Social Practice and Global Media

Project Row Houses. Image from
Project Row Houses. (image from

The work of Social Practice is on the rise, but compared to the traditional art world news of auction prices and gallery openings, it doesn’t seem to be receiving as much online attention. Institutions such as California College of the Arts, Portland State University, Otis College of Art, The Queens Museum of Art, Creative Time and more have come to emphasis this quietly growing field, but many news sources are slow to the show and struggle with representing the immersive projects. Could the qualities of Social Practice as a field be incompatible with global media outlets, especially for the internet?

Social Practice is a field which resists easy categorization. In action, many artists working in this field look more like farmers, social workers, teachers and other non-art professionals. Social Practice places emphasis on process and commitment over a single end-product; collaboration over the artist as the sole maker; engagement especially with new audiences often under-represented in the art world; re-introduces a sense of functionality to artwork, which traditionally has rejected utilitarian goals; considers setting as fundamental to the work; and more. We could find works within Social Practice that have many more attributes or projects that have half the attributes listed, but these are some common and fundamental starting points.

The list itself describes why Social Practice might be ill-served by representation online. The internet is a global space that emphasises quick interaction and digestion of information. The imagery and information that spreads like wildfire through Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook are often digestible in seconds, not demanding in depth reading or engagement, and are quickly replaced by new images and stories. The information that incorporates the most people also has greater value online. An art show in NYC gets more press than a better show in the Midwest; unfortunately the more eyes on an event, the more newsworthy it becomes.

Creative Time staff, Tom Finkelpearl, Tania Bruguera and more marching for Immigrant Movement International. Image from Creative Time website.
Creative Time staff, Tom Finkelpearl, Tania Bruguera and more marching for the Immigrant Movement International. (image from Creative Time website)

Social Practice is about a longer engagement with the community directly involved, and in the sense of ‘news-worthiness’, this is a shortcoming. Artists working in the Social Practice field could do well to embrace the idea of spectacle into their practice or their work will fall to obscurity. Some of the most famous Social Practice works barely conjure up any specific or powerful image to remember. Work that represents years of engagement, productivity and meaningful change like Project Row Houses by Rick Lowe, the The Dorchester Project by Theaster Gates or the Queens Museum of Art, Tania Bruguera and Creative Time project, Immigrant Movement International, all with no aesthetic image to pass around and point to.

One could ask, if these projects were created for the communities they serve , do they actually need media attention to be successful? Yes. Firstly, many of these projects are politically entwined, as all social work is. Immigrant Movement International is overtly demanding political change for immigrant rights, and aims to leverages political demands through media attention. Secondly, although deeply rooted in many older movements, Social Practice is young, and could benefit from the critical examination that greater media attention could bring. Thirdly, Social Practice could grow in scale in participants, creators and funders (both institutional and otherwise) if the projects were more often discussed on larger media platforms.

Social Practice artists first and foremost consider setting and those directly involved with the project, but they must take a second step. When a project has reached a level of both stability and community engagement, greater media engagement becomes a way to grow. Although these projects are not easily described or represented in the media, it is no excuse to shy away from trying. Here is when design, documentation and social media come into play.

Edgar Arceneaux, founder of Watts House Project. Image from Sue Bell Yank's website.
Edgar Arceneaux, founder of Watts House Project. (image from Sue Bell Yank’s website)

There are some thinkers integral to Social Practice’s online presence; people like Jules Rochelle, Nato Thompson and Sue Yell Bank have offered much needed online dialogue and attention to this young field. Yet we are almost in an age where if it isn’t online, it didn’t happen, coverage has been slim. Open Engagement, the yearly Social Practice conference hosted by Portland Statue University has a miserable online presence. Creative Time’s Vimeo page is slowly growing interviews and lectures from their summits and shows, with some lectures on Social Practice work like Nato Thompson’s Socially Engaged Art Outside the Bounds of an Artistic Discipline or Rick Lowe at the Creative Time Summit 2.

I believe in Social Practice work. I believe in a commitment to the local, to your neighbor and to improvement of life through art. I also believe in the power of the internet. Social Practice and internet-based artwork interests me because they engage and create new opportunities within public space. Although Social Practice faces a hurdle with the emphasis on online or global journalism, working with these limitations will be key to the movement’s future.

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