process for making decisions, working together, and engaging)
  • Growth (the rate of appropriate growth for a project, its context, its participants, and its goals)
  • Image & Aesthetics (the role of image and aesthetics in the symbolic power of the work)
  • Life Cycles (how a project responsibly enters, grows, and exits a community)

Over the next several months, I will dig into a number of compelling projects in Los Angeles and abroad through these lenses. My hope is that connective tissue may be discovered in how the deepest and most resonant of these works are approached. That the roles of artists, expert residents, participating organizers, cultural producers, critics, and audiences may be unpacked with care. And that a more nuanced understanding of how these works function beyond their sound-bites may reflect on the society at large, and why our current conditions give rise to this kind of work.

Next week: Mediation (what underwater sculptures, grand visions, and invisible artists have in common).