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What is Social Practice, Socially Engaged Art, and Civic Practice?

This essay originally appeared in Currents, published by Contemporary Performance and edited by Caden Manson and is also available in hardcopy and available for download as a free pdf below..

Currents focuses on a set of topics concerning the fields of Theater and Contemporary Performance. The book focuses on contemporary performing artists and companies pushing the formal relationships of architecture, artist, and audience. For this first publication, five areas on the forefront of this research were explored;

  • Contemporary Choreography
  • Mixed Reality Performance
  • Performance Cabaret
  • Immersive Theatre
  • Social Engaged Art.

Each section of this book includes an introduction to the specific practice, a conversation with an artist, and a list of artists working in and around the specific practice.

Social Practice
by Terrence I. Mosley

“The Public has a form and any form can be art.”
-Paul Ramirez Jonas

Curator Nicolas Bourriaud introduced the term relational aesthetics to the world in 1996. It was Bourriaud’s attempt to investigate and index work that could not be contained like a painting or a sculpture. Bourriaud defines relational aesthetic as “a set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space.”1 An example of Relational Aesthetics comes from Cuban-born American artist Félix González-Torres called Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.).

Created in 1991, the work consists of 175 pounds of “candies individually wrapped in multi-color cellophane” that can be installed just about anywhere.2 While you are free to engage the pile as you see fit, the late González-Torres encourages spectators to take a piece of candy with them. The candy is a representation of González-Torres’ lover, Ross Laycock, who died of an AIDS-related illness at the height of the AIDS crisis. One hundred and seventy-five pounds was Laycock’s ideal weight. Jennifer Tucker of art database Sartle says, “The shrinking pile of candy is supposed to represent Laycock’s dwindling weight as he moved towards his inevitable demise.”3 To ensure his lover never ends, González-Torres instructs that the pile must be continuously restored to its original weight. The art is not the colorful pile. The art is the guilt you feel taking of Ross and the sweetness you taste as you consume “him.” The art object isn’t actually an object. It is the experience.

Since Bourriaud’s introduced relational aesthetics it has become a contentious term. Some say the term is overused. Kyle Chayka of Hyperallergic says, “The standard cliché summary of modern (and contemporary) art is that now, anything is art […] After so long, we’ve started to run out of things to suddenly deem ‘art.’ But relational aesthetics, or the posing of an artist-constructed social experiences [sic] as art making, is the latest step in this process of turning everything into art.”4

Relational Aesthetics is one part of a constellation of terms and practices focused on the “social”. Other terms include social practice, socially engaged art (SEA), and civic practice.

The key differences between socially engaged art and relational aesthetics lie in how the spectator is utilized. Socially engaged art, like relational aesthetics, produces an experience. Unlike relational aesthetics, in socially engaged art the “spectator” participates in the making/creation of the piece. Pedro Reyes’ piece Palas por Pistolas is an example of socially engaged art. Reyes organized a campaign that invited citizens to exchange their guns for a coupon that could be redeemed for appliances and electronics. Reyes reports:

1527 weapons were collected. 40% of them were high power automatic weapons of exclusive military use. These weapons were taken to a military zone where they were crushed by a steamroller in a public act. The pieces were then taken to a foundry and melted. The metal was sent to a major hardware factory to produce the same number 1527 shovels [sic]. The tools were made under specifications such as a handle with a legend telling the story. These shovels have been distributed to a number of art institutions and public schools where adults and children engage in the action of planting 1527 trees.5

The art is in the experience Reyes enabled for the community through the community’s participation. As Reyes describes it, “this ritual has a pedagogical purpose of showing how an agent of death can become an agent of life.”6 As Ben Valentine from Hyperallergic writes, socially engaged art, “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.”7.

Reyes is shaping the public and is using the public itself to do it. Socially engaged art’s focus on process not only changes the people involved, it changes the world for people unaware of the work. Pedro Reyes’ work changes the world yet his work isn’t very visible. Valentine posits, “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[…] 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?”8

Valentine’s question is an intriguing one. SEA is not a genre that is unknown or even new. Since the 1960s, Bread and Puppet Theatre has made socially engaged art with work like King Story which was incorporated into the 1963 March on Washington.9

Like relational aesthetics, SEA has an ever-expanding list of texts that focus on the field, including Living as Form: Socially Engaged Art from 1991-2011 edited by Nato Thompson, Claire Bishop’s Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, Shannon Jackson’s Social Works: Performing Art, Supporting Publics, and Pablo Helguera’s Education for Socially Engaged Art. Socially engaged art literally changes the world, yet the work doesn’t get as much attention as more traditional forms of art.

Perhaps it is the genre’s resistance to being documented. SEA is even more ephemeral than its progenitor because of its complex interactions. Artist and spectator become one to effect change in the world. The process of making is varied and different in every project. Perhaps the media can’t allow for complexity to take up space for more immediate artistic gestures like linear narratives. Andy Horwitz at Culturebot feels there is “a tendency for visual art practice to resist deep embeddedness, valuing concept and theory over application and implementation, documentation and creation of the ‘art object’ over actual impact.”10

Perhaps this fetishization of concept and theory obscures work from artists like Aaron Landsman. In his own words, Aaron Landsman makes “performances and other projects using people, language, space and time.”11 His best-known work is City Council Meeting. As described by Landsman, the piece is performed participatory democracy. The piece was inspired by a real-life city council meeting Landsman attended while visiting Portland, Oregon in 2009. He recalls that it was boring until a man in a suit got up to testify and dumped a plastic bag filled with hypodermic needles, used condoms, and dirty diapers on the lectern where he was speaking. The man was trying to make a point about “the deterioration of a neighborhood that was supposed to be designated as child-friendly.”12 Over two years, Landsman visited local government meetings across the country.

The New York Times reports he “drew on a range of material for the script—from a banal but humorous tribute to a departing commissioner in Bismarck to rancorous testimony from Oakland, Calif., about the city’s crackdown on Occupy Wall Street protests.”13 The piece is mostly performed by audience members who choose how they will participate. Roles include “a speaker, who reads real testimony from one of the cities; a supporter, who is instructed by the staff to respond positively to certain speakers; or a bystander, who gets to sit back and just observe.”14 Landsman and his collaborator Mallory Catlett cite Plato’s idea that “democracies lack requirements for public office, meaning that anyone — no matter how smart or dumb, sane or insane — can govern.”15

Landsman’s current piece, Perfect City, started in 2012 and is projected to last twenty years. Landsman says “Perfect City is a dialogic art process about the way major cities like New York, London and Sao Paolo (among others) harness seemingly progressive values to create citadels for the rich. [Perfect City is] developed with multiple publics, and created with young people on the Lower East Side, urban planners, architectural interventionists and activists.”16

Landsman makes his participants the engine and the driver. Perfect City empowers both the teen participants and the professional participants in the work by connecting them. Connecting planners with teens in such a way could result in a variety of changes in NYC developed by either community. The art will eventually have an aesthetic value but right now the art is the discourse occurring.

Another possible obstacle to visibility is the nomenclature used to describe socially engaged art. Michael Rohd’s HowlRound essay on socially engaged art (though he prefers the term “civic practice”) adds additional dimensions that are useful when considering SEA through the lens of performance. Rohd, who is the author of Theatre for Community, Conflict, and Dialogue, is on faculty at Northwestern University and heads the Center of Performance and Civic Practice. He says he has “begun to define Civic Practice as activity where a theater artist employs the assets of his/her craft in response to the needs of non-arts partners as determined through ongoing, relationship-based dialogue.”17 This definition is the foundation of the company Rohd founded, Sojourn Theatre.

Founded in 1999, Sojourn Theatre Company partners with non-arts-sector organizations such as city and state legislative bodies and social service agencies, as well as cross-disciplinary arts centers around the country. The company, led by Rohd, has a unique structure of 15 artists living in 8 cities.18Sojourn has a repertoire of 25 works. Their piece How to End Poverty in 90 Minutes represents core values of the company’s work. HTEP asks how to attack the problem of poverty in America and focuses on the community where it is being performed. Over the course of 90 minutes, the audience engages this question by deciding how to spend $1000 of the ticket sales from the performance.19 Portland critic Dennis Sparks wrote, “This is a tough question with no easy answer… it gets people talking about it.”20

The piece uses clear methodology to engender dialogue. The audience is split into groups and the performers ask a series of question that investigate poverty and how it can be solved. The audience then has to decide whether the money should be spent on one of five categories: Direct Aid to a person or group, Systemic Changes, Education to individuals or groups. Making Opportunities for individuals, or Daily Needs for a person or group. Sparks adds, “Dialogue is the key to any solution to any problem. When the digging for answers stops, and solutions found, then the erecting of a firm foundation can begin.”21

In an essay entitled “Living as Form,” Nato Thompson quotes prolific SEA artist Tania Bruguera. She says “I don’t want an art that points at a thing, I want an art that is the thing.”22 The less pointing that occurs, the closer the thing moves towards the public. Pointing creates isolation. Sometimes distance gives us the perspective necessary to engage the things that need to change. While pointing can be useful, it creates a clear division between the person pointing and the thing being pointed at. Perhaps the field and the public are comfortable with the vision of art that only points. After all, our world thrives on pointing. However, there is so much potential in socially engaged art, no matter its nomenclature or the particular approach artists like Pedro Reyes, Aaron Landsman, and Michael Rohd use, because it is democratic and inclusive. SEA is always moving towards the dividing line because “great art accumulates relevance and meaning as it moves beyond the control of its creators.”23

Download a free PDF of the essay in the book Currents, please fill out the form below.

Further Reading:
10 Socially Engaged Art Practitioners to Know


  1. “Relational Aesthetics,” Tate, accessed February 20, 2017,
  2. “Gonzales-Torres, Felix,” Art Institute Chicago, accessed February 20, 2017,
  3. Jennifer Tucker, “Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.),” Sartle, accessed February 20, 2017,
  4. Kyle Chayka, “WTF is… Relational Aesthetics.” Hyperallergic, February 8, 201,
  5. “Palas por Pistolas,” Pedro Reyes, accessed November 13, 2017,
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ben Valentine, “Social Practice and Global Media,” Hyperallergic, July 12, 2012,
  8. Ibid.
  9. “Archival Footage,” Bread and Puppet Theater, accessed November 13, 2017,
  10. Andy Horwitz, “On Social Practice and Performance,” Culturebot, August 28, 2012,
  11. “About,” Aaron Landsman, accessed November 13, 2017,
  12. Kate Taylor, “The Public May Now Comment,” New York Times, May 8, 2013,
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid.
  16. “Current and Recent,” Aaron Landsman, accessed November 13, 2017,
  17. Michael Rohd, “The New Work of Building Civic Practice,” HowlRound, July 8, 2012,
  18. “Company,” Sojourn Theatre, accessed February 20, 2017,
  19. “How to End Poverty in 90 Minutes (WITH 199 PEOPLE YOU MAY OR MAY NOT KNOW),” Sojourn Theatre, accessed February 20, 2017,
  20. Dennis Sparks, “How to End Poverty in 90 Minutes – Portland Playhouse – NE Portland,” Dennis Sparks: All Things Performing Arts, February 13, 2015,
  21. Ibid.
  22. Nato Thompson, “Living as Form,” Living as Form: Socially Engaged Art from 1991-2011, ed. Nato Thompson (MIT Press, 2012), 17-33.
  23. Peggy Phelan, “Marina Abramovic: Witnessing Shadow,” The Performance Studies Reader, ed. Henry Bial and Sara Brady, 3rd ed. (Routledge, 2016), 77-84.

(Photo mark6mauno Flickr)

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