From Mini-Symposium #1, Liverpool, 19.9.14 at The Bluecoat

Presentation by Gillian Dyson on her work in relation to  socially engaged performance practice.

  • Communicating with people as the practice – links to teaching / educating
  • Beacon Arts, Louth – Still Life – live event, bringing the building to life (the role of regenerating the building)
  • Audience moved into a new role…
  • Symbolism and objects
  • Drawing class, poems, no instruction
  • Activating the retelling – Gaze, a dialogue
  • Art is in the state of the encounter
  • Art as having ‘affect’ and ‘effect’
  • Shelf Life – commission – use of Verbatim script
  • Who’s story is who’s?
  • Artists having the skills of crafting
  • Subject-object collapse of binary, spectator-actor – breaking down binary
  • Reciprocity, time and experience
  • Objects as symbols – as an easy way in
  • The work is live – haptic, in the doing
  • Spending time with people – ‘Conceit’ of the story-teller role – The community as subjects – authors
  • Commissioning agencies – issue of holding the legacy – Artists have limited budgets – not always able to hold legacy



From Mini-Symposium #1, Liverpool, 19.9.14 at The Bluecoat

Presentation by Gisele Bone on her work in relation to  socially engaged performance practice.

Brief notes taken during Gisele’s presentation:

  • Educator, facilitator, project co-ordinator – these are both separate and blurred with arts practice.
  • Motivation as the ‘problem’… intuition as the ‘solution’
  • Project: Larks and Owls – issues of responsibility, insurance, pleasing people, not letting people down.
  • The unplanned
  • Democratic decision-making… thinking about how to do this
  • Being on bikes – equalises the relationship
  • Project: Artists in the City – engaging with the people of Preston, this felt contrived.
  • Engagement with people – through having hair cut – unintentional engagements
  • The issue of flitting into people’s lives – issue of being consistent
  • One to one conversations – recordable, manageable, not distracting, GPS tracked, using an art gallery as a hub
  • ESA commission – 1 month, the participants wanting to go on more rides
  • Brief given from the outside – UCLAN
  • Sifting
  • Is the art in the ride or in the documentation?

Table Discussion Notes : Interactions, Liverpool. 19th September 2014

What does a socially-engaged landscape for performance practice look like?

(collated discussion and thinking from all the participants in dialogue with and written up by Gisele Bone).

Framing – where are the limits?

Time – where does the artist stop?

Projects may be inconclusive


What does it offer?

Inquiry                 Enjoyment                   Exploration             Learning             Education                Representation of the needs, desires, validation of a community                Empowerment

Context                 Construct                   Intention                     Framing                Facilitating             Participating

Socially-engaged performance practice is not therapy (although it may have therapeutic effects).

Is there a performance practice that ISN’T socially engaged?

  • This isn’t very useful.

Is there a performance practice that ISN’T socially engaged?

  • Is there a way of avoiding this?

– What is useful about a socially-engaged landscape for performance practice?

– The tangible experience is different to what it becomes when you start talking about it.

– What could a socially-engaged landscape for performance practice look like?

– What should a socially-engaged landscape for performance practice look like?

– A forest clearing to one is peace, to another is hell.

– Landscape – everything your senses can take on board surrounds you.

– Just land!  Landscape is a product of the human mind.

– 360°

Defining itself – part of constant chaos

– Can never be defined – SEPP occurs.

– Fragile – definitions can stagnate.

… Eats itself and feeds itself.


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Following on from On Participation. Part I – written by Tim Jeeves, following the Interactions Peer-to-Peer session #2, held at Theatre in the Mill, Bradford.

On Participation. Part II – Problematics and tactics

Dave Beech, of the art collective Freee, draws attention to the problematics of participation, in particular the principle, prevalent in some quarters, for the artist to renounce their authorial status in the name of equality. As he notes, there are pleasures to be found in asymmetrical relationships such as the ‘relationship between host and guest, [… where] there are pleasures in being the host and pleasures in being a guest. Equality cannot be forced onto these intersubjective relations without killing off the care and the pleasures of caring and being cared for.’

Even aside from the bland equality such relinquishing might encourage, there are also questions to be asked around how possible it might be anyway: the movements of cultural capital are complex, and have a tendency to remain within particular groupings. Denying authorship in one area will often mean that is re-asserted, perhaps more subtly, in another.

Beech also highlights the neutralizing affects of inclusion. Making a parallel with the way that the European Union has assimilated its old cold war enemies into principles of neo-liberalism, Beech notes that art institutions – with their policies of engagement and relationship development with excluded communities – similarly pacify cultural dissent and conflict.

Dissent and the outsider are an essential component of a functioning democracy, as much so as giving voice to the disempowered, or agency to the dispossessed. To integrate a voice is to quieten it, and to encourage participation too strongly risks homogenization and recasting the participants in the mould of those who initiated the project.

None of which is to be taken as an argument against participation per se, there is much to be in favour of it; but neither should it be seen as inherently positive, even in instances where flagrant exploitation might be avoided. Rather participation should be seen a tactic, one among many; a formal container that holds ideas, aesthetics and political ideology. It may influence how such content manifests, just as using any medium influences the way that an artwork is encountered, and these influences are not neutral.

References: Beech, D., 2011. Art and Participation. dbfreee, [blog] 13 March. Available at:

Beech, D., 2008. Include me out!. Art Monthly, 42(6), p.1-4. Available at:

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Written by Tim Jeeves, following the Interactions Peer-to-Peer session #2, held at Theatre in the Mill, Bradford.

On Participation. Part I – Influences

Recent years have seen what Clare Bishop identifies as a ‘social turn’ in art practice. Very present in socially-engaged work, this tendency towards participation can also be seen in more aesthetically / entertainment focussed immersive theatre work as well as gallery-based contemporary art. As Bishop suggests, such work ‘rehumanizes – or at least de-alienates – a society rendered numb and fragmented by the repressive instrumentality of capitalism’. By positioning the participatory elements of these works against the sense of disillusionment and lack of engagement that is to be found in mainstream politics, they are often understood as emancipatory and politically vibrant. Alongside this politicised understanding of such work, it is also perhaps worth noting the possible influence of online environments that, in recent years, have seen a normalisation of the participatory voice as a means of generating content, alongside more traditional top-down distribution.

The combination of these factors has lent participatory practice a powerful force and presence in recent years, meaning that – at times – any problematics with the form can be overlooked.

As Bishop suggests, some analysis would appear to suggest that ‘There can be no failed, unsuccessful, unresolved, or boring works of collaborative art because all are equally essential to the task of strengthening the social bond [forgetting that] it is also crucial to discuss, analyze, and compare such work critically as art.’ As Bishop argues, a number of other considerations remain essential.

References: Bishop, Claire. 2006. ‘The Social Turn: Collaboration and its Discontents’. Artforum 44:6. pp.178-183.

To be followed shortly by On Participation: Part II.

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Table Discussion Notes : Interactions, Liverpool. 19th September 2014 (collated discussion and thinking from all the participants in dialogue with and written up by Dani Abulhawa)

Participants were asked to write a question when they entered the symposium. Something they were bringing to the session. These were the questions people wrote:

  • Is it about change? What about change?
  • What is the role of humour?
  • How can we engage in ‘collectivity’ as both social and artistic practice?
  • What does my sister do?
  • Isn’t everything ‘socially engaged’ really?
  • What is the artistry of change?
  • What is socially engaged practice? What is not socially engaged practice?
  • Body, affect, tactility, mess, politics? Does political work need to be didactic?
  • Who is our practice for? And how do we engage people in our socially engaged practice? What if those people we wish to engage don’t want to!?
  • What is important about the context/environment that you work in?
  • Public perception invading space – good/bad?
  • What is ‘social’?
  • Why are we here?
  • At what point is my art socially engaged?
  • How can we sustain/have a lasting impact with socially engaged artists?
  • In what ways can it have a real impact? What kind of impact? What impact(s)?

During the discussion part of the symposium, each group was asked to focus on one or two questions that they particularly wanted to debate. The following text attempts to articulate those discussions:

Group one questioned whether this symposium was a form of socially-engaged performance practice, and became interested with the question on the table about change: ‘is it about change? What form of change?’

This group questioned what the tension or relationship was between an artist’s motivation and the community or group who were the participants of the artist’s intervention.

We talked about how the defining of outcomes at the start of a socially-engaged performance project – a necessity seen largely by this group as associated with the requirements of funders – creates boundaries and can constrict possible outcomes for a project. The group acknowledged the need for some kind of prior aims or outcomes, but raised a concern over the tension between allowing the work to develop organically with a community group versus sticking to a prior plan.

Key words: change, outcomes, funding

Group two were interested in the question about who socially engaged practice is for: ‘who is our practice for? And how do we engage people in our socially engaged practice? What if those people we wish to engage don’t want to!?’

They asked about ‘need’ – what is the need for socially engaged performance practice? Who needs it? The group questioned how much socially engaged performance practice is imposed on a community or group and were critical of ‘parachuting-in’ projects, which are typified by the temporary intervention of a socially engaged artist paying little attention to the surrounding context of a community group and leaving without much concern for the aftermath of their intervention.

The group discussed the importance of allowing the community to take some ownership over a socially engaged performance project, to lead it in a different direction, and to say ‘no’ to the artist. At the same time, the group identified that people do not always know what will be good for them, highlighting how resistance to a project – as much as it expresses self-determination – might also be a form of resistance to challenges and new experiences that would be beneficial and enhance a community setting.

Key words: participant-led, need, intention, didacticism


Group three were interested in two questions: 1. What is socially engaged practice? What is not socially engaged practice? And 2. Isn’t everything ‘socially engaged’ really?

This group explored the question of what might be considered socially engaged performance practice by thinking about different sorts of projects and cultural/artistic settings. The group picked up on how art work that wouldn’t necessarily be thought of as performance may be socially-engaged, and brings with it social situations that do constitute performance moments. For example, the Angel of the North may be considered a socially engaged artwork in itself. If we have a discussion about it ‘down the pub’ does that constitute a socially engaged performance practice relating to the artwork?

We talked about the difference between the gallery and the theatre as two places in which social-engagement occurs. The group also questioned whether one-to-one performance can be considered socially-engaged purely because of the level of participation involved, and this raised a question over whether socially engaged performance practice necessitates physical participation. A discussion ensued about what it means to be a passive or an active receiver/participant.

A major point was raised that socially engaged performance practice responds to a sense of disconnection in society and therefore that socially engaged performance practice is often about person-to-person connection in meat space (rather than virtual environments).

Key words: connection, engagement, purpose, communication

Group four expressed an interest in the question about collectivity: ‘How can we engage in ‘collectivity’ as both social and artistic practice?’

Group four discussed how socially engaged practitioners borrow move and cross-pollinate ideas and frameworks from one social setting to another, therefore they have a central role to play in creating a more ‘circular society’ in which reciprocity and socially beneficial structures are established. The group also discussed how in socially-engaged performance practice there needs to be an attraction to the art or artist, which helps to sustain involvement and creates a space in which everyone feels invested in the work.

The group also touched upon issues around process and product, discussing how valuable the process is to socially engaged performance, and that there is a need to frame projects better around a valorization of process.

Key words: reciprocity, change, attraction, value


Image credits: Sarah Spanton

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Table Discussion Notes : Interactions, Liverpool. 19th September 2014 (collated discussion and thinking from all the participants in dialogue with and written up by Tim Jeeves)

How does legacy affect socially-engaged performance and artwork?

First things first

The way in which the question is worded is interesting – ‘legacy’ is typically assumed to be what follows a project (one suggested definition was that it’s ‘what comes after the evaluation’) and yet here it is at the front of the question, asking us to think on how this after-effect determines the how the project manifests or is planned.

This primacy (and perhaps the actual word ‘legacy’) could be derivative of the way in which projects are pitched to funders and, as legacy can get very rigid / limiting / fixed / centralised when it becomes an essential and measurable part of a project, maybe we should be rethinking the language of legacy: bringing it back to the intention of the art / artist?

We didn’t get time in any of the groups to really think how this shift in language could be expressed, though the words ‘outcome’ and ‘impact’ were suggested as alternatives.


It’s not just funders that use this language though.

The idea of legacy was used as significant justification for the £9bn spent on the 2012 Olympics. It was this that led to the public accepting such a massive spend at a time of austerity and funding cuts elsewhere.

Although these negative effects of legacy were something that all the groups returned to, and felt needed emphasising, a number of more positive aspects were mentioned, not least the effect of intangible and personal legacies.

For instance, memories…

Two kinds of memory were noted; those which are more passive, recalled in quietude and which encourage reflection, and then there are those memories which act to trigger something very active.

Socially-engaged practice (amongst many others) can act to stretch imagination – suggesting different ways of being and thinking about things – the experience of an artwork or performance can encourage people to re-examine what they have otherwise taken for granted.

  • Legacy is another word for those relations and links that can be established within a community.
  • It can encourage rigour.
  • If, as participant, we see that it means something for the artist as well, there is greater impact. It injects authenticity into the legacy.
  • The legacy of any project can also interact with and influence other artworks; either later works by the same artist or within the broader cultural heritage.
  • There’s also a legacy in terms of language – the terms that are used to describe what has happened (or what will happen) come down to us from what has happened before.

The Legacy Table’s Final Thought…

Although there is a significant link between legacy and artistic responsibility –a few horror stories were shared of people appropriating communities to serve their own research / project ends and then ‘deserting’ them when they have what they want – if there is appropriate closure to a project, and all involved understand that as the terms of the project, then it’s worth remembering that it’s perfectly ok for there not to be legacy.

A project is allowed to end.


Image credits: Sarah Spanton

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Table Discussion Notes: Interactions, Liverpool. 19th September 2014 (collated discussion and thinking from all the participants in dialogue with and written up by Gillian Dyson)

How do the artists’ motivations and intentions inform /affect the impact of socially engaged performance practice?


  • What is the engagement?
  • Can be problematic …
  • About the more fascinating – seeing possibilities


  • Often those of other people (commissioner, patron, et al) can be imposed
  • Who is ‘in need’ of this art work?
  • The construct of ‘communities’ > based historically on ‘need’ around industry/ family/ geographic grouping
  • Financial imperative (earning a living) – exchange of our skills and knowledge
  • Reciprocity
  • Are we the artist/ makers the ones with ‘need? – you want to engage; recognise your past, understand who you are
  • Doing it for yourself
  • Well being – makes me feel ‘like I’m here’

What is engagement?

Why are there ‘subjects’ for the art project- and who are they?

How do you avoid ‘dilution”?

Do the artists and community objectives differ? – Managing expectations

Over time intentions (might) change – responsive, social, shared



  • How do participants get recruited?
  • Problems of ‘artist taking over’: need for good ground work – the organisation/ agent/ commissioner ‘holds’ the legacy.
  • Avoid artist’s ‘parachuting in’.
  • Questions around ‘targeted’ groups.
  • Put in the leg work – artist has to experience
  • Empowerment – artist and group
  • Importance of ‘liveness’ – to this process – in temporal and geographic shared space
  • The living/ embodied legacy

Key thoughts:

Be authentic – only then can work be meaningful for participants/ audience

This is about proposing different social structures  – social connectivity – challenge ‘loneliness (artist and community) – enables us (all) to get to know who I am/ we are.

Playing with overlapping frameworks  & infrastructures for socially engaged practice

Why are we here? –for change

How do we engage people? – through need

Who needs the work ?– artist and community (existent/ non existent)

How do we engage with art? – a process of social engagement – physical (live) connection

Product orientated art is less ‘engaging’

Process, liveness, located art = more socially engaging (for all parties)

It’s Ok for it to be a one off experience – legacy in the embodied, shared experience/ collective memory.


Image credits: Sarah Spanton

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On Friday 19.9.14, we held the first of two Interactions Mini-Symposiums, kindly hosted by The Bluecoat in Liverpool.

18 participants attended, and we had some highly engaging discussion, following presentations from Gisele Bone and Gillian Dyson, on motivation and intention and legacy in socially engaged performance, taking examples from their own practice as starting points.

Our next few posts will attempt to present some of the discussion and debate around the themes of legacy, motivation and intention, mapping a landscape for socially-engaged performance practice and more.



We hope that if you’d like to raise questions,  continue the discussions and tell us about your projects, that you’ll use our Facebook page.

And of course we really like you to come along to Mini-Symposium #2, at Yorkshire Dance on Weds 8.10.14 (6.30 – 8.30pm), and be part of the conversations about socially engaged performance practice, in tandem with presentations from Tim Jeeves and Dani Abulhawa.

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Howell, Anthony (1999) The Analysis of Performance Art: A Guide to its Theory and Practice. Amsterdam, Netherlands Harwood Academic Publishers.

  • I have returned to this book to remind myself of some of the key themes and issues of performance such as notions space, time, chaos, stillness, etc. Whilst Howell does not address ‘social engagement’ itself, I feel that this late 1990’s publication is ‘of it’s time’, and reflects concerns of site, audience and intention. This is also a good book for anyone not sure what ’performance’ is in this context, and needing a bit of background reading.

Kuppers, Petra & Robertson, Gwen. (Ed.) (2007) The Community Performance Reader.

  • A useful teaching resource, covering a range of ‘community’ practices. A pedagogic book – reader for students of performance. Good examples/ case studies.

Shaughnessy, Nicola. (2012) Applying Performance: Live Art, Socially Engaged Theatre and Affective Practice. Basingstoke. Palgrave Macmillan.

  • I’m haven’t read all of this – just dipped in and out of section on ‘place and placing’. The introduction is useful: ‘applied’, joining, connecting, political or pedagogic motivation. It also provides a simple unpacking of terms such as performance, devising, site, etc. The chapter on Practices gives a useful frame for notions of ‘authenticity’, and mediation.

Johnston, Sandra. (2014) Beyond Reasonable Doubt: An Investigation of Doubt, Risk and Testimony Through Performance Art Process in Relation to Systems of Legal Justice. European Studies in Culture and Policy. Vol. 13. Ed: Craith, M. N, & Kockel, U. Zurich & Münster. Lit Verlag.

  • Johnston’s work is firmly located as visual performance art, and yet she writes here about the affect of and context for performance as a process of social engagement, particularly when located in personal, public and political trauma.

Kester, Grant. (2013) Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art.  Berkeley California. University of California Press.

  • Some key art theories, applied to a collection of global examples of arts practice. I used it in discussion on gender, taste and the relationship of class and gender to notions of and the aesthetics of the avant-garde.