Panel unveils the transformative impact of socially engaged art

Political writer Hakim Bey said in "TAZ: The Temporary Autonomous Zone," that “provided we can escape from the museums we carry around inside us, provided we can stop selling ourselves tickets to the galleries in our own skulls, we can begin to contemplate an art which re-creates the goal of the sorcerer: changing the structure of reality by the manipulation of living symbols. ... Art tells gorgeous lies that come true.” Art is often used as a medium for social issues, communicating emotions and depicting turmoil influenced by modern day societal pressure.

On Tuesday, the School of Social Transformation hosted a panel entitled, "The Role of the Arts in Social Transformation." Three panelists gave 20-minute presentations about their work and how they perceive art's effect on social transformation.



Dancer and choreographer Elizabeth Johnston gave a presentation called, "Socially Engaged Art: Power and Participation."

Johnston spoke about the importance of community. She explained that the definition of community is subjective, but the use of art within community draws out social issues prevalent in that space.

"People talk about community as if it's something separate from themselves," Johnston said.

She encouraged the audience to define community and also reciprocity, before she entered into a discussion about motions. Johnston demonstrated how our body language will "often reveal the way we define things without us actually saying at all."

Three students made circular motions when talking about reciprocity and Johnston explained that socially engaged art is based on equal exchange and affects how people motion towards one another.

She describes several different types of socially engaged art, community-based art, situational art, the list goes on. Johnston states that the four core values of socially engaged art are collaboration, reciprocity, social agency and risk.

"Art for social change is often seen in an adversarial position," she said, "but this idea of vulnerability and connection is really important."

Faculty associate Emmett Ramstad presented, "Building Queer Community through Arts and Archives." The talk surrounded his work in the Philadelphia archives. He explained that his work focused on tying past ideals to present initiatives and how art has grown with the community's participation in solving social issues.

"Artists shouldn't be Band-Aids," Ramstad said. He stated that art is not a cure-all for problems in a community. Artists can't save a community with one art project or by doing art that intends to "save" a community but has no cultural relevance to that demographic.

Archiving seems to be a way of bringing physical history into an intangible social issue.

Carole Roy, associate professor of St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia, Canada gave a talk entitled, "The Role of Songs and Films in Social Transformation: The Cases of the Raging Grannies and Documentary Film Festivals."

Roy discussed the difficulties that come with songwriting and portraying social issues in a humorous, yet relatable context.

"If you rage at an audience, they'll leave," Roy said. She explained the methods of different activist groups that used song and film as a platform to speak about social issues.

Her talk was fresh, engaging and featured several responses from students at film festivals after they saw documentaries on social issues. She spoke about how visuals can impact social transformation in ways that other art forms cannot. The subjective nature of art causes extreme variation of a piece's interpretation. Social issues affect different people in different ways, and this subjectivity reflects that problem. Johnston believes that "people have a desire to connect" and that promoting dance or art can create an environment where they feel capable of communicating their thoughts.

Art transforms communities by strengthening the need for collaboration.

"If you ask a big enough question," Johnston said, "often, it takes more than one discipline to answer it."

Reach the reporter at or follow her on Twitter @StephanieITA

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