Art has been playing a growingly significant role in introducing political and social issues to the public sphere. Encompassing a wide range of means and elements, this category of art practices aims to raise critical consciousness and to promote social transformation, and artists have been searching for innovative means to fulfill this purpose. In this research, I will identify how the participatory and interactive installations have changed the landscape of socially engaged art. By examining a few examples, we can look more closely at how some artists took advantage of the participatory approach to augment their message and how these works could make a convincing case for the pragmatic view of artistic value.
What is socially engaged art?
It is never revealed who coined this term at first, and there is never a clear definition of what constitutes socially engaged art—historically, many artists have worked at the intersection of art and social injustice throughout their professional lives, blurring the line between artists and activists, art and activism.
The most significant attribute that delineates a group as diverse as such is that, for socially engaged art, the subject matter usually intends to address the very economic, political, and social issues that the artists would like to focus upon in their works. There may be multiple intentions for a single project, but it is critical that there is a match between project goals and design. Sometimes the goal is to only generate the awareness, sometimes it means to start a conversation, and sometimes it would be to engage community members to take real actions around certain issue to change the circumstances; regardlessly, socially engaged artists usually spend much of their time on connecting with and integrating into the community they wish to help, educate, and simply share their message with. Like Artist Rick Lowe explains: “You have to spend years developing relationships… It’d be an arrogant disregard of a community to come in and think you can grasp all the complexities of a place in a short time.” While socially engaged artists may be following the footsteps of the historical avant-gardes, like the Dadaists who attempted to “merge” art and life, they do not do so through anti-rational, experimental performances. Instead, socially engaged artists dedicate themselves pragmatically to measurable impact, aligning their art with social work, activism, or technology development at its core.
For researchers, it is important for us to understand where to draw the boundary around socially engaged art: there are non-art exhibitions created solely for the purpose of educating the public—though they were also curated around a specific social issue, they simply present the historical facts to the audience and expand their knowledge base without overtly propagating the curator’s political ideology. We typically see such practice outside of the art realm: for instance, we see exhibitions as such in places like the African American Museum or Holocaust Museum instead of a proper art museum. Meanwhile, there are also forms of studio art that resemble socially engaged art aesthetically but do not have a social intention.Projects as such are often subject to the public’s interpretation regardless of the absence of artists’ intention. We will not be discussing these two in this essay, though sometimes the lines between them and the more refined category of socially engaged art can get quite blurry.
Now the question I would like to focus on is: why is socially engaged art can be such a powerful instrument in raising the awareness and even fueling a social movement at large? First of all, like all art, many artists trace their lineage to a very personal and idiosyncratic set of experiences, places of origin, spiritual traditions, mentors and art movements. This diversity of influences and experiences is part of what makes their work authentic, vibrant and engaging; therefore, the message behind such artworks is more likely to resonate with those communities that the artists are trying to establish a dialogue with.
Second, comparing to other social or political movements, art, and in this case, socially engaged art, is less selective to its audience. Unlike political or social campaigns, art does not discriminate against you based on your pre-conception. Bouchra Khalili’s The Mapping Journey Project (2008–11) that took place 3 years ago in MoMA was a perfect example of how could socially engaged art embrace audience from different ends of the political spectrum. In this exhibition, a series of videos that details the stories of eight individuals, who have been forced by political and economic circumstances to travel illegally. The videos featured their own narrations of the journeys they have endured and visually traced them in thick permanent marker on a geopolitical map of the region. Viewers can listen to subjects’ stories and see their hands sketching the trajectories across the map, while their faces remain unseen. According to Khalili, the idea came from philosopher Michel Foucault’s The Life of Infamous Men, as the artist collected an anthology of existences, of “singular lives…which have become, though I know not what accidents, strange poems.” While the topic of refugee/immigration has become such a politically charged issue across the world, the artist simply showed us the power of plain storytelling and how documenting and narrating each asylum seeker journey to search for safety can be universally appealing to the mass audience. Without introducing partisan bias to the viewers, Khalili’s The Mapping Journey Project nonetheless illustrated how art could be more effective than traditional political campaigns in terms of getting the message across to various demographic groups.
What is participatory art?
The term of participatory art emerged more recently. In the old times, artworks used to be perceived as some noble object to be appreciated and admired on a pedestal or within a frame; it was to be viewed from a distance. However, as we have walked into the era of modern art, many artists have learned to reject this notion; they decided to physically and intellectually invite the audience into the art itself. Participatory art has its origins in the Futurist and Dadaist performances of the early twentieth century, which were designed to provoke, scandalize and agitate the public. After the 1990s, as more and more artist started to detach themselves from the materiality of the art object, participatory art emphasizes on (or necessitates) the visitor’s physical action, manipulates their sensory encounters, and/or showcases their creative expression. In that sense, the interactive or participatory experience of the audience has become the true object or subject of their works.
Through directly engaging the spectators’ actions, participatory artists can more effectively connect with the audience’s emotions, easily making their message more relatable. For Khalili’s The Mapping through Journey Project, viewers are no longer sitting at the receiving end; they need to walk towards the big screens and put on the headphone to actively absorb the information. Another example is Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ “Untitled” (Death by Gun), part of his interactive series. This project was seen as a powerful statement to address the issue of widespread gun violence in the United States. Also hosted by MoMA, this project comprised of a stack of posters, and each poster lists with the name of individuals killed by guns in the United States in one week in May 1989. The poster also gives away the additional details, including images of the victims as well as a few lines about their death—whether they committed suicide or died of violent crimes—all taken from the Time magazine. The design of the posters is certainly unique—drama of these violent deaths is contrasted with the simple, matter-of-fact manner in which they are reported, reducing the dead to a few statistics, symbolizing how people have grown increasingly desensitized to the systemic gun violence in the States and how human lives have been reduced to plain numbers in news reporting.
However, what I would like to highlight about this exercise is, Gonzalez-Torres allows each viewer to take away a poster. Those who did are obliged to having the image reprinted so that the stack displayed in the gallery is always a specified optimum height. Therefore, while the installation was on display, the stack was constantly depleted and subsequently replenished, creating an endless cycle that suggests what the deep problem that gun violence has become in American society.
Moreover, to the point where it pertains to this research, the installation itself was constantly evolving as the audience participated in the distribution process and its life-cycle. The focus is now shifted to the audience’s actions and interactions with the object, as the artist is merely a facilitator of the situation. While no opinion about gun control is directly added by the artist himself, he engages the audience by asking them to be a part of the participatory experience and reflect on their role in this problem.
Gonzalez-Torres has long been using participation as a means to directly engage the audience to the discussions revolving around AIDS, gay rights, and a variety of government abuses. In this series, he explored the symbolizing aspect of “take a piece away from the pile”, as the installation is essentially removable by the audience. “Untitled” (Placebo), in one installation, consisted of a six-by-twelve-foot carpet of shiny silver wrapped candies. Similar to “Untitled” (Deaths by gun), the viewers’ action contributed to the slow disappearance of the sculpture. Relating to the particular context of Gonzalez-Torres creating “Untitled” (Placebo), this process of depletion symbolized the AIDS epidemic and the loss of his partner, Ross. With no doubt, by asking the audience to personally and actively participate in the process of diminishing the weight of his “partner”, Gonzalez-Torres astutely enhanced the emotional impact by projecting the sense of “loss” onto the viewers themselves.
Where does the participation take place?
The environment where participatory art is set up often matters a great deal on maximizing its impact on viewers. Since participatory art relies on the viewer’s own action to connect with what the artist is trying to communicate, the context can provide key clues for the viewers on how to interpret on their own actions. Ai Weiwei, the famous politically committed artist has demonstrated over and over again how participation can take a significant part in the audience’s art experience. Situated in Alcatraz’s Dining Hall, this interactive artwork, Yours Truly invites visitors to write messages of hope and support on postcards destined for prisoners around the globe who are being unjustly detained for their beliefs. Comparing to Gonzalez-Torres’ Untitled (Death by Gun), Ai’s Yours Truly directly demands viewers to compose their own messages to send to those who were imprisoned for fighting for human rights around the world.
Like Mark Bradford’s Pickett’s Charge, Yours Truly would not have had the same impact if it was situated in a regular exhibition space—not only it would be difficult to facilitate the desired interaction with the participants in a regular gallery space, but the prison-like setting also enhances, if not determines, the viewers’ experience. According to Ai, who was previously detained by the Chinese government for his activism, the reason why the setting of Alcatraz means so much to this project is that Alcatraz resembles the actual detention facilities where the prisoners of conscience are forcefully incarcerated, and the deep feeling of isolation often makes them fear that they, along with the causes they fought for, have been forgotten by the outside world. Ai Weiwei would like to capture this feeling, and immerse his audience in it—that is where the environment of Alcatraz comes into play. While the viewers are asked to sit on the benches inside the old dining hall and write postcards to these political prisoners, the space that surrounds them not only sparks their empathy but also serves as a chilling reminder on what those prisoners had to give up to fight for social justice. While the audience has the total autonomy to decide what they would like to write down on the postcards, the art space where the installation is positioned sets a very clear message from the artist to the viewers.
The case of relational aesthetics
Examples like Gonzalez-Torres’ and Ai’s widely popular and critically acclaimed projects, have been the subjects of much discussion in recent art theory and have been theorized under several designations. Relation aesthetics, a term created by the famous curator Nicolas Bourriaud, could become one of the theories that perfectly demonstrate how artists can prompt their audience to care more about certain social justice issues through a participatory approach.
Relational aesthetics refers to the installations and interactive events designed to facilitate community among participants (both artists and viewers). Rather than producing objects for individual aesthetic contemplation, relational artists attempt to produce new human relationships through collective experiences.
For participatory art, artists are indeed focusing on highlighting the human relationships rather than the independent and private space. By doing so, participatory artists can position themselves as facilitators rather than the creators, in which sense they give audiences access to power and means to make a difference. On the other hand, since the efficacy of socially engaged art solely depends on whether the viewers are empowered enough to take actions, adequate on-site participation will provide the positive reinforcement to the audiences that their actions can undeniably effect a real change. It helps the target audience realize that they can take the initiative to either get involved or confront the challenges. From this perspective, integrating the participatory approach into socially engaged art would make it more aesthetically engaging and pragmatically effective.
The opportunities and challenges to maximize the value of socially engaged art
Now we have discovered why participatory approaches are getting progressively popular in the realm of socially engaged art. Entering the digital age, technology sure opens another door for participatory artists as well: audience can now access art in different places through different means, which suggests the way they get to participate in the art are getting more creative and dynamic. One interesting example would be Greg Allen’s digitized work, “Better Read #008: Death By Gun,” which elaborates on Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ “Untitled” (Death by Gun). According to Allen, the idea was conceived based on the notion that the names of victims tend to get forgotten and therefore reading them aloud is a better way to memorize the people who were killed by gun violence. Allen transcribed all the names from the poster, had a computer read through the list, then uploaded the audio clip to his website. This digital rendition of Gonzalez-Torres’ artwork made sure that people who did not have the opportunity to visit the gallery can still get to participate in the project through listening to the names, even though the action they need to take is now reduced to a single click.
Same for Khalili’s The Mapping Journey Project and Ai’s Yours Truly, multimedia content that documented how these projects came to their fruition can now be widely shared across the world. By watching online videos, we can also get a glimpse at what the exhibition feels like and what the artist is trying to achieve through their work. However, we also have to acknowledge the challenges in the face of overflowing information communicated through digital media, and many artists, though possess great artistic talent and skills to work independently, are not fully equipped to assess the artistic values of their works from a more pragmatic point of view. “Our society needs great artists working uncompromisingly toward their singular vision, but these may not be the same artists that are great at achieving social outcomes or working in a community.” We should absolutely try our best to help artists to grow their cultural competency, knowledge on policymaking, and human relational skills at large; at the same time, a more practical approach would be to adopt a rather collaborative method when developing an art project. That means the artists who expect to conduct socially engaged practices should be able to consult with the targeted community along the way, and the community members should be able to provide feedback to the artists in return. This is exceptionally important when it comes to designing a project that anticipates or even relies on the participation of the audiences, which we know now can be the key to amplify the social impact of the given project.
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