Art and Enquiry: Socially Engaged Art
20th August 2020

Making (Better) Worlds Possible?

In 2019 SAW released a publication. The publication was the outcome of many months of self reflection and careful consideration, within it’s pages we sought to explore and explain what SAW is, what it has been, and what it aims to be as an organisation. There are several essays within it that explore different aspects of our thinking and practise- here is one of them.

Whilst other artforms might be about social interaction, socially engaged art does social interaction. It’s true that a painting, a sculpture, a performance or a film, might illustrate or critique the way that humans interact with the social world. But, with socially engaged art, the bit that is the art, is the social interaction itself. 

Socially engaged art does social interaction with ‘real people’, in real places and in real time. With this comes a real responsibility.  When we consciously enact the world we live in, some aspects of the social world will be made more real whilst other aspects will be made less real. This dual action of strengthening and eroding is potentially very powerful because it allows us to experiment with alternatives and to explore the possibilities for a better world. But who’s idea of a better world are we making?

The world-making work of socially engaged art requires that our bodies interact and connect deeply with other beings (human and non-human). The French sociologist, Bruno Latour, calls this “learning to be affected” – to be transformed and moved into action by our interactions with others. This embodied practice is likely to be unpredictable; imbued with tensions, contradictions, and surprises. 

To truly engage with the social, then, is to make a commitment to this messy and complex reality, not to tidy it up by bringing everyone round to our way of thinking. For socially engaged artists to fully embrace the responsibility of interaction and connection, which understands that the (better) worlds we make are deeply connected to the (better) worlds of others, we must allow ourselves to be changed in the process.

Hannah Marsden, artist and on of the initiators of Dwellbeing

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