Meanings, Meaning-Making and the Ideal/Ideas of Socially Engaged Art

Meanings, Meaning-Making and the Ideal/Ideas of Socially Engaged Art

Gábor Erlich, Jenny Fadranski, Anna Fech, Fabiola Fiocco, Sophie Mak-Schram, Noa Mamrud, Maria Mkrtycheva, Marteinn Sindri Jónsson

This conversation stems from our shared overarching research frame of FEINART, The Future of European Independent Art Spaces in a Period of Socially Engaged Art. This project is an Innovative Training Network supported by the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions of Horizon 2020 and involves 11 Ph.D. trajectories, of which 8 of us are in conversation here. Our research projects are independent of each other in a formal sense, and consider a variety of topics such as democracy, feminism, radical pedagogies, and cultural and funding policies across (the ideas of) Europe. However, reflecting on socially engaged art and the theoretical, social, and political implications of this term cuts across all our works. Hence, we came together to unfold shared concerns, doubts, and frictions in our work and practices as they pertain to socially engaged art (as a notion as much as a field). The text is divided in four sections, which originated from a set of questions prompted by FIELD journal. We discussed these questions in smaller groups, through the form of email exchanges, calls, and collectively edited online documents between October 2022 and February 2023.

1. How do you think socially engaged art is related to meaningful political change today? How do you understand the nature and potential of ‘revolutionary’ change today? What forms of change can be produced by locally-based engaged art projects, and how do these forms of change relate to broader shifts in the structures of social and political power?

Gábor Erlich: We’re living in counter-revolutionary times. This is nothing new, one might say. I agree and disagree. Capital(ism)’s suffocating grip on the planet’s human and non-human inhabitants seems more total than ever before. Consequently, it is powerful enough to hijack, appropriate, and co-opt even the most radical anti-systemic sparks, together with the heritage of revolution(arie)s. It is, indeed, a grim horizon, although by no means hopeless, as comrades in the most desperate of situations keep showing us light. To mention only two of the examples that have given hope recently, take a look at the activities of the “Sunflower” Solidarity Community Centre and the Soniakh Digest (Against War, Empire and Westsplaining) Magazine. In order to actually answer the question, I’d like to put forward a framework first, for I feel that the universalizing notion of socially engaged art is inadequate. I come from, speak about, and work in Eastern Europe, as one of the “children of post-Communism.” [1] This formative inheritance guides my understanding on the global arena due to the lived experience of uneven development—a result of the world-system’s dynamics.[2] To do justice to the material base of the semi-periphery that puts it on a distinct trajectory (vis-à-vis the center/core), thereby influencing the modes of artistic production to a great extent, I advocate using the phrase “postartistic practices”, coined by the Polish theorist Jerzy Ludwiński in the 1970s and revamped by the Consortium for Postartistic Practices (KPP) in Poland since 2016. On the one hand, I’d say that the very meaningful political change that is underway, could be called the illiberal turn,[3] or the building of semiperipheral accumulative local hegemonies [4] that rest on anti-migration, ethno-nationalist, anti-LGBTQI+ conservatism (that is, contemporary fascism and post-fascism).[5] Postartistic practices are related to this political climate change insofar as they are one of the very few members of the interdependent [6] resistance. Acknowledging that the burgeoning of local semiperipheral hegemonies emanates from the latest crises of the unipolar (US) dominance, 2008 onwards, I would argue that, on the broader scale, the Left must show a feasible alternative to the rampant takeover of life by the now multifaceted coercive forces of Capital (neoliberal *, state-*, authoritarian *, etc.). For the time being, I see the institution of the cooperative as a method, which also is a tool, the most appropriate direction to jointly work towards. Postartistic commons, to merge my preferred local typology with Mao Mollona’s term, ought to break free from the enclosures of platforms and thrive to become the analogue vehicle of flexible/tactical partisans/comrades.

Jenny Fadranski: The question of meaningful political or revolutionary change in my view is connected to a transformation of the human self-image toward realizing our entanglement with all forms of life. The destructive practices of production, extraction and economic growth are rooted in separation from life as well as in the belief in scientific-technological progress, which leads to the more and more disastrous domination of nature. This separation from life is institutionalized and manifests in violent power relations to an extent that change seems unlikely. To me, the role of engaged art practices in this messy situation seems to be to creatively disturb this standstill by facilitating and enhancing community, collective action and learning, the imagination of other futures, resistance, and self-organization. A few words on the term socially engaged art. In my view, its implications need to be made transparent. As a genre and category it points to the demarcation of art towards the interdisciplinary field of social practices, while maintaining the singular of art serves to tie certain non-artistic practices to the realm of art. I suggest that art as social practice brings with it an acknowledgment that the growing focus on the social signifies that art as art—that means art that removes itself from the contexts of life through claiming something as art sucks the life and social value out of practices that emerge from living and struggling together. Facing the fast-running machine of racial capitalism, we might think of what emerges with art as social practice as a plethora of pathways for cultivating individual and collective agency. Agency in this case describes the possibility of revolutionary or counter-cultural social engagement that happens within and despite the infrastructures of power and domination in late modernity[7]. With philosopher Eva von Redecker we could think about such agency as interstitial-metaleptic practices that constitute the revolution as a process instead of an event. Interstices are spatial-temporal configurations in between the social, epistemic, and institutional norms and constraints that structure agency, while metaleptic refers to a change in the relationship between present and future as through these practices the desirable future is drawn into the present (Redecker 2021). Drawing the future into the present is a process of transforming consciousness, collective practices, institutional settings, and power relations. Discerning how artistic practices relate to meaningful political change requires unearthing how such practices blend into the process of revolution, thereby inventing less conventional forms of agency, and transforming the human self-image, but also how political struggles reflect back on and change what critical art making means today.

Anna Fech: I think it is highly problematic to speak in categories of change and revolutionary change, especially in the context of socially engaged art in the post-Soviet space. Early experiments of the Russian avant-garde such as Avraamov’s Symphony of Factory Sirens (Baku 1922) were considered visionary. These pieces also aimed to remove hierarchies and aimed to violate the rules of the bourgeoisie (Bishop 2012, 65-66). Although it was highly revolutionary during that time, from today’s perspective it is problematic due to the instrumentalization of the involved parties serving Soviet ideology. During my research on socially engaged art in the post-Soviet space I asked myself: Are there alternative ways of talking about local peculiarities without using the theory of Western discourses? A paradox happens in this context, when characters from local stories are quickly labeled as a phenomenon of “self-orientalization” and offer desired material to the capitalist market that welcomes everything exotic and different (Groys 2008, 150-151). However, this poses a risk: that is, artists or art theorists will continue to refer to recognized discourses in order to be heard and accepted. The ideas of legendary Sufi wise man Molla Nasreddin could provide an alternative perspective, which neglects the understanding of linear time and that any change or revolution is evaluated as something positive, or in the sense of improvement from the previous condition. Rediscovered by the collective Slavs and Tatars, Molla Nasreddin was a controversial figure who had a great impact on a number of artistic communities, exemplified by the satirical paper named after him published between 1906 and 1930 in Baku, Tabriz and Tbilisi commenting on social issues of that period (Slavs and Tatars 2012). While his actual existence is unproven, supposedly Nasreddin lived in the 13th century and was considered as a fool, a trickster, which aligns with the philosophy of Sufism. His stories and quotes were saved through folkloric story telling. Sufi stories are characterized by the fact that they often do not make sense. It is a conscious strategy to negate the intellect, to mislead the mind. A natural reaction to absurd scenarios that fall out of the ordinary is to laugh. (Schimmel 2008, 7) Thus, instead of triggering the old post-Soviet trauma, when talking about revolutionary change, Nasreddin provides a distinct picture as he has been depicted by the collective sitting backwards on a donkey, looking into the past, at the same time moving slowly but surely towards the future.

Fabiola Fiocco: I strongly resonate with the issues and insights raised so far, and I partly share the uneasiness associated with working through the concept of socially engaged art. The gradual institutionalization and subsumption of socially engaged art practices within the neoliberal agenda succeeded in slowly emptying this artistic and theoretical category of its deeper political and radical significance. Socially engaged art initiatives increasingly serve as pacifying and neutralizing tools in politically sensitive or economically deprived contexts, compensating for capitalist shortcomings and inadequacies while deflecting people’s radical potential. I believe that the difficulties in using the term, as acknowledged by Gábor and Jenny and as emerged in several conversations within the FEINART network, also stem from this. Similarly, as Anna made a significant point in mentioning the supremacy of Western discourse and the risk of “self-orientalization,” it is necessary to stress how this notion frequently bears theoretical and political positions that do not always align to ours or to those of the collectives we encountered in our research. Nevertheless, I am convinced that there is a space and a role for social practices today and that the idea of hijacking, mentioned by Gábor, can work in multiple directions, up to the re-appropriation of languages, spaces and tools. Undertaking a tactical approach to art, we might secure and redistribute time and resources for collective work and political prefiguration, allowing individuals to experience their interdependence, autonomy, and political agency anew, outside the workplace and away from patterns of production and consumption. Socially engaged art contexts may thus function as sites of political subjectivation or, following Jenny’s argument, as interstitial-metaleptic practices, repositioning the struggle’s horizon in a ‘futurable present’ that unfolds in everyday life. Then, I would say that the question might be how to ensure art’s sustainability (in terms of human, financial and environmental resources) and integration into people’s lives without relying on or yielding to top-down systems and regulations.

Gábor: Anna, could you please clarify in what way revolutionary change is problematic in the post-Soviet context? Is it, in your opinion, the specific context that makes such notions problematic, or they are so in general?

Anna: Referring to the question, why the idea of change stands in contrast to the post-Soviet context, lies in terms of sensitivity to post-Soviet social aesthetics. Socialist realism was directed by the state as an agent of change. Considering art as autonomous and purposeless was rather alien in those times. Thus, naturally, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, these standards of art serving the collective community were mostly rejected by the art scene. Nevertheless, there were a few individuals who devoted themselves to the topic of the new social reality. For in that period of upheaval, artists, curators, and critics turned towards the principles of Western democracies, which meant that they should serve as a source of critical reflection. However, Viktor Misiano explains that there was not enough institutional support at the time, so social criticism and social engagement was a purely “rhetorical approach.”

Gábor: I think that this line of argument that artists or art theorists will continue to refer to recognized discourses in order to be heard and accepted is very interesting but would need a little more elaboration to be clear.

Anna: The question of how to make the discursive field more diverse, relate to local discourses, as well as escape the judgment of “self-orientalization” I think is a relatively difficult one. Keti Chukhrov addresses this aspect in her essay “Between Revisited Historical Socialism and Imported Western Discourses.” She mentions that there has been an attempt made by intellectuals and artists from the post-Soviet sphere to rethink the Soviet narrative, but when presented at European venues these were misunderstood as a step backward towards the past ideology. This kind of experience forced the ones who aimed to become visible in the West to abandon their research and instead look for a smoother way to integrate into the “global mainstream of leftist critical art” (Chukhrov 2013, 251). Yet even the father of post-colonial theory, Edward Said, mentions that in a colonial context, the revival of oppressed languages and cultures, and the striving for local, or national, self-assertion through cultural traditions is explicable and understandable (Said 2004, 37).

Jenny: Thank you, Fabiola, for this poignant synthesis of what has been said so far. That allows me to deepen my reflection on a few of the mentioned aspects. The supremacy of the Western discourse is what troubles me most, and I think that Anna’s question, whether there are alternative ways of talking about local specificities without using the theory of Western discourse is absolutely crucial. My research of aesthetic modalities in the context of the feminist movement in Argentina last year has confronted me with this exact challenge to search for vocabulary that allows grasping the role of aesthetic practices for social movements. What helped me most was a quote by art theorist T.J. Demos: “What if these movement-culture practices–none of which are recognized or self-identified primarily or solely as art–were not simply slotted into the category of activism and dismissed as such by those in the privileged cultural sector but viewed, discussed, and taught as the most daring, bold, and courageous expressions of what art might be today?” (Demos 2020) I think that this quote shows a pathway for thinking differently within Western discourse. But it also remains problematic since Demos still employs the singular of art which tends to deny multiplicity for the sake of finding a unified narrative that is created to organize the empirical experiences we make but ultimately dominates the chaotic simultaneity of numerous forms of critical interventions. I have also come to use the term complex aesthetic modalities also by T.J. Demos because it does not constitute a new genre of art, although in some cases that might be actually useful. With postartistic practices and postartistic commons, Gábor gave a good example of how such specific terminology can emerge from a local context, that has the potential to be applied for grasping similar social-aesthetic engagements in other contexts as well.

Sophie Mak-Schram: I’ve been thinking about revolutions through the thinking of Elizabeth Freeman this week, whose writing on chrononormativity and the binds of time has reminded me of the root of the word ‘revolution’ itself; a return, a rolling back. I wonder about this as you, we, I, continue to find our thoughts snagging on terminology, category and the question of the ‘what’ as much as the ‘when’ of art. There seems to be something about the category of art that remains productive, even if mainly as a starting point for dissent, for us here. I’m in step with most of what you have said and thought so far, and value your clarity of commitments to the localities you’re studying with, especially you two, Gábor and Anna. I wonder if we might draw this out further: implicitly, there’s a need for what Fred Moten and Stefano Harney might call fugitivity in some of the practices you’re advocating for – they can’t emerge as immediately visible, particularly in repressive regimatic contexts. This necessary fugitivity in these ‘counter-revolutionary times,’ coupled with the need to decolonize discourses of socially engaged art, or at least develop localized languages for it, leads me to a different question. Fabiola’s suggestion of a ‘futurable present’ that is lived out and led by practices, and the tools that might be reappropriated in or through our existing lexica, makes me wonder about complicity and scales of time for change. There is space in the ambiguous term of art, and its loose affiliation with uselessness, autonomy, aesthetic (and thereby apolitical), class and more. Forensic Architecture, with their statement that what they do is also art, is one I find helpful; not an either-or, and in many ways not a singularizing of where or what the art is in their practices.

What forms of knowledge or insight does socially engaged art produce? How is this knowledge similar to, or different from, the forms of knowledge generated by activist practices more generally, or by more conventional forms of artistic production?

 Sophie: The slippage between socially engaged art and activist practices is one I’m often finding myself in the murky waters of. At the root of this might be the ways in which the definition of each constituent word of the term ‘socially engaged art’ is contingent on the historic, geographical and socio-political positioning of its deployment. The fuzzy edges of when, what and with whom socially engaged art happens, becomes an ethical concern when I then think about how the field relates to activist practices. I’m drawn to the slippage, as slippages make things possible, but I’m also hesitant to suggest that there is a holistic nesting in of socially engaged art within activism—which feels implied by the phrase “activist practices more generally.” These murky waters of practices and actions that might be socially engaged art and-as activism, might need to be clarified when thinking about the production of knowledge. Production, as a putting out into the world (what and whose world might be a question for a later conversation), creates an interface between a practice and a public. The kind of public imagined, and the actual kinds of publics reached, shift the politics of the knowledge produced. That is to say, perhaps more simply, that production is always tied up in (speculated, anticipated, refused, desired) receptions. When we (the temporary we of this text’s address) produce, we produce within and through the histories of access, forms of knowing, structures and categories that pre-empt others in particular ways. One might think here of Ariella Aïsha Azoulay’s Potential Histories or even, in a clearer sense, museological taxonomies in relation to the exhibiting and commissioning of socially engaged art, to see how imbricated we are in existing strictures of knowledge and knowing. This is something to think through, gently: how forms of knowledge that are generated, whether through practices we continue to consider as art or those we might understand as activism, might shift based on the receivers’ perception of what the practice is and can do. When might it be an act of fugitive strategy to understand something as socially engaged art, in order to allow what it suggests to emerge into the world via institutions such as the museum or gallery or arts education programs relatively uncensored?

Noa Mamrud: The question of knowledge production in art, and specifically in socially engaged art, is related importantly to the social context of a place and its political charge. I often find that without a context, socially engaged projects easily fall in perception into overly general categories, while their (social, political, communal, revolutionary) value starts to unfold only when having a more nuanced understanding of the locality and the consequential meaning of the practice, given the condition it operates within. Perhaps discussing through an example would lend substance to this claim. The initiative I have in mind when thinking about the particularity of knowledge production to a place is ‘Feel Beit’ [8] in Jerusalem. ‘Feel Beit’ is a space for art that functions in the culturally, ethnically, and religiously diverse population of Israel of which 21% are Israeli Arabs, [9] living in what is considered a Jewish-democratic state. In principle, this paradoxical definition was meant to retain a balance between the systemic privilege of (historically persecuted) Jewish people to the commitment to liberal values of equality and human rights for all. Fragile and contentious from the outset, this equilibrium has been eroding during more than seven decades of the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the escalation of a territorial conflict to a religious, fundamentalist strife over land. It is safe to say that the Israel-Palestine conflict is regarded as an ‘external’ problem by Israeli society. But in effect, brutality has not remained at the border but has metastasized to all social strata and rendered the society divided and tribalized. Within this discordant and volatile social system, ‘Feel Beit’ offers a space of potential for everything that might come up should Israeli Jews and Palestinians choose to sit together. Run by Jewish and Arab Israelis, prefigurative practices aptly describe the mode of knowledge production, while its reception and interpretation are always and to a large degree determined by a situated public that breathes the political climate it lives in. Thus, practices proposed by ‘Feel Beit’—hosting, facilitating listening and learning, and providing contexts for being together—are considered a leap of faith. It is therefore why I ask to turn some of our attention to the production process, which its mode of diversity demonstrates, what I detect, as a shift from desiring the moral(istic) ratification from pointing at what we are against, to feeling the effectiveness of things in living what we support and envision. This shift generates a similarity to activist practices that work toward inducing political change by influencing the electorate. In the particular case of ‘Feel Beit’ this is done by cultivating coalitions that prioritize human rights over the pursuit of justifications for the right to the land and the strengthening of already prevailing zealousness. Given that potency (or will you, impact) lies in the capacity to convey ideas, the question of whom it reaches becomes a significant one.

Maria Mkrtycheva: In response to this question I’d like to bring to the fore the notion of “engagement” that is enclosed—and maybe even trapped—in “socially engaged art.” It bridges together the social and the art in order to produce a kind of artistic practice that is both pragmatic and utopian. On the pragmatic side, it aims at targeting the many power imbalances of life; on the utopian side it is preoccupied with the world-making drive. Sense of engagement is an attitude which makes both sides spin and support each other. To be engaged is to be dedicated to someone or something and to be in affinity with others. It is also to be committed, to trust and to be willing to devote your time and energy to a shared set of ideas, values and practices. A sense of engagement, I believe, grows from experience. Unlike knowledge, which in the Western sense is very much connected to language and disciplines, experience expands logocentrism as it is situated at the intersection of memory, affect, social encounters and the automatisms of daily rituals. Unlike insight, which lies outside of cognition and refers to apprehending the nature of complex things mostly through intuitive understanding, experience is very much related to reasoning and decision-making. It can contradict common sense, but it can prove a point; it can serve as a common ground for socially divided people and it can also convince one to accept the other without giving up a position. Experience cannot be obtained through instruction or supposition and that is how it is open to the multiplicity of meanings and purposes. I approach my curatorial practice through a participatory and socially engaged art lens and I try to put a great value to creating situations in time and space when experiences can be “produced” or rather accumulated, shared, reflected upon, transformed and expanded. Quite often in these situations the very notion of knowledge can trigger discommoning because of its strong reliance on separating professionals from followers and the subject of knowledge from its object. To illustrate this approach, I’d like to mention the project in Norilsk in the North of Russia, in which I was involved some time ago. It was a commission made by the city museum with the aim to reimagine and reinterpret its ethnographic and historical collection. Built in the manner of Soviet legacy encyclopedic and didactic showcases, the museum was supposed to function as a repository of traces of natural and historical events, from the first mining and trading practices of “Baghdad of Siberia” a city called Mangazeya to commemoration of GULAG and its visible and invisible aftermaths. With archived knowledge at the core, the museum was not able to be responsive to changes of times and people around, who constantly change due to the migratory character or living in the North. Through a series of events, meetings and a collaborative process over the course of almost two years it became possible to locate the affective nature of Norilsk as a symbolic landscape and to reimagine the museum as a site for porous and layered non-linear time. And this was made possible through shifting the emphasis from knowledge to experience and to engagement, as in socially engaged art.

Noa: Your example of the Norilsk Museum, Maria, reminds me of a conversation I listened to about the non-archivable. I read the project you describe as an undertaking of putting ‘archived knowledge’ into motion through actions that, at the production level, move away from classifying, filing, and storing to ones that open and invite for a re-reading and apprehending anew. It is the creation of interfaces, as Sophie mentioned above, that enable knowledge to be produced in the moment of reception. Irit Rogoff and Nora Sternfeld [10] discuss these types of production, amongst which is precisely the one of mediation and facilitation, as non-archivable. Meaning, they are not to be captured but to be thought of as what continues to affect and be transmitted. It is a production that rings more active to me—something has to be done for it to circulate or be sustained. I feel obliged to mention performance art under this context too, as its ephemerality induces it in similar ways to rely on the moments of collective presence—producers and publics—as activated spaces for knowledge transmission. Activation is collaborative and performed through reflexive actions of opening and making an offer into the space, and receiving and making a judgment. As producers, we process and distill the stand (view, opinion, utterance) that we intend to make present, but it will always be within the contours of a suggestive and propositional act. It is controllable insofar as it is ours; but once shared, it is synthesized into ‘knowledge’, as the most liberated form of subjectivity.

How do you understand the aesthetic quality of socially engaged art today? Is the aesthetic a relevant term for the analysis of engaged art practice? What is the status of prefigurative forms of experience or social organization in engaged art practice?

Gábor: The more I think about this, the less certain I become whether it’s something that could be answered with a straight-shot statement. As a Marxian practitioner in the semiperiphery, I believe that we ought to ensure that the foundations of postartistic practice are solid: the mode of artistic production (and circulation) must first be altered so that it is anti-capitalist and sincerely decolonial. Only once that’s established can we start to find an aesthetics for a certain process, one that matches the strategy and goals. I argue for a tactical use of aesthetics in a case-by-case fashion instead of demarcating its realm, for, in the current world-system, postartistic aesthetics cannot not be dialectical. By tactical use I mean that through the negotiation process, it might emerge that the most appropriate way is to use already co-opted forms as an interventionist method; while some other times, more disturbing and provocative (avant-garde) ways would prove pertinent. It is pivotal to understand that the aesthetic norms are, too, products of the hegemonic matrix of racial extractivist capitalism, thus no anti-capitalist practice should get caught-up in this net, woven by the revolutionary character of the bourgeoisie (via the servant contribution of the professional cultural managerial ‘class’ (PMCC)).

Jenny: To me the aesthetic remains a relevant term along the lines of Kandice Chuh, who uses aesthetic inquiry in order to bring forward what she calls illiberal humanisms because certain aesthetic modalities and experiences provide “uncommon sensibilities” that diverge from “liberal common sense“ and therefore “amplify […] |the presence and potential of alternatives to liberal humanist onto-epistemologies that give rise to the narrow definition of the human around which the modern condition has been organized” (Chuh 2019: 3). Therefore I suggest approaching the aesthetic quality of socially engaged modalities by exploring the ways in which they evoke sensibilities that prefigure alternatives to liberal humanist onto-epistemologies. In short, that means as Chuh argues to denaturalize the idea of the liberal autonomous subject and to “insist on the human as a social entity and worldly being“ (ibid: 4). With regard to the role of social-aesthetic practices for the future of democracy, which is my focus of research, I think about the ways in which aesthetics shape a prefigurative process of redefining democratic agency. Conventional forms of democratic agency are predominantly organized through citizenship, deliberation, elections, representation, participation, and protest. Socially engaged aesthetic modalities instead create possibilities for collective agency that are organized through friendship, shared values, care and kinship for land and community, through all kinds of social practices as well as an inclination towards imagining and creating a livable future. Redefining democratic agency in contexts of such social-aesthetic modalities seems to be the labor of cultivating cultures of care and kinship.

 Anna: In my case, as I research socially engaged art in relation to digital network culture, the question of aesthetics is crucial. Digital networks are naturally dynamic, participatory, mutable, generative and non-linear, which makes them at first glance a perfect tool for socially engaged practice. While in the 1960s the transition from an “object-oriented to a systems-oriented culture” (Burnham 1968) was highlighted, which very much demonstrates that technology was perceived as something exterior, contemporary theories such as the “New Aesthetic” (Bridle, 2011) declared, how it entered the human body, and changed our visual perception. In the post-digital and the post-internet age digital technologies have infiltrated every part of our lives and our bodies. Critical voices address the contradictions of network culture, its commodification, and mechanisms of exploitation, but at the same time our dependence on them, and the impossibility to escape (Léger 2018, 5). Vladan Joler uses the term “New Extractivism” referring to humans being abused as data pools through the traceability of their internet activities (Joler 2020). Within my field observations I noticed two tendencies, which were rooted in the 1990s. It was an interesting point in time: the internet became easily accessible, and the former communist countries were integrated into the democratic and neoliberal system, it appeared to provide the perfect tool for cross-global connectivity and new forms of collaboration. Some artists aligned with the euphoria of the 1990s, however, left the field later, or took a critical stance, due to the mentioned disillusions. Others followed the fascination that big data can provide solutions for social problems and new fields of interdisciplinary practice emerged. Within the socially engaged field, in my opinion, this might be problematic as the procedure of data collection and processing remains usually invisible. It might undermine that the results (even though based on a big amount of data) only show approximations, models, and ideas, but not the truth, which is for example the perspective of intuitionism. It describes that mathematics is a human created, mental activity and gives only a certain, subjective perspective (Bridges and Palmgren 2018).

Fabiola: It is significant that what comes out more clearly in this question than in the first is how our field of research, and thus the theoretical and political framework through which we work, clearly influences the way we relate to the subject of socially engaged art. I agree with Gábor that it is difficult to think about the aesthetic quality of socially engaged art and its prefigurative potential until the mode of artistic production and circulation changes. In a public conversation on the topic of ‘Collectivity, Labour, Value and Social Reproduction’, I was very struck by a speech by Katja Praznik about the historicization of art and the possibility and necessity of shifting the disciplinary focus from artwork-as-objects to art work-as-activity so as to properly study the working conditions and often exploitation that characterize the sector. Similarly, in my research and in the context of this exchange, I posit it might be interesting to question the aesthetic as a term for analyzing engaged art practices and to focus on work, instead; not only the ways in which work is represented or discussed, but the analysis of working patterns and relations. As noted by Bojana Kunst in Artist at Work, Proximity of Art and Capitalism, the artistic choices, methods and aesthetic features of artistic work are not alien to the conditions of production, but an expression of them. Hence, I believe that a close examination and reconfiguration of aesthetics and work systems in art, and especially in socially engaged art contexts, could be crucial to deconstruct the social aura around artistic work and imagine other ways of producing and understanding art. In this framework, aesthetics could then take on a significant tactical function, reconnecting to Gábor’s suggestion.


4. How do you understand your own position in the field of engaged art, and in relationship to the communities and collaborators with whom you work? What are the institutional and ideological factors that determine your position, and either constrain or enable your own contribution to processes of social or political transformation?

Fabiola: ​​Socially engaged art has been for me an entry point into the art system, a perhaps atypical pathway that has nevertheless greatly influenced my position. I initially entered this field, albeit in a rather naïve way, through a politically-driven, artistic-curatorial experiment I took part in during my first year of university. Through this, and the process of production and collective work and negotiation, my interest in socially engaged practices and the way they are connected to the art world grew, so that I came to know the latter through the former. I decided to continue my art studies and learn more about art institutions, especially the contemporary art museum, and the role these play in the social fabric in which they are situated. This has led me to take a dual position as a researcher and a socially engaged practitioner, striving to bring theory and practice together. I believe that it is precisely because of this stance that I tend to approach the field in a disillusioned but sensible manner, allowing the political and theoretical framework of my study to shape my relationships with colleagues, collaborators, and allies, while not refraining from direct engagement with contradictions and ambiguities. Especially beyond the context of socially engaged art, I try to reclaim and re-contextualize tactics and approaches of other collectives and struggles, seeking to convey their underlying political connotations through collaborative work. Two concepts in particular—that of ‘honesty with the real’ and ‘weak resistance’—have allowed me to appreciate the radical potential of ordinary actions, that are capable of transcending and bridging ideological constraints within the complexity of the everyday. Philosopher Marina Garcès’ (2012) concept of honesty with the real prompts an approach to (artistic) engagement that rethinks commitment through the recognition of people’s proximity. Furthermore, it insists on people’s responsibility to acknowledge their different positions and re-politicize the dynamics of power and violence they entail, thus resulting in new forms of alliance. The concept of ‘weak resistance,’ on the other hand, was developed and refined by philosopher Ewa Majewska (2021) primarily in relation to feminist, decolonial, and queer movements, in her attempt to encompass all of the affective and solidarity work that occurs on the fringes of activism and assures its efficacy and reproduction. Drawing from the work of James Scott, Václav Havel, and Walter Benjamin, Majewska defines as weak resistance all those ordinary, informal, and grassroot forms of political agency that are traditionally overlooked in favor of exceptionality or heroic deeds, while actually serving as the backbone of any social organization. Hence, when reflecting on institutional or ideological constraints, I would say they stem primarily from this ‘split’ as well as from discrepancies, often in relation to internal structures and the organization of work, which I have observed in many socially informed art projects. Nevertheless, the potential and value I see in collective endeavors, especially in terms of the formation of political subjectivity, has led me to look for other strategies and spaces for action and exchange.

Marteinn Sindri Jónsson: For almost two decades I have operated across, beyond, and in vicinity to various cultural and artistic fields in Iceland as philosopher, educator, researcher, collaborator and producer of radio, music, and various projects. This has brought me into contact with countless collaborators and communities, some fleeting others persistent, installing a deep appreciation of broad conceptions of an engaged field of art, such as Gregory Sholette’s (2011) Dark Matter, Kathrin Böhm’s and Kuba Szreder’s Icebergian Economics (2020) and Massimilano Mollona’s (2021) Art/Commons. Sholette, Böhm and Szreder all recognize that the visibility of a few in any field of artistic activity is predicated on the invisibility of many that provide not only the material and intellectual resources necessary to sustain the modes and processes of production, but also the social reproduction and informal exchanges which fuel the relationality of which a field necessarily consists. Indeed, the horizon of a field of engaged art is radically expanded through Mollona’s Art/Commons, which are precisely the expressive and symbolic production one finds in every society; “the reproductive gestures and rituals that re-introduce movement and openness into fixed and static human institutions … and socialize knowledge and emotions” (p. 28).

Gábor: I am an artist/activist (a postartistic practitioner, that is), using the resources allocated by the FEINART program to strengthen my theoretical grip, which I strive to deploy in discovering and proposing counter-hegemonic tactics. Theory is the immaterial tool for a praxis that seeks to overcome the multitude of challenges we face on/in the field. Currently, my institutional affiliation enables me—for the first time in my life—to devote an extended period to a thorough interrogative scrutiny, as well as to reflect on activities I have been involved in. Such privilege, on the other hand, is also a constraint, due to the incentivized mobility that relocated me to a hitherto unknown place. Thus, the most exigent part of pursuing this academic quest is being detached, for the struggle(s) against semiperipheral hegemonies I have been involved in, necessitate presence beyond the occasional visits and online camaraderie. I seek to do justice to this physical hiatus through my chosen methodology: I almost exclusively rely on the formative works of Eastern European scholars in my writing, substantiating that, although overshadowed as a result of (esteem’s) uneven distribution, comrades in (and from) the (semi)peripheries produce revelatory transgressive knowledge that contests the center’s universalizing tendencies.

Maria: With the social turn in art and curating, the role of the audience has been changing from the observer to the participant, and that’s my main area of interest. I’m wondering, however, if temporal and spatial patterns of participation, employed by art institutions through various discursive formats and programmes, can really enable the individual agency needed for collectively animated transformations of the social and political spheres. But I’ll start by outlining some of the conditions that determine the position I’m speaking from. Firstly, I’m interested in art institutions as social systems. I developed a sense of relevance towards this being an institutional body myself. Some years as an employee of one of the art institutions in Moscow planted a hybrid of rights and wrongs in me, combining a belief in small-scale modeling of democracy by means of contemporary art projects with skepticism towards this very modeling, which seems to cater mostly to the formal structure rather than to empower the social order to change. Secondly, I’m interested in the notion of public(s), and the affinities and constellations that may be built through curatorial knowledge and practice. And finally, I’m interested in what constitutes participation. Although aspirations for social action have been considered the ultimate virtue of the emancipated agent of democratic participation, I’m struggling with the shades of what stands behind individual and public opinion, behind being in opposition or in solidarity, and behind being vocal or silent. My understanding of the value of political participation has been largely influenced by living in Russia and by theoretical insights such as ‘the spiral of silence’ by the German political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann who suggests that the very freedom of opinion does not guarantee that people form and express their views without altering them according to the majority’s dominance. While art institutions have been experimenting with various formats of public engagement aimed at democratization of the art system, the roles of the observer and the participant have become antonyms, resembling dichotomies such as inactive and efficient, dependent and independent, biased and open-minded, immaterial and embodied, objectifying and subjective, contemplative and constructive. Instead of providing an emancipatory opportunity, participation became an imperative, almost a command to interact, collaborate or even make friends. The genealogy of the negative connotations of observation goes beyond its opposition to participation back to the development of the optical equipment (from camera obscura and stereoscope to surveillance cameras) and to understanding the act of seeing as knowing and positioning (from colonialism and the panopticon to other pervasive ways of objectifying through observing). With this in mind, I’d like to reconsider the role of the observer and to bring this proposition to this discussion. I believe that the temporal and spatial dimensions of observation resist the neoliberal decree for productivity, and, if understood as an embodied mode of being, an observer has no less potential for social and political transformation than a participant.

Marteinn: As Gábor both clarifies and problematizes, I also believe my position to be predicated by various privileges and affordances that have allowed me trials and errors. I’ve come to recognize through such experiences that a persistent challenge for engaged practice are questions of scale, context and transferability and feel that ambitions for social and political transformation are often at odds with the means with which a community of practitioners operates. In this respect, I find Marina Vishmidt’s (2017, 2022) infrastructural critique an important avenue of thinking, because it demands, as Sabeth Buchmann (2019) has observed, “nothing less than a (re-) consideration of the art and exhibition scene from the perspective of globally networked service, supply and transport systems.”[11] Indeed, given the globalized condition of contemporary cultural production in an era of supercharged neoliberal capitalism that wreaks havoc on societies, communities and ecosystems around the globe, it becomes extremely difficult to assess or fully appreciate the implications of one’s actions. Therefore, an important thread in my attunement to the field of engaged arts, which is common to having studied music, produced radio, and engaged with the methods of philosophy, is the act of listening as best I can.

Fabiola: I appreciate the acknowledgement of the privilege that our positions, both now and in the past, may have granted us. We have a unique opportunity to research, visit, and discuss subjects that are close to our hearts. Yet, I believe it is fascinating to observe how our training programme perpetuates some of the distortions and limits that we flag in our reflections. I am thinking here of the difficulty of merging theory and practice in the way we work and interact, which frequently clashes with bureaucratic and institutional restrictions; how our time and work is consistently being interrupted and assessed, using criteria far from the procedures we aim to promote. Finally, the issue of mobility. I feel very close to what Gábor said about moving and relocating. Because of the way labor has been reconfigured in post-Fordism and the uneven distribution of resources and infrastructure, we are expected to be always flexible and mobile, but how can we remain rooted in a struggle when we are supposed to be always somewhere else?

Gábor: Yes, totally, and this concern you brought up is prevalent in the whole academic-industrial complex per se, becoming ever more tangible in realms such as social theory and praxis. What is staggering to me, as a latecomer to academia, is the apparent lack of any viable position which would allow for both the critique of the very system (that blocks creativity and thrives to replace it with bureaucratically planned, executed, and assessed deliverables), and, at the same time, a continued presence in the very system (remaining in academia). It seems that we all imagine ‘theory as (part of our) practice’ instead of navigating the sedimented ‘theory and practice’ division. If so, do you think that normative theorizing is obsolete? By ‘normative,’ I refer to the universalizing theoretical approach, which I think is the most common one, where a big realm (culture) is divided into fields (music, theater, visual arts, etc.) and there are specialists (socially engaged art) working within those fields in a way that allows them to claim authority over the field and seek to analyze it in its entirety. These same specialists seldom cross into other fields, concealing, to a degree, the interconnected and interdependences of culture as such, and with(in) the system (capitalist reality) at large. I am saying this because I find myself in trouble when the question is, say, “What is social practice art in the 21st century?” I don’t think I could, but even more so, I don’t think I should try to provide an expert answer. Instead, I would prefer to zoom in on a region and try to show the role of social practice art in, say, the Eastern European semi-peripheries. Ideally, I would hope for a patchwork-like net of knowledge to emerge, way more horizontal, thus way less centralized (which is, by nature, universalizing).

Maria: It seems like our strategies derive from a shared concern, that is how to resist domination in social, political and artistic spheres. And I find it very inspiring that the very methods of resistance that each of us proposes are already in opposition to the common (and dominating) understanding of how to win power. Ordinary actions instead of heroic ones, listening instead of talking, political peripheries instead of the core, observing instead of participating. All of these sit on a dichotomy of powerful and powerless, while of course the very existence of this dichotomy serves to reinforce the gap between its two sides and to construct the other. This other thus appears to be weak, distant, numb and inactive, all of the qualities that are associated with the impossibility to resist. But, following Ewa Majewska, “weak does not mean impossible,” and resistance can be not only a mode of political or social action but a mode of conscious and embodied being in the everyday.

Fabiola: I am not sure I am in a position to say what is obsolete, but I do recognize the urgency of other ways of creating and transmitting knowledge in the face of a reality that does not fit into predefined hegemonic categories and is often overlooked in the flight from them. In this respect, while I do not agree with the concept of expertise, I appreciate that our role as researchers and art workers should be that of connectors, able to zoom in, but also to zoom out, identifying connections, affinities and patterns so as to produce clearer and more operative restitutions of complex artistic or politically connoted situations and phenomena. In terms of collaboration, I have already mentioned some ideas in my initial reflection, but I would like to add something. Maria talked about the tension between the observer and the participant in relation to the social turn and the power that comes with adopting the first stance, which I found very powerful. However, it seems to me that our position as consumers is missing from the equation. In our current economic context, citizens/users are generally viewed as customers/consumers of a given experience; whether we are ‘producers’ of creative initiatives or theoretical products, we are all part of the same society in which every aspect is valued as part of capitalist (re)production process.

Marteinn: It is really inspiring to read how strongly our different research projects overlap in important ways, and this overlap seems to suggest a few important discursive and political trajectories that strongly predicate all of our work. Although my research focuses on a rather central national case in the European context, that of Germany, I am deeply attuned to the systematic imbalances within the world system that have been highlighted so far, both theoretically but no less importantly politically and personally. Of course, precisely the kind of botched up formulation I have just offered exposes the impossibility of divorcing theory and practice, knowing-what and knowing-how, thinking and doing and being, living actively or in contemplation, in any absolute terms. This is perhaps, to invoke Henri Lefebvre’s (1991) criticism of academic specialization in the Production of Space, a false spatial separation akin to the separation of cultural spheres that you mention Gábor and I find such an important insight. Another important axiom in my research is Oliver Marchart’s (2011) conception of engaged art as the “organization of the public sphere” invoking precisely the important distinctions that you are making Maria and Fabiola when pluralizing and problematizing our conception of publics. I am very fascinated by Noelle-Neumann’s term “the spiral of silence” which I hadn’t heard before, and it seems to insist on some of the fundamental insights offered by Jürgen Habermas (1991) in his benchmark study of the structural transformation of the bourgeois public sphere. Despite the work’s various revisions and shortcomings (such as a Eurocentric focus on the political histories of Britain, France and Germany) and the important contributions of later thinkers such as Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge (1993), Nancy Fraser (1990) and Rosalyn Deutsche (1996), Habermas is carefully attendant to the tyranny of mass opinion, identified by various 19th-century thinkers in the wake of the emergence of a seemingly autonomous bourgeois public sphere. Moreover, he is surprisingly cognizant of the importance of literary and artistic consumption/appreciation as participation in the cultural development of the bourgeoisie’s moral identity. I understand this to be an important insight into how communities and social groups are in no small part constituted by a shared culture and that participation may not always need to be immanently enacted in a specific social situation, but may just as well arise and be politically effective in a broader framework of time and space that arises from initial observation, appreciation, self-reflection and understanding as Maria also makes clear. Of course, and in line with the earlier contributions of Adorno, Horkheimer and the Frankfurt school, Habermas ultimately discusses what then happens when the bourgeois public sphere is sensationalized towards the consuming public(s), which as you make clear Fabiola is constantly a challenge—although perhaps more so in social arenas traditionally associated with the bourgeois public sphere such as the domain of art and cultural production, than universally.


Gábor Erlich is an artist/activist from the Eastern European semiperipheries, currently working on a research project (at the University of Wolverhampton) that seeks not only to understand the contested arena of socially engaged art but also to advocate for—drawing on Marxist cultural analysis, world-systems research, and decolonial tools—postartistic practices in the struggle against counterrevolutionary, (post-)fascist, extractivist hegemonies. He is a founding member of the art/advocacy group “SZABAD MŰVÉSZEK” (Free Artists) (Budapest, Hungary), the art/research collective “HARMADIK SZEKTOR” (Third Sector) (HU), and the “Participatory Democracy Initiative_PDI-Georgia (Tbilisi).

Jenny Fadranski is a researcher and journalist from Berlin. Currently, she is pursuing a Ph.D. research project on how social-aesthetic practices redefine democratic agency at the University of Iceland (EU Horizon 2020 FEINART network). Her ongoing self-directed study of collective practices and collective learning contexts at the intersections of voice improvisation, dialogue practices, regenerative agency, and systemic change weaves into her academic work.

Anna Fech is an art historian, curator and PhD candidate at Zeppelin University Friedrichshafen. She graduated at Zurich University of the Arts in MAS CURATING with a focus on postcolonial discussion in exhibition practice related to post-soviet countries. From 2016 to 2021, she worked as curator for YARAT Contemporary Art Space (Azerbaijan). During this time, she was responsible for the international residency program and ARTIM PROJECT Space which intends to support and encourage emerging talent to grow. Her curatorial exploration spans gender discourse and the relationship between technology and community building within the post-communist context.

Fabiola Fiocco is a researcher, curator, and organizer. Currently, she is a MSCA PhD fellow at the University of Edinburgh, with a research project on gender and labor in the curating and production of socially engaged art and instituting. She has worked in independent art spaces, museums, and foundations—both in Italy and abroad–and collaborated with various online magazines. She is a founding member of [AWI]–Art Workers Italia.

Marteinn Sindri Jónsson is a philosopher, actively engaged across theoretical, artistic, and cultural fields through radio production, artistic practice, collaborations, publishing, translation, and research. His current work focuses on the infrastructures of socially and politically engaged art and cultural production as the Chair of Art Theory and Curation at Zeppelin University in Friedrichshafen, Germany as MSCA fellow within the EU funded FEINART network.

Sophie Mak-Schram is an art historian, producer, educator and occasional practitioner. Her current research (in part held through the academic frame of the EU: Horizon 2020-funded FEINART project, where she is completing a PhD at Zeppelin University in Germany) thinks alongside contemporary alternative educational projects about how pedagogical propositions that might also be considered art, enact new political futures. At the moment, she’s particularly interested in radical pedagogies, sociality, embodied or imbibed knowledge and the ‘and’ between art and education.

Noa Mamrud is a contemporary dancer, organizer, and researcher. Currently, she is a member of the Horizon 2020 research network FEINART, and completing her PhD on socio-political performance and European cultural policy at Zeppelin University, Germany. Noa is committed to issues related to antisemitism and racism and engages with the learning of freedom and movement through theory and body practices.

Maria Mkrtycheva is a curator, educator and researcher exploring the intangible conditions of the notion of access and the asymmetries of the relationships between art institutions and their publics. Through revisiting concepts of hospitality and reciprocity she is interested in how the focus on the subjectivity of the viewer is connected with visceral politics. Before starting her PhD research at the University of Wolverhampton she has been working with public programmes in museums and cultural projects across Russia.

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[1] See Boris Buden’s essay of the same title in the pages of Radical Philosophy:

[2] World-Systems Research (or Analysis) is a methodology invented by Immanuel Wallerstein (and Giovanni Arrighi) and has been updated ever since, by scholars such as József Böröcz, Attila Melegh, Manuela Boatcă, and the researchers of the Group for Public Sociology “Helyzet” in Budapest, to name just a few influential contributors.

[3] Introduced by PM Viktor Orbán in 2014, drawing on (but not quoting) the work of Fareed Zakaria (

[4] See for example Gábor Scheiring’s book, “The Retreat of Liberal Democracy” (

[5] Post-fascism is coined by the philosopher Gáspár Miklós Tamás (Rest in power, Comrade!) (

[6] See Kuba Szreder’s take on the notion here: or in his recent book, “The ABC of the projectariat. Chapter 36: “I is for interdependence” published by Manchester University Press in 2021.

[7] My use of the term late modernity is based on the works by sociologists Hartmut Rosa. In Social Acceleration (2013) and Resonance (2019) Rosa associates the beginning of late modernity roughly with the end of the cold war. However, late modernity is more about identifying developments and changes that distinguish the contemporary period from earlier phases of modernity. Rosa especially diagnoses an escalation of acceleration in late modernity.

[8] The meaning of the name in Arabic is ‘at home’. Website:

[9] Palestinian (Muslim and Christian) who did not escape to the West bank territories or Gaza during the 1948 Independence War/Nakba but remained in Israeli territory and were considered Israeli citizens ever since. 

[10] The non-archivable is discussed under the larger context of Spectral Infrastructure – A research trajectory convened by BAK, basis voor actuele kunst and the Freethought collective. Link:

[11] See also Buchmann, S. 2022. “Infrastructure as Diagrammatic Disposition: Fareed Armaly’s From/To (1999/2002) Revisited.” In Between the Material and the Possible. Infrastructural Re-examination and Speculation in Art. London and Oldenburg: Sternberg Press and Edith-Russ-Haus.