TransActions #2 – Field and Academy: Knowledge and Counter Knowledge in Socially-Engaged Art


Fiona Whelan, Joint Coordinator/Lecturer MA Socially Engaged Art + Further Education, NCAD

Dr. Ailbhe Murphy, Director, Create

Helen Carey, Director, Fire Station Artists’ Studios

At the launch of the Creative Time Summit 2015, held during the Venice Biennale, curator Nato Thompson posed questions at the meta level of knowledge production. He asked: How do you come to know the world? What forces produce the spaces by which you come to know the world? Some months later, back in a New York high school, he acknowledged the micro-site of knowledge production that he now occupies and all its complex issues.

Drawing threads from the meta to the micro level inevitably leads to a conversation about power – who has it, who doesn’t, who should have it, how it is adjudicated.1 TransActions #2 picks up on this context and sets out to pose questions for the field of socially-engaged art and education practice in 2017.

The MA Socially Engaged Art and Further Education (MA SEA+FE) at NCAD is now in its fourth year. It is one of three Masters programmes in Ireland, which, along with many international programmes in the Global North, are educating for the field of socially-engaged and collaborative practice. The publication series TransActions – dialogues in transdisciplinary practice emerged after the first cycle of the MA and was launched in 2015 with its first issue, TransActions #1 – Dublin- Chicago. The publication series was conceived by Fiona Whelan, (joint coordinator of the MA SEA+FE at NCAD) and Jim Duignan (Stockyard Institute in Chicago). Avoiding any easy distinction between theory and practice, TransActions aims to bring together multiple diverse voices to explore the thinking and practice of socially-engaged art, to consider “its strengths and its weaknesses, its learning and its unlearning.” 2

Uniquely in Ireland, the MA SEA+FE is positioned at the centre of the dynamic relationship between socially-engaged arts practice, pedagogy and research practice. This publication will explore the negotiation of this hybrid territory, which requires an understanding of the distinct disciplinary axes, their origins and the lenses from which they view each other as well as their modes of governance and their methods of ascribing value. For this second issue, NCAD have partnered with Create, the national development agency for collaborative arts and Fire Station Artists’ Studios, to collectively curate a cross- fertilisation of ideas and reflections on the theme of knowledge and counter knowledge production as it relates to the field of socially-engaged art, and the organisational and educational infrastructure that supports it. As a national agency, Create’s remit is to support artists across all artforms who work collaboratively in social and community contexts. The organisation works through multiple partnerships and offers a range of services to develop and support the field of collaborative practice. Programmes include the Learning Development Programme with Dublin City Council Arts Office The LAB which supports art students at undergraduate level to explore working in a socially-engaged context. Built around artists’ needs, Fire Station is an Arts Council and Dublin City Council supported resource of living and working spaces, as well as sculpture and digital media provision, which champions socially-engaged art. As such, the three-way partnership forms an important alignment both in the city of Dublin and nationally. Through the 10 commissioned contributions, which connect academic analyses with artist, activist and educational practices, TransActions #2 sets out to position the Irish context and this partnership within broader international discourse and practice.

Many of the contributions speak (either explicitly or implicitly) to what Kevin Ryan describes as the neoliberal game of enterprise and innovation, which suspiciously holds open the door for those working to enact social change. In the face of the quest for order, which manifests through classification, categorisation and ultimately the disciplining of everything, Ryan presents the challenge for the artist/activist/educator as one of creating new forms of knowledge, which can breed ambivalence long enough to allow other imaginable ways of existing to flourish. If we know that creativity and the arts are being appropriated, how can we find new ways to act? Gregory Sholette’s contribution could serve as the start of an answer to this challenge, taking solace in the recent mass mobilisations of diverse groups of people in varying geographic contexts. As we are witnessing the current firm grip of neoliberalism on our practices and infrastructures in the form of credentialisation, Sholette points out, we are now “faced with the real need to re-think the institution, as well as the academy, and also even the art world itself”. Taking down disciplinary barricades will be part of the long-term strategy to form alliances and agencies with others at a time when capitalism is becoming destablised.

Fiona Woods, Lars Ebert and Katherine Atkinson’s texts engage directly with the institution and the curriculum that greets students drawn to studying the field of socially-engaged art. Woods outlines the curriculum she has developed for students based on analysis of some of the foundational critical impulses of the field of practice, while Ebert and Atkinson outline a European module which sets out to tap into the existing potential of higher education and knowledge produced in many participatory and collaborative projects across Europe “that are engaging the public as active agents in their work”. The intent of both interventions into formal educational curricula is to equip students with tools and critical registers appropriate for their practices.

Holding Connell Vaughan’s note of caution on the very framing of ‘engagement’ and the “façade of measurability” that accompanies it, we move to open up a range of practices with young people: Jennie Guy presents an alternative to the existing art curriculum for youth in our country’s schools based on an immersion in contemporary art practice, while Ciaran Smyth outlines an enquiry that brought the tacit arts-based pedagogy within the informal education context of a city youth service from the “domain of experience” to the “domain of explanation”. In an interview with Allison Peters Quinn, artists
 Jim Duignan and Rachel Harper outline a Chicago-based pedagogical platform titled Public School, which examines where “learning is actually happening in this city and who gets to determine what we should know”, while Helen Carey takes us further a field to an Ethiopian prison to pose questions for knowledge generation that emerges in the act of making art in highly controlled conditions.

An individual reader’s experience of the texts and the terrain brought alive in the publication will depend on the order in which they are read and the knowledge and experience with which they bring to the act of reading. In late 2017 we will host a seminar which will further examine the questions on pedagogy and knowledge production explored here while bringing forward additional voices to converse on such complex issues.






2  Fiona Whelan and Dr. Glenn Loughran, TransActions #1 – a tale of two cities, TransActions #1, 2015.