The Research Question

In 2015, within my role as a post-doctoral fellow with Simon Fraser University’s Art for Social Change Research Project funded by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada, I conducted a series of interviews with a number of senior artists in British Columbia who either defined themselves or were defined by others as having socially engaged art practices.  As an artist who shared a long history of practice in this field, I wanted to know if there was anything from these artists’ past experiences they could offer future practitioners? Defining the practice as meaning to take the experience one has gained, experience from the doing of it, in order to actualize a condition or event that did not exist before. 

There is currently a great deal of interest in this form of art practice within institutions and academies. The institutional gaze has brought with it tensions and questions that are not easily resolved. Who is best qualified to do this work?  How are the processes and techniques and the ‘way’ many of these forms have evolved into being used to serve agendas that are counter to the original impulses behind the work? Currently the term community engagement is even viewed with suspicion by many, as the arts-based practices born out of critical and activist sentiments are being instrumentalized and co-opted by institutions and organizations to further serve neo-liberal and progressive agendas.

In counter point to this argument, the art practices defined within the field and those being explored within the Art for Social Change Research Project are being seen as interactive, multidisciplinary opportunities for practice and pedagogy. These practices have the capacity to open up new spaces to encounter relationships and new ways to create ethical responses to emergent global concerns.  In response to the growing interest in this work, in 2013 the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) provided funding to support the Art for Social Change Research Project.  These conversations with artists is a part of  a five-year national research initiative on art for social change and is the first study of its kind in Canada.

We initiated this inquiry motivated by thinking about what might best serve those seeking to become the next iteration of practitioners? Dr. Lynn Fels, Co-investigator with the Art for Social Change Research Project, and myself arrived at the question through Hannah Arendt’s theorizing as it relates to the education of the young. When we reflect on the past it is often in order to ascertain what the future needs to know or come to understand.  Initially when I first started these interviews I had an interest in asking other artists: what might characterize this art practice and what might define it?

I had already come to some understanding through my own work: that having and creating opportunities to be creative is, in and of itself, a necessary and urgent need most of us share. And the doing of it together renews our common world and our shared sense of it.  When art is facilitated and practiced with others in an environment dedicated to hospitality and conviviality it creates an experience of community and enhanced states of shared worldliness. Artmaking can create networks that reach far beyond the making of something together.  But in order for this to take place it requires the making of something new.

Arendt (1954) discouraged us to imagine that a new world is being built through the education of the young.  She reminds us that it is a pre-existing world into which the young or the future is being introduced (p. 193).  She also asserts that education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it, and by the same token save it from ruin which, except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and young, would be inevitable… and whether we love our children enough to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing the common world (p. 196).

Through considering the educational perspective of Hannah Arendt, the question we asked all of the artist practitioners in this collection of interviews was:

As an artist who works in the field of art for social change, what, in their experience, needs to be preserved or held as a responsibility as it is re-imagined into the future?

Through this question I sought to understand whether there are a unique set of practices, critical, or creative undertakings that characterize these artists’ work? Whether their practice as they understood it could be defined entirely through social engagement, community engagement, or activist impulses? And/or is the making of art what needs fore fronting?  I asked some of them whether they saw a relationship between creative and artistic practice and social change?  Or, as a number of artists in this series maintain, the work is not motivated by art for social change but rather through the ‘taking’ of the experience of the doing of it.  Art becomes social change.

I would like to gratefully acknowledge the generosity of all the artists who agreed to be interviewed, media artist Flick Harrison, Dr Lynn Fels and Nicole Armos with Simon Fraser University’s Art for Social Change Research Project. This research project was supported by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada with Simon Fraser University’s Art for Social Change Research Project.

—Patti Fraser

Arendt, H. (1954). Between past and future. Eight exercises in political thought. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penquin Books Ltd.

Who asks the questions?

The Indigenous scholar and poet, Dian Million, frames an introduction of oneself as a set of relations and an introduction is an acknowledgement of, who walks with us. Who walks with us is an introduction to the people who have influenced us, guided us, troubled us, nurtured us. Introducing ourselves to others is simultaneously an introduction to those with whom we have shared a common history, land, or family. This set of introductions doesn’t just refer to people but also to places; it includes the waters we live by and consume, the land we walk upon, and the air we breathe. Who we walk with isn’t an abstraction but something deeply personal.

So let me introduce myself to you in relation to the collection of artists featured in this website.

Unbeknownst to myself when I initiated this collection of interviews I was in part uncovering a path of my own practice as a ‘socially’ engaged artist over the course of thirty years. As it turned out I had in some way either worked with, created documentaries on, influenced, or had some relationship through my work as a community engaged theatre and media artist with most of the artists featured in this website.

Thirty years ago, socially engaged art practices, as represented within this series of conversations, were not recognized with any legitimacy within cultural or educational institutions. There was little or no designated arts funding for community engaged arts within the public or private sectors. And for the most part the work produced out of these encounters was viewed with little interest within these same institutions.

Many of the early experiments in this field were activist based and viewed as that. Influenced by the pedagogies emerging out of social liberation movements in Latin America, through the feminist movement, and through the reclaiming of folk craft or vernacular art.1

What was shared through performance, art making, dance, and music was an attempt to re-frame narratives, represent lives and communities excluded from mainstream artistic cultures and audiences. There was an active seeking on the part of the communities and the artists to create new meanings, new forms of expression, new relationships and new narratives through making and creating. And a call for those who came to be witnesses to these events.2

What we experienced was that the people involved in these many of these projects appeared happier and more resilient after completing the hard work of creative practice.3 The groups of people with whom I worked with and with whom we formed ‘community’4 even in its most temporal sense appeared to benefit from this work. Some of the benefits gained from these encounters were, my opinion, not because it was easy and not necessarily because it provided recreational opportunities and social encounters. But because of the creative demands asked of us.

Drama educator, Gavin Bolton, speaks of the “here and now,” “spontaneous,” and “existential” moments, which may be found in dramatic play, which he states, have two components: the descriptive and the existential (Bolton, 1992, 10, 17). According to Bolton, when participants “submit” to the fictitious or imaginary world they are creating, the dramatic play is “here and now”; where, suggests performative inquiry scholar Fels (1998), participants straddle the not yet real and real world(s) of lived experience; and, in the interstices, a possible world becomes momentarily realized.

Primarily, the creating of something from nothing—whether it is an event or an object created along side or in collaboration with others in order to draw meaning in the here and now—is the hidden hand of power within this creative practice. Remembering, just as Million invited us to frame an introduction within the frame of a network of relations, we could chose to introduce ourselves within the social, political, economic conditions of our lives, as well. Who we walk with and where we walk matters. The history of, socially engaged art was in part an innovation and a response to crisis. In my particular experience, it was a call to respond to the AIDS crises as it was being experienced in British Columbia particularly in Vancouver in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s

Hannah Arendt (1954) writes about crises as an opportunity that obliterates prejudices and lays bare “the essence of the matter” (174).  She also asserts that the disappearance of prejudices means ‘that we have lost the answers on which we ordinarily rely. A crisis becomes a disaster only when we respond to it with preformed judgments that with prejudices. (174)

Many artists in this collection of interviews do not believe their work emerges through pre-determined frames.  In this sense, the making of art strikes at the core of pre-formed prejudices. The process of creative practice can only evolve through an inquiry that has no preformed answers and is not seeking any. Creative practice forces us to forfeit preformed and prejudiced narratives. Creative practice asks that we seek out something new and make something of it. Creative practice requires an open-ended inquiry. If we enter into this kind of inquiry with an already formed outcome or pre-ordained sets of understandings all we can do is create replication and duplication, neither of which can offer the potentiality of producing new meaning in the here and now.

My practice and those of many others interviewed here sought encounters and opportunities to work alongside communities and groups of people who were seeking some form of expression in order to, in the most naïve sense, put right that which is wrong. For many of the projects it is difficult to know whether the work we did together has made any lasting difference. There was little follow up research or institutional support to find out what happened in those early years.  As the years passed, a more nuanced understanding of the effects of this work has emerged, and with this understanding the need to create opportunities for sustainability. Yet in the opinion of many, the heart of this work still defies definition and is still evolving outside of institutional settings and frames.

When asked to reflect upon the past in order to talk to the future my journey has been a journey of beautiful failures, questionable success, of exhausting encounters, of contentiousness and unresolvedness. In the early years I found myself more often than not in atmospheres of urgency, marginalization, and crises. This work was being seen and being played out in the arena of activism.  Through the generosity of others, we sought to open windows into the darkest nights and into places inhabited sometimes by the lightest of souls.

Varela (1987) writes, of bringing forth a new possible world through our actions.  “What we do,” Varela says, “is what we know, and ours is but one of many possible worlds. It is not a mirroring of the world, but the laying down of a world.”5 (62)  Creative practices in the company of others, seeking to understand, to resolve, to renew, to re-imagine what now is can open a new world into what is possible. And what is possible in our lives helps us to address the gap that dwells between what was and what could be. With that in mind, I invite you to consider with me the responses of this remarkable collection of artists as I ask them what needs to be preserved as it is re-imagined in the future?

—Patti Fraser

1. Vernacular designates a value on that which was homemade, or homebred, and derived from the commons

2. See Renea Morriseau interview on this website

3. Cohen, 2006) The Creativity and Aging Study; The Impact of Professionally Conducted Cultural Programs on Older Adults

4. Illich forwards the practice of hospitality as ‘recovering threshold, table, patience and listening, these activities generate seedbeds of virtue and friendship and radiate out for the possible rebirth of community. Ivan Illich with Jerry Browne, We the People, KPFA, March 22, 1996

5. Varela, F. (1987). Laying down a path in walking. In W.I. Thompson (ed.), GAIA: a way of knowing — political implications of the new biology (pp. 48-64). Hudson, NY: Lindisfarne.

Defining the Practice

The set of artistic practices that form the basis of inquiry within The Art for Social Change Research Project has been described as a spectrum of work. This spectrum contains arts practices that have been defined as participatory, socially engaged, community-engaged, collaborative, and relational (Finkelpearle, 2013). This spectrum includes interventions by the artists who frame their work as a critical inquiry fuelled by notions of social change to those who claim their practice is expressed dialogically and its value is relational. Other artists maintain their work is primarily an aesthetic engagement with people with no predetermined frame of inquiry of social justice or social change, and its value resides in its aesthetic outcomes or in the re-invigoration of continuity of tradition, or ritual. Others see their art practice as creating avenues for provoking engaged witnessing, others for creating collective expressions of beauty and fostering sustainability. Some regard the work of making in place of consuming as critical, some talk about ‘giving’ voice, and emphasizing the critical and skilful development of story.  This work has also been described as instrumentalist and its primary import as a useful tool for the development of social relations or education.

In this series of conversations it may be the artists’ love their work and within it a unique commitment to the renewal of the commons or the community through the ‘newness’ of creative practice that could most aptly characterize the work of these individuals.

Whether it is through what choir master Vanessa Richards describes as ‘sonic gifting’ of the voices in her Vancouver Downtown Eastside choir or Paula Jardine’s respect for grief and those made most vulnerable by it, in her work in the creation of the Mountain View Cemetery’s Night for All Souls; it is a love of the world and the promise of creative renewal with and for other people that makes these conversations worthy of careful listening.


Finklepearle, T. (2013). What we made: Conversations on Art and Social Cooperation. London, England. Duke University Press.


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Biographies of Project Contributors

Patti Fraser, PhD, was the 2013 recipient of the Vancouver Mayor’s Art Award for Community Engagement. Currently she holds a post-doctoral research position with Simon Fraser’s University’s Art for Social Change Research Project. She was a founding member of The Leaky Heaven Circus and of the nationally recognized Summer Visions Film Institute for Youth. Her work focuses on the use variety of artistic mediums. Her work has been recognized as best practices in a diversity of fields including the Chee Mah Muk Aboriginal Education Centre with the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control, the Canadian Council for Refugees, and the Canada Council for the Arts. Her most recent work is a collaboration titled the 19th Birthday Party was created in partnership with the Vancouver Foundation’s Youth and Homelessness Initiative. She has been nominated for three Vancouver Jesse Theatre Awards as having produced dramas the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Both the Social Science and Humanities Research Council and the Canada Council for the Arts have funded her research. She was co-Artistic Director of The Housing Matters Media Project.

Dr. Lynn Fels Drawing on 18 years of expertise in arts-based research, online publishing, and curriculum development, a Professor in Arts Education, and Co-Director of ICASC, Lynn has written about the importance of learning through the arts, performative inquiry, has advised on pedagogical tools, worked with incarcerated women and co-edited a book written by them. Lynn is responsible for documentation and dissemination of research processes and facilitates knowledge integration between partners, co-investigators, field study leaders and collaborators throughout the life of the project. She will collaborate on the production and evaluation of all project outputs and deliverables.

Nicole Armos is a poet and an MA graduate in Art Education at SFU. She has an interest in exploring questions of identity, health, relationships to place, and social justice through art, the humanities, and arts-based research methods. She holds a BA in World Literature from SFU, where she continues to work as a Teaching Assistant. She is also a Research Assistant with the ASC! Project, helping to research cross-sector partnerships in the field of community-engaged art.

Videomaker Flick Harrison is a writer, media artist, filmmaker, hacker, educator and drone pilot in Vancouver. Starting out on the CBC youth series Road Movies as one of Canada’s first professional videographers, he’s since made video in Pakistan, the US, Mexico and China.  As part of Something Collective, he helped pilot the City of Vancouver’s Field House community-artist residencies. His work includes teaching media production and literacy, designing projections for theatre and dance, making music video and consulting on media technology. Flick is working with ASC to create video that documents, explains and opens up the project’s work.