29 January 2018

Art encourages the audience to look at things differently. Social art is a driving force and a chance to change the world.

More and more often, contemporary artists raise burning issues in their works, such as identity crisis, corruption, wars, violence, environmental pollution, unemployment, inclusivity, biased and stereotypical thinking… Going beyond traditional gallery space, artists draw public attention towards their projects, which, in their turn, function as a “medium.”

An integral component of social practices art is activism and clear civic stance. For example, in 2006 a well-known Chinese artist Ai Weiwei started a blog where he shared his thoughts about art and architecture and criticized the policies of Chinese government. His comments were read not just in artistic circles but also by the general public. Among other things, Ai Weiwei raised the issue of Wenchuan earthquake of 2008. He suspected local government of embezzling funds for construction of the schools. During the earthquake, buildings collapsed, and about 20,000 schoolchildren were injured. Though his blog Ai Weiwei encouraged volunteers and activists to collect the names of killed schoolchildren; later, he published that list.

His blog was such a significant influence on public opinion that Chinese authorities closed it down by force in 2009. Presently the blog exists in the form of a book.

Socially active artists not only interact with the citizens directly but also create projects using modern media.

The work of American media artist Bayeté Ross Smith is a telling example of using new media technologies for creating socially active art. Together with Chris Johnson, Hank Willis Thomas, and Kamal Sinclair he formed a project   “Question Bridge: Black males” aimed at destroying stereotypes and prejudiced treatment of black citizens in the American society.

For the project, artists recorded over 1,600 video interviews with men in nine American cities. Having edited the recordings, they produced a provocative video installation which has been exhibited in more than 30 museums all over the world starting from 2012.

Social art

The artists instructed their characters to ask questions in front of the camera, and the others, to answer them. As a result, it turned out to be an exchange of ideas, opinions, expectations, and moods among people who did not know each other.

Also, to attract an even wider audience and build a dialogue with the black American community the artists created an interactive website and a mobile app for the project. Anyone can record their questions and answers. Such artistic initiative, no matter how simple it may seem at first glance, now unites people from all over the country and allows them to communicate and share life experiences.


Author: Alina Komisar, culture scholar, America House gallery curator

From February 8 until March 3 America House hosts Bayeté Ross Smith’s exhibition Discernment presenting five media projects.