Artists Contemporary art Switzerland

The importance of being active

From guerrilla architecture to radical politics, socially aware art is an increasingly common response to volatile times

A temporary structure built in Barcelona in 2005 by Santiago Cirugeda, who exploits loopholes in building laws to create cheap housing and describes architecture as a political act

Do artists make or react to history? Hans Ulrich Obrist, the co-director of exhibitions and programmes and the director of international projects at London’s Serpentine Gallery, and a man who has been called everything from the world’s foremost super-curator to “the God of planet art”, will entertain this and other auspicious questions during a talk at Art Basel on Saturday. The panel, titled “The Future of Artistic Practice: the Artist as Activist”, promises to address one of the fundamental issues bedevilling the art world today—the role of the contemporary artist in increasingly volatile times.

The exchange, which is the latest in a series of Art Basel Conversations that Obrist has organised and moderated since 2010, will examine current problems surrounding what the curator calls “the social contract of art”. Due to participate are the Israeli video artist Yael Bartana, the Chicago-based urban planner and artist Theaster Gates, the Egyptian cultural historian and artist Huda Lutfi and the Spanish activist and architect Santiago Cirugeda. Though they employ radically different media and strategies, each of these figures can essentially be described as an artist who is significantly engaged with events affecting the world at large. Previous panels organised by Obrist under the umbrella of “The Future of Artistic Practice” include “The School Makers” (2010), “The Artist as Urbanist” and “The Artist as Poet” (both 2011). A glance at the political and economic news currently assailing Europe and America suffices to declare Obrist’s forthcoming round table as containing special, even urgent relevance for art today.

Obrist’s titular prediction need not pinpoint tomorrow’s dominant market trends to signal that he is onto a major art-historical development. World-shaking events such as the global financial crisis, the Arab Spring and the arrest and detention of Ai Weiwei have propelled politics and social movements to the fore of the creative imagination in a way not seen since the Aids crisis of the 1980s. As Obrist put it in January after helping to award the inaugural Visible prize to the Colombian art collective Helena Producciones: “We live in tumultuous times, and we have seen many examples of artists with a strong civic imagination at work in the recent political and social uprisings around the world.” Conceived by the Italian artist and activist Michelangelo Pistoletto and the Fondazione Zegna, the €25,000 annual prize awards art that labours to generate responsible social change. The principles behind the prize are rooted in the mission animating Pistoletto’s own foundation, the Cittadellarte-Fondazione Pistoletto—namely, that art should not be self-referential.

Alternative viewpoints

Significantly, all of Obrist’s panellists come to art-making from parallel disciplines or interests. This is one way in which these artists have avoided the increasing professionalisation and academicisation of the art world that is so decried by art industry insiders. The awarding of ever greater numbers of Masters and PhD degrees in the visual arts—a situation that became an “epidemic” around five years ago, according to the New York Times critic Roberta Smith—has additionally revealed an art world stuck on the “illusion that being an artist is a financially viable calling”. Just before the global recession dashed thousands of art-star dreams (and tens of millions of other, less high-flown ones), a modest global artistic response was already under way. Alternative art schools such as Mexico City’s Soma and Berlin’s temporary Unitednationsplaza sprang up—at times serving as alternative educational models, at others, as works of art in themselves. As Obrist said in a 2010 panel at Art Basel Miami Beach, what had once been a push to open artist-run spaces in the 1980s and early 90s became a movement to establish artist-run schools. Special emphasis was placed on “self-organisation” and on developing critical viewpoints as alternatives to the academy and the art market. One such artist-run college, New York’s Bruce High Quality Foundation University (established in 2009 by the Bruce High Quality Foundation, an artists’ collective), went so far as to condense its mission statement into a school motto: “Professional challenges, amateur solutions.” Looking back, the growth in artist-run schools during this period seems like a warm-up for the overt activism that came afterwards.

Theaster Gates, whose urban reclamation in Chicago’s South Side has led to four similar projects by the American artist in blighted inner cities throughout the US, as well as a large-scale installation at this year’s Documenta 13, sees the advantage in having been formally trained in various disciplines. (Gates holds an MA in fine arts and religious studies from the University of Cape Town and a Masters in urban planning and ceramics from Iowa State University). The artist, who was made a Loeb Fellow (an honour awarded by Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design) in 2010, says: “I think about what I do as a practice that lives in the real world. If that’s where I live, I can’t avoid issues like economic injustice, housing injustice and cultural access.” Asked to explain why he is attracted to real-world issues ignored by the vast majority of artists in the US and Europe, Gates pauses. “I think it’s because I didn’t go to art school,” he says. “The language everyone references in the art world today wasn’t initially my language. I was lucky in that I had to redraw for myself the idea of what it means to be a conceptual artist in America, especially one who is interested in civics and poor people.”

A similar conversation with the mixed-media artist Huda Lutfi reveals a socially engaged artist who has put much of her studio practice temporarily on hold to participate in the events unleashed by the Egyptian revolution. “As a cultural historian, my training has given me a depth of knowledge about art history and the region in which I live, but as a visual artist, I find myself increasingly involved in community work,” she says. A self-described “gallery artist”, Cairo-based Lutfi acknowledges the dichotomy that exists between her more traditional practice and that encountered in the more immediate work of newly prominent photographers and graffiti artists in Egypt. “As a professional artist, I feel I have to take more time to reflect on things, but right now it is more urgent for me to be part of the revolutionary process. I find myself making work that refers to the police state, to repression, to the fact that the martyrs have yet to be vindicated.” Explaining the new role artists have had to adopt to keep up with unfolding events, Lutfi says: “Artists in Egypt have become more responsive to the larger community since the start of the revolution in January 2011. Normal people do not go into galleries, so one has to go to them.”

Santiago Cirugeda, a subversive “social architect” who takes advantage of loopholes in the zoning and building laws that regulate construction in cities such as Madrid to plot public parks and cheap housing, also sees benefits to an artistic activism that expands the frontiers of contemporary art. He says: “Many folks with new critical viewpoints, especially in the visual arts, do come from other disciplines, from other areas of knowledge, so of course this helps to open up new spaces for dialogue and activity.” Still, this veteran of multiple gallery and museum exhibitions, who also participated in the 2003 Venice Biennale, is not shy of expressing his reservations about the limits of today’s art world. “I understand architecture to be a political act, so I know that a genuinely activist art project has nothing to do with art’s usual methodology. Activism can’t just last a month or two, like an exhibition,” he says. When asked how the deepening recession may still transform art’s evolving approach to politics, Cirugeda responds cautiously. “It’s true that the global crisis has reactivated creativity. In Spain and elsewhere, it has helped normal people recover their legitimate right to occupy the street, to insult bankers, to reprimand politicians—but it hasn’t necessarily improved the old institutional discourses, especially in the field of art.”

The utopian grail

The Israeli video artist Yael Bartana was among the first artists to be invited to participate in this year’s highly controversial Berlin Biennale by its curator, Artur Zmijewski. As part of her work for the Polish pavilion at last year’s Venice Biennale, Bartana founded the Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland, a political party that calls for the return of Jews of Polish descent to Poland. Although it marks a significant break with conventional artistic practice, the question remains as to whether Bartana’s political organisation exists chiefly as an artistic stunt. “The idea,” she says, “is to provoke new ideas, to speak about the possibility that there might be a new future for Jews and Poles—and that might also serve as an example for Palestinians and Jews to live together. I’m now actually in the process of seeing if there could be a real movement for a return.” Artur Zmijewski says: “I don’t know what the conclusion will be. We don’t produce a work of art here; rather, an open situation. Some people have already said that the idea is absurd. Some said that this kind of Jewish renaissance movement has been functioning in Poland for a while. Others agree that the Jews should return.”

Bartana’s political party and the three-part film series that inspired it straddle a fine line between reality, fiction, propaganda, myth and politics—one that recalls the history and limits of utopian thinking while connecting with a new global wave of artistic activism. According to Obrist, the panel he has organised this week will serve as a way to reconsider certain traditional ideas around what many believe is the ultimate grail of activism. “Utopia is a very problematic idea,” he says, “so I really want to talk to the artists on the panel about this. The philosopher Ernst Bloch said that utopias had been discredited in the 20th century, but utopian thinking had not.” Obrist points to the work of his panellists as proof of a flourishing artistic activism in art today. “There is a desire right now among artists like these to reconnect with reality, to reflect on the question of the social responsibility of art.”

“The Future of Artistic Practice:?the Artist as Activist”, part of Art Basel Conversations, is on Saturday 16 June at 10am

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18 Jun 12
22:22 CET


Interesting. This is something i've been thinking/saying for the last 20 or more years. Coming from and living in parts of the world that have been crisis-stricken for many years now, not merely the recent past, i wondered how visual artists justified their gallery-delimited practices while claiming to produce 'risky' brave, new work. It was obvious that the only honourable way to be an artist was to become at least partially an activist. and i completely agree as SALLIEKETCHAM puts it, that the communities on behalf of whom the artist is acting or making work need to be involved integrally...perhaps Art with a capital A as we knew it was a creature of the twentieth century which needs to become a thing of the past?

18 Jun 12
20:54 CET


The social contract of art needs to include the people that the are artists are trying to impact. Like so many people that have a wonderful ideas and want to save the world they go at it from the outside in. We need to start with the people living in impoverished areas and work with their social structure. Education is a huge component. Just building doesn't help. Art can play a huge role in helping teach multiple generations about issues that truly concern them and make an impact on their lives. It means getting in the trenches and dealing with problems of the moment. Not imposing art theory onto people who have had very little art in their lives. We need to remember that the majority of people to do not have computers. They may have access to them at schools but rarely at home. If artists want to make a difference then they need to become teachers of social change. Reaching a few that can pass it forward to really make a difference in the future.

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