What role does “art” play in “socially-engaged art practice”? Can it be removed or replaced, and what happens when it gets removed or replaced?
These questions became relevant – once again – as I’m reflecting on my participation in a festival called ‘Direct Inclusion’, which took place last week in Saint-Petersburg.
It was the first edition of an event dedicated to participatory and socially-engaged art, which marked the rising interest in social turn in art and curating in Russia. As a curator and project manager, I was invited to speak about programming in relation to participatory, discursive and durational art and curatorial practice.
To what extent can the paradigm of institutional project-making facilitate flexibility for participants to contribute and co-produce, to become engaged or to lose interest, to choose roles and to switch them? Already in this statement the question of art seems to be an optional layer, which requires an effort to be included and may possibly cause complications.
The programme of the festival, consisting mostly of talks by practitioners from institutions such as museums, theatres and community centres. These talks seemed to suggest that the ‘art’ part is contingent and conditional, and that the conditions under which art appears – or disappears – from the institutional agenda and strategy, is quite indistinct. While socially engaged art has been revising the definition of art and has been testing its boundaries, it somehow seems to have arrived at quite a Renaissance understanding of art as ingenious and skillful practice, as if being social (or socially responsible) by itself requires certain skills, vision and talent. In this case, the institution does not just mechanically remove the artist, but it actually becomes the artist.
The precedents of art as social practice can be found in the idea of ‘social practice as art’. For example, Jeanne van Heeswijks’ work The Blue House, begun in 2005, is preceded by the Hull House Settlement founded by women’s rights advocate Jane Addams in 1889 in Chicago. Hull House was grounded on “the three R’s” – residence, research, and reform, which involved “close cooperation with the neighborhood people, scientific study of the causes of poverty and dependence, communication of these facts to the public, and persistent pressure for [legislative and social] reform…”. In The Blue House Jeanne van Heeswijk creates a space of cohabitation, where “invitees conducted research, produced works of art, films and publications and were involved in discussions and related activities”. And while she notes “people always think that I am commissioned, which, in nine out of ten of my projects, is actually not the case. I am quite often sort of half commissioned or I commission myself,” does this then prove that as an artist she is acting as an institution? And in this case, is it relevant for institutions to claim that they are appropriating artistic techniques and the instruments of socially engaged art, when socially engaged artists themselves, in adapting forms of social action, diminish their identity as artists, by distributing their agency and authorship?
 Paul O’Neill, The Blue House.
 Luise Wade. “The Heritage from Chicago’s Early Settlement Houses”, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, 1967
 Paul O’Neill, The Blue House. p.19