About Socially Engaged Arts Practice

As part of the Digital Interaction research group, we are currently developing a number of projects that work with socially engaged arts practice as a means of critically engaging with  the design of digital technology. We’re at the early stages of characterising our existing and future work in this area.

We recognise that socially engaged research that focuses on complex societal challenges, is of increasing interest to the HCI community, yet socially engaged arts practice has, so far, received little attention. Such practice often aims to encourage debate around societal concerns, which may include the role of digital technology in sustainability [8,12], inclusion [5,16] community, identity [5,7] and the politics of participation. Practitioners working in this area position digital technology critically through creative exchanges between people, materials and contexts that seek to open up questions rather than offer technological solutions [5,6,7,8,12,16]. The collaborative making of digital and material artefacts, workshops, exhibitions, performances and events, are integral aspects of such practices and align with approaches and epistemological commitments outlined in participatory design and action research [5,11]. However, socially engaged arts practice specifically underlines the ethics and aesthetics of socio-material and technical interactions between people. These practices have the potential to invoke radically innovative and imaginative potential in people, while, at the same time, generating pragmatic, emotional and ethical tensions [4,13,14].

We will be running a CHI workshop in 2014 to outline the existing and future potential role of socially engaged arts practices in HCI. The workshop is timely in reflecting current and growing interests in studying and working with alternative creative approaches to participatory engagements in socially engaged research with individuals and communities [2,11]. Furthermore the workshop will help to build on recent literature that critically reflects on participation and design making practices in HCI [1,19].

Socially Engaged Arts Practices in HCI

Embracing arts-based concepts and approaches to encourage aesthetic engagements with users and participants are familiar territory in HCI research. For instance designers have explicitly drawn inspiration from the Situationist and Dada arts movements to develop alternative ludic insights to interaction design through cultural probes [10, 20]. Associated critical design has highlighted the value of provocative artefacts and exhibition formats to encourage public debate on societal challenges [9]. Interdisciplinary research across performance art and HCI have also provided alternative ways to re-configure interaction introducing concepts such as discomfort, unwitting and witting forms of participation [3,12,19].

Socially engaged art has developed similar concerns but, practitioners focus on the aesthetics of engagement within particular places and communities. For instance, terms such as ‘dialogical aesthetics’ have been used to describe the intersubjective relationships developed through embodied and situated listening and exchange [14,20]. Furthermore process and action is valued over the specific production of objects, emphasizing reflection on qualities of participation and collaboration that might be engendered through specific socio-material encounters [13]. Conflict, contradiction and dissensus are often valued as important aspects of such social interactions and participation [4].

HCI has already embraced aspects of socially engaged arts practice to inform collaborative interventions. This has included engaging people in research and disseminating findings appropriate for those often excluded from technology design [16]. Also studies of environmentally engaged arts practices have underlined a more critical position on technology to avoid simplistic renderings of sustainability [8]. Socially engaged practices have also been developed to underline the importance of negotiating representation and voice on issues of race [5] and gender [7]. In addition, provocative self-reflexive methods within ethnographic studies with artists themselves have highlighted the significance of previously underexplored digital art making apparatus in (re)constituting artist-identities [6].

This prior work suggests potential for researchers embarking on particularly complex and challenging research agendas, especially those motivated by transformational processes involved in civically engaged enquiry. Such potential can be characterized through enhancing, complimenting and experimenting with existing collaborative and creative engagements in research, that sensitively combines critical, practical and aesthetic perspectives in multi-disciplinary ways. But these practices also suggest challenges in how we might document and develop a vocabulary for working across disciplines within HCI withcommunities invested in political, social or environmental concerns.


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