Socially engaged art practices have existed in various forms in premodern times and non-western cultures, and the relation between art and social change has been investigated in plenty of insightful researches*.
When one looks at the intersection between contemporary art and social struggles, what one tends to see is a friction arising in three main oppositions: the first is between the clear goal-orientation of the political initiatives and a claim for autonomy of the art driven ones. As apparent in the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011 (and in Battle of Seattle in 1999), this friction has been evoked by both critics and advocates of the power of art to contribute effectively to social change, claiming that the more autonomous and self-conscious approach by socially engaged art practitioners would either lessen their efficacy to achieve impact or deepen and widen the scope of the impact itself.
Another strong critique often laid to art engaging in the social is its time scope, as its duration tends to be way shorter than most political and civic struggles. This critique often is associated with the claim that art interventions would be mostly symbolical and addressed to social imaginary, allowing for a dilution of the potential for impact.
Finally a third argument often arising in the conversation on the subject is the alleged complacency of the art system to the capitalist and neoliberal order, therefore art’s critical stance would be an integral element and ultimate tactic of capitalism’s affirmation, hence hardly any agency for reformations and social change would be left to such initiatives, at least not for progressing the social agenda.
Autonomy vs consistency with set goals, time frame/symbolic vs long term/practical and market complacency vs resilience/resistance to capitalism are three strong arguments that tend in the eyes of most people to weaken the prospect of a convergence between art and innovation in democracy, governance and civic participation.
As a matter of fact, I have come to know many art projects that were well aware of these alleged limitations and clearly overcame them in their practice. My experience at the direction of Cittadellarte, Pistoletto Foundation, in Biella, Italy, since year 2000, has on the contrary brought me to work mostly if not only with art initiatives that were focussed on efficacy of impact, embeddedness in the social context and strong human rights awareness.
I will briefly present here three practices dealing, and in my view making the opposite case, with these alleged limitations. I hope these will serve as a shared knowledge basis for tackling more specifically the question of the possible relation between art and collective deliberation processes and participation to civic governance.
But there is another concern that always arises when one deals with the convergence of art with other fields or endeavours, ranging from as diverse areas such as social rights campaigns to neoliberal city development plans.
It is the old quarrel of the intrinsic/instrumental debate, to reference it as the seminal paper Rethinking Social Impact: “We Can’t Talk About Social Well-Being Without the Arts & Culture” by Mark Stern*.
At its best, this debate can be seen in the typical claim non art geared organizations make when they invite artists to collaborate: art is a transversal language that can let our message reach more people and affect them more deeply.
At its worst it may sound as we do the thinking, you do the colours.
Rather than tackling this debate resorting to the quest for autonomy that artists (as well as scientists and philosophers) have pursued especially with(in) modernity, it might be more suitable for this short document to make reference to the application of the approach to measuring social well-being by the 2009 report of the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress, chaired by Amartya Sen and Joseph Stiglitz, which not only provided a practical way of measuring social well-being, but also provided a way out of the intrinsic/instrumental debate.
If we use the lens of capabilities (as defined by the same Sen and by philosopher Martha Nussbaum), the question is no longer about whether the arts promote social well-being, but that opportunities and access to the arts are part of social well-being.
There is a shift in the paradigm from promoting to being. Arts are social well-being, therefore they do not simply promote social cohesion, democratic participation, social awareness and public debate.
Arts are part of this holistic approach that regards society as a multifaceted and policentric whole.
In the relation between social activists and artists, therefore, there shouldn’t be any underlying instrumental role, but rather a synergy and a mutuality relationship towards a more integral and whole civic identity.
This approach entails that the involvement of artists in social rights initiatives as well as in collective deliberation processes and participation to civic governance will be better unfolded if and in as much as artists’ initiatives can fully express and engage their potential of assuming the real and regenerate it.
It is not therefore a simple question of autonomous vs instrumental, but rather of acknowledging that embedding art practices within societal dynamics would (simply) enrich and widen and deepen their scope, extend, reach.
This is (much) more likely to fully happen when art practices are themselves embedded within the social contexts rather than dropped as a parachute into a context.
Three examples of art projects embedded within the societal sphere that counter the main prejudices on the potential for this embedding to bring about an effective positive contribution.
• Autonomy vs set goals.
Climavore, Isle of Skye, Scotland, by Cooking Sections, initiated in 2016, ongoing.
The coast village founded its economy and identity on salmon farming. This industry is highly polluting and quickly revealing its short term life span, due to its intrinsic unsustainability. The collective Cooking Sections instigated a community conversation whose output was the collective decision to switch from salmon to sea food farming, as sea food farming cleanses the water. The whole process constituted a collective community bonding and citizen science expression. More than a dozen restaurants in the island swapped salmon for sea food on their menu, and so did the Tate Britain’s restaurants where the project is currently in show.
More on the project:
The first two links are to Cittadellarte’s repository and platform project aimed at producing, sustaining and studying socially engaged art projects, named visible project.
The third link is to Tate.
Why this is the key to the topic Autonomy vs set goals. As the Tate show openly proves, this was and remains an art project and yet, it delivers impact with lucidity while managing to engage the complexity of real-life, citizen-led initiatives.
• The symbolic vs the factual.
Freehouse, Rotterdam, The Netherlands, by Jeanne van Heeswijk and Hervé Paraponaris, initiated in 1999, ongoing.
Freehouse was founded with a very clear goal, which was to lobby policy makers regarding changes in governmental policies around permits in the Afrikaanderwijk Market.
It gradually became a neighbourhood project, involving hundreds of organizations and thousands of people.
Many of them found opportunity for work and improving their lives via the project.
The project has focused on the micro-urbanism emerging in small communities across the city of Rotterdam. After a research in the Afrikanerwijk in particular, the initiators developed a foundation with the help of the residents.
Freehouse comprehends 3 studios: Wijkatelier, Wijkkeuken (kitchen) and Wijkwinkel (shop). Here residents can share their skills and create new products in the communal workshops, which are then sold in the shop.
Every activity is based on community participation, co-operative cultural production and self-organisation. Freehouse has recently developed a skill-based neighbourhood co-operative. For a thorough account see:
http://www.freehouse.nl/#stichting_freehouse (in Dutch, but the 2:19 minute interview is subtitled in English).
Why this is the key to the topic The symbolic vs the factual. Few would argue that this project did not bear very concrete and factual outcomes. It has thoroughly been incorporated within the societal fabric of a densely populated area of a major European city, and can provide lots of inspiration for scaling to other places and contexts. Yet, or perhaps just because of this, it retains a vivid symbolic value when arguing for the potential of art projects to contribute to society.
• Market complacency vs resilience/resistance to capitalism.
Trampolin House, Copenhagen Refugee Community, Denmark, initiated in 2009, ongoing.
The following text is drawn by “Anti-Racist Resistance and Political Existence in Denmark: Trampoline House and CAMP”, a text on Trampoline House, 2019 Visible Award shortlisted project, by Julia Suárez-Krabbe, published at visible project (see link below).
A widespread feature of the dominant Danish national identity is the idea of Danishness as equivalent to democracy, respect, tolerance and freedom. By this logic, it follows that racialized minorities in the country, including refugees and migrants, are often seen as undemocratic, disrespectful, intolerant and totalitarian. This sense of Danishness additionally supports the belief that racism does not exist in Denmark, and has been instrumental to the political parties’ increasing tendency to implement racism through the law, through the construction of refugees and migrants as a problem often connected to crime, to be handled through stricter laws, more control and more law and order.
The criminalization of refugees and migrants started towards the end of the 1980s and then developed further towards the introduction of stricter immigration laws and restrictions to migrants’ rights in 1997. This development has continued until today, and the latest changes to Danish immigration law have moved towards an ever more selective control of foreigners based on general categories of persons. This categorization includes a legally well-defined group consisting of refugees and migrants who arrived in Denmark until the late 1990s, their children (and grandchildren), as well as asylum seekers and rejected asylum seekers. This group of people faces severe restrictions to their rights, as well as stricter punishments for infringements to the law and harsh conditions in matters pertaining to family reunification, asylum, visas and deportation.
Julia Suárez-Krabbe’s article: https://www.visibleproject.org/blog/text/anti-racist-resistance-and-political-existence-in-denmark-trampoline-house-and-camp/
More about the project:
https://www.trampolinehouse.dk/ (project website).
Why this is the key to the topic Market complacency vs resilience/resistance to capitalism.
The work of Trampoline House and CAMP can in many ways be seen as the complete reversal of the dominant Danish society’s white supremacist tendencies, where racist structures are de facto applied and defended. Indeed, Trampoline House and CAMP are notable for their commitment to decolonizing practices and principles, including a continuous endeavour to decentre whiteness in their daily practice.
There is a wealth of socially engaged art practices that have dealt and deal with participation and its (dis)contents. There is a vast literature on the subject* and a few well maintained web resources, (apart from the typical University led platforms from the US), such as the
Visible Project, https://www.visibleproject.org
Arte Util, https://www.arte-util.org/about/links/
Living as Form, https://creativetime.org/programs/archive/2011/livingasform/archive.htm.
But what about the specificities of collective deliberative platforms and civic governance?
Here again, many are the artist-led initiatives, or art involving initiatives, that one can recall.
Let us consider briefly two of them, the first is Better Reykjavík, dealing with the deliberation process of the Reykjavik Town Council, and the other is New World Summit, dealing with the instalment of physical parliaments for stateless nations.
This highly performing e-government platform was contributed by politician and artist Jón Gnarr, who founded Best Party as an Icelandic political party on 16 November 2009. The party ran in the 2010 city council election in Reykjavík and won a plurality on the Reykjavík City Council*.
Better Reykjavik* is an online platform for the crowdsourcing of solutions to urban challenges launched by the Icelandic Citizens Foundation in May 2010.
Work on the open source platform started in 2008, after the Icelandic financial crash, and Better Reykjavik was its first successful incarnation. It opened a week before elections in Reykjavik and was quickly picked up by the Best Party, which was as a sarcastic critique of local politics that won the city elections. After the elections Better Reykjavik became an official policy and agenda setting platform for the city.
Better Reykjavik is a co-creation project of the Citizens Foundation, Reykjavik City and its citizens that connects them and improves trust and policy.
It’s a platform for crowdsourcing solutions to urban challenges and has multiple democratic functions: Agenda setting, Participatory budgeting and Policy making.
• a unique debating system
• crowd-sourcing of content and prioritization
• submission of multimedia content
• an extensive use of AI to improve the user experience as well as content submitted.
Over 70,000 people have participated out of a population of 120,000 since the site opened and 27,000 registered users have submitted over 8,900 ideas and 19,000 points for and against.
Citizens voice in the City Council
The website gives residents of Reykjavik the opportunity to submit original ideas and solutions to municipal-level issues within the city. Citizens of Reykjavik are given the opportunity to submit, debate, and prioritize policy proposals and ideas. Moreover, it allows residents to vocalize, debate, and amend a variety of ideas which they believe are crucial, and gives the voters a direct influence on decision making. 450 ideas have been processed through agenda setting part of Better Reykjavik. https://betrireykjavik.is
The main idea behind Better Reykjavik and its various projects is to connect citizens to the city administration to increase participation and awareness amongst citizens on municipal issues and to lessen the gap between on the one hand elected officials and administrative staff and the general public on the other hand. Better Reykjavik allows citizens to improve their city in a collaborative way by adding their ideas on how to improve the city, prioritizing them and collectively finding the best points for and against those ideas. The prioritization is done only by citizens and therefore eliminates the need for administrative staff work on prioritizing the ideas.
In 2011 a Participatory budgeting started within Better Reykjavik using the name Better Neighbourhoods (later My Neighbourhood). There Reykjavik residents and the city administration collaborate to determine capital allocation for construction and maintenance projects within the ten main neighbourhoods of the city. Participation has increased steadily with new records reached almost every year.
This 450 million ISK (4.2 million USD, 3.6 million EUR) participatory budgeting initiative enables the public to spend approximately 6% of the city’s capital investment budget. The process for My Neighbourhood takes about a year. During a three-week span between February and March, the ideas from all 10 neighbourhoods are collected, and from the end of the “idea collection” period to May, the ideas are processed by both the project management team and the political district committees to decide which ones are reasonable and implementable. Close to 700 ideas from citizens have been realized by the city, with the visible and usable results in all neighbourhoods which have been made better for their citizens to enjoy. https://betrireykjavik.is/community/973
Our annual PB online voting has attracted participation of around 12.5% of the city’s population. In April 2019 the city has had just completed its 8th annual idea generation, with 39,000 visitors (37% of the voting population) and 5,800 logging in.
Close to 700 ideas from citizens have been realized by the city, making all neighbourhoods better for citizens to enjoy. Over 450 ideas have been processed through agenda setting part of Better Reykjavik. The education policy project generated 200 ideas and thousands of debate points.
Better Reykjavik and My Neighbourhood were inspirations for the Decide Madrid project where we consulted for them.
The Norwegian Consumer agency uses Your Priorities to connect with the public in Norway to help them prioritize their work.
It’s used to crowdsource questions to the government from two majority parliamentarians and for projects in Scotland, Norway, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia and in the Estonian Rahvakogu (People’s Assembly) in 2013 resulting in law and policy changes. Our open source software & services have been officially used in over 20 countries since 2010.
New World Summit
New World Summit is an artistic and political organization founded by Dutch artist Jonas Staal that creates ‘parliaments’ for stateless and blacklisted political groups that are banned from democracy. These parliaments take the form of large architectural constructions in theatres, art and public spaces.
From Wikipedia*: In May 2012 Staal announced in his pamphlet “Art in Defence of Democracy” the establishment of the artistic and political organization New World Summit. This organization aims to provide parliaments for stateless political organizations that are being placed “outside” of democracy, for example by use of so-called international designated lists of terrorist organizations that block their bank accounts and result in an immediate travel ban, relegating them to the “edge” of the political system.
The first edition of the New World Summit, taking place on May 4 and 5, 2012, in the Sophiensaal in Berlin, hosted four political and three juridical representatives of blacklisted organizations, such as the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDF), the Kurdish Women Movement, the Basque Independence Movement and the National Liberation Movement of Azawad (MNLA). According to Staal, his organization wants to explore at what level art can operate as an instrument to create an “alternative political space” as politics is unable to act upon the promise of what he calls a “fundamental democracy”. The second edition of the New World Summit took place on December 29, 2012, in de Waag in Leiden, the Netherlands, and focused on Professor Jose Maria Sison, the founder of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its armed wing, the New People’s Army (NPA), both of which are internationally blacklisted. Sison, who lives in exile in the Netherlands, debated several politicians, lawyers, public prosecutors and judges on his case. The 3rd New World Summit was announced to take place early 2013 in Kochi, India, in the context of the 1st Kochi-Muziris Biennale. For this occasion, an open air parliament was built in front of a former British colonial complex, but by order of the State Intelligence, flags in the parliament were painted over and three members of the summit were accused of material support to blacklisted organizations. The fourth New World Summit took place from September 19–21, 2014 in the Royal Flemish Theatre in Brussels, bringing together twenty representatives of what the organization describes as “stateless states,” such as representatives of organizations in Kurdistan, Somaliland, West Papua and Azawad. The New World Summit in this context also speaks of their work as the “art of the stateless state”.
In October 2015 Jonas Staal announced in different interviews that the fifth summit would take place in Rojava, a region declared autonomous by Kurdish revolutionaries in the northern part of Syria in 2011, and would include a celebration of the start of construction of a new public parliament developed together with the Democratic Self-Administration of Rojava. The New World Summit in Rojava took place on October 16–17, 2015 in the city of Derîk, Cezîre canton, and included speakers from the Democratic Self-Administration of Rojava as well as an international delegation, amongst which representatives from Catalonia, Scotland and the Amazigh community. At the end of the two-day summit, the participants gathered at the building site of the new public parliament, where Minister of Foreign Affairs of Cezîre Canton Amina Osse and Staal announced the construction as a symbol of the Rojava revolution and of the friendship with other stateless peoples from all over the world. According to articles by journalists traveling with the international delegation to the summit in Rojava, the second part of the New World Summit in the autonomous region took place in the finished parliament, in early 2016.
From the Visible website: the focus of the New World Summit has been on the War on Terror and the use of blacklists that impose travel bans, retrieve passports and freeze bank accounts of organisations considered a threat to democracy. This massive and unaccountable global security apparatus has created the conditions and legitimation for new “terrorist” threats to emerge and pose grave danger to civil liberties at large.
The New World Summit has created its parliaments in Berlin DE; Leiden NL; Kochi IN; Brussels BE; Rojava, SY. Since 2012 we have facilitated thirty different stateless groups, from the Azawadian independence movement in Northern Mali; the Kurdish struggle reaching across Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria; and the unrecognised governments of Somaliland and West-Papua.
New World Summit believes that democracy as an emancipatory practice is limitless by definition in its capacity to create spaces of difference, conflict and confrontation. The question of the right to representation is exactly where the spheres of art and politics meet. We believe the visual literacy of art, its morphology – its genealogy of form – makes it possible to per-form a different practice of democracy. The spaces where we assemble, the ‘sociography’ proposed by our parliaments, and the visual vocabulary through which we aim to represent the many worlds that underlie our existing perception of the world map is where the New World Summit practises its ideals of a ‘New Worldism’
There may be hundreds of other inspiring projects that could lead us to see, or at least to sense, that involving artists initiatives in collective deliberation processes and participation to civic governance is not only viable but also desirable.
One should not, nevertheless, expect the art to come in as an illustrator of someone else’s views.
These practitioners share their life and work and context with the very same people whose deliberative processes and civic governance they are invited to relate with. They are, like everyone else, part of the community of communities of practice that all human settlements constitute.
Art initiatives embedded in the social relate exactly and thoroughly with the practices and concerns shared by citizens. They all aggregate in communities of practice* and it can be that art initiatives aim at constituting exactly one of these. Practicing art, therefore, assumes the role of providing non artists with the spaces and devices able to activate potential and power of regeneration and rethinking the real, the local, the personal, the political.
This is not a simple integration, but rather a complex negotiation and a multilayered process of identification and reclaiming of agency. It can very well connect and contribute to political and deliberative platforms. Or it cannot. It mostly depends on all involved actors’ views and intentions.
If it does, it will surely provide for a more whole and deeply rewarding civic experience. But it entails a higher degree of unpredictability, just because it allows and caters for the participants’ authorship rather than automaticity.
From the society of automata to the society of authors might be a claim for those who advocate for making this convergence between art and civic engagement happen, and especially those who call this the Art of Demopraxy1, like I do.
San Sicario, Turin, January 4th, 2021