Week 9: Three Thought Experiments for Socially Engaged Art

What is socially engaged art? I'm learning through class discussions and activities that this practice priorities people, and more specifically, ways to connect with them, interact with them, and develop relationships with them. The work is not about the individual artist. Though they might be the catalyst, the practice focuses on process not product, and again more specifically, the on process of socialization. Drawing from Helguera, it's helpful for me to note that socially engaged art differs from participatory art, in which participants carry out an idea. "In the case of socially engaged art, " he writes, "it is the process itself--the fabrication of the work--that is social." It is about "listening, facilitation, and collaboration (from Woolward)," and as Helguera purposes, closely related to the realm of education "engagement with audiences, inquiry-based methods, collaborative dialogues, and hands-on activities provide an ideal framework for process-based and collaborative conceptual practices." Practitioners of socially engaged art might work from within and/or across many disciplines (instead of or in addition to education) and locate themselves in a variety of different communities to address and possibly even change social problems.

As a new student to socially engaged art, and one enrolled in a technology program in which I'm expected to execute an online or digital socially engaged art project, my initial questions include:

How do I develop relationships with people face-to-face (synchronous) vs. in digital spaces (often asynchronous)?  How does the use of digital tools impact face-to-face interactions? 

If socially engaged art practices utilize public spaces "in real life," then how do I think of public spaces online? Do actual public spaces exist there? Can I create one?

How are people exposed to the work of socially engaged artists (outside of a class like this one) unless they belong to a community connected to an artist or share the same values/interests/goals that might naturally lead them to said artist? In other words, are the socially engaged artist's "audiences" always pre-determined or self-selected?

Who are the people I care about? And what issues are important to me?


First Thought: Collaborative Curating
Art and cultural institutions preserve artifacts for society and organize them in meaningful ways to help us make sense of them. Often pieces are shared to the public in static physical installations or in online exhibits. But what if the organizational structures and categorizations were open-sourced? What meanings might arise if "non-experts" had an opportunity to label and sort materials, too? I’m curious about the negotiation process in the creation of classification systems and to show how different meanings manifest between objects depending on their juxtapositions to one another.

This could take place offline or online, however an online platform provides easy ways to save and share iterations. I'm not sure exactly how this would look. Perhaps collaborators could use an online light table to push and stack objects into sequences or categories, and add their own annotations to tell alternative stories?


Second Thought: Collaborative Drawing
Inspired by the collective choreography of our outdoor activities last week, I want to explore the idea of the group as a self and modes of collaboration in digital spaces. So many of our decisions in last week's class were determined non-verbally, and I wonder about collective decision-making in online spaces in which collaborators use different expressive tools and/or are not necessarily in the physical presence of one another. How are cues then negotiated and performed?  I propose to create a shared digital drawing space to which more than one person may connect and draw with others--something that, depending on the canvas size, might be physically inhibiting for a group face-to-face. Refreshing the page or clicking a button provides short yet specific mark-making directives to prompt collaborators, for example:

Take turns drawing lines and do not cross the lines
Take turns drawing, each new line adds to the previous line
Draw a symmetrical pattern
Draw points evenly across the surface and connect them with straight/curvy/zigzag lines*
Draw points evenly across the surface and connect them with intersecting circles

Related Work
*Thinking about Sol LeWitt’s Drawing Instructions
A Doodled “Us”: A Design Case Study On Urban Collaborative Art With Arduino
Creating collaborative sketches with web sockets on OpenProcessing.org

Third Thought: Collective Site Preservation
Of the many examples of digital socially engaged projects provided this week, I was most intrigued by the paper describing the reopening of the heritage site, Hafod-Morfa Copperworks, in which visitors were provided the opportunity to activate the space and "perform" the site together though "a number of expressive, performative experiences that involve user’s taking control of amplified, public feedback using a set of amplified gestures." Through their mobile device, any visitor could "control/perform using the exhibits on-site," while those without mobile access could still "experience these performances, but as spectators through the public feedback peripherals such as speakers and projectors." 

ITP is moving to Brooklyn next year; after decades, this is the final year it will call the 4th floor of 721 Broadway home. Everyday, students, faculty, and visitors collectively activate the space through their conversations and classes. I can't help but think that this might be an opportunity to digitally document and display (either online or in an a site installation, or both) the informal and formal engagements and spaces for archival purposes. Above I ask, who do I care about? I care about my new classmates and have so enjoyed getting to know them. Perhaps this is another vehicle with which to do that and foster further engagement within the community as we prepare to pack up and head out.

Related Work
Regenerative Social Engagement through Performative Technologies
Illuminating History: Celebrating PS 64/ CHARAS

So I didn't touch upon any hot-button issues currently impacting society here. However, I realized that I care very much about meaning-making and the processes by which it comes about. Since I do care about other issues (climate change, a sustainable future, education as a human right, creative technology in education, online privacy and security, public art, and art in unexpected places to name a few), perhaps the thoughts above are seeds to consider broader experiments within these realms.

Camp & Chien's “The Internet as Public Space: Concepts, Issues, and Implications in Public Policy
Caroline Woolard 's The Minute Hand of Social Change
Carolyn Miranda's “How the Art of Social Practice Is Changing the World, One Row House at a Time
Natalie P's “Who Are the Key Figures in Socially Engaged Art Today?”
Pablo Helguera's Education for Socially Engaged Art
Ruth Whippman's "Happiness is Other People"
T. V. Reed's Digitized Lives: Culture, Power, and Social Change in the Internet Era (Chapter 1)