We embarked on the making of a magazine with such a simple intention. Field research about each project is a big component of the A Blade of Grass (ABOG) Fellowship for Socially Engaged Art, and we learn so much from this research. We simply wanted to share this insight. And as happens often in our work, this simple and direct intention unfolded and spread into all these great questions and truly grand ideas about what exactly this insight is, how best to share it, and what we are sharing it for.
Field research gives us a tremendous amount of understanding of the texture and nuance of socially engaged art projects as they are enacted. We learn what exactly the artist is doing, how it feels, the sense the project makes to others, and what motivates others to participate. This is an important lens for us precisely because it’s not an “evaluation of impact” or a similar attempt to justify financial support. Rather, research is largely descriptive in nature, and in addition to asking specific questions that matter to the artist and help their work, it attempts to render the qualities of the convening mechanisms, relationships, power dynamics, applied ethics, and intentionality that drive a socially engaged art project. In this way, while research certainly serves an evaluative and knowledge-building function, it is deeply aligned with our work making documentary films, programs, and other content about socially engaged art — in that it is about making socially engaged art visible.
We rely on the perspective of the field researcher here at ABOG HQ because we, and we suspect you, are totally inspired by this idea that artists can make a social difference by sharing the creative process. But we are not on Elpidos Street in Athens with artist Rick Lowe or in the Lower Ninth Ward with artist jackie sumell. More often than not, we’re in our offices, at WeWork in Dumbo, Brooklyn, hearing little snippets from artists all over the country and the world about the important work they are doing … and are therefore highly susceptible to understanding only the concept of socially engaged art, and forgetting to develop any sort of deep curiosity about how the projects actually operate as collective or individual life practice. I do this all the time! I fall in love with the conceptual “elevator pitch” of a project, and then read the field research, and realize that I have misunderstood the work completely — usually by making it a little too grand and abstract in my head, and not drawing on the way that the idea is being enacted, sometimes through surprisingly small decisions and actions.
The perspective of field research is purposefully practical and quotidian — its job is to reveal that Rick Lowe is deep in his engagement practice when he makes time to play dominoes with his neighbors, or that jackie sumell is doing her work when she finds out that her seatmate on a flight builds jails, and engages in an intense and loving debate. We need field research because we don’t live in a culture that can already see actions like playing dominoes with intentionality, or the decision to have a conversation, as doing the work.
What we hope to share within this magazine, then, is this perspective shift from the idea to its enactment. We want to share the aesthetic experience of seeing how a big idea is conjured into being, repeatedly, through regular practice of individual and collective actions and decisions. And we want to share this perspective shift because it challenges and changes our own work and lives. When we take the perspective of the field researcher, who is not only invested in the ideas of the work but also in the practical steps taken toward living the ideas, the invitation of social practice snaps into focus. The artists featured here are inviting us to consider our own lives, decisions, and work in ways that increase love, justice, connection, equity, and meaning. They are saying or modeling that we each have an opportunity to increase these things by making different decisions, commitments, and priorities. This invitation to consider one’s own contribution isn’t always easy, particularly in a world that doesn’t necessarily see or value the qualities of our actions and interactions. And it can feel in this challenging social and political moment like it’s nowhere near enough. But I can say that taking the invitation of this work seriously and letting it change me is a rewarding, renewable source of joy and satisfaction (alongside moments of accountability and hard work) in my own life. This is truly the value of social practice. Engagement isn’t just Rick’s thing; the whole point is that he makes it everybody’s thing. jackie is particularly good at acting on her convictions, but she certainly hasn’t cornered that market. Their work, and social practice more generally, is an invitation to deeply consider the practice of life itself. For all of us.
Which brings me back to explaining why a magazine felt so simple and made so much sense, and why we are excited to share these ideas in this way. The magazine as a form, in addition to being a source of inspiring information, has a long history of addressing, articulating, and inspiring the practice of one’s life. In the same way Conde Nast Traveller simultaneously provides information about travelling and cultivates a dream space in which readers can see themselves as travelers, or Saveur is just as much about being a cook as it is a cooking magazine, we want our magazine to simultaneously give information and context, and invite readers to consider their own ways of being, identity, and actions in the world. Our sense is that the first step toward doing that is to create something that sits squarely at the intersection of the grand idea and its quotidian implementation. We can never forget that visionaries propel the work of socially engaged art forward, but to get at that sense of how the work might change our own lives and efforts, we must resolutely turn and return to the direct experience of projects, in straightforward language. We also want to think broadly about context, and include known “magazine” forms like advice and astrology columns that are more explicitly about engagement. Each in its own way refers readers back to their experience of life, perhaps drawing out that invitation to consider how this work impacts them.
That’s the goal in all our work. Socially engaged art is fundamentally participatory in nature, and we make content about it for audiences most of whom are not actively participating in the projects that are being featured. This is a challenge! To do our work with integrity, we need to render and present socially engaged art projects in a way that enables readers and viewers to enter the projects while also preserving their fundamental complexity. By this we mean to do more than simply empathize. We have to enable access to the dialogical invitation at the core of socially engaged art: to consider one’s own actions.