Should the initiator of a social practice project be historically well read?
Yes. Social practice projects engage communities––sets of people that share a common condition (temporary or long term). Understanding how these conditions develop is essential to any kind of interaction with or through them. That is the simple answer––the question itself raises a number of other considerations.
The notion of history within the sphere of social practice brings up a larger set of questions related to the context within which histories are explored. While the list of inquiries and ideas below is far from complete, it’s at least a starting point to ponder more nuanced conditions to approaching research for a project.
- Whose or what history (or histories) should be considered?
- Whose perspectives on a given history are acknowledged and available? Whose are not?
- Which discipline’s historical narratives do you prioritize?
- How does an initiator understand their own history in relationship to their practice or a community?
- How do you manage opposing historical narratives in your research?
- How do you read a public’s history?
- How do you choose which narratives shape the scope of a project?
Power and the personal
In thinking about these questions, notions of power within a social space or a particular discipline arise. The inevitable inclusion and exclusion of histories shapes the framework of a project through a carefully constructed context. This, in turn creates the circumstances within which a community is approached.
On the other side, a community that is engaged brings with it its own individual and collective narratives. The histories they understand most intimately are inevitably those that shape personal experience. As an initiator develops work, the impact of these variables can remain ambiguous until the project itself comes to fruition.
Part of the responsibility an initiator accepts is making a series of choices that build the framework around an action or idea. In my view, the most successful socially-engaged projects are focused, creating specific conditions that foster direct engagement with an issue, idea, or experience. Initiators have to choose (or prioritize) to what degree a set of narratives are considered to construct these circumstances. Only the initiator can determine how these narratives will play into the process or approach of developing a work.
The space of social exchange is itself fragmented, full of personal, political and psychological histories that shape every interaction. Initiators of social practice projects choose to work within this set of complex conditions, employing them as the medium through which directed exchange is possible. It is their responsibility to not only understand their chosen medium but also consider their relationship to it (them). Without serious consideration of one’s own set of conditions, initiators can fall short in meeting their responsibilities to a given community or action.
Social practice projects are often focused on a problematized situation. Though initiators may not be trying to necessarily “fix” something, there is usually a basic injustice, inconsistency, or need they are considering. Depending on what form that takes, initiators can move into the space of other disciplines (social worker, activist, etc) through their work.
Initiators are certainly not expected to be experts in these disciplines but its critical to consider their histories. How does an initiator’s work relate to these disciplines? What is the best way to engage with their history of practice in the context of a project? These types of questions are central to social practice and initiators need to think about the ethics of their work when moving into these spaces.
These are only a few of the areas to consider when thinking about what its means to be “well read” about a set of histories surrounding a particular project.
In thinking about this, I was reminded why I continue to pursue work in this realm. Initiators of this work are most often thinking about their work as a means––a means to igniting action, bringing ideas together, revealing the hidden, or simply starting a dialog. Whatever the gesture, I believe successful social practice projects can help us develop new collective histories.
About the contributor: Sheetal Prajapati is the Assistant Director for Learning and Artists Initiatives at The Museum of Modern Art in New York. In this role, she oversees Artists Experiment, a project to engage in long-term collaborations with artists to develop public programs and experiences for museum audiences. She has worked with a range of artists including Caroline Woolard, Raul Cardenas Osuna, and currently with Paul Ramirez Jonas. Sheetal gives talks at national conferences and museums on topics including collaboration and community engagement and regularly leads workshops for professional development. She serves as a reviewer for national artist and institutional grant programs with the Joyce Foundation and the Institute of Museum and Library Services. moma.org/author/sprajapati