Towards a network for social practice in art and design

Reflections from Léuli Eshraghi, with contributions from Dr Grace McQuilten and Dr Marnie Badham.

On Tuesday December 12, 2017, in unceded Wurundjeri territory, a group of 40 artists/designers/researchers/curators/educators from Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand came together at RMIT University to start to discuss the future of Social Practice in Art and Design. Using human relations as method and content across art and design, social practice connects creative practitioners with communities, industries and institutions to address contemporary social and political issues. Social practice work focuses on the interaction and interventions between audiences, social systems, and public spaces through a combination of aesthetics, ethics, activism, advocacy and/or antagonism. The process of a work is valued as equal with any finished product or object.

Faivā is a keystone concept in central Oceanian cultures, meaning the making of relational space between living beings. The social is already inherent in Indigenous Pacific traditions, it doesn’t need to be added in, but rather is part of making voices heard and mutual empowerment in Tongatapu and other locales.

This symposium*, which extends the School of Art’s Conversation Series on Social Practice, aimed to explore the histories and trajectories of this growing field including the politics of place/space, our time, and identity/community. Recent discourses of Social Practice have been dominated by North American and UK narratives; therefore, there is now an identified need to build a network through a discussion of the practice here in Australia and our region.

 

Where have we come from? Past trajectories of social practice.

The first session examined the development of Social Practice MFA programs in the US; locally relevant design programs in regional New South Wales; the genesis of live art practices as a corpus in the United Kingdom; and the emergence of social practice in migrant European and other diasporas in Australia, on the foundations of First Nations social practice. Key questions included:

  • What are pedagogical models for teaching these kinds of practices?
  • What are the best ways to make things sustainable within and beyond universities?
  • Which histories of social practice have we not given adequate attention to?
  • Whose voices are missing from these forums (metaphorically and physically)?
  • What would deep knowledge of First Nations social practices in “Australia” feel/look like for the non-Indigenous diasporas here?

It was clear an ongoing engagement with Social Practice beyond English-speaking contexts with similar colonial heritage will benefit us all in the sector.

 

the most productive ways of working in this field emerge from the tensions/frictions of art’s relationship to the social, and ways to address these both in practice and discourse ... One of the immediate next steps for this network is to develop a broader community of interested participants

Who are we now? Politics of community

The second session looked broadly at the idea of community. How can places of cultural diffusion “represent” or “reflect” Pacific or other demographically increasing groups? 
Faivā is a keystone concept in central Oceanian cultures, meaning the making of relational space between living beings. The social is already inherent in Indigenous Pacific traditions, it doesn’t need to be added in, but rather is part of making voices heard and mutual empowerment in Tongatapu and other locales. The kohanga reo (Māori language nest) generation from the mid-1980s bring a distinct perspective in terms of belonging to multiple knowledge systems and activating the obligations/responsibilities to them. 

Two examples of community-based arts practices that were discussed in this session include The Roots collective’s ecologically sustainable, community-oriented interventions in schools in Aotearoa New Zealand; and The Coming Back Out Ball which was designed as a gift for LGBTIQAP+ elders in Narrm Melbourne, Australia. LGBTIQAP+ elders have endured much over decades, and this continues in aged care and other contexts. The Coming Back Out Ball is now an ongoing program to address the lack of social services and care for LGBTIQAP+ elders and create ongoing relationships across generations. Historically, many were involved in gay liberation movements (separatism) and do not feel comfortable with today’s gay streaming (integration) into heteropatriarchal society.


Where are we now? Politics of the time

The third session of the day was framed by the political and social turmoil of the contemporary moment globally, with the rise of Trump, the advent of Brexit and the resurgence of One Nation in Australia. The building of a relationship or relationships between settlers and First Nations sovereignties (in art/design/education practices and interpersonally) has reached a critical point. To consider who we are, examining whiteness, ongoing colonial legacies and our place/speaking position within local Indigenous sovereignties, is pivotal to working in creative pursuits in this settler colonial context.

The actions by the Narrm-based Artists’ Committee to stop the contracts between Wilson Security (operating offshore detention camps) and the National Gallery of Victoria, are an invigoration of social practice, a relevance poignant in our times. We are reminded in the broader creative sector at this time that carrying on as usual is complicity in human rights abuses. What are the ethics of leveraging privilege? What form does consent take before amplifying the voices of others? We are not an arts industry if the majority of practitioners live below the poverty line in terms of income. 


How are we now? Politics of place

The fourth session of the day considered site, place and locale in relation to Social Practice. Food and place figure highly in southeast Asian contemporary art practices, particularly considering The Land Foundation’s ongoing artwork/school/farm/concept in rural Thailand. Considering the exclusivity of art practices from Western European traditions in regards to Somali, Gunnai, Gamilaroi and other local and global black Indigenous cultural practices. Antidotes to this may be the insistence on plural voices in each project as it unfolds. Walking is a continually relevant practice in decentring the emphasis on conventional knowledge systems. In collaborations with communities, are you prepared to be anonymous? Right now, Western art needs to build worthwhile relationships of mutual benefit to art traditions of the rest of the world. 


Where to and how to work together from here

A general consensus emerged in the final session that the most productive ways of working in this field emerge from the tensions/frictions of art’s relationship to the social, and ways to address these both in practice and discourse. A number of potential actions were put forward as a means to develop a Network for Social Practice in Art and Design in Australia and our region. These include:

  1. Action and practice-based gatherings as an ongoing mode of being together, moving away from purely discursive approaches
  2. A co-edited anthology/bibliography of what’s happening in this region (broadly incorporating connections to Asia and Oceania), published together with divergent histories of social practice
  3. Access and circulate existing online archives of social practice with commissioned essays
  4. Collaborative studios/labs in social practice-focused design and architecture with regular meetings
  5. Privileging indigenous knowledges
  6. Gathering at the next Biennale of Sydney in Gadigal country, which has a social practice/collaboration focus
  7. An open invitation for ideas of how we can make a sustainable network with each other, outside or inclusive of multiple institutions and socio-economic status.

One of the immediate next steps for this network is to develop a broader community of interested participants, gathering financial and human resources to start implementing its actions, and find an effective means to broadcast activities and actions.

If you are interested in being part of the next iteration of this network, please contact marniebadham@rmit.edu.au at School of Art, RMIT University.


Léuli Māzyār Lunaʻi Eshrāghi is a curator, artist and Monash University PhD candidate visiting Kulin Nation lands and waters. Léuli hails from the Sāmoan villages of Āpia, Leulumoega, Siʻumu, Salelologa, and other ancestries. His work centres on ceremonial-political practices, language renewal, and Indigenous futures. Residencies include Para Site Hong Kong, Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, University of British Columbia - Okanagan, and Tautai Pacific Arts Trust. He serves on the board of the Aboriginal Curatorial Collective (Canada), editorial advisories for Broadsheet and un Magazine, and the Pacific Advisory Group to Melbourne Museum.

Dr Grace McQuilten is a lecturer in art history and theory at the School of Art at RMIT, a published art historian, curator and artist with expertise in contemporary art and design, public art, social practice, social enterprise and community development. Grace’s research considers the social impact of art and its engagement with broader social and economic systems.

Dr Marnie Badham is Vice Chancellor’s Post Doctoral Research Fellow at the School of Art at RMIT University. Her research expertise includes socially-engaged art, the politics of cultural measurement, and participatory advocacy methodologies in community partnerships. 


References

* The Symposium was supported by RMIT's Design & Creative Practice Enabling Capability Platform, to harness interdisciplinary expertise in socially-engaged art and design across the Schools of Art, Media and Communications, and Architecture and Design and aims to build relationships with researchers, practitioners and institutions across Australia and New Zealand. The organising committee included Marnie Badham, Keely Macarow, Russell Kerr, Grace McQuilten (RMIT University) and Zara Stanhope (QAGOMA/ RMIT University).