The focus within Social Practices is on art and design that aim to impact complex social issues by (re)designing processes and relationships. What can – and can’t – artists and designers do for social change?
Our world, our society, now seems to be changing more rapidly, more broadly and also more intensely than ever before, confronting us with systemic changes occurring simultaneously in different fields and disciplines and on different levels of scale. For example, issues such as migration, climate change, privacy, politics and economics. Social practitioners explicitly choose to personally experience these systemic changes, to examine and question them, to tweak or reinvent them. They do all this, not from the perspective of the maker or the market, but of the context. This is where they conduct their embedded research and experiments, and also where they present their work to the public. The focus on transition and the ability to make new connections are key concepts in this regard.
Social artists/designers are not only concerned with the aesthetics, functionality and conceptual meaning of their work, but also aim to redesign the encompassing systems and mechanisms. Who is involved in making the work, and how does this affect them and others? What is the impact of producing this work on the other side of the world, for the user and for future generations? How can my work play a role in tweaking the existing system?
Social artists and designers take the time necessary to extensively consider a given context. They closely view, review, experience and map the topics they are dealing with. They use embedded research and they design cultural probes in order to examine existing situations. They apply systemic analysis in order to contextualise their findings. Not only are they open to surprising themselves, they are also able to visually express these surprises for the benefit of others, and to use these experiences to subsequently reframe, test and realise projects that transform relationships in such a way that the public gains a new perspective of its own world.
Dealing with complex social issues requires a multidisciplinary approach; if the answer to any specific problem can be found within the traditional framework of any one specific discipline, then that means the problem just wasn’t complex enough. Over the past century or so, society has developed through ever-increasing specialisation, and we have indeed come quite far this way. However, as we now face huge transformations and crises in a more complex world, the time has come for all these specialisations to start connecting again, so that they can more effectively face these broader issues. Students of Social Practices are encouraged to cooperate with others, not only within other creative disciplines, but also with scientists, activists, users, policy makers, etc.
The issues currently addressed by Social Practices are Cultural Diversity, Open Design, Gamification and Sustainability; four domains in which systemic change is particularly relevant.
Cultural Diversity questions systems of living together; it focuses on the globalising and urbanising world. It unravels cultural, economic, political and social structures in order to create images or interventions that influence the sensations or behaviours of ‘local’ citizens of the world.
Open Design questions systems of (design) production and focuses on technological developments and the open source movement. It works with participatory design methods, in which design and/or production processes are shared and in which users, makers or fellow designers are empowered to modify the design or process.
Gamification questions systems of behaviour. It focuses on the design and tweaking of rules by applying game design principles to non-game related situations in order to increase the activity, motivation and involvement of users.
Sustainability questions social and environmental systems. It focuses on the circular economy and researches how art or design can be used to put in motion new sustainable processes of design, development and production.
Besides their own discipline, social practitioners also work in contexts of systemic and cultural change and are able to tweak methods of production as well as human behaviour. They are able to call attention to upcoming social issues, and to face today’s and tomorrow’s challenges with a specific attitude and specific methods that are suitable for operating within fields of complex issues. They also know how to define, attract and connect multiple stakeholders in order to initiate new projects.
Some of these social practitioners may be described as initiators or project developers, setting up projects which traditional businesses or organisations haven’t yet considered: the artist raising public consciousness about gentrification, the fashion designer finding ways out of the fast-fashion industry, the spatial designer developing apps for creating communities to tackle real-estate vacancy, the advertiser creating a hoax that changes our perspective on loneliness. In order to realise their projects, all of these practitioners will have found unconventional partners with similar interests. Making connections is a key component of their professional practice.
Others may be called troublemakers, or troubleshooters. Any sector, company, organisation, office or person dealing with complex issues, systemic change or apathy – from a city government facing an identity crisis, to a design firm with social ambitions or a bank wondering how to respond to upcoming digital currencies – should seriously consider commissioning a social designer or artist.
Often these practitioners will not define themselves solely by their discipline, but also by their topics of expertise. They will be able to open up new perspectives, embark upon new unforeseen partnerships or design new products, all of which may question the status quo and invent possible futures.