Atlantic Cities

Civic Engagement as Art

Civic Engagement as Art
"(What's to be done?), Angry Sandwich People or In Praise of Dialectics," by Chto Delat

As cities grow and populations rise, the effects and implications of public policies grow along with them. The more people involved in the process of making those decisions, the better they represent the interests of the community. Or at least that’s the idea.

In this way, public participation is a key functional element in cities – from local government decisions to federal policies. But it’s not only within the realm of politics that participation matters. With the rise of the do-it-yourself ethic, public engagement has become extra-political – occurring at a variety of scales and in a number of forms. A new exhibition opening Friday in New York looks at the ways artists and activists are producing projects that explore and encourage social engagement in communities.

Running until October 16, “Living as Form” is a free exhibition presenting 100 past and current projects from around the world that integrate the concept of public participation into the everyday lives of communities and cities. Nato Thompson, chief curator for presenter Creative Time, contends that social engagement in the arts is on the rise. But he argues it’s not specifically an “art movement”; the culture of participation exemplified by these works is evident in fields ranging from visual arts to architecture to community organizing to urban planning.

“DIY aesthetics have become a way in which people navigate the world,” Thompson says. From urban gardening to new forms of education to alternative economies, projects led by “artists” actually have real-world implications. Thompson says it’s a result of thinking more creatively about the simple but challenging question of how to make the world a better place. His exhibition aims to show some ways that question is being answered.

Projects and pieces included in the exhibition range from the speculative to the reflective to the immediately practical. One piece turns part of the exhibition space into a temporary market place, inviting small businesses and organizations from the neighborhood to operate freely out of small stalls, highlighting the utility of public spaces for bringing goods and services and ideas to the public. Another installation is a temporary restaurant that operates on the time bank model, where visitors spend time working for or helping others in the time banking community in order to earn credits to spend on food.

“A lot of this work moves from the utopian metaphorical to the tangible,” says Thompson. Many of the ideas are based around practical concepts that apply in almost any community. And they typically go beyond the familiar mode of public participation.

“It’s not like, ‘call your congressman,’ or ‘let’s all go to the White House to protest,’” Thompson says. The methods explored in the exhibition operate at a smaller, less organized but still organized level. They are community-led and community-focused projects aimed at local problems. And often, those local problems are problems faced by many communities.

“One thing is really clear, certain conditions are ubiquitous around the world. The movement of people into cities is not unique to the United States,” Thompson says. “That movement in and of itself provides new relationships to one another that are still being worked out.”

The exhibition opens Saturday, September 24 at the historic Essex Street Market in New York City. The event kicks off with a live-streaming conference this Friday featuring artists discussing how these types of works are fostering social engagement with the goal of understanding problems and meeting the needs of communities.

Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for The Atlantic Cities. He lives in Los Angeles. All posts »

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