What is Social Practice?

By Kevin Basl


An ongoing conversation behind the scenes at Frontline Arts, in Combat Paper NJ workshops, and within the emerging Veterans Art Movement is the question of social practice. What is it, are we doing it, and if so, is this an appropriate label for our work?

Social practice, also known as “participatory art,” is a genre of contemporary art focused on the process of making, rather than on a finished art object (a painting, a ceramic vessel, the rehearsed performance, etc.). It is notoriously elusive—and for good reason. In an art world as susceptible to the pillaging of capitalism as [insert any aspect of your life] social practice offers no commodifiable art object—an object that may be used to launder money, sell Levi’s, or fill those elitist galleries that underpay (most) artists. Social practice is inherently communal, anti-capitalistic.

Eschewing the art object brings challenges. How do we document process? Most in our community want critics to write about our work and provide feedback. We want our work to affect change today—to be engaged with—while also exciting and informing future artists. We can take photos and video of a social practice work but, as Clare Bishop writes in Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and The Politics of Spectatorship, “[t]o grasp participatory art from images alone is almost impossible: casual photographs of people talking, eating, attending a workshop […] tell us very little, almost nothing, about the concept and context of a given project.” Another point Bishop makes is that to really understand a social practice work, the critic must be immersed in the nitty-gritty interactions of the work-in-progress (the work itself), thus compromising her objective position and, ultimately, the documentation process. A question we often return to at Frontline Arts is can we have critics present in Combat Paper workshops and still maintain a safe space for participants to share their most personal stories?

Whether we consider the Combat Paper NJ workshop social practice is important. How we pitch our workshops (what’s in our mission statement) essentially provides an interpretive lens for participants, audiences and critics. Like theater, in social practice people are the artist’s medium—a dynamic that, for some, may compromise the fragile participant-facilitator relationship, one founded on trust and transparency. If our aim is only to provide tools and artistic instruction for veterans and their communities, to help them share stories, then community-building should be our primary concern. In this conception, the workshop facilitator is closer to a teacher than an artist at her easel. At the same time, if we call the workshop “social practice,” presenting our workshops as impromptu performances, a collaboration between artist-facilitator and artist-participant, we must be prepared for the sort of critiques that may follow, assenting or otherwise, to include those of the participants themselves.


Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship (Verso, 2012) by Clare Bishop

Seeing Power: Art and Activism in the 21st Century (Melville House, 2015) by Nato Thompson

Combat Paper NJ workshop at Grounds for Sculpture, June 2016. (Photo credit: Saydi Callahan Keefe)

Combat Paper NJ workshop at Grounds for Sculpture, June 2016. (Photo credit: Saydi Callahan Keefe)