“Art production of the 20th century might have been a rarified field, but in the 21st century, cultural production has become a necessary component of organizing social action. In other words, if the world is a stage, then the players must learn the skills of theater.” (Nato Thompson)
Consider the infamous Project Row Houses, a low income neighborhood in Houston Texas transformed and revived over 17+ years, much thanks to the artist-organizer Rick Lowe. Through a radical commitment to a specific place and group of people Lowe helped establish a residency program for artists and single mothers attending college. Or consider the work of the late Augusto Boal and the various creative strategies developed under the banner of the theater of the oppressed. Boal and his contemporaries, took an expanded notion of performance and within it developed a series of participatory strategies for addressing personal and collective struggle. Or currently working in Los Angeles is John Malpede and the Los Angeles Poverty Department, a homeless performance group working in downtown LA’s skid row. They’ve produced live theater events, parades, and a museum about skid row. As the LAPD has written “We want the narrative of the neighborhood to be in the hands of neighborhood people.”
Suzanne Lacy another Los Angeles based artist, whose 40+ years of facilitating socially engaged public performances tackling issues from rape to racism, comes out of a west coast US tradition of conceptual performance art and feminist activism. London based conceptual artist Stephen Willats, who was heavily influenced by cybernetics, produced a series of works in the 1970s at a few west London housing estates that were analog frameworks for communication and collaboration. The projects can now be seen as extremely clear precursors to contemporary online communications, networked culture, and online citizenship. Meanwhile in Brazil, figures like Augusto Boal come from a tradition of theater in South America, the disciplinary distinction within the ‘arts’ along with the geographical and historical specificity of their origin add to the complexity of how to make sense of these works and their producers. Cultural producers whose methodologies are inseparable from the wider social and political conditions they inhabit. Shannon Jackson writes in her book Social Works “Whether cast in aesthetic or social terms, freedom and expression are not opposed to obligation and care, but in fact depend upon each other…” (Jackson 14).
Whether discussed in therapeutic or political terms, participation and collaboration are common themes that connect these practices. Participation is often discussed as a counter force to the alienating qualities of neoliberalism and advanced capitalism, while collaboration evoke more personal accounts of pedagogy and empathy. Ultimately the answer to this question of what role the ‘arts’ play in social change can be found in the methods and practices that are as varied and as mixed as the practitioners and conditions behind them. At best they offer us models or fleeting insights that might be reworked to help us meet the needs of our time and place.