Written by Tim Jeeves.

At the start of August we had our first Interactions face-to-face meeting, kindly hosted by Live@LICA. The following thoughts are developed from notes taken at that meeting. It’s not an attempt to record what was said, and shouldn’t be understood as representative of what the group as a whole necessarily thinks, but instead uses the meeting as a springboard for articulating my own position. It is a (one-sided) extension of the conversation begun in Lancaster.

A central question to that meeting, and perhaps the project as a whole, is what socially-engaged practice actually is. It is apparent though that providing such a fixed definition is not only incredibly tricky, but perhaps even damaging to such practice. Part of the value in socially-engaged work is to be found in the way that it escapes from pre-existing notions of how things should be done, and instead points towards new forms of social encounter. To fix the meaning of this work in terms that are used to describe current encounters is inevitably going to limit the potential for it to imagine different states.

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Therefore, rather than establishing a definition, we wondered if mapping the landscape of the practice would prove a more flexible tactic.

Of course, even mapping is not without problems, as Rosi Braidotti states ‘… all cartography, act[s] a posteriori and therefore fail to account for the situation here and now’*, but nevertheless a map acknowledges its inherent difference from the area it is mapping in the way that a definition does not – no one looking at a map thinks they know what a neighbourhood will actually look like.

As Braidotti also notes, maps also have the advantage of being ‘situated’, they are mapped from a particular position and acknowledge that they only show a partial picture (there will always be space off the edge of the map).

Maps can also, when made in the right way, draw attention to the nooks, crannies, and hidden parts of the area they map (even stating that ‘Here be dragons’ when necessary).

Finally, maps also have the potential to intersect with other maps. They might have different scales and emphasises, be useful in different situations and show different areas, but even with all these differences, maps have the potential to act as intersecting guides in territories that might otherwise be less known.

The beginning of this mapping process can be seen elsewhere on the Interactions blog, and as it suggests, it offers a loose suggestion for what socially-engaged practice can be understood to be. As our discussion found, the beauty of such loose description is the potential it provided for more and more questions to arise when the terms are explored more closely.

For instance, one – very specific – line of questioning that can be pursued from a statement such as Engages audiences beyond the arts institution (ie theatres/galleries) in social spaces or contexts is:

  • In such social contexts, what does engaging the audience actually mean? Are they spectators or are they more directly involved in creating the work?
  • If the latter, what are the implications of this in terms of authorship and payment?
  • Are the experiential benefits of taking part in the work ‘payment’ enough for these people?
  • Is there a risk that to not pay participants when others are being paid normalises such non-payment in a broader context? (cf. the emphasis on volunteering to be found in the ideology of the coalition government).
  • What about working with groups where to pay them – even if money is available – could have serious repercussions on their benefit payments once the week or two of the project completes?
  • Does focussing so much on issues of payment act to reduce everything to financial exchange?

The ethics around these issues are complex and to make statements around what ‘should be done’ broader than the situated location of any given instance risks reduction and simplification. Perhaps a part of what is mapped should be concerned with what the appropriate questions are to ask in such instances? Maybe this is a more fruitful preparation for such ethical dilemmas than to settle on a pre-determined moral position.

*From Rosi Braidotti’s Nomadic Subjects, p.104.

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