What about "socially engaged" art?
Updated: Feb 19, 2019
Different from ´participatory art´ or ´community art´, socially engaged practice places relationships at the centre of the experience.
This includes any projects and activities that involve participants that would not usually use the arts, therefore the applied arts engage different discourses, bodies, expressions and processes of artistic creation. It also includes, practices that are based on participants´ active participation, relationships and social engagement. It is about practitioners who co-create a process with the participants, the environment, unconstrained by the parameters of galleries and performance spaces. It is less about an art object than a relationship, requiring social interaction to reach fullness.
It is a sunny afternoon in a resident care home in South London. You can see through some of the open windows the well-kept flower garden and the soothing light of Autumn that finds its way into the space. The walls in the living room are full of beautiful displays of art work, poems and photographs of some of the residents and visitors. It is evident that someone with an artistic touch has taken care to make the room a social space with exhibits of the resident´s lives’ and experiences. The kettle is boiling already and the residents are beginning to find their way into this welcoming care home. The art session is supposed to start at 2 pm but we are still waiting for more than half of the residents to arrive, some of them come from other care homes in the area. I am also starting to chat convivially with Betty who has just turned 90.
The physical and sensory act of being there sparked conversation ranging from cooking, traveling, health, nationality, family, aspirations. Much laughter was shared with Betty and with the other residents, we were sharing time, space, dialogue and the anticipation of doing something together.
I show Betty a picture of my three children from my mobile and I tell her that I am from Barcelona, she also tells me about her children and grandchildren and where they live.
Without realizing it the session has already started and the participants and art practitioner are singing all together well known songs.
The participants range from the age of 60 to 90+, which represents at least three generations, with huge variation in life experience, health, fitness, and cognitive and communication abilities. The session involves responding to the participants age and ability, meeting them and finding out what inspires them. The art practitioner tells me that this is what she sees as a not set process to engage participants in creativity, by giving them time and space, and responding to what is there. She uses the term ‘creativity by stealth’ to mean that some people have a mental block and that she tries to find ways around that by using art or music from different angles. The next two hours go very quickly, we sing songs, share stories, play instruments and start creating the lyrics for a collective song. The intention of the afternoon session was for the participants to make connections with each other by providing a series of interactions, sharing the focus with sensory objects, materials, food, music. For the rest of the eight sessions, the different care homes, provided the space and atmosphere to create something together. The group listened to music and sang collectively, and different art crafts and poems were created among the participants.
This was an experience of Meet Me at the Albany program in London. This is an art, social and lunch club for older people initiated in 2013 and coproduced by The Albany Theatre and Entelechy Arts and the support from Lewisham Council’s Community Directorate. It is based at South East London’s Albany arts centre, and also in care homes, and is an all year program of weekly events to provide a new approach to day care centre to create opportunities for people to meet new friends and try out a whole range of new activities and experiences. The work is happening in a context of change that includes an ageing and diverse population, public funding cuts, a commitment to working with the voluntary sector and involving people in decisions about their own lives. It recognizes the creative potential of the over-60s offering a way to combat loneliness and its impact on wellbeing. Over 20 weeks’ artists developed, led and adapted weekly sessions in the shared spaces of the accommodation unit. The ambition was for: reduced social isolation and loneliness, improved health and wellbeing, positive beneficiary and stakeholder feedback.
I have always been fascinated by the way the arts bring people together and how the making, the sharing, and the displaying or performance of the art itself, has a universal language that unites people.
The interesting aspect of the experience with Meet Me at the Albany, was that the practitioner´s choices were already intentioned to create an experience for social engagement and for relations to occur through the arts. This particular experience, helped me to reflect deeply on the potential of the arts, as socially engaged practices that can inspire connections and build relationships.
I understood that the centre of the work at Meet Me at the Albany, was less an object our outcome but more a series of sustained relationships.
I therefore aligned with the concept of ´relational aesthetics´, a term created by curator Nicolas Bourriaud in the 1990s to the describe the tendency to make art based on, or inspired by, human relations and their social context . Tate Museum defines socially ´engaged practice´ as ´art that is collaborative, often participatory and involves people as the medium or material of the work´.
Meet Me at the Albany, London http://meetmeatthealbany.org.uk/
Tate´s definition of socially engaged practice https://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/s/socially-engaged-practice
Bourriaud, N. (1998) Esthétique relationnelle, Dijon: Presses du réel (author’s own
translations). An English translation by Simon Pleasance and Fronza Woods was published in 2002 as Relational Aesthetics, Dijon: Presses du réel