For as long as I’ve made art and community engagement works I have wondered about the connection, or more often in my case, disconnection, between these two concepts. Reading about the development of socially engaged art as a practice, as well as getting to know some projects within this field has broadened my understanding of this multidisciplinary practice that exists in between “art and non-art”, according to Pablo Helguera. In Carolyn Mirand’s piece for Artnet News, Gramsci Monument was introduced as an example of social practice, which strongly resonates with Habermas’ (who was also influenced by Gramsci’s work) concept of “public sphere” as a place of discussion and deliberation, where private persons are able to come together to form a public. Another philosopher from the Frankfurt School, Herbert Marcuse, defined practical-critical activity as “praxis”, in order to differentiate action from its philosophical foundation, “theory”, which is also comparable to Pablo Helguera’s idea of actual practice versus addressing issues on a metaphorical level. It’s obvious that many artists in the field of socially engaged art draw huge influence from cultural Marxism, and within this framework there’s no surprise that Tom Finkelpearl would see the popularity of social practices as a drift away from the art market that values “excessive individualism” (communicating ideas from point to mass), as this type of work strives to engage communities and collectives in the process of creation, forming point to point connections in small public spheres where people address questions of general interests and are free of coercion.
After being introduced to socially engaged art’s history and its relationship with standard education practices (so interesting!), I found great joy in reading Adam Greenfield’s Radical Technologies. Coming into ITP this year as someone’s artistic identity is “low-tech”, I found it reassuring that Greenfield, who creates works in a more technology-driven context, also shares the same concerns regarding the age of domination by mega tech companies. I often think about how the internet used to be studied and perceived by media scholars as a networked, utopian, virtual, public sphere, especially comparing to the television era as seen in Nato Thompson’s analysis, but now has turned into, or finally conceptualized as, a medium for ubiquitous surveillance capitalism, the exact opposite of what Habermas’ public spheres aim to achieve. Even though social media has been extremely helpful in engaging and organizing social demonstrations, it still exists more as a form of activism and community organizing rather than… art? I realized that I’ve been approaching socially engaged art from its more “social” perspective rather than it being “art”, and I now wonder how, or if, it’s possible for socially engaged art to exist and function fully in the digital space, to practice digital socialism (?) without becoming an act of symbolism.