Publication: Tate Etc.
Author: Helguera, Pablo
Date published: October 1, 2012
More and more often, visitors to international biennials and similar exhibitions may be perplexed by works that cannot be experienced inside a gallery space. They exist in the public realm, but are in sharp contrast to traditional public art. They involve the participation of the public, but with rules of engagementthat demand a substantial degree of investment by the participant in order to get the actual experience in return. At times this kind of art may appear to be more like activism or urban planning than performance art. It may not leave a material trace that is collectable or even preservable. And it may take years or even a decade to develop. These works are continually redefining what art is, and have been grouped underthe gradually more accepted, but somewhat vague label of socially engaged art, or social practice.
The impulse for making interactive or participatory works in the visual arts is certainly nothing new: artists throughoutthe twentieth century, starting with Marcel Duchamp, conceived of pieces that required the participation of the viewer in order to be completed. Particularly in the post-war era, with the emergence of artists such as Yves Klein and Allan Kaprow, the process of making the work started to displace the final product itself. While for Fluxus artists in the 1960s, the artwork began to become inextricable from the experience of making it.
Socially engaged art draws inspiration from some of these historical precedents, but may take its more immediate influences from the politicised art making of the institutional critique generation, including Hans Haacke and Andrea Fraser, as well as from those artists that critic Nicolas Bourriaud grouped under the relational aesthetics label, such as Rirkrit Tiravanija with his famous cooking events. When one looks at the projects being produced today, however, there is a very different kind of participation taking place from that of the political works of the 1980s or the relational art of the 1990s.
A number of great examples of this emerging strand of participatory art will be present in the Liverpool Biennial. E verton People’s Park: Foraging Spiral and Basecamp by American artist Fritz Haeg is a long-term project designed to reanimate a languishing piece of public space in the city. Haeg has gained notoriety by developing private and public sustainable gardens around the world, working with residents to plant native vegetables and herbs and encouraging the formation of community environments that would complementthe natural sustainability with a strong social foundation.
Another artist, Jeanne van Heeswijk, has been developing a project entitled 2Up 2Down in a terraced Victorian housing complex near the football stadium in Anfield. Using the site of a former bakery, she is involving local people in a bid to revitalise the area through a variety of activities encompassing conversations, workshops (yes, including baking) and even a collaboration with a Liverpool scriptwriter to produce a performance that will communicate the aims of the project to biennial visitors.
As different as the themes and means of these works are, Haeg and van Heeswijk exemplify some of the values that are common in socially engaged art: they both work with a number of collaborators, ranging from non-profit organisations to individuals, in a dialogue that actively involves them in gaining ownership of the project. While the artist is most definitely the instigator and architect, the projects are doomed without the sincere and dedicated participation of local people.
Socially engaged art provokes many questions aboutthe role of art in today’s world. Seen sometimes as an overly idealistic practice, at its best it allows communities to envision the potential of their natural and social environments. It poses great challenges to art institutions, going as it does against the grain of collecting. Its legacy may eventually reside not in museums, but in the human capital into which it invests its energies.