Caught Doing Social Work? - Socially engaged art and the dangers of becoming social workers

Caught Doing Social Work? - Socially engaged art and the dangers of becoming social workers

This is the text from my workshop “Caught doing social work?” which was part of Manifesta 12’s M12 Education Club conference in Palermo on 19th October 2018. The workshop was held in the community centre in the ZEN social housing project. The text was used as mini provocations which led to a really interesting discussion about instrumentalism of the arts and artists, gentrification and artwashing.

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"Always Outsiders": my Royal Geographical Society paper and presentation - rural social praxis

"Always Outsiders": my Royal Geographical Society paper and presentation - rural social praxis

Always Outsiders is about playing and experiencing the presence of people, environment, nature.  It is a reflective piece about two pieces of cooperative work: amb ith Lee Mattinson; and orthernGame with Stevie Ronnie.  Both pieces are set in the North Pennines in South West Northumberland, an area I made home for almost eight years.  A space in which my wife and I often found a solace of sorts from the city.  A place where our children first set foot in the world; where they were immersed in nature.

The full title of my paper is the deliberately clunky, lways Outsiders: Map-less Social Sractice Art in the Ancient Landscape of a Global Geopark.  It attempts to fuse theory with practice, practice with theory.  Thought and unthought experiences are proposed as mediators.

This blog post includes my Royal Geographical Society 2016 Conference paper as well as links to the presentation and a PDF version of the paper for printing.

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Always Outsiders: Map-less Social Practice Art in the Ancient Landscape of a Global Geopark (ABSTRACT)

Always Outsiders: Map-less Social Practice Art in the Ancient Landscape of a Global Geopark (ABSTRACT)

Smelt.  Clart.  Pitch.  Clay.  Pit.  Hit.  Bray.  Hob.  Hoy.  Words overheard on map-less meanders over still-chartered grouse moors.  Stories told and retold by blazing public house firesides.  Cautionary tales.

This is the abstract for my forthcoming paper presentation at the Royal Geographical Society 2016 International Conference in London on 2nd September.  The session is explores "The Nexus of Art and Geography: practice as research", is part of the Participatory Geographies Research Group activities and is convened by Cara Courage (University of Brighton, UK) and Anita McKeown (Independent Researcher).

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Place Guarding: Activist & Social Practice Art - Direct Action Against Gentrification #AAG2016 PowerPoint & Filmed Presentation

Place Guarding: Activist & Social Practice Art - Direct Action Against Gentrification #AAG2016 PowerPoint & Filmed Presentation

I've just shared my full paper from the Association of American Geographers Conference here but I thought some people might like to see the PowerPoint with notes or rather, I would recommend, the film with me presenting my paper.  (I presented it virtually, so this is exactly as the audience saw and heard it at the conference.)

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Place Guarding: Activist & Social Practice Art - Direct Action Against Gentrification Full #AAG2016 Paper

Place Guarding: Activist & Social Practice Art - Direct Action Against Gentrification Full #AAG2016 Paper

I've just presented my paper "Place Guarding: Activist and Social Practice Art - Direct Action Against Gentrification" at the Association of American Geographers Conference 2016 in San Francisco.  I wasn't there.  Made use of PowerPoint Mix!  The PowerPoint and a nicer quality MP4 version will be available here very shortly.  For now, here's my fully referenced paper with bibliography.

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The Values Of Opposition in Socially Engaged Practice (a response to Anthony Schrag)

WP_20151110_14_33_25_Pro Ken Saro-Wiwa Memorial Bus, large format digital print, part of Doing Nothing is Not an Option, Michael McMillan and Platform London, Peckham Platform, 2015


I was, like Anthony Schrag (and others I know), infuriated by the recent ArtWorks Conversation at BALTIC 39.  Anthony has written a little about the pairing of Ilana Mitchell (Wunderbar and other things) and Darren O'Donnell (Mammalian Diving Reflex) today in a piece entitled The Value Rant, but his rant was not at them and not (directly) at ArtWorks or their 'critical conversations'.  Anthony was, like me, incredibly annoyed by the idea that socially engaged or participatory art (it would seem you can call it what you will nowadays - but that's a topic for another post) could and/ or should be 'scaled-up' and professionalised.  But that wasn't what really angered him.  It was the incessant droning of an 'excited' hipster political student that set free a passel of possums from their cage.  (To be clear the excited hipster didn't sound or appear particularly excited with anything other than his own drawn-out ideas and self-aggrandisement.)

The thing is that I had intended to blog about the event the very next day as I was so angry.  But (oddly for me, perhaps) I decided against it and put the event down to another one of 'those ArtWorks things' - a now very familiar feeling.  Having read Anthony's humorous-yet-deadly-incisive 'rant', I felt compelled to respond to several issues and personal opinions he raised.  They're incredibly important and at the heart of much of the ongoing debate (bickering?) that has dogged our field of practice for years.  There are, I believe, many areas upon which Anthony and I (broadly) agree but there are several places where our views diverge.  For me this is a good thing.  We both enjoy the oscillating thrills and pulsating challenges that only tension can invoke (although perhaps Anthony may not entirely agree...)  I will not discuss the event other than to say that I struggled to get beyond Ilana's brilliantly idiosyncratic thinking and making, and the instrumentalism inherent within Darren's work.

So what do I think Anthony and agree on?  We both are clearly very sceptical at the very least to institutionalisation, professionalism agendas, instrumentalism, 'scaling-up', best practice, toolkits - basically anything homogenous - because we believe our practice is and must always be relational, dynamic, and respect the autonomies of artists and people taking part alike.  As Anthony says, 'the very things that are unreproducible, un-scale-up-able, un-repeatable.'  But where he sees attempts to totally administer socially engaged art as the product of wayward best intentions, I see authoritarian technocratic control and oppression.  Where he finds positivity in at least some aspects of the ArtWorks project, I am deeply suspicious of their intentionality.

I found the 'man-bunned politics student' to be very boring and rather naïve yet almost ludic at times.  He made me grimace, smile, laugh.  Where he unleashed Anthony's 'angry possums' from his mind, he filled mine with cartoon hind legs and badly drawn donkeys.  He genuinely believed that the examples of practice he had witnessed were 'new'.  He did not know about socially engaged or participatory practice and that's fine.  Tedious for those of us who've spent a long time practicing and studying the 'expanded field'; interesting and exciting to him.  But Anthony is entirely right that the practice is 'not new', doesn't (mustn't). 'be professionalised' and is certainly not 'a new saviour of art.'  For me, the politico-hipster wasn't 'ill-informed' or ignorant, he was rather unaware of the history of our practice.  There are many people like him within the Art World as well as outside it.  That's fine.  Marginal practices are often (wrongly) believed to be 'new' when first encountered whether through touristic exploration or strategic colonialism.  I'd go as far as to say that what matters most to us - histories, theories and practical nuances - matters least to interested attendees of critical conversations, participants, people who don't like 'art', or other people from within the Art World.

Of course, Anthony wasn't really rattled by our moustachioed interloper.  He was (is) angered by the opposing forces of instrumentalising institutionalism on the one hand; activism and political agendas on the other.  But I take issue he seems to suggest that those with activist and/ or political agendas/ ideologies do not know enough about the field's history or theoretical underpinnings.  This is simply not true in every case.  In opposing these oppositions, Anthony places himself in the middle alongside some other 'lovely, passionate people' who are, like everyone, flawed and being crushed by institutionalism and those who do not understand (although I suspect the crushing comes mainly from one direction only).

I share Anthony's passion that socially engaged practice is primarily about 'what happens between and with other people' and, of course, people want to influence others but there are many forms this may take from authoritarian control to utopian imaginings and liberation.  Anthony is also right about the need for practitioners within the field to 'come together' much more than we tend to do at present.  However, I am very sceptical about developing a 'continuum of practice'.  I believe that the field must be broad and must include tension: internal oppositions; never consensus.  Indeed, Anthony is hesitant about formal definitions within the field.  Interestingly, he also thinks that we must understand which direction 'we might be heading in' as well as who our potential allies are and those 'who might not know what they are talking about'.  In response, I'd suggest: we can have multiple directions; and that our allies (theoretical and practical) might include many activists as well as others from other fields and other cultures - activists who do not seek to control others but who do, like all of us, have beliefs, ideologies, political affiliations, and most importantly biases that make it impossible  for anyone (artist or otherwise) to divorce themselves from this 'baggage'.  Sometimes, however, the baggage can be good.  There is no such thing as values-free art.  We cannot dismiss, as Anthony does in a comment to my reply to his blog post, any work that may be, or be suspected of being, political or activist or state instrumentalist for that matter of being 'not art' - of being a form of 'social work'.  That's not to say that much of what's being peddled as participatory or (now) socially engaged art isn't deeply instrumental, controlling and stigmatising at worst and 'social work' at best.

I think that there's a fine line between Anthony's position on socially engaged practice and my own.  For Anthony good socially engaged practice must enable 'shifts in thinking' by 'unravelling' the world without trying to change people's minds; I agree but would add that we can work with people to create open spaces where people can challenge their understanding of themselves and the world through creative practices (whether artist-led or otherwise) and that this process might help some people to better understand their place in the world as it is today as well as to begin to envisage other ways, new potentialities that they have within their power to struggle to make real.  A long but perhaps necessary addendum.  This is political and revolutionary.  It does not foreclose on possibilities or individualities.  It is not pluralistic democracy.  It has no fixed agenda any more so than the many excellent examples of socially engaged art's heritage that Anthony carefully lists in his post - examples that are (at least where named or labelled) all deeply political and often activist in nature.

Perhaps Anthony and I can agree that socially engaged practice must be oppositional (and agonistic?) in ways both he describes in his blog and I attempt to do here.  Perhaps opposition is one of the directions for our field of practice.  Perhaps activism is another.  Sophie Hope (chair) certainly seemed to indicate her absolute frustration that we (the field) don't say NO - don't oppose the status quo - when she admirably summed up the event's proceedings...

northernGAME: Social practice in rural South West Northumberland

I gave this presentation on 16th November 2015 at Durham University's Participatory Research Hub.  The event aimed to explore what happens "when participatory research meets the creative sector".  My presentation introduces dot to dot active arts, features my recent paper A View Is Always Worth It: Social Practice in Rural North East England, then reflects upon a project I collaborated on with Stevie Ronnie in 2014 - northerngame. I think it reveals a more idealistic aspect of my research and practice.  The intention was to explore the subtleties of self-initiated grassroots socially engaged art.  The beginnings of something.  Curiosities.

Comments always welcome as usual.

Please click the picture or link below to go to the online presentation and please remember to click the "notes" option on the bottom right of the PowerPoint screen for my text.


Do we need ‘another name’ for socially engaged art? Erm, No…


Eavesdropping, Aidan Moesby, Vinyl wall text, 2014

I’m intensely interested in perceptions of socially engaged art: past, present and future practice and theory. My research and practice is about exploring the roots of this practice, its place in societies, its ability to open up potential spaces on a myriad of levels from social to personal, and its potential to help support a shift towards a communitarian society free from the evils of neoliberalism. I am interested in the praxis of social practice - critical reflection (theory) AND social and collective action towards social transformation (practice). So I think about notions of marginality, play, psychodynamics, critical theory, dialectics, social justice, the commons, transition, critical utopias more. Oh, and of course socially engaged practice, like all forms of art and, increasingly, life, is a breeding ground for terminologies. This leads to dissensus – we do not agree; do not need to agree. Tensions are essential in theory and practice. They drive creativity. But, perhaps unfortunately, we need to describe and define what we have done, what we do and what we hope we will do tomorrow. We cannot escape the strictures of our languages. Words always offer liberation whilst they simultaneously hold us hostage.

So when I read this week that, ‘Socially engaged practice could change the world. But first we need another name to describe something that is part of everyday life.’ I was both sceptical and hopeful. I believe that socially engaged art as a form of living and sharing, as a means not an ends, can or might be able to help reenchant our world and, by actively supporting movements for broader social and cultural change, replace a neoliberal hegemony with a truly democratic and communitarian society. My rallying cry remains: THE STATUS QUO WILL NO LONGER DO! But I am sceptical of why some people feel the need to attempt to rename any arts practice, or anything else in life for that matter. Words are important BUT they are also just words. Theory is bound by words in a manner that practice transcends.

Leo Burtin’s blog for The Guardian was written in response to a recent Devoted and Disgruntled discussion on socially engaged practice in which a satellite group discussed the question: ‘What’s another name for this goddamn arts practice?!’ A brilliant question. But, again, I wonder why some feel the need to rename the practice? Let’s face it, the name is deeply contested anyway with some seeing no (or little) difference between participatory arts, social practice, dialogic practice, transitional practice, and relational art – this list continues. Even activist art can be seen as a form of socially engaged arts practice – or not. In the end, it doesn’t matter on the one (practice-based) hand, yet is deeply important on the other (theoretical) hand. Somewhere in between sits the ‘arms-length’, bureaucratic body – a terribly contrary, sometimes contradictory place. Let’s face it, we all hate naming what we do, don’t we? When working with people, I NEVER use the words ‘socially engaged’, ‘community’ or even ‘art’ at all… Well, at least until people ask if they are doing art, at which point I often ask them if they think they are doing art and whether that matters. But, unfortunately, funders need to get a grip on what they’re being asked to give money for and need boxing ticking, and academics (like me) need to be able to position the practice in terms of broader theoretical frames. So, sometimes we must label ourselves and our work; sometimes there’s no need. Language, like practice, is always contingent.

When it comes to suggesting that socially engaged art or any form of art or, indeed, any singular practice can succeed in ‘creating community’ because ‘community doesn’t happen on its own’, I feel immediately wary. We must be careful not to become messianic; to believe in socially engaged art with a missionary zeal; to believe art can ‘change the world’ or even make ‘the world a better place’. I agree that socially engaged art practice can help people create a potential space where they may envision ‘radical transformation(s)’ and even support people who wish to make these transformations happen. It is not, for me, a vehicle for change, however. Nor, as I have explained above, do we need to worry about needing to ‘free ourselves from the kind of language which alienates other people’. All language can potentially alienate people whilst communicating shared understandings to others. It’s about choosing a language that responds to each situation, each context – a process that must always be different; always specific. A suggestion via Twitter that we should ‘ditch the definitions’ is, unfortunately, a little too simplistic. I am, however, concerned about claims that ‘it is possible to use art to create the kind of society that works for each and every one of us’. The spectre of soft instrumentalism reappears. I’m not sure we should ‘use art’ for any purpose and it would seem that a society that’s for everyone is a rather fanciful, perhaps, liberal ideal. But then language is always difficult…

To end, I would like to perhaps also query Leo’s suggestion that ‘there is a difference between community arts and socially engaged practice’. In suggesting that ‘community arts demonstrates clear benefits for the participants in a specific community’ whilst ‘socially engaged practice creates its own communities and generates the sort of value that cannot be immediately measured’, I think that Leo has confused the term ‘community art’ (singular; precursor to socially engaged art) with ‘participatory arts’. My research seeks to differentiate ‘participatory arts’ and ‘socially engaged art’ in terms of specificity of intent: the first aims to ‘do’, to ‘take part in’ something (anything); the second ‘to engage in/ with social issues’. Another example of how important language can sometimes be and why we (sometimes) need definitions. Otherwise we might, as Leo perhaps does in his blog, confuse Fun Palaces with socially engaged art practice. We might then begin to ask what would happen to a Fun Palace that ‘grew… into a village, a town, or a city?’ My flippant mind thinks: #FunVillage; #FunTown; #FunCity. Why stop there? #FunWorld?  Ok.  Stop there.

So, I’m sticking with ‘socially engaged art’ (or even ‘social practice’) sometimes; not mentioning any of this other times; and not confusing this practice with ‘participatory arts’ or Fun Palaces. I’m sticking with definitions when needed; ditching the definitions when they’re not needed. Because, for me, we shouldn’t waste time scratching around for a better name for an accepted field of arts practice. We should develop our practice our own way in response to and together with people. Call it whatever you like. Others will always find a label.

Socially engaged art–marginal practices & critical utopias

I delivered this talk about my research to the Northumbria - Sunderland AHRC Centre for Doctoral Training Student Conference on the 1st July 2015 at The BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art.  It’s about negating a negation – negative dialectics.  It’s also about some of the potentialities that socially engaged art may be able to explore as part of broader movements for social justice and emancipation from the shackles of our present neoliberal regime.

For me, our current technocratic and bureaucratic state is, at every level, unfair, unjust, unequal – not just maintaining status quos but tightening their strange-holds upon our ways of living.  The field of arts and culture is no exception.  It’s mutation (under the hands of politicians, policy-makers, funders, arts and cultural institutions, financial and business backers, etc.) into The Creative Industries is deeply troubling.  Horkheimer and Adorno saw this coming.  Totally administered arts.  Totally administered society.  My work is optimistic and hopeful.  The outcomes are always unknown.  But it is essential that I also explore, through negative dialectics, the acts of negation that have, to a large extent, imposed outside rules and policies upon artists, people, communities in the name of progress, economics, austerity, excellence, or whatever.

Enough said.

Please feel free to either take a look at my presentation online here or by clicking the image below (remember to click the ‘NOTES’ button in the bottom right corner of the PowerPoint Online window); or read a transcript of my talk below.

The images in the presentation are from my five longitudinal studies as well as some of my own.  They are meant to sometimes jar with the text; sometimes complement.  You decide.



Hello. I’m Stephen Pritchard. This is my second year of research-based doctoral study. I am also a socially engaged arts practitioner and a curator. Five months into a six month period of paternity leave.

[I must not research.]

So, rather than present what you’ve (possibly) already heard me say before, I thought I’d try a more autoethnographic, prosaic form.

Snippets. Thread ends. Scraps of thoughts. Slices of other writing. Holes. Never wholes. Titbits of other talks. Scrambled. Jumbled. Sometimes lucid. Things from around the edges.


THINKS: Start a little formally (to begin with…)

RESEARCH QUESTION: Can participatory art support sustainable social change? THIS WILL CHANGE.

The directions of research will not.

HERBERT MARCUSE: “How can art speak the language of a radically different experience, how can it represent the qualitative difference? How can art invoke images and needs of liberation which reach into the depth dimension of human existence, how can it articulate the experience not only of a particular class, but all of the oppressed?”

HYPOTHESIS: Socially engaged arts practice may be capable, when realised through radical, performative and agonistic forms of counter-hegemonic activism and/ or greater personal and social awareness, of supporting a paradigm-shift towards a world where neoliberalism is replaced by a different type of democracy that embraces social justice, encourages grassroots participation and inspires a spirit of self-directed mutual learning.

CHANGE IT! Too long. Wordy. Idealistic? NO. Utopian? Marginal practices? YES.

MOYLAN: “This alliance of margins without a center anticipates in both the personal and political dimensions the new values and the new society.”

THEORY: Deeply complex. Interdisciplinary.

Can theories of literary criticism, object relations, aesthetics, Critical Theory, political, contemporary visual culture, more, shed new light on the practice of socially engaged art? I think so.

Critical Utopias offer infinite potentialities.

METHODOLOGY: Critical theory. Dialectics. Autoethnographic – autobiography and ethnography – process AND product. Discourse analysis. Longitudinal studies. Short intensive discussions. Fragments of conversation. Gather artefacts, mementos, memories along the way.

Mountains of field notes.

Research subjects become in some ways objects: The Stove, Dumfries; Alex White-Mazzarella, global; Encounters, Totnes; Ovalhouse, London; Platform London.

Different trajectories. Similar practices AND uniquely different. All struggling to make art in an increasingly economics-driven field. Committed to being part of this research, we can all learn from each other.

PRESENTATIONS: ArtWorks conference at BALTIC, Warwick University, The Stove, and Arts Council England in London, more.

I’m lecturing at London Met and (hopefully) other universities in the autumn. I tweet. Blog.

We’re all (self) propagandists nowadays.

FIRST PAPER: A View is Always Worth It: Social Practice in Rural North East England, will be published by Taylor Francis in the Journal of Curriculum and Pedagogy in August.

TOM MOYLAN: “Critical utopian discourse becomes a seditious expression of social change and popular sovereignty carried out on in a permanently open process of envisioning what is not yet.”

The art world is an incredibly staid, unequal place. And art’s potentialities – like all things in life – always lie around its margins – in spaces (perhaps not yet created) where tension is always a welcome and frequent (re) visitor.

HERBERT MARCUSE: “The transcendence of immediate reality shatters the reified objectivity of established social relations and opens a new dimension of experience: rebirth of the rebellious subjectivity.”


Can art ever be truly equal? (Can anything?) Or, is art always about inequity; unfairness; elitism?

As a Critical Theorist, capitalism is always inherently unequal; insidiously alienating.

Art as commodity. Artist as a profession - division of labour. These sorts of things threaten creativity. Replacing society with individualism; with competition for resources THEY say are in short supply.


I say THERE ARE ALTERNATIVES! There are many alternatives. Tiny little alternatives. OUR alternatives. Different. NOT THEIR’S.

WE LIVE IN ONE OF THE WORLD MOST UNEQUAL COUNTRIES. Neoliberalism encourages inequality. Divide and rule. We are all increasingly, often unknowingly complicit…

Because, after all…

We’re all consumers nowadays.

Ours is a material world.

Capital is everything.

Economic value. Social value. Cultural value. Social Return on Investment. Impact. Innovation. Evaluation. Matrices. Big data. Wellbeing. Happiness. Resilience. Adaptive resilience. Sustainability. Philanthropy. Leadership. Quality. Great art. Excellence. Money. Money. Money! More and more and more…

… Oh, and CUTS!

Austerity is such a terrible word.

But, wait a minute… The Art World’s such a lovely place, isn’t it? Great Art and Culture For Everyone v2.0 anyone? The pink book? State produced bible to salve all society’s ills. Bring us all together? Art for all?

Not if THOSE IN THE KNOW have their way.

Can arts and culture think beyond economics and (nicely) enforced state policy? Beyond spurious ecosystem models. Beyond ‘making the right investments’?

SU BRADEN: “What is financed… is still seen by THEM as a means by which more people will be encouraged to enjoy and appreciate the arts on which the majority of money is already spent.”

She was talking about community art. Who get’s to decide. Limited participation.


Everyone’s a ‘participant’ nowadays. Aren’t THEY?

Or, following the Warwick Commission’s report on The Future of Cultural Value and its magic number – 8% – should I say WE – members of the cultural class?

Participation in the arts lacks real meaning.

Wander into a gallery, watch a play, help set up a festival, dig up a beach looking for fool’s gold, clog dance on cross-shaped shipping containers in the name of Christ, write memoirs in a timber sanctuary then watch it burn (physically and/or digitally), oh, and praise be the lanterns!

Then there’s socially engaged art, ecologically engaged art, activist art – marginal – issue-based – commonly working for social justice.

So why do I find the ‘participation in the arts’ agendas – and participatory arts in particular – so troubling, so divisive?

I suggest participation lacks intent.

For many policy makers, commissioners, arts organisations, artists, and so on, the more fun the activity, the less socially or politically engaged, the better.

PARTICIPATION BY NUMBERS. Count ‘them’. Lots of ‘disadvantaged’ people – great! Segregate them. Categorise. NEETS, ethnic minorities, older people, physically impaired, mentally ill, on and on and on. Measure them. See – they have improved! Thank The State for sending us an artist (backed by hidden ranks of arts administrators, of course). Look – all ‘their’ woes are gone. Take happy pictures for websites and Facebook and glossy publications. Pair them with a narrative penned for a pretty penny by the consultant or academic-led elite. Add graphs, tables, carefully edited anecdotes from ‘real people’ who loved taking part. Pie charts. Sprinkle spurious references to a too-oft-cited weakly defined canon. Make a film. Cost benefit analysis. Bravo! Keeps the funders happy. Useful evidence for future projects. Splendid.

Or is it? The trouble is participation in the arts – participatory arts – are products of insidious instrumentalism. State and funder-led initiatives hoping to wash away ‘their’ troubles, ‘their’ sins with a bit of taking part in some art. Sanitised, professionalised, risk-assessed to within an inch of existence. Best practice. Toolkits. Reports. Evaluations. Metrics. Big data. Fodder for never ending quasi-academic discussions about participation at which most participants are… well… people like us.

STATUS QUO. Hidden behind shallow dialogic frameworks. Another neoliberal veneer. Allowing dominant power structures to be reproduced and maintained.

Dialogic exercises and even ‘radical listening’ embed as cornerstones in participatory arts’ mission of improving practice and quality – ‘professionalising’ artists.

Anyone for CPD? Join with us. Sing ‘The Dialogic Song’. MISSIONARY ZEAL. Preach to the converted. Spread ‘our’ message. PARTICIPATE NOW! (Not ‘us’, them. New people.)

CONVERT TO ARTS PARTICIPATION NOW! (It’s something to do. Might get you a job. Might improve your wellbeing. Might improve the economy. Might even be FUNPALACES fun!)

Keeps the funders happy anyway.


Funders love it. Dovetail into burgeoning business plans.


Organisations employ artists nowadays, don’t they?

They allow ‘participation’ into their programming – sometimes.

Voiceless artists should be grateful for meagre scraps as payment for their labour.

Hurrah! Complicit in the division of their labour, the institutions cheer as they further alienate artists from art!


New Labour shuffled in neoliberal governance. Public money bought new Creative Industries citadels replete with artist and audience and participant proof defences.

Yet the price for artistic excellence is high; the pact always Faustian.

PARTICIPATION FOR ALL. Deeply divisive. Soft neoliberal governance. MERCENARIES.

Artists always bottom of the pile. Squashed silent by the tentacles of instrumentalism. With few rights and little money, who can blame artists for taking the bait?

MOBILISE. Artists and communities can mobilise for social justice. Self-organise. Art can counter the instrumentalism of state and institutions. A different, freer form of participation. Socially engaged art. Activism.

Academics and agents of the state tend to steer clear. No wonder. Social practice opposes neoliberalism in all its guises. We want change. WE ARE NOT GUILTY!

So, I suggest that participation in the arts and the trivialising forms of participatory arts practice that feed like parasites from fillets of newly institutionalised participatory arts programming are guilty of a terrible crime:


HORKHEIMER AND ADORNO: “All reification is a forgetting.”


Little creative acts of not knowing.

Political, sometimes radically activist, acts.

Potential spaces. Safe places where dangerous new realities might grow. Grassroots. Social justice. Collective. Autonomous. Communal.

Deeply suspicious of instrumentalism and state. Outside of institutions. Around and across margins.

A practice in which art as concept is everywhere.

Unspoken, like innumerable tiny little secrets shared in moments outside the false strictures of coordinated civic time.


Always uncertain…

Messes of thread.

Thank you.

What is it socially engaged artists do? My reply to @caracourage

Cara Courage has asked socially engaged/ social practice artists a question: What do you do? This is my reply I shared with Cara on her Facebook post...


Little creative acts of not knowing.

Political, sometimes radically activist, acts.

Potential spaces. Safe places where dangerous new realities might grow. Grassroots. Social justice. Collective. Autonomous. Communal.

Deeply suspicious of instrumentalism and state. Outside of institutions. Around and across margins.

A practice in which art as concept is everywhere.

Unspoken, like innumerable tiny little secrets shared in moments outside the false strictures of coordinated civic time.


Always uncertain...

Time to drop innovation? Socially engaged art is not The Latest Thing…

Elizabeth Grady began a discussion on the ‘innovative’ socially engaged network a blade of grass entitled The Latest Thing. I contributed via Twitter then wrote Is socially engaged art ‘innovative’? (A word game with scrapheap prizes) in response to what I felt was a move towards attempting to position socially engaged art as ‘innovative’. Grady recently responded to my post and to Jethro Brice in a post oddly titled Unmaking Innovation: A Return to the New. Her response to my concerns about socially engaged art using ‘innovation’ as a descriptor of ‘the latest thing’ in this field of practice is, for me, deeply problematic. Put simply, I feel she misses the point. Innovation is an undoubtedly ubiquitous word today. Innovation is linked (as I described in my previous post on a blade of grass) to notions of introducing new ‘things’; novelties. It has been widely appropriated by neoliberalism, positivist sciences and capitalism as a positive term meaning new and, by inference, better.

In my original post, I argued that there is no benefit in relating socially engaged art to such an ideologically stained word.  Grady responded by stating that ‘to tie it [innovation] irretrievably to neoliberalism is to deny its elemental power and independent relationship to creativity’. I would argue that to use innovation as a means of describing ‘new’ forms of socially engaged practice (labelled in a comment at the bottom of one of the previous posts by Grady as ‘the best’), or any forms of socially engaged practice for that matter, ties the practice irretrievably (albeit unintentionally) to notions of novelty and artifice and, in so doing, denies the field its unique attributes of being a form of critical and independent social practice. Artistic creativity (by artists and people taking part) still happens in social practice but instead of simply describing the relationships, experiences and art works produced in this process, we substitute creativity for innovation. For me, there is no clear reason or benefit to use a ‘new’ word for the same thing (or set of things), especially a word that carries such obvious neoliberal baggage.


Baron Prášil, Karel Zeman, Film still, 1961

To then attempt to liberate the word innovation from this baggage, as Grady does in her most recent post, is surely senseless. She is positive and hopeful that ‘by dissociating it [innovation] from a market-driven entrepreneurial perspective, we can perhaps recuperate both beauty and usefulness for the term’. I ask why? Why seek to do this? Why not use other, less ideologically laden words? Why actually argue about words at all? Our field of practice is about social justice, about independent interventions with people using all sorts of artistic and supradisciplinary techniques, about places, about people – not words. Isn’t it? Well, I would argue: yes and no. Words like innovation don’t matter to people taking part in socially engaged art; they do matter when we attempt to define or explain our practice amongst ourselves within the field or to others with an interest in the field (institutions, funders, potential commissioners, other disciplines, etc.)

For Grady, the solution to re-appropriating the word innovation for the (supposed) benefit of socially engaged art lies, surprisingly, in ‘old-fashioned art historical formal analysis’, which she argues is ‘one area of innovation which is not necessarily tied to a neoliberal agenda’. Really? The nineteenth-century formalism of the avowed ‘will-to-art’ positivist Alois Riegl? Or perhaps, straddling the centuries, the formalism of ‘father of art history’ (now disavowed by many art historians) Heinrich Wölfflin? Or what about Bloomsbury favourite Roger Fry? Or, the classic left-right formalist proto-neoliberal turncoat, Clement Greenberg? A man who believed modernist art was separate from history, society and politics? Greenberg, promoter of artistic autonomy; of art-for-art’s-sake? To be blunt: formal analysis is a deeply singular form of art historical criticism – a form that discards social, historical and political perspectives; a form entirely at odds with (at least for me) the principles of socially engaged art. Formalism is also an approach that was used to critique older forms of art. As a critical theorist, formalism is positivist, elitist and monolithic. It, for me, has no place in attempting to describe or analyse socially engaged art practice. And formalism can hardly be considered innovative!

Grady expands her rationale by explaining that, for her, formalism asks: ‘What is the form taken by the work, and what are the characteristics of that form? For a painting, you might say it’s color, line, composition, etc…’ She continues: ‘For socially engaged art I would say it [formal analysis] comes closer to the proximity of artists to various kinds of relationships. Who are the partners? To what degree does partnership happen? Who are the co-creators of the work? The participants? The contours of a project’s relationships are the “form” a socially engaged artwork takes, and its aesthetics are predicated on the qualities (and quality) of those relationships.’ I am horrified that Grady should claim formalism could be a potential guiding light for analysing ‘innovative’ socially engaged art. It cannot. Sociological, psychological, anthropological, ethnographic, critical approaches can be useful ways of thinking about socially engaged art, alongside cultural studies, critical theory, etc. But economics, no. Formalism, most certainly not.

So, I propose: