On Engagement: Negotiating the imagined and the material in socially engaged artistic practice

Cecilie Sachs Olsen

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis


Recent years have seen a proliferation of socially engaged artistic practice that focuses on the creative rewards of collaborative activity. Art here becomes a method for participant self-representation by creating a space for embodied and often marginalised experiences to be expressed. There has been a tendency to focus solely on the subject-centred relations that are produced through this artistic practice, rather than examining the interdependence between these social relations and their material context. These discussions risk neglecting the potential of this practice for intervening in the spatial and material organization of cities. By combining geographical research and artistic practice, this thesis offers a situated, theoretical and practice-based investigation of the entanglement between socially engaged artistic practice, its participants and its social and material sites. Central for this investigation is how socially engaged artistic practice may generate productive social change and influence how we live in cities by engaging participants in exploring the relation between urban imaginaries and the material environment.

My research is grounded in an ethnographic approach to my own socially engaged artistic practice, zURBS, which uses artistic practice to engage publics in their urban environment. This research addresses three main issues: The first issue concerns processes of meaning-making in terms of how artistic practices can make explicit the ways in which our material environments are transformed and come into being within on-going everyday practices. The second issue concerns the participatory process and how socially engaged artistic practice may enable the participants to engage with the complex social and material structure of their everyday urban environment in order to recognize, question and challenge the circumstances that regulate their actions and behaviours. The third issue concerns the politics of representation in terms of how socially engaged artistic practice may provide a space in which a diverse set of identities and interests relating to the city can be created, expressed and negotiated.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen Mary University of London
Award date25 Nov 2016
Publication statusIn preparation - 2016

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