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Figure 1. Main character, Fatima’s Persona

1.1 Engaging with each other

An essential tool for any artist or researcher who wants to contribute to or lead a Socially-Engaged Arts Project (SEAP) is an ability to facilitate and build valuable, constructive and sustainable relationships. SEAP work is often distinguished by how messy, confusing and complex it can be – and, perhaps, it needs to be given what it is trying to achieve. 

This is nowhere more evident than in the diverse collections of human beings who come together to create, plan, execute or participate in them and who are each motivated by a complex collection of needs, intentions, values and expectations. For each of these stakeholders, their involvement expresses the desire to achieve a tangible or concrete outcome for themselves and for others. It also reflects an ideal for ‘bigger’ and more impactful change in our world – the potential to trigger behavioural or cognitive changes in a society, in response to and as a result of participants’ experiences of engagement with SEA activities. 

A key feature of this Lesson is how we aim to bring the people’s experiences and stories of SEAP to life. Later in this Unit we’ll introduce Fatima, someone we’ll be following throughout the lesson – from her journey as a student who’s keen to learn more about the potential of SEAP to her career working in the arts and cultural industry, where this motivation to develop opportunities for new and impactful SEAP work continues. Each of the stories we’ll share of Fatima’s experiences will offer opportunities for reflection on how complex contexts and diverse groups of individuals can be managed – and, importantly, these stories will hopefully inspire or influence any future ideas students might have for their own work in Socially Engaged Art.

1.2 Socially engaged art project characteristics

As has been suggested, a SEAP can be defined in quite simple terms: the desire to harness the transformative potential of creativity in ways which can have profound impact on the lives and experiences of people and their communities. 

A SEAP will make use of arts-based research methods, tools for creative practice which are designed and developed so that a participant’s experience is carefully considered in terms of what, how and why a particular technique or approach is used and that the results allow for a particular kind of imaginative expression. 

SEAP are built from, and depend upon, the lived expertise of so-called ‘ordinary’ people – the knowledge and experiences of participants which are a consequence or outcome of being within, from or emerging out of their particular context(s) which underpins a project’s motivations. This means that the expertise of the artist, or researcher or educator is only partially important to achieve the aims of a SEAP. Or, it’s perhaps that any SEAP is incomplete without the inclusion of people’s expertise of their own experiences. The need for identifying hierarchy and acknowledging where and how people’s power is expressed as roles and relationships emerge in SEAP (between everyone in a SEAP team as well as with project participants) is, therefore, of critical importance.

1.3 Why does a relationship matter in socially engaged art project?

Fundamentally, a SEAP aims to achieve some kind of change in people’s lives – whether these are tangible changes in their ongoing everyday experiences, or changes which occur as a consequence of taking part in the SEAP activities which make up the participatory or co-creative artistic production. 

Clearly, it is always possible to work individually as an artist or researcher, and develop ways to engage with communities through arts-based methods with the results having a concrete impact. However, as societal challenges grow more complex and often become difficult to fully recognise and grasp, teamwork – and the positive results of working collectively to develop, manage and deliver any SEAP – has the potential to lead to more impactful results. 

Picture 1. Daimieiocchi project by PACO design collaborative
(Pictured by Gabriele Lopez @gabrielelopezph)

Therefore, it’s important to identify and reflect upon ideas of relationship as a means to develop teams which can successfully work in addressing more complex challenges and, in terms of arts-based research, how relationship can become an incredibly powerful tool to capture and foster a diverse collection of motivations and expertise to achieve real impact. As a consequence, bringing together a team to work on any SEAP will collect a group of individuals whose own values, skill and intention to make a difference is defined by their own perspective on a ‘problem’ and the particular complex context it’s emerged from. Such perspectives offer unique opportunities to develop ideas and approaches which may not have been possible in any other way, and the ‘economies of scale’ that are a result of having such a group of people often mean that more becomes possible than if smaller groups or individuals had been involved.

Reflection 1.1

Thinking about your own motivations and observations, reflect on where you might identify an opportunity to build a SEAP which can develop in response to a community’s need(s):

  1. Where, within a context that’s familiar to you, are there challenges that could be addressed through the development of a SEAP?
  2. Are there particular experiences within a community which your SEAP might look to reflect and where there are opportunities for people’s lived expertise to be communicated through a use of arts-based methods?

Write notes and collect your thoughts which can record your first response to the questions – there might be more than one idea you identify for either one.

Reflection 1.2

Since the relationship is a fundamental aspect of building a SEAP (both in terms of any team you can be part of or the connections to possible participants), it’s useful to think about how your existing relationship(s) might contribute to gathering a group who share any initial motivations you have – or that there may be opportunities to build connections with people you don’t yet know.

  1. From your context and the connections within it, are there people who you think might share your interest and motivations to address a challenge faced within a community?
  2. Do your connections possess useful skills which you think would be valuable for any SEAP, and might there be opportunities to bring in certain skills from widening your network?