Environment & Urbanization

World leading environmental and urban studies journal

Socially Engaged Art and the Neoliberal City

Cecilie Sachs Olsen




Socially Engaged Art and the Neoliberal City explores how socially engaged art can influence and challenge how we live in, imagine and think about our cities – something that is increasingly dictated by neoliberal and technocratic visions. The book acknowledges the increasing dominance of commercial funding and neoliberal frameworks in restricting the spaces for socially engaged art. Nevertheless, it argues for the importance of such art as an active and generative force in probing hegemonic ideas and identities, and as an alternative participatory process that may enable some of its participants to transcend the structural conditions they face.

The book argues that socially engaged art has the potential to contribute to urban democracy based on a variegated politics of identity and difference. The book draws upon the work of the author’s artistic collective, zURBS, and particularly its projects since October 2013: invisible Zürichs, stadtARCHIV, Montopia and St. Clement’s Utopolis. zURBS is a socially engaged artistic practice that focuses “on dynamic processes that use strategies for participatory urban enquiry and action that is grounded in the arts” (page 5). The collective aims to empower creativity of collective action and shared ideas. Its first project, invisible Zürichs, consisted of several workshops in different neighbourhoods in Zurich, which invited its participants “to directly engage with the complex social and material structure of their everyday urban environment” (page 88). Its participants explored the city in groups for one hour, collecting objects, photographs, drawings, sound clips, stories and even smells, and then returned to the workshop to share the objects, as well as stories behind these things. Chapter 6 provides details of some of these findings and their associated stories. It also critically discusses and problematizes issues arising around the aesthetic and interpretive judgements elicited by these objects.

In Part IV, the book delves into issues that arose during the last three projects, particularly surrounding the politics of representation and participation. These projects illustrated several contradictions regarding participants’ ability to join the workshops and exercise their voice and agency. Briefly, these contradictions included:

1) The risk of essentializing rather than challenging predetermined identities through the attempt to consider specific needs and abilities.

2) Compromising the creation of a common ground and collective ownership by basing personal engagement on subjects’ perceptions, positions and understandings.

3) Compromising collaborative inventions and a sense of collective responsibility through antagonistic encounters between “us and them”.

4) The risk of the zURB facilitators taking on an authoritarian role through the exercise of artistic authorship to provide a transformative experience.

These contradictions are discussed in detail in the conclusion. The concluding chapter also discusses working with contradictions, and using them as a starting point for socially engaged art.


Book Note prepared by Kate Goh

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