Moving at the Speed of Trust: On Teaching Social Practice
by Emily Dickson
Creative practices that take place outside the gallery, that think their impact beyond the aesthetic, and that frame their participants as other than hapless dupes have increased in visibility in Canada over the past 30 years. While socially engaged art, really an umbrella term for an agglomeration of diverse forms of creative work, is not new, its designation as a distinct practice has opened up the space to foster a new canon, and a new set of theoretical concerns. Although these practices do receive a share of attention in courses dealing with contemporary art histories, it is fairly surprising that only one academic institution in the country has a dedicated program for social and community engagement in practice. In thinking through not just social practice, but also its pedagogy, I cannot help but wonder whether the program’s anomalous presence may have something to do with the differential, at times even anti-institutional, sentiments that undergird the discipline.
The social practice and community engagement (SPACE) program at Emily Carr University of Art + Design (ECUAD) was introduced by Susan Stewart in 2010, and foregrounds a combination of fieldwork, theory, and community and social engagement.1 Describing the Ethics of Representation course as the backbone of the program, Stewart differentiates SPACE from the typical art-school paradigm, noting that the “basic motivation is activist.” Put another way, she told me that she sees socially engaged art as starting and ending with social justice. The possibilities of this education and subsequent work become ever more urgent as the discourse around art and political engagement intensifies.
While the ambiguity of contemporary art’s relationship to political action can be a tool in setting new parameters for discourse, or in resisting the status quo, it can also be usurped by an art market which increasingly feeds on art that stages itself as radical. Socially engaged art education (SEAE) reframes the position of art and artists altogether by posing alternative working methods; the syllabi for these classes look more like handbooks for radical activism than careful chronicles of aesthetic critique. SEAE asks what it means to do political action, starting from the assumption that the artist is a part of, and not distinct from, their communities, while carefully examining aesthetic intentions around community narrative, to which artists might give material form. Speaking not just of social, political, and environmental contexts, but also of the art institution itself, Stewart noted that “We don’t live in a sustainable society.” SEAE works productively through this difficulty, while trying to create the world that we want to see.
At this point, critical commentaries of socially engaged art are well rehearsed: there’s the legacy of the artist who works to “solve,” the danger of participation proffering excess positivity in order to mask social ills, and the possibility of such work picking up where the state leaves off in a form of unpaid volunteerism. Although manifestations of these critiques do have their histories and still pose threats, what became clear in my discussions with Stewart, as well as with Natalie Doonan and Aaniya Asrani—two educators and socially engaged practitioners who have taught in the SPACE program—was the value in working with, through, and in spite of these challenges, limits, and feedback loops. Critically, the problems that socially engaged art faces as a discipline overlap with those of art institutions, increasingly fraught with neoliberalism and marketization. SEAE doesn’t just introduce emerging artists to a canon of community engagement and activist art that is often downplayed or outright excluded within typical studio programs; it also allows them to question how art education primes them for art’s relation to capital, the art market, and the wider social world.
Learning to work in community has to do with learning how to listen in order to become humble—rather than in order to know. This substitution of the typical knowledge paradigm of the university points toward other substitutions as well: of judgement with curiosity,2 direct competition between students with collaboration, ownership with gifting, techniques with tactics, and the relative safety of the classroom with the stark reality of face-to-face encounters. Social practice asks students to check many of their own developing assumptions about themselves and their practice at the door, because it is not as easy to be only a painter or sculptor when responding to the complex needs of a given community. As Doonan expressed, “Training emerging artists to have a community focus is important,” even if those artists may not go on to work primarily in social practice, art activism, or related expanded spheres. Because grassroots and community organizations are already heavily populated with artists and creative workers, empowering students to develop these skills at an early stage frames possibility differently at individual and collective levels.
Both Asrani and Doonan described the reality of a 12-week semester as one of the biggest hindrances to meaningful intervention. To try and address this head-on, ECUAD set up the Community Projects course, the “studio” component of the program, which presents students with the opportunity to coordinate with ongoing community initiatives. As Asrani put it, “The university and a given community group set the intention for the course—the purpose, the vision, how are we framing inclusion—and then we bring that intention to the students, who bring their own imagination, skills, interests, and inquiries to that framework.” Doonan led the course, in collaboration with Pivot Legal Society and Food Not Bombs, from 2010 to 2013. Pivot works with people living in poverty in Vancouver, through a combination of public education and advocacy. Food Not Bombs serves free meals to those in need, often made from perfectly good surplus ingredients from grocery stores, millions of tonnes of which end up in the trash each year.3 As Doonan explained, this partnership strategy “addressed some of the ethical issues in the work, since [these organizations are] already embedded in the community, so students didn’t just parachute in and leave, but really collaborated in an ongoing process.” Some students continue relationships with the community they find, after the course is done. Acknowledging that community isn’t made in a day, Asrani mentioned that social practice must “move at the speed of trust.” At the same time, she expressed how the possibilities of this work today are not necessarily only in the long term or explicitly political, but also in the tangential, temporary, proximate, and ephemeral.
The first iteration with Pivot, focused on the Red Tent campaign, asked students to engage with homelessness and the displacement of encampments in the lead-up to the 2010 Olympics. Critical in the discussion was Bill C-304 which claimed that affordable housing is a human right—because yes, even in 2010 that was still not a thing.4 One student’s project took this on in the form of a performance engagement centred around balloons that read “Bill C-304: Social Housing is a Right,” which were distributed on public transit and served as precursors for interaction, visual affirmations of solidarity, and signposts of social awareness. Doonan also highlighted the YIMBY (“Yes in my backyard!”) campaign where, working again with Pivot, students continued the conversation around housing, this time targeting so-called NIMBYs—people who are outspoken about ensuring that visible signs of oppression and government failure (like encampments) don’t exist in their neighbourhoods. One project involved designing and embedding inserts advertising free coffee in the Vancouver Sun, following which the students distributed coffees in cups with sleeves that provided information addressing the misconception that affordable housing decreases adjacent property value and invites crime. In the business district of downtown Vancouver, this act was a cheeky, effective lure as a pretext for holding dialogue.
Asrani taught the Community Projects course in Autumn 2020, and invited students to pair with posAbilities—a community network that provides services and opportunities to people with developmental disabilities—but also welcomed them to craft individual work targeting their own communities.5 Asrani described the challenges of the last year as a unique opportunity to engage in a “hyperlocalism,” where emerging artists could look at their own micro-social spaces in newly intensified ways. One work by Annika Dixon-Reusz involved the solicitation of damaged clothing from a local Facebook “Buy Nothing Group,” where the items were creatively mended and returned to their owners, in gestures of care that used craft as a social glue within a regifting economy. Another work by Tess Snaden involved crocheting personal, whimsical invitations to her neighbours to do body mapping—the practice of filling the drawn line of one’s own silhouette with affective traces of how one feels through colour, line, texture, and text. Snaden then turned these maps into books made of felt, which she distributed to the participants. Not only was this a cathartic experience for her neighbours in isolation, but Snaden also described feeling less alienated after approaching her own proximate community in this intensely intimate way. Asrani discussed the mood of the semester as rich in possibility; unlike entering a social context distant from your own, in the case of working with your neighbours, “You cannot remove yourself from the work.”
As the SPACE program enters a new decade, the question remains as to whether other Canadian institutions will take up this work. Although many art institutions do engage community in myriad ways—and many student practitioners are drawn to community praxis organically—Stewart, Doonan, and Asrani all expressed how the concerted institution of SEAE introduces an alternative lexicon to the institutional body. “It isn’t the language of fine art,” Asrani voiced, indicating that as vocabulary develops, manifestly different routes of practice become visible, and available. This education also asks us to rethink what change looks like—for example, when impact is registered affectively from the inside of community, without needing to legitimate itself to an outside art audience.
As Stewart expressed to me, teaching socially engaged art is also a boon to educators. She highlighted striking similarities between teaching SEAE and doing social-practice work, both of which hinge on models of decentred authorship. “All innovation comes from the faculty,” Stewart indicated. As social practice evolves, its interests become modulated in the face of intensified challenges—around racial injustice, climate disaster, and affordable housing, to name a few pressing examples. When I asked Doonan what she thought SEAE’s priorities should be, she offered an interesting contrast to Asrani’s hyperlocality: “The kinds of systems [in which] we live put us into relation with people far away from us. We need to find ways to understand connections in everything we do […] We need to change perception and make manifest social relationships that are not easy to see.” She discussed how in her own work, she is questioning what it means to think about community from the perspective of other-than-human ecology, incorporating rocks, waterways, and invasive species into a social dialogue that can help us think through human and other than-human codependency, as well as the social in an expanded sense. Opening up how we think through social justice via artistic means continues to be critical as the discipline questions itself and pushes its limits. Yet Asrani also lent a point of caution: that the naming and framing of a social conglomerate as a community can intensify the way we structure social division, when not approached with appropriate care.
While the takeaways from these conversations were many, I was particularly struck by how different the teaching of social practice looks from standard art-educational pedagogy. SEAE looks to form emerging artists first and foremost from the perspective of radical care, interpersonal ethics, and mutual aid. In this sense, it stands directly against the competition fostered not just within the art institution but in the art world writ large. As Asrani expressed, “This work has a larger purpose than just the ego and the self. This is also where there can be a tension with the institution, since the institution looks at work through the lens of critique.” If I were to imagine why SPACE’s success has not inspired other Canadian institutions to follow suit, it would be for exactly this reason: art schools are founded on a model that is exclusive, exclusionary, and individualist—and therefore fundamentally capitalist—a stark reality which has become even more evident in the past few months, in the severe cuts of faculty and long-term staff across Canada. Stewart reflected that institutions become more conservative in times of strife, to which Asrani added, “I think institutions overall value academic resources over embodied knowledge.” We need actors within art institutions who can leverage their position to remake arts education, not just to the benefit of the students of today, but also for the future sustainability of the arts educational institution as a whole.
Don’t get me wrong. So long as people are using money, artists need to make it—and gallery representation, working alone in the studio, and discovering self-identity are critical steps in becoming an artist. But the inclusion of this alternative paradigm within Canadian art institutions is long overdue. Stewart was proud of the fact that the program she built was a non-major program—meaning students were drawn to the significance of the work and not the legitimacy of its framing—and yet she expressed hope for SPACE to evolve into a master’s stream in the future. While it is clear that the traditions of artists lending creative mutual aid, communicating community value through narrative, and imagining badass radical solutions in a world of dramatic inequality are all alive and well—it is also immensely evident that SEAE points to a transformation on the part of the art institution, too. If socially engaged art has matured into a plethora of forms today which teach us not just how to service people’s needs, but how to articulate our collective aspirations, fears, and desires, SEAE presents an opportunity to foster the development of ethical art workers who lead the way in this future imagining. At a time when art universities in Canada face a wave of lay-offs, course cuts, and other neoliberal developments, SEAE presents the opportunity for us to rearticulate our pedagogical ambitions and to rethink what art education can look like, from the institutional inside out.