Archives for posts with tag: Community

Written by Dani Abulhawa

During the summer I became involved with a project by artist Hannah Leighton-Boyce, which was centred around Helmshore Mills Textile Museum and the local community of Helmshore in Rossendale, Lancashire.

Helmshore Mills Textile Museum was once the site of two cotton and wool production mills. The Museum is wonderful – there is a wealth of historical information and really fascinating demonstrations of the machinery.

For Hannah’s project she became fascinated by a particular part of the production process – the carrying, hanging and drying of huge folds of fabric on tenter frames, which were located on the fields at the back of the mill. This would have been a group activity for mill workers, and the massive tenter frames hung with fabric, sitting 70-feet wide on the landscape, were said to have looked like huge sails.

The area of land used as tenter fields is now a housing estate. Hannah was donated an old aerial map of the area, which also mapped the lines of the tenter frames across the landscape. From this map, she worked with the people of Helmshore, and particularly the people living on what were the tenter fields, to map the placement of the old tenter frames through their homes and gardens.

Hannah’s idea for The Event of the Thread was to spin dozens of metres of woollen thread – made with wool from Helmshore sheep – and to work with the local community to pass the thread along the lines of the former tenter frames and through people’s homes and gardens, after which participants, neighbours and visitors gathered for a Jacob’s Join – a Lancashire term for a pot-luck buffet.


The Event of the Thread was a wonderful project to experience. It took several months of preparation, and relied heavily on the generosity of the local community. Their interest in connecting with the history of the landscape, through bringing stories and objects relating to the mill that had been passed down through the generations, and their help and enthusiasm in organising and completing the final punctuating event.

I was particularly drawn to the project because of the way it approached social engagement by making connections with people in the local community and from the community to the shared history of their landscape.

Hannah is currently producing documentation of the event in the form of an artist book. For more information about the project and Hannah’s work, please visit:

Image credit: Hannah Leighton Boyce


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

To book online—

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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

To book online—

Follow us on Twitter @UKinteractions (you can join by scrolling to the bottom of this page).

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.

To book online—

Follow us on Twitter @UKinteractions (you can join by scrolling to the bottom of this page).

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.

These next few posts offer up some short reading & research lists, pulled together for our recent second Peer to Peer session, held at Theatre in the Mill, Bradford (many thanks to all the staff for their help).

They’re based on our own highly partial set of interests, current practice and research. We wanted to share them in case you find them stimulating and of use.

Sarah Spanton Reading/Research List

Invisible Hand: Art in the Transition to Another Economy, by Charlie Tims and Shelagh Wright, commissioned by IETM and the British Council, 2013, to be found at

  • Very interesting approach to thinking about the financial crisis and looking at artists/artists groups who are making work across Europe that seeks to critique and influence policy makers and power holders. If you’re strapped for time the short introduction is well-worth a read.

Laurie Anderson, Trisha Brown, Gordon Matta Clark: Pioneers of the Downtown New York Scene, Prestel Verlag, Munich in association with Barbican Art Gallery, 2011

  • Great exhibition/catalogue. Focussed on seminal works from Trisha Brown, Gordon Matta Clark and Laurie Anderson who’s works are connected by performance, the urban, found spaces and the body. Although the works were made 40 years ago and in New York, they are still highly relevant to the UK today. Includes Brown’s ‘Roof Piece’ and ‘(Wo)man walking down the side of a building’ and Matta Clark’s ‘Open House’, the restaurant ‘Food’.

Roof Piece - 600

Image credit: Trisha Brown ‘Roof Piece’

Jeanne Van Heeswijk –

  • How can an artist be an instrument for the collective reimagining of daily environments, given the complexity of our societies? This is the question that artist Jeanne van Heeswijk, of the Netherlands, considers when deciding how to employ her work to improve communities. Van Heeswijk believes communities need to co-produce their own futures. That’s why she embeds herself, for years at a time, in communities from Rotterdam to Liverpool, working with them to improve their neighbourhoods and empowering them to design their own futures—not wait for local authorities to foist upon them urban planning schemes which rarely take embedded culture into account. (Text taken from the website).

The Well Connected Community; a networked approach to community development, By Alison Gilchrist, The Policy Press, 2009

  • An in depth look at what community development is in the UK. Gilchrist is an authority in the field.

The RAX Active Citizenship Toolkit: GCSE Citizen Studies, Skills and Processes, by Jamie Kelsey-Fry and Anita Dhillon, New Internationalist Publications Ltd, 2010

  • A useful practical toolkit with exercises and activities to help think through notions and issues around citizenship with groups, focussed on young people but transferable.

Follow us on Twitter @UKinteractions (you can join by scrolling to the bottom of this page).

Within the wide-ranging terrain or landscape that is socially-engaged performance practice, artists Tim, Gisele, Gillian, Sarah and Dani have five distinct practices. The Interactions programme brings them together to share their interests with each other, think through issues and discuss research arising in the field of socially-engaged performance practice.

They meet again next week, and go onto hold two Mini-Symposium’s in Sept and Oct on themes arising from these discussions (book now to secure your place).

Our next few posts will draw on the thinking and ideas being raised within these Peer to Peer sessions.


Written by Gillian Dyson

I ‘Google’ “socially engaged performance”. Several HE courses come up: an Amazon book link; research papers:

Helguera, Pablo (2011): ‘Education for Socially Engaged Art’ Accessed (2014)

Hull, Hannah. ‘The Scales of Socially-Engaged Practice: Towards a Shared Language.’ Accessed (2014)

Horwitz, Andy (2012) ‘On Social Practice and Performance’ Accessed (2014)

Reflecting on conversations I have had this week with other solo performance artists I wonder what I/ we mean/ intend by title-ing ourselves ‘socially engaged’?

I also consider that the prefixing of ‘socially engaged’ to ‘art/ performance’ etc. perhaps undervalues the intrinsic nature and rigor of the practice in the first instance. The term does not refer to the process of making the work/ performance. Instead it focuses on the relational concern.

What indeed would a live practitioner be if they were not engaged with the social dialogue – the interlocutory?

Looking back at my biography of works I can see trends in practice type: The works commissioned by arts agencies that require a level of engagement beyond the gallery or theatre, or the International Performance Festivals that ask for new work responding to site or social situation. I am aware of how these commissioning contexts pre-determine the reach and type of ‘social engagement’ that my practice might have. It leads me to consider the types of audiences/ respondents/ social communities that me and my work might have communicated with, to, for, within.

I do not think I make applied performance. Neither is my work concerned with any overt social activism. And (despite many, rejected commission applications) I am not a public artist.

We had talked about a reticence that surrounds the recognizing of artists as a community of engagement in them/ ourselves, and how Socially Engaged Practice requires something more than artistic value(s).

But I am also remembering that for me, and the solo artists I have talked to, there is a sense of loneliness, isolation or under-valued-ness to our work. Surely then, the ‘added value’ of Socially Engaged Practice is one of creating community; valuing creative impetus; sharing dialogue? Does this need to be stated?

What are the ‘communities’ to which these social engagements apply? Or is Socially Engaged Practice endeavoring to create a community?  I consider the impact for my, and others artists involved in ‘community creating’ programmes such as Asiatopia or National Review of Live Art.

Solo performance art challenges the expectations of institutionalized performance-theatre/ gallery, by presenting the artist/ body/ subject in a non-commodity, non-capital environment of physical and theoretical removal from the normative. But is this social positioning in fact (paradoxically) a result of barriers to institutional or establishment financial or philosophical support? Is it expedient to (re)define ones practice as ‘socially engaged’?

I produce my work through dialogue. I look and see, talk and listen. I explore place, things, activities.  I collect words, objects, images. I exchange actions. Involvement with other people is automatic. I cannot imagine working in a social vacuum. There is no practice without a social context.

Image credit: Leo Burtin

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