Social art practice is often utilised to affect social change through activist and pedagogical processes and In-Situ is no exception, being heavily inspired by Project Row Houses in Houston, Texas, and its reciprocal way of working with community and place, and embedded in its community.
As co-participants, everyone involved shares personal stories of contemporary living, health and wellbeing, financial concerns, joyous tales, and tragic circumstances, and explores what it means to work together through dialogical and physical encounters in meaningful places.
In-Situ - with the aim of ‘making art a part of everyday life’ - adheres to a code of ethics comprising a set of principles informing how they work with people, place and environment. In-Situ aims to bring people closer together through a process of social encounters, and a deep-rooted connection to the place and the community. The work aims to access local knowledge from participants, and also from the experiences of artists as participants. As co-participants, everyone involved shares personal stories of contemporary living, health and wellbeing, financial concerns, joyous tales, and tragic circumstances, and explores what it means to work together through dialogical and physical encounters in meaningful places.
Most if not all social art organisations overtly adhere to contemporary art aesthetics in their engagement programme through an output of conventional art works, events and activities – curating exhibitions of sculpture, painting, performance, creative workshops etc. They manage to achieve this while simultaneously – and often under the radar -acknowledging the presence of another dimension of aesthetics, one concerned with the social interactions with people, place and environment: an aesthetics of action, or process.
In-Situ recognises the potential and necessity for an ethical aesthetics when working with people and place. In Making: Anthropology, Archeology, Art and Architecture Tim Ingold explores the act of making in the context of the creation of objects and the use of the maker’s materials. His descriptions of engaging with materials and the creative processes involved also hold true when working with people and places in a social art context. Ingold defines two significant approaches to the creative process; morphogenesis, which places ‘the maker from the outset as a participant in amongst a world of active materials’, and Hylomorphism, when a practitioner imposes ‘forms internal to the mind upon a material world …’ (Ingold 2013, p. 21).
Grant Kester in his book Conversation Pieces contrasts two kinds of aesthetic; one portraying the modern artist as a genius who produces objects that are experienced through an immediate aesthetic response to that object, and ‘a dialogical aesthetic’, which ‘suggests a very different image of the artist, one defined in terms of openness, of listening, and of a willingness to accept a position of dependence and intersubjective vulnerability relative to the viewer or collaborator’ (Kester 2004, p. 110). His chapter on dialogical aesthetics goes a long way to providing a framework for evaluating the work of social artists, demonstrating that time, ethics, listening, exchange, openness, context, empathy, collectivity, legacy, acknowledging all forms of communication and recognising the artist as participant all come in to play when discussing such work. Most of Kester’s components can also be found in Ingold’s descriptions of engagement with materials, and both of them consider materials as having direct connections to the social world around them at the time at which they were made, viewed, found and used.
"It is the theoretical in-betweenness of the social artist - between two aesthetic ideals - which leads to confusion around the ethical engagement of people and place."
In-Situ projects could be imagined in the context of exploring Ingold’s morphogenetic and hylomorphic approaches together with Kester’s model for a dialogical aesthetic, and potentially framed by Yuriko Saito’s Everyday Aesthetics of the Familiar: Everyday Life and World-Making (2017), the latter states that ‘unlike the quintessential spectator-like experience of art, everyday aesthetics is diverse and dynamic, as more often than not it leads to some specific action’.
It is the theoretical in-betweenness of the social artist - between the two aesthetic ideals - which leads to confusion around the ethical engagement of people and place.
As an example, take the postgraduate artist with a portfolio heavily influenced by what Saito refers to as Western Aesthetics, taught in art schools all over the world and focused on the artist working (usually in isolation) in a studio with their chosen materials, clay, paint etc. they have developed a solo process of creativity. With the recent unveiling of the Arts Council 10 year strategy, which includes social engagement as a priority in their funding streams, there is no doubt going to be a shift in creative practice if artists are to succeed in applying for ACE funding and support. More and more artists will be working with people and place, which requires a new set of production skills, together with a new and ethical consideration of their creative process. They will be faced with a new creative space in the public realm, underpinned by an ethical approach towards social encounters with people, place, and the environment. ‘It is not by looking at things but by dwelling in them, that we understand their joint meaning’. (Polanyi & Sen 2009).
"The projects expand the notion of aesthetics to include everyday life objects and activities, by working with artists to develop a more ethical philosophy of life through social art practice."
As Polanyi and Sen point out, it isn’t enough to look at something in a bid to understand it, we must ultimately be able to empathise with the thing if we are ever to get close to understanding it, and seeing the thing in its own context is part of that process of understanding.
It is not just In-Situ’s position as a ‘bricks and mortar’ venue in the heart of the community which qualifies it as embedded. It is the fact that its very existence depends on the community, its cultures and the tacit understanding of growing together in the same place. Kester’s model for a dialogical aesthetic acknowledges the importance of listening, and together with Polanyi and Sen’s process of indwelling helps to contextualise In-Situ activity in the here and now, with local truths ‘… recognising the social context from which others speak, judge and act’ (Kester 2004, p. 113).
Ingold also identifies with this deep level of engagement as ‘the artisan couples his own movements and gestures – indeed his very life – with the becoming of his materials, joining with and following the forces and flows that bring his work to fruition’ (Ingold 2013, p. 31). He also recognises the need for space ‘to allow knowledge to grow from the inside of being in the unfolding of life’ (Ingold 2013, p. 8). The longevity of dialogical art projects depends on the sound foundations of sincere friendships and genuine interconnectedness, enhanced through the process of sharing real life experiences.
In-Situ and the artists working with them are tied together with the community, and in the unfolding of life, through a temporal process of indwelling. Arguably projects should allow enough time for such practice, and the long-term growth prospects for all participants (including artists) at ground level. The projects expand the notion of aesthetics to include everyday life objects and activities, by working with artists to develop a more ethical philosophy of life through social art practice.
This writing has been created and shared as part of Thinking Out Loud - a series of texts and conversations from a wide range of perspectives within In-Situ's practice, that explore the social role of art in everyday life.