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Social Practice Art Collage

Social Practice Art

Started: 1960s
Social Practice Art Timeline
"What I really want to do in my work is talk about how we're all related to one another."
1 of 6
Maren Hassinger
"The survival of my own ideas may not be as important as a condition I might create for others' ideas to be realized."
2 of 6
Mel Chin
"I was doing art that was questioning what art is - not just 'What is art?' because I am not a formalist; but 'What is art for?' I always thought in terms of the uses of art."
3 of 6
Tania Bruguera
"Art [...] is no longer seeking to represent utopias; rather, it is attempting to construct concrete spaces."
4 of 6
Nicolas Bourriaud
"Instead of critiquing the current system, you have to make a new system that will render the previous system superfluous or irrelevant. So as artists we need to build institutions, we need to be institutional."
5 of 6
Pablo Helguera
"Art can play a big role in bringing people together and helping us find our way back to what I think our nature really is - being social beings. It's when we are most social that we're capable of addressing the challenges that we have."
6 of 6
Rick Lowe

Summary of Social Practice Art

Many forms of artistic projects fall under the umbrella of Social Practice Art. These range from an artist-initiated community center that assists immigrants to a gallery exhibition where visitors can sit down and share a meal. While diverse in aim, method, and scope, all Social Practice artworks converge on a similar ethos: a commitment to making positive social contributions while placing people at the core of each project. In Social Practice Art, everyday living, community work, relationships, as well as organizational efforts, are all acknowledged as part of the work. In fact, Social Practice artists would contend that these often-overlooked aspects of artmaking carry as much weight and significance as the creation of art objects.

Key Ideas & Accomplishments

  • Traditionally, museums and galleries select and set the terms of conversation for artworks. Social Practice Art, instead, frames art as an ongoing project outside of institutional bounds. This shift represents a major change in modern art history, prompting the need, as art historian Claire Bishop argues, for a re-imagining of how we discuss and assess art.
  • Within the contemporary art landscape, Social Practice Art stands out for its ability to yield tangible outcomes. It provides a compelling response to the enduring question surrounding the efficacy of art - a long-standing point of contention in the history of politically engaged art.
  • Social Practice artists have shown particularly adept skills in maneuvering within the realms of art world funding and bureaucracy to harness institutional resources for social projects. Their work demonstrates ways of effecting change in the real world within a system that usually confines itself to the parameters of fine art.

Artworks and Artists of Social Practice Art

Progression of Art
1979-1980

Touch Sanitation

Artist: Mierle Laderman Ukeles

In 1977, Ukeles assumed the (unpaid) role as the artist-in-residence at the New York City Department of Sanitation. She was interested in the confluence of civic labor and artistic practice as a means to vitalize the overall work experience and celebrate the dedicated efforts of essential workers.

As an artist working within the municipal agency responsible for cleaning New York City's streets and collecting all of its residential refuse, Ukeles met more than 8,500 sanitation workers. She mapped out her routes, which she called "sweeps," an allusion to the act of street cleaning, and spent eight to sixteen hours a day with different sanitation crews. She shadowed their work, interviewed them, and shook each laborer's hand and said, "Thank you for keeping New York City alive."

The performance revealed both public-facing and more intricate operations within the sanitation department, while humanizing the laborers who are often stigmatized despite their essential role in keeping the city clean and well maintained. Ukeles explains: "People didn't understand why I was so interested in one municipal department, especially this one, which really got no respect, especially back then, but I felt like it was perfect, conceptually and practically. For me, the Sanitation Department was like the major leagues."

This foundational work helped pave the way for the idea that an artwork can be an ongoing life project. (To this day, she maintains her role at the Department of Sanitation). It also demonstrated a way of embedding oneself within an organization, rather than making work centering on the artist's own voice as normally the case in modern art. Inspired by Ukeles's work, New York City's Cultural Affairs Department launched the Public Artists in Residence initiative in 2015, which puts a rotating group of selected artists in city governments to "propose and implement creative solutions to pressing civic challenges."

Performance

2010 - 2015

Immigrant Movement International

Artist: Tania Bruguera

Immigrant Movement International (IMI) was a project initiated and facilitated by Tania Bruguera that ran from 2010-2015. The first iteration of IMI took place in Corona, a vibrant and culturally diverse neighborhood within the New York City borough of Queens. Bruguera initiated IMI by spending a year residing and working in Corona, where she organized a variety of initiatives and opportunities that took into account the neighborhood's multinational identity.

Over the course of the project, Bruguera worked with an extensive array of collaborators focused on immigration reform, including social service organizations, elected officials, and artists, such as Mexican-American artist Aliza Nisenbaum, who taught English to Mexican and Central American immigrants and painted their portraits. Each participant addressed different issues that immigrants faced, such as political representation, social policies, and proper living conditions. Overall, IMI provided communal spaces where immigrant communities learned a variety of skills (i.e. bilingual communication), were provided with beneficial resources (legal aid and childcare programs), and expressed their diverse identities through art-making.

IMI's concept derived from Bruguera's idea of Arte Útil, which means "useful art." According to her, "art and ethics cannot be separated in this practice." IMI highlighted what it means to make art that transcends traditional representational modes in order to propose pragmatic solutions to social issues. The longevity and breadth of the project enabled Bruguera and collaborators to examine ways to integrate artistic processes and aesthetics into society, as well as to democratize the experience of viewing and discussing art.

Bruguera reflects on the duration of her work: "Long-term projects are educational processes and as knowledge evolves so does the project. These projects are about creating an ecology that embodies the desired change, where people can experiment with what they want before it is socially established, that is, before it becomes culture. [...] Long-term projects have an unstable form, a liquid form, so that they can adapt to the complexities they confront and to the outcomes of collective authorship."

2013-2017

Librería Donceles

Artist: Pablo Helguera

Librería Donceles was an itinerant Spanish-language bookstore and literary event space founded by artist, educator, and critical theorist Pablo Helguera. The bookstore contained books from Helguera's own library, as well as a crowd-sourced inventory of books. In total, over 10,000 books were offered in the bookshop.

The first iteration of the traveling bookshop was in the arts-centric New York City neighborhood of Chelsea. Up until the launch of Librería Donceles, access to Spanish-language publications was a rarity in New York City, despite having over two million Latinx residents (approximately 29% of the city's population). In addition to offering books for sale, Librería Donceles was a community center promoting multicultural and bilingual events such as tertulias (salon-like conversations on literature and art), performances, poetry readings, jam sessions, and workshops.

After its tenure in New York City, Librería Donceles reached other cities with a significant Latinx populations. These locations included Phoenix, San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, Indianapolis, and Boston. In each of these settings, Librería Donceles was the only bookstore devoted entirely to Spanish-language titles. The proceeds from book sales were donated to local literacy programs supporting immigrant communities.

Helguera said of Social Practice: "We spend years in art school, where we are taught to explore ourselves, but social practice is completely about the opposite thing. It's about how to listen. It's remaining engaged with the world in an active way."

Multidisciplinary installation and interactive environment

2009-2017

Misplaced Women?

Artist: Tanja Ostojić

Misplaced Women? was a project initiated and facilitated by Tanja Ostojić, a feminist Performance artist. Ostojić's experience as a non-European citizen, traveler, and woman artist are all important factors that she explores in her art. She has lived in Serbia, Slovenia, France, and Germany, but does not identify with any one particular nationality.

Over the course of the project, Ostojić facilitated workshops and delegated performances, collaborating with more than 170 individuals from across six continents. Misplaced Women? included a hybrid platform of both Internet and in-person events, organized to incorporate different public spaces in cities throughout the world. Themes and issues discussed during these socially engaged gatherings included migration, gender egalitarianism, intersectional feminism, gentrification, inclusion, power dynamics, and vulnerability. A series of performances by Ostojić and other women (either performing as individuals or in a group setting) included Fluxus-like scores that could be replicated and reperformed. These scores reflected actions and gestures that migrants deal with during their travels or through the immigration process, such as airport searches of personal belongings, money transfers, and obtaining visas and permits. The performances specifically highlighted the trials and tribulations that women face in the migration process.

Ostojić explained that, "With this project, on one side, we are investigating privilege by making a distinction between working mobility, forced or desired migration, and how arbitrary laws may apply, and on the other side, exploring diverse public spaces and the invisibility of certain groups within them."

Performance and workshop

2017-2018

Flint Fit

Artist: Mel Chin

Flint Fit is a collaboration between artist Mel Chin and local residents, activists, and small businesses in Flint, Michigan. The project began as a means to address the devastation that pollution and inadequate water treatment processes have had on the city's water supply. Due to the dangerous and unhealthy status of the city's watersheds, residents were instructed to use only bottled or filtered water for drinking, cooking, cleaning, and bathing.

Relying largely on bottled water created another significant environmental crisis: plastic pollution. Flint Fit began with the organization of groups within the community who collected empty plastic water bottles, which were transported to a factory in Greensboro, North Carolina and turned into fabric. The fabric from the recycled plastic bottles was then sent back to Flint were it was utilized by individuals from the commercial sewing program at St Luke N.E.W. Life Center.

Tracy Reese, a Michigan native and well-known fashion designer based in New York City, designed an inaugural collection of garments that were inspired by water-related themes and Flint's history and present identity. Chin explained how the Flint Fit model can provide a sustainable enterprise for the communities: "A new enterprise can be developed through recycling, design, manufacturing, and retail. As an artist, I see Flint Fit as an art project with diverse engagement as its medium; but it can grow into a design and marketing enterprise on a national level providing a new source of identity, income stream, a shared pride and notoriety of a positive kind for all the players involved."

Multidisciplinary art project - Flint Fit installation view at Queens Museum, 2018. Photograph by Adam Zucker

2019

Tree of Knowledge

Artist: Maren Hassinger

Black artist Maren Hassinger created Tree of Knowledge during her residency at the Boca Raton Museum in Florida. She was inspired by Boca Raton's Pearl City neighborhood, a historically Black community, and an old banyan tree there that serves as both a historical and contemporary site for respite and socialization among an intergenerational community of residents. As Pearl City local Amos Jackson said, "There were all sorts of stories, all sorts of conversation exchanged under the tree." Residents have discussed issues impacting their lives, as well as impart information and important cultural heritage through storytelling.

Hassinger paid tribute to the tree and its significance as a site for placemaking and community-building by recreating its unique form within the Boca Raton Museum's main gallery. By bringing this idea of a community tree into the museum, the project extended an invitation to Pearl City residents to participate and feel ownership of the work, as well as ownership in their neighborhood's cultural resources. In public workshops, members of the community gathered to roll newspapers to resemble the tree's cluster of aerial roots (a system of roots that extends above ground). Figuratively, the rolled newspapers made visible the "roots" of the people who made them. Workshop participants were also invited to engage in storytelling sessions that reflected the tree's role as a community center. The finished work became a symbol of collective memories, as well as the passing on of oral traditions and knowledge.

Participatory installation

2020-present

Trans Boxing

Artist: Nolan Hanson

Trans Boxing is an ongoing "co-authored" project that takes the shape of a boxing club for trans and gender-variant individuals. The club empowers them to engage in an activity traditionally viewed as belonging to cis-gender, heterosexual men. More broadly, the club states that "Trans Boxing is for anyone with a desire to be free from the limitations imposed upon them on the basis of gender identity or expression within an athletic context." Weekly classes at the club provide a safe space and unique platform for socializing, physical training and exercise, educational skill building, and mentorships among a diverse array of participants.

Trans Boxing was initially launched in New York City and has traveled to San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Cincinnati, and New Orleans. In each of these locations, workshops were held in coordination with local gyms, community centers, arts organizations, and schools. According to Hanson, "the project shifts in response to context, and conditions and continuously re-imagines possibilities for social engagement."

Participatory public art project

Beginnings of Social Practice Art

Fluxus and Happenings

Social Practice Art is rooted in a variety of art practices and socially engaged activism that emerged around the late 1950s and 60s. During that period, Fluxus artists rejected institutionalized approaches and interpretations of art in favor of art forms that could be easily recreated and made accessible to a diverse public audience. Fluxus pieces often consist of written instructions (or "scores") associated with either an aesthetic, experiential, or social function. These scores laid the groundwork for present and future generations to reenact the works, offering structure while inviting individual interpretations.

By framing art as an activity rather than a static object, Fluxus scores expanded the notion that art could center on concepts, not merely tangible creations. Furthermore, as Elizabeth Biyeu et al. explain in Understanding Media Art, Fluxus showed that "art doesn't have to heroize the individual" since in theory anyone could pick up a score and re-enact a piece. This approach to authorship represented a major break in modern art up to the 1960s. Lastly, many scores also call for collaboration between participants and audiences. They paved the way for the idea that "art can be about community and interpersonal connections."

Allan Kaprow (1927-2006) was a pivotal figure in the development of “happenings.”

Around the same time, another movement called "happenings" began to explore similar ideas. Artists engaged with happenings urged viewers to participate in each piece, whether by watching the live actions unfold or taking part in the work. Some artists constructed installations where viewers could interact with the environment and among themselves. Bridging the gap between art and everyday life, happenings introduced the idea that art could encompass not just what visitors saw but also their actions while viewing the piece.

Community Art

Throughout the 1960s, the zeitgeist of collective movements inspired artists to address social conditions and directly involve their audiences. These included anti-Vietnam War protests, the Civil Rights movement, nuclear disarmament campaigns, and the second wave of Feminism. Around 1969, the term "Community art" began to be used among artists and arts administrators who were concerned with ways of bringing about tangible and transformative changes via artistic processes. Community art encompasses grassroots activist frameworks and methodologies that seek to democratize the artmaking process by involving trained artists and community members alike. Community art also emphasizes the representation of identities, issues, and perspectives from the locals. Some of the common forms and settings of Community art include visual art, performance art, music, and theater presented in public venues such as community centers, parks, and plazas.

In later decades, artists would continue to develop community art projects with sophistication and creativity. "Culture in Action," a 1993 group exhibition in Chicago curated by Mary Jane Jacob, featured a selection of artworks that addressed social conditions and issues such as HIV/AIDS, climate change, public housing, feminism, and women's rights. Most of the works on display were realized in low-income neighborhoods throughout Chicago in tandem with residents and local community advocates. The exhibition included, among others, a hydroponic garden for AIDS volunteers located in a storefront in Rogers Park, organized by the artist collective Haha; a block party organized by Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle that screened videos and films made by local adolescents and young adults in the West Town section of the city; and a multicultural parade organized by Daniel Joseph Martinez in collaboration with 800 volunteers from Chicago's Mexican-American and Black neighborhoods.

Maintenance Art

Mierle Laderman Ukeles, <i>Manifesto for Maintenance Art</i>, 1969, Proposal for an exhibition: “CARE.”

In 1969, Mierle Laderman Ukeles coined the term "Maintenance art" to define a new genre of art that blurs the lines between the artistic process and everyday life. She explained the theory behind maintenance art in her 1969 manifesto. Ukeles argued that domestic tasks were commensurate with art-making. The manifesto challenged gender roles and the traditional definition of art, making it a pivotal document in both Feminist and Conceptual art history. She stated: "I am an artist. I am a woman. I am a wife. I am a mother. (Random order) I do a hell of a lot of washing, cleaning, cooking, renewing, supporting, preserving, etc. Also, (up to now separately) I 'do' Art. Now I will simply do these everyday things, and flush them up to consciousness, exhibit them, as Art [...] MY WORKING WILL BE THE WORK."

In addition, her manifesto also acknowledged more public forms of maintenance such as the custodial upkeep of buildings, street cleaning, agricultural work, and ecological conservation. Then as now, most of the work considered Maintenance art is associated with low wages, minimal to no benefits, poor work-life balance, and a disproportionate number of women and racial minorities.

Maintenance art would prove influential for later generations of Social Practice artists. Firstly, it radically expanded the boundaries of art, not only beyond the object, such as Performance art had done, but to include acts hitherto relegated to the "behind-the-scene" labor behind the making of a great (male) artist as well as institutions. As art historian Miwon Kwon puts it, maintenance art "revealed the extent to which the museum's self-presentations [...] is structurally dependent on the hidden and devalued labor of daily maintenance and upkeep." Secondly, in highlighting these maintenance tasks as central not only to the functioning of art museums but, in fact, of society at large, maintenance art enabled artists to imagine their new roles as producers, organizers, and instigators of social interactions.

Communal Tables

Gordon Matta-Clark, Carole Goodden, and Tina Girouard in front of FOOD in 1971. Photograph by Richard Lantry.

In 1971, artists Gordon Matta-Clark, Carol Goodden, and Tina Girouard founded an artist-run restaurant called FOOD in SoHo, New York. Each founding artist took frequent turns serving as chef de cuisine at FOOD, but they also invited other artists to create meals and work in various positions at the restaurant. SoHo, formerly an industrial area, was undergoing a transformation at the time. Artists were turning the empty manufacturing lofts into living and art spaces, but the neighborhood wasn't considered residential yet. Recalled artist and musician Laurie Anderson, "SoHo was pitch black at night, there were two restaurants ('Food' and 'Fanellis') one gallery ('Paula Cooper Gallery') ... We were very aware that we were creating an entirely new scene (later known as 'Downtown'). Gordon Matta-Clark was the center of this scene." FOOD both employed and nourished an array of New York's creative individuals and served as a cultural hub for artists to socialize and collaborate.

ACT UP

A mass “die-in” on the lawn of National Institutes of Health (NIH) headquarters on May 21, 1990.

AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) was formed on March 12, 1987, at the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center in New York City. In its earliest stages, ACT UP was initiated and sustained by an expansive nucleus of visual artists, writers, and performers. They came together in response to the AIDS crisis, which was particularly affecting LGBTQ+ communities. The crisis was fueled by insufficient government action and societal stigma towards people with HIV. Exacerbated by inadequate healthcare for those infected, the crisis led to the devastating spread of the virus. Building on an existing network of grassroots activism and healthcare, ACT UP became a forward-facing movement that would force the public to pay attention to the traumatic effects of the virus and the toll that government inaction and homophobic propaganda were taking on human lives. ACT UP's actions included acts of civil disobedience in the form of "die-ins," marches, and invasive disruptions of church and civil services to raise awareness and speak out against the church and government's complicity in stigmatizing the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

In 1988, ACT UP launched an official campaign to combat misinformation through art and design. The artistic branch of the organization was called Gran Fury, taking the name from the model of police cars used by the NYPD during the 1980s. The collective's graphic design and artworks were featured and distributed via accessible platforms such as billboards and video PSAs, as well as on t-shirts, bumper stickers, and posters.

In an interview, Gran Fury founding member Loring McAlpin reflected on the group's legacy: "Perhaps we take our greatest satisfaction in the achievements of the broader movement - the ways in which the drug approval process was accelerated, the inclusion of patient groups in that process, the reduction of pricing for life-saving drugs, the broader movement to make healthcare more affordable and increase access for all Americans." For the younger generation of Social Practice artists growing up in the 1980s-1990s, ACT UP showed that it was possible to blend art, activism, and research, leading to tangible results.

New Genre Public Art

Cover of Suzanne Lacy's book, <i>Mapping the Terrain</i> (1995), which contains essays and examples of artworks that fit the activist-centered, collaborative, and public-facing criteria of New Genre Public Art.

In 1991, American conceptual artist and educator Suzanne Lacy coined the term "New Genre Public Art" to define a type of artistic genre that transcends and challenges the existing understanding of Public art (she would consolidate her thoughts and publish a book on the subject in 1995). Traditionally, public art simply means large-scale sculptures placed in public venues such as a park. New Genre Public Art does not refer to art objects per se, but rather a social situation that an artist creates in the public realm, often in tandem with the nearby community or a participatory audience.

Relational Aesthetics

Nicolas Bourriaud in 2016. Photograph by Luis Alvez.

In 1998, the French art critic Nicolas Bourriaud published his important book, Relational Aesthetics, which defines the term as "a set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space." Valuing process over results, Bourriaud's definition and examples of Relational Aesthetics were wide-reaching, with typical parameters being participatory forms of art created through temporary gatherings and occupancy of a space. Artists cited in the book include Rirkrit Tiravanija, Gillian Wearing, and Maurizio Cattelan.

Not all artists discussed by Bourriaud necessarily identified with the term, and many critics have pointed out that their works sometimes differ significantly. Still, the term captured the zeitgeist at the heart of many Social Practice projects at the time. The concept generated utopic excitement that echoed previous attempts to sidestep the commodification of art, such as Fluxus or early twentieth-century avant-gardes. Relational Aesthetics promised that such a possibility could still be carved out in contemporary art, despite the different social and political contexts of the late twentieth century.

Relational Aesthetics had its critics, most notably the art historian Claire Bishop, who argues in her canonical essay, "Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics," that Relational Aesthetics's claim toward community and engagement is benign at best since real progress in the realm of the political requires a consensus built on "antagonisms," or acknowledgments of differing - and often opposing - interests. On the other hand, Relational Aesthetics, she argues, tends to paper over such antagonisms.

Arte de Conducta - Behavior Art

Throughout her career, Cuban performance artist and activist Tania Bruguera has been actively involved in political expression and human rights issues. In 2003, she established the Cátedra Arte de Conducta (Behavior Art School) at the Instituto Superior de Arte in Havana, Cuba. Cátedra Arte de Conducta was a two-year academic program with weekly workshops and group discussions. The program ran through 2009. The school and overall ideology behind Arte de Conducta drew on Institutional Critique, which called attention to systems of hegemony, and inequality within the cultural sector. Arte de Conducta eschewed the commercialization and exclusive presentations of art as a commodity and class status symbol. The school's mission was to provide an environment for the exploration and application of art forms that utilized both traditional and new media art practices to address social issues. Regarding the impetus behind the school, Bruguera notes, "I started thinking about appropriating the structure and the resources of power as my medium, as my material. Instead of representing them, I wanted to put them in action; that would be my work." In line with Social Practice thinking, the institutional structure of the Cátedra Arte de Conducta became part of the creative labor of the artist and collaborators, while the "conduct" or "behavior" of participants, facilitated by the structure, constituted the art.

Concepts and Styles

Collaboration

Documentation of Superflex's workshop with guaraná farmers in Maués, Brazil, 2003. Photograph by Superflex.

Social Practice Art is characterized by collaborative efforts that blur the conventional boundaries between artists and viewers. There are two primary approaches to achieve this. Firstly, in early instances of Social Practice Art, the completion of the artwork may hinge on the active participation of viewers. In Rirkrit Tiravanija's Pad Thai (1990), for example, the artist transformed the gallery space into a kitchen, where he prepared meals for visitors. Arguably the work was not complete until viewers showed up and partook in the sharing of food and conversations. In later iterations of Social Practice Art, often collaboration with viewers is integrated into the work from the start, including in the planning stages. This process often takes the form of consultation with community members and local participants. In Superflex's Guaraná Power (2003), the artist collective worked with a farmers' cooperative in the Brazillian Amazon to create and market their energy drink brand. The project aimed to support the cooperative's self-organization and ability to set fair wages for themselves.

The motivation behind such collaboration is rooted in the aspiration for decentralization and the distribution of authorship, concepts that have been present in modern art since the early twentieth century. The aim is to challenge the glorification of the artist genius myth perpetuated by the capital-driven art market, which historically marginalized certain groups, such as women and artists of color. Many artists and critics have also pointed out the need to acknowledge the actual social conditions of artmaking: in essence, that no one creates something out of a void.

Within the context of the contemporary art market, this dream has come to fruition in Social Practice Art most clearly. Artists have appropriated and channeled art world funding (which is normally tied up with recognizable individual artist names) into social and collective projects for community benefit. With the establishment of a Social Practice artistic framework, artists are liberated from the expectation to produce singular art objects for market circulation. Instead, they can explore more participatory forms of artistic creation with decentralized authorship and less object-specific outcomes.

The paradox, of course, is that, due to the way we've been conditioned to record, assess, and narrate activities of artmaking in today's world, much of the discussion on Social Practice Art still has to privilege the figurehead of the artist-initiator of each project.

Social Justice

Row houses used as studios for local artists. Part of Rick Lowe's <i>Project Row Houses</i> in Houston, Texas

Many Social Practice projects are fueled by a primary motivation: the aspiration to create art with a social justice function. This desire has deep roots in modern art, originating from the convergence of avant-garde artistic ideals and socialist/leftist politics in the nineteenth century. While earlier artworks addressing social goals focused on representation, such as the portrayal of working-class labor in Social Realism, Social Practice Art introduces a novel approach: the artists and the communities they work with become involved in the day-to-day work of the project taking place in the real. The goal isn't to "represent," rather the enactment of the piece in action is key. We see this in projects such as Immigrant Movement International (2010-15) by Tania Bruguera, which was set up as a community center, or Rick Lowe's Project Row Houses (1993-present), in which the artist worked with residents to provide social services.

However, it is important to note that, despite their alignment with social justice goals, many Social Practice artists argue that their projects emerge from an artistic perspective, distinct from community service or social work. Instead, the work results from a re-framing of what an artistic activity - or an artistic life - could be. A contradiction arises in that many projects, often funded within the specific constraints of the art world, are temporary, and artists then move on to their next work. This contrasts with the ongoing nature of social justice needs and goals. For this reason, critics have pointed out that the real-world, in-the-moment impact of Social Practice Art may not be as significant in the long run as the shift in perspective that it enables, or the awareness and knowledge it can spread on a particular issue.

The Artist as Facilitator

In Western art history since the Renaissance, the artist was regarded as the supreme author. The artwork was considered a manifestation of the artist's creativity, personal expression, and skills. In the early twentieth century, influenced by socialist ideals, concepts such as the "the artist as producer" started to emerge. The Frankfurt School writer and theorist Walter Benjamin coined the term to denote the role of the artist as part and parcel of social change through intervention in the production of goods, such as by working as a designer in a factory.

School supplies distribution by Forest Resident Association in Forest Houses, a housing project in the Bronx, New York. Part of Thomas Hirschhorn's <i>Gramsci Monument</i> (2013)

In more recent times and led by Social Practice Art, the role of "the artist as facilitator" has become prominent. In this scenario, rather than serving as the sole author and creative inspiration behind each project, the artist becomes a facilitator who brings together multiple stakeholders to implement a project. Notable examples in this area include Thomas Hirschhorn, who acts as an instigator and organizer of public programs coinciding with his art installations embedded in a community.

The role of facilitation, coupled with the service-oriented aspect of the work, frees artists from geographical constraints and the expectation to produce singular physical objects. Concurrently the art world has seen the rise of "nomadism" among contemporary artists, especially those involved in Social Practice Art. Many projects are modular and flexible, capable of adapting to different locations and community contexts. In tracking a critical history of site-specific art, art historian Miwon Kwon anticipates this move towards nomadic dispersal. This trajectory aligns with the broader global landscape influenced by the dynamics of the late capitalist economy and finance.

Later Developments - After Social Practice Art

While at first shunned by mainstream art institutions, today the impact of Social Practice Art can be seen everywhere in the art world. It is now commonplace for museums and galleries to facilitate events, exhibitions, and educational programs that, working with artists and local communities, combine art with progressive pedagogy and socially engaged objectives.

The Queens Museum in New York City was and remains a leading proponent of Social Practice Art.

Social Practice Art has also established a foothold in educational institutions, ensuring the passing on of knowledge and experience to the next generations of artists. Since the launch of California College of the Arts's Social Practice MFA concentration in 2005, many other colleges and universities have followed suit. Queens College's Social Practice program, which began in 2010 in partnership with the Queens Museum, provides a specialized curriculum for students to work within nearby communities providing elements of care, social intervention, and aesthetic experimentation. Today, the foundational concepts of Social Practice Art have also inspired new degree programs in other disciplines such as dance and theater, such as the MA in Dance: Participation, Communities, Activism program at The Place in London.

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Content compiled and written by Adam Zucker

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Paisid Aramphongphan

"Social Practice Art Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Adam Zucker
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Paisid Aramphongphan
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First published on 01 Feb 2024. Updated and modified regularly
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