Art/Research International: A Transdisciplinary Journal
Volume 5 Issue 1, 2020
Karin Hannes
Research Group SoMeTHin’K
(Social, Methodological and Theoretical Innovation/Kreative),
KU Leuven, Belgium
Rudi Laermans
Theory, Culture and Religion Research Group,
KU Leuven, Belgium*
*Joined lead authors
Karin Hannes coordinates research group SoMeTHin’k (Social, Methodological &
Theoretical Innovation with a creative twist) at the Faculty of Social Sciences, KU
Leuven and specializes in arts-based, place-based, multisensory and futuring research
designs as well as qualitative evidence synthesis as a meta-review technique. Prof.
Hannes works from an inclusive, academic activism perspective actively pushes
towards the development of methods and models for positive change in society. Her
perspective is transdisciplinary and multimodal in nature, combining numerical, textual,
sensory and/or arts-based research d.a.t.a to study complex social phenomena.
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Art/Research International: A Transdisciplinary Journal
Volume 5 Issue 1, 2020
Rudi Laermans is senior professor of Social Theory and Sociology of the Arts at the
Faculty of Social Sciences, KU Leuven. His theoretical research focuses on the
founders of sociology (Max Weber, Emile Durkheim), contemporary social systems
theory (Niklas Luhmann) and contemporary critical theory (Michel Foucault, Giorgio
Agamben, Autonomous Marxism). This multi-faceted theoretical interest also inspires
his interdisciplinary interest in the arts, particularly the field of contemporary dance.
Editorial Volume 5 Issue 1
Art/Research International: A Transdisciplinary Journal
Volume 5 Issue 1, 2020
Attempting to categorize the most important trend within the field of the then fine
arts, French art critic and curator Nicolas Bourriaud
(2002) coined the notion of
“relational aesthetics” or
“relational art.” The expression refers to a multiple set of
artistical practices “which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the
whole of human relations and their social context” (p. 113). Claire Bishop (2006) saw
this trend confirmed in the following years and in 2006, in an influential essay in
Artforum International, launched the idea of a broader social turn in the visual arts. The
focus on different modes of collaboration with a variety of publics would no longer
characterize a specific artistic segment, but rather form the dominant trend in art/
research practice.
The social turn also deeply affected the various performing arts, including theatre
(see for instance Jackson, 2011; Malzacher, 2015), dance (Laermans, 2015), and music
(Colin & Sachsenmaier, 2016). A wide range of working forms, methods or practices is
involved, varying from participatory art still framed by a semi-directive approach over
more symmetrically informed community art projects to outright activist art that acts in
tandem with broader protest movements (Kester, 2011). What binds these socially
engaged and often research-embedded artistic projects is their encountering element,
with the artworks produced holding equal (in many cases less) importance to the
collaborative act of creating them and the interaction involved in doing so (Finkelpearl,
Most social art is guided by a critical perspective on power inequalities and their
effects within the spheres of for instance gender, ethnic majorities-minorities
relationships, the economy, or the daily lifeworld as impacted by environmental
changes. Together with raising awareness concerning social justice and equality, direct
individual empowerment and collective emancipation are often explicit goals of social
art. Artists involved in the corresponding practices tend to use art as a vehicle to engage
with the texture of social life, eventually disrupting the seemingly natural flow of the
social in order to stimulate reflection and invite action for change.
Notwithstanding the variety of deployed modes or methods, social art has some
marked features distinguishing it from the modernist stress on art’s autonomy. First, the
emphasis is on social processes or dynamics; hence, social art practices emphasize
immaterial social dynamics rather than the production of aesthetic objects. Second,
social art cultivates a critical approach that goes against the commercial grain of the
visual arts world in particular. Hence, the related practices opt for a de-commodified
creativity short-circuiting art markets. Third, the construction and reconstruction of social
relationships may take place in a gallery or museum context or within the more specific
established frameworks corresponding with the genres of theatre, dance, or music
performance. However, there is a definite preference not to work in the white cube or
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Art/Research International: A Transdisciplinary Journal
Volume 5 Issue 1, 2020
the black box and to experiment with existing or new emancipatory modes of sociability
within public space (Bax, Gielen, & Ieven, 2016; Meier & Frers, 2016). This is linked to
an anti-elitist stance and the will to reach out to social groups, or even collectives-yet-to-
be-defined, that are likely to be negated by art institutions (Kester, 2011). Fourth, the
process-identity of socially engaged artistic practices implies the possibility to use joined
creation for imagining new identities or to transform disruptive habits of minds evoked
by personal, structural, or life changing events shared with significant others. A fifth and
last key characteristic concerns the notion of “social” in the expression “social art.”
Given that it is nearly always made for a public, however small, art has per definition a
social rationale. Yet practices exemplifying the idea of social art emphasize
participation, dialogue, co-action or co-creation. As such, they subvert the traditional
notion of authorship and seem to ask for concepts such as multiple authorship. Besides
being multiple, authorship constantly shifts within collaborative artistic practices, which
precludes naming a final creator. Indeed, the created work is the outcome of a non-
linear work of encountering encompassing moments of explicit negotiation as well of
periods of social improvisation. In order to underline this open and dialogical character
of social art, we choose to speak of encountering artistic practices.
Making encountering art may not just be a way to create art with a high social
value. In many instances, this endeavor is intrinsically linked with an outspoken
research interest. Precisely because of their open social dynamics, encountering artistic
practices can shed light in an innovative way on the different social textures that may
emerge in relation to different modes of encountering (Wang, Coemans, Siegesmund, &
Hannes, 2017; Cahnmann-Taylor & Siegesmund, 2017). Such a research interest
includes a focus on the underlying dynamics through which artistic practices either re-
enforce or re-define general notions of “differing” and how they either challenge existing
societal power mechanisms or alternatively keep them into place (Beyes & Steyaert,
2011; McDowell, 2018).
Furthering social enlightenment or empowerment, and investigating existing or,
especially, potential emancipatory modes of sociality through encountering artistic
practices may be indeed two sides of one and the same coin. This requires new notions
of how to study socially engaged research practices. Not all encountering art also
testifies of a research attitude or is informed by a premeditated methodology and a well-
considered theoretical framework. Thus, many examples of straightforward activist art
consider effective social change as more important than an interest in how this may be
reached through a research informed encountering artistic practice. The evident danger
of this kind of artistic activism is that the process of encountering is instrumentalized to
such an extent that the intrinsic socio-political value of that very process is no longer
Editorial Volume 5 Issue 1
Art/Research International: A Transdisciplinary Journal
Volume 5 Issue 1, 2020
There are yet more direct, non-political modes of instrumentalization, even of
commodification. When organized within the confining walls or under direct impulse of
art institutions, encountering artistic practices may risk becoming collaborative in a
negative sense, i.e. to contribute to the public attractivity of a museum or theater without
much critical effect. Against their critical grain, encountering events can indeed be “just
fun,” preach to the already converted cultural bourgeoisie, or anything but heighten the
sense for social change because an overtly moral stance sits in the way of genuine
political claims (compare Bishop, 2012).
When assembling this special issue, we wanted to foster the already rich
dialogue between encountering art and research-based art. The material and immaterial
dimensions created during social encounters are not solely an expression of what has
been found. Artistically inspired processes work performatively. Hence in their
expression, the artworks become the research itself (Haseman, 2006). Given the just
mentioned potential pitfalls of the first, we were particularly interested in examples of
artistic research practices creating encounters between people and the public domain
that have a clear critical edge, embrace the power of critical dialogue and enhance the
common good.
Specific lines of interest for our call included non-intentional
encounters in public space, as addressed by practices ranging from public art to
creative activism
2011), community framed encounters as addressed by
community and co-creative art projects
2011), and audience based
encounters resting on a shared time and physical attention as addressed by live and
performing arts (Malzacher, 2015).
The contributions to this special issue further our understanding of the impact of
the blurred lines between art, social life, and scholarship as illustrated by encountering
art. Several authors critically challenge our current understanding of what art can
achieve or is supposed to provide in social terms; still others question the idea that
artistic practices should necessarily be perceived as a means to a social end. More
generally, all contributions go beyond the all too simple and questionable impact
approach of the use of art in widening audience participation or transforming
participants and communities. The studies we included testify of a reflexive attitude
informed by the kind of intellectual curiosity as well as awareness of potential limits
informing all genuine artistically inspired research. Moreover, several papers relate the
discussed case to broader issues by situating them in an economic, cultural,
educational, social and/or political context.
In the Theoretical Musings section, Maureen Flint uses Rosi Braidotti’s concept
“nomadic ethics” in relation to the process of making paper and develops new
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Art/Research International: A Transdisciplinary Journal
Volume 5 Issue 1, 2020
considerations on ethics and representation in research methodology and art through
social encounters with a broader public. Nerina Jane Caltabiano investigates the
concept of liminality defined as a phase of change, transition, and transformation from a
social justice perspective. Rather than limiting the work to the study of how artworks
may soothe childhood trauma, it is situated in the broader context of “professionalism
for sustainable societal change.” Lynn Sanders-Bustle takes a methodological stance,
explaining how qualities associated with social practice overlap with and extend existing
arts-based research practices. She presents the work of three socially engaged artists
wherein the emphasis is not on art as an object but rather on the alternative social
exchanges that emerge through participation with others. Shannon Forrestor engages
with the dynamics of exclusion through reparative painting and considers how systemic
cultural agents deploy inequity to obstruct human flourishing.
The Art/Research in Action section presents eight case studies written by authors
with a variety of different backgrounds. Enni Mikonen and colleagues present a
participatory theatre project with immigrant women to investigate how art-based
research can function as a decolonizing research method. Its analysis is based on the
combination of social work and art education disciplines for advancing social justice and
deconstructing power dominances. Davina Kirkpatrick embarks on a polylogue in
which a collaborative shared experience of loss is environmentally materialized. She
argues that “absence” has agency and can be located in a shared space. Justin
Langois uses the concept of antagonism as a guiding principle for his artwork. He
situates the idea of conflict in the broader context of social democracy, explaining how
artists may deploy disagreement against larger hegemonic structures and help foster
new expressions of agency. Kelly Clark/Keefe’s “Life Lines” project is an example of a
critical participatory arts-engaged research endeavor aimed at opening up conventional
theoretical wisdom about the nature of young adult college students identity formation.
She uses a multiplicity of expressive forms to challenge identity development models
that limit subjectivity to human consciousness and agency in the absence of
acknowledging somatically attuned sets of practices and productions. Heike Langsdorf
and Ernst Marechal invite us into reconsidering authorship practices, focusing on the
idea that what is overwritten through communal and multi-perspective experience is
always more promising (however, not necessarily better!) than what vanished the
moment when it mismatched our individual ideas. They illustrate this convincingly in the
dialogue they have built with each other. Time to invite our readers into “encountering”
art/science research practice.
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Art/Research International: A Transdisciplinary Journal
Volume 5 Issue 1, 2020
Bax, S., Gielen, P. & Ieven, B. (Eds.) (2016). Interrupting the city: Artistic constitutions of
the public sphere. Amsterdam, NL: Valiz.
Beyes, T., & Steyaert, C. (2011). The ontological politics of artistic interventions:
Implications for performing action research. Action Research, 9(1), 100-115.
Bishop, C. (2006). The social turn: Collaboration and its discontents. Artforum
International, 44(6), 178-183.
Bishop, C. (2012). Artificial hells: Participatory art and the politics of spectatorship.
London: Verso, 2012.
Bourrdiaud, N. (2002). Relational Aesthetics. Dijon: Les presses du reel.
Braidotti, R. (2011). Nomadic theory: The portable Rosi Braidotti. New York: Columbia
University Press.
Cahnmann-Taylor, M., & Siegesmund, R. (Eds.). (2017). Arts-based research in
education: Foundations for practice. New York: Routledge.
Colin, N., & Sachsenmaier, R. (Eds.) (2016). Collaboration in Performance Practice.
New York: Palgrave.
Finkelpearl, T. (2013). What we made: Conversations on art and social cooperation.
Duke University Press.
Haseman, B. (2006). A manifesto for performative research. Media International
Australia incorporating Culture and Policy, 118(1), 98-106.
Jackson, S. (2011). Social works: Performing art, supporting publics. New York:
Kester, G.H. (2011). The one and the many: Contemporary collaborative art in a global
context. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Laermans, R. (2015). Moving Together. Theorizing and Making Contemporary Dance.
Amsterdam: Valiz.
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Art/Research International: A Transdisciplinary Journal
Volume 5 Issue 1, 2020
Malzacher, F. (2015), Not just a mirror. Looking for the political theatre of today. Berlin,
DE: Alexander Verlag.
McDowell, L. (2018). Gender, identity and place: Understanding feminist geographies.
New Jersey, NY: John Wiley & Sons.
Meier, L., & Frers, L. (2016). Encountering urban places-Visual and material
performances in the city. In L. Meier & L. Frers (Eds.), Encountering urban
places: Visual and Material performances in the city (pp. 17-24). Routledge.
Wang, Q., Coemans, S., Siegesmund, R., & Hannes, K. (2017). Arts-based methods in
socially engaged research practice: A classification framework. Art/Research
International: A Transdisciplinary Journal, 2(2), 5-39.
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