There is currently a great deal of interest in this form of art practice within institutions and academies. The institutional gaze has brought with it tensions and questions that are not easily resolved. Who is best qualified to do this work? How are the processes and techniques and the ‘way’ many of these forms have evolved into being used to serve agendas that are counter to the original impulses behind the work? Currently the term community engagement is even viewed with suspicion by many, as the arts-based practices born out of critical and activist sentiments are being instrumentalized and co-opted by institutions and organizations to further serve neo-liberal and progressive agendas.
In counter point to this argument, the art practices defined within the field and those being explored within the Art for Social Change Research Project are being seen as interactive, multidisciplinary opportunities for practice and pedagogy. These practices have the capacity to open up new spaces to encounter relationships and new ways to create ethical responses to emergent global concerns. In response to the growing interest in this work, in 2013 the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) provided funding to support the Art for Social Change Research Project. These conversations with artists is a part of a five-year national research initiative on art for social change and is the first study of its kind in Canada.
We initiated this inquiry motivated by thinking about what might best serve those seeking to become the next iteration of practitioners? Dr. Lynn Fels, Co-investigator with the Art for Social Change Research Project, and myself arrived at the question through Hannah Arendt’s theorizing as it relates to the education of the young. When we reflect on the past it is often in order to ascertain what the future needs to know or come to understand. Initially when I first started these interviews I had an interest in asking other artists: what might characterize this art practice and what might define it?
I had already come to some understanding through my own work: that having and creating opportunities to be creative is, in and of itself, a necessary and urgent need most of us share. And the doing of it together renews our common world and our shared sense of it. When art is facilitated and practiced with others in an environment dedicated to hospitality and conviviality it creates an experience of community and enhanced states of shared worldliness. Artmaking can create networks that reach far beyond the making of something together. But in order for this to take place it requires the making of something new.
Arendt (1954) discouraged us to imagine that a new world is being built through the education of the young. She reminds us that it is a pre-existing world into which the young or the future is being introduced (p. 193). She also asserts that education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it, and by the same token save it from ruin which, except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and young, would be inevitable… and whether we love our children enough to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing the common world (p. 196).
Through considering the educational perspective of Hannah Arendt, the question we asked all of the artist practitioners in this collection of interviews was: what, in their experience, needed to be preserved or held as a responsibility as it is re-imagined in the future?
Through this question I sought to understand whether there are a unique set of practices, critical, or creative undertakings that characterize these artists’ work? Whether their practice as they understood it could be defined entirely through social engagement, community engagement, or activist impulses? And/or is the making of art what needs fore fronting? I asked some of them whether they saw a relationship between creative and artistic practice and social change? Or, as a number of artists in this series maintain, the work is not motivated by art for social change but rather through the ‘taking’ of the experience of the doing of it. Art becomes social change.
Arendt, H. (1954). Between past and future. Eight exercises in political thought. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penquin Books Ltd.