colorful pots with plants on gras
"Nous ne notons pas les fleurs", Fort Ruigenhoek (Tintin Wulia, 2011). Installation and interaction view at KAAP 2011, the Netherlands.

Things for Politics’ Sake: Aesthetic Objects and Social Change (THINGSTIGATE)

Research project

Short description

Many believe that art can transform society and politics. THINGSTIGATE aims to uncover how this transformation happens. It hypothesizes that this change pivots on aesthetic objects, and occurs within a tripartite framework of imagination, emotion, and sociopolitical institutions. The project combines archival studies, participatory art in everyday life, and longitudinal tracing aesthetic objects, specifically ones stimulating imagination and emotion on the nation-state as a sociopolitical institution. It will reinvent methods from large-scale studies of contentious politics to analyse three decades of socially engaged art archives, focusing on relations emanating from objects in sociopolitical networks. Findings will be tested in public interventions where participants assemble aesthetic objects, which will be traced longitudinally.

Navigate to video: Thingsgate - Structure
Video (4:32)
Thingsgate - Structure

About the project

Extended Synopsis

Imagination affects politics. Many political theorists since antiquity, including Thomas Hobbes and Benedict Anderson, have examined the gravity of imagination and emotions in the making and breaking of sociopolitical institutions. Nationalism, for example, begins with feelings towards an imagined community, and is often inseparable from passion. Imagination and emotions proliferated by fake news have also affected many issues of sociopolitical institutions, from secession to pandemic mismanagement worldwide. Paradoxically, the more connected, the more vulnerable we are to entanglement of imagination and emotions directed towards division – we are thus at a culminating point of urgency to put this entanglement into scrutiny. 

Art is germane to this discussion: in Republic, Plato went so far as banishing artists from the ideal city for their affective power in stimulating citizens’ imagination. It is troubling, therefore, that socially engaged art – a new art genre specifically addressing sociopolitical change, hence distinctly pertinent to these long debates – lacks theorization on how imagination, emotions, and political institution are connected. Instead, socially engaged art theories are preoccupied with usefulness. In this engrossment, they disregard the neighbouring framework of aesthetic cosmopolitanism, which particularly brings aesthetics into critical cosmopolitanism’s concerns of imagination and institutions. Exacerbating the problem, both socially engaged art and aesthetic cosmopolitanism unwaveringly follow the trajectory of post-object art tradition. Hence, despite the material turn in other humanities and social sciences – including in the apposite resistance studies – and despite the fact that art practitioners worldwide still constantly work with objects, socially engaged art theories overlooks the role of objects in social processes. 

THINGSTIGATE tackles this gap by asking how objects – or things, something often forgotten when human’s relations are at the centerpoint – instigate change in socially engaged artThrough my preliminary work on a type of aesthetic objects, I hypothesise how their identity shifts along with humans’ during social interaction. If Arjun Appadurai famously describes how objects’ functions shift between regimes of value in a historical timeline, what I mean by shifting here can happen, rather, in a matter of seconds. During relatively brief social encounters, these aesthetic shifts reassemblage the immaterial – imagination, emotions, perspectives. I have discovered one new type of relational shifts – what other types are there along the path to institutionalization? How far do they go? Building on this preliminary work, I expect this study to transform the field of socially engaged art by primarily reconciling its theorization with practice through a novel artistic practice-based research methodology. Upon successful completion, I expect to contribute with a completely new understanding of how art intervene in sociopolitical institutions. Furthermore, with this project, I will advance theorization of objects, prevalent in the material turn that spreads across disciplines. 

Background and Rationale
Some objects – or things – are entangled in and affect political behavior. To briefly clarify my terms: while I use Jane Bennett’s term ‘things’ to reflect objects’ independence from subjects, I mainly observe Susan Leigh Star’s objecthood, where materiality is derived from (inter)action. Examples of these objects, entangled in politics, are pervasive: from the masks worn by Occupy Wall Street protesters, to the bloody eyepatch for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters, the effigies burned in 18th- century British protests as in Charles Tilly’s studies, QAnon figure Jake Angeli’s horned fur hat, and the pots and pans as instruments of today’s public protests in Myanmar. Regardless of the variety and degree of their catalysis in different forms of political actions, all these objects possess immediate affective and evocative capacities. These – and other social capacities of objects – have spurred the ‘material turn’ in social sciences and humanities in recent years, as well as in resistance studies, specifically relevant to this study. 

Art – also through its affinity to objects – frequently serves as an apparatus for resistance movements. Arpilleras, an illustrative fabric handcraft made mainly by women and distributed during Pinochet’s regime in Chile, for example, were vehicles for communication and consolidation. Regardless of how widespread – like the graffiti that swept Cairo during the 2011 revolution – artistic means traditionally go hand in hand with resistance, never constituting the movement itself. However, recent scholarship in aesthetics and art history indicates that art’s intermingling with resistance is reaching a new epoch. These recent debates for me suggest that a growing genre of art is conceiving itself as a fully-fledged, autonomous form of resistance: not any more a mouthpiece or attribute of resistance, but as resistance in itself. This growing genre – namely ‘socially engaged art’ – aims to directly generate social change, on a par with other forms of resistance. 

While many of the practitioners continue to socially engage through objects, theorisation of the genre epitomises art’s ‘useful turn.’ It trivialises the importance of objects, curiously in contrast with the material turn in humanities and social sciences. The material turn is certainly not uncomplicated, however in art, specifically, dematerialization has been conflated with anti-fetishization, despite discussions contrasting the two. Following the post-object trajectory of Lucy Lippard’s dematerialization and anti-fetishization in conceptual art, into Nicolas Bourriaud’s relational aesthetics, and Claire Bishop’s critique of the beneficiary of relational aesthetics, the trope of usefulness was established. A pioneering exhibition Making Things Public where Bruno Latour coined the term ‘Dingpolitik’ is muted in subsequent seminal survey exhibitions of socially engaged art. Dingpolitik does resonate in material participation and material politics studies, but socially engaged art is not part of these studies.

The ‘usefulness’ theorisation does reflect some practitioners’ deep entanglement with utilitarianism. Yet even frequently cited models of socially engaged art seem to rely on things. Take for instance the Vera List Center for Art and Politics’ 2012-2014 prize winner Theaster Gates’s Dorchester Projects, which lifted up the neighbourhood's image, instilling social change by renovating a rundown property in Chicago’s impoverished South Side into a community center using repurposed materials. While this instance of useful project cannot resolutely exist without the material, the role of its materiality and objecthood has yet been analyzed.

Meanwhile, socially engaged art exhibitions and regular nominations by a growing number of international awarding bodies have archived more than 900 socially engaged art projects globally, spanning almost three decades. Despite this wealth of data, the analyses, theorisation and valuation of practices within the genre continue to focus on degrees and theories of usefulness, overlooking the empirical involvement of objects, resulting in an established lack of studies on the objects in socially engaged art. As a result of art being seen as a “tool” to be “useful,” there is also a growing anxiety of co-optation by opposing forces. Hence, my project THINGSTIGATE is now imperative because it is urgent to discover how socially engaged art is useful: to discover its mechanisms of instigation, to trace how these mechanisms instigate social change, and to find out how this instigation becomes institutionalized. 

Recent discussions on socially engaged art theory have been closing in on the “use value” of art in social change, maintaining an urgency to advance discussions on a pragmatic theory of artistic value. However, a very pragmatic, non-theoretical question has been often posed to socially engaged art practitioners: “What makes you different from a social worker, activist or community organiser?” What is the necessity of being ‘artistic’ in socially engaged art, and what is the role of ‘aesthetics’ in cases of usefulness? If artistic value is changing, what is the meaning of aesthetics in this new value? This signals that it is time to cross-fertilise debates of usefulness of socially engaged art with interdisciplinary inquiries into its aesthetic objects. 

Preliminary Results
Through analysis of field notes and empirical observation of the relations between my artwork and its human participants, I have detected subtle shifts in objects’ agencies in social processes. Some aesthetic objects, specifically what I call ‘iconic objects from the border’, are agentic in bringing human actors together in a social assemblage. Performance and methods of personalising and owning these objects – e.g., allowing participants to modify my objects, and bringing them home – can contain this assemblage, and hold a social network by being something in common between participants. To strengthen my hypothesis on iconic objects as agents in creating a social network, I displaced my iconic objects’ framework from the contemporary art spaces into everyday life. With this I found that even when social scripts46 are framework- and place-specific, iconic objects still bring human actors together through aesthetics – in Alfred Gell’s sense of ‘enchantment’, something that attracts and strongly captivates human senses – arousing as strong emotional reactions as anger. 

To analyse objects as something in common between participants, in a subsequent project I took out my iconic object from the equation, to find objects in everyday life that ’naturally’ serve as a common object. I found cardboard waste, a potential common object, in several locations spread across the city, in Hong Kong, signalling a mobility. To follow the cardboard waste across its various nodes in its informal trade route, I combined mobile ethnography with public intervention. This resulted in a significant hypothesis that aesthetic objects’ identity shifts, just like humans’, during interaction with their social surroundings. 

The cardboard waste as commodity does show Appadurai’s different regimes of value along the informal trade route: it was waste at the shops, became material for shelter in the Filipino domestic workers’ node, and so on. However, the micro-shift of identities I experienced was distinctive: the moment I started drawing on them, their materiality began shifting. From being a protection, it became a gift one of my hosts wanted to own – instead of selling to the recycling point as she usually did – to keep herself “warm.” Similar shifts also took place in other nodes of the route. For example, the drawings became a conversation starter at the recycling points. A shift in the drawings then gave the different nodes a new understanding of the route they are in. 

Seeing this transformation, with field notes from previous case studies I began conceptualising what I call ‘thing-in-common’ as a variant identity of Star's boundary object. If Star's boundary object tends to be disinterested in commonality, a thing-in-common reorganises the social topology by deliberately bringing differences together through aesthetics. I suspect Star’s relationship to objects – as a science ethnographer – is different from mine, as a researcher who intentionally intervenes. As an artistic practice- based researcher, my vantage point is of working with these objects hands-on, innovatively. This empirical hint – of one of the ways aesthetic objects behave and instigate a new understanding in a network – is promising. I expect to discover myriad other ways previously unexplored, through working with the wealth of data provided by the archives of socially engaged art with hypotheses tested empirically. 

Drawing parallel with Latour's sociology of association, this project's methodology can be described as a culturology of cultivating: instead of studying culture from a bird's eye view and as a resultant artefact of social engagements, this project intervenes into the making of a culture by empirically tracing things while they are in action, in practice, and worldwide. This methodology is based on my artistic practice-based research, where exhibitions function not only as outreach but also a fieldwork for data acquisition, with participants’ informed consent. Data will be analysed and theorized against an interdisciplinary framework as well as archival analysis to find relational patterns in aesthetic objects’ social networks in existing projects. 

WP1: Theoretical framework of the aesthetic objects in the entanglement of imagination, emotions, and institutions 

I will develop the notion of aesthetic objects’ identity shifts during social performances, and collate them further with theories on icons and imagination. I will then survey institutionalization theories – how individual concepts-linked imagination are gradually embedded into societal systems – including liminality, vernacularization, multi-level governance, the legal spheres of citizenship to find potential linking to aesthetic objects in their processes. This work will develop on my preliminary empirical results that extend concepts on things and identity from cultural anthropology, feminist studies, science and technology studies, design theory, political theory, and sociology amongst others. 

WP2: Introductory typology of relational patterns of socially engaged aesthetic objects. This includes public and unpublished archives from different sources, e.g, the Arte Útil archive, Creative Time’s Living as Form archive, the Visible Award project archive, archives from The Vera List Center Prize for Art and Politics/The Jane Lombard Prize for Art and Social Justice.

We will collate and analyze archives of existing socially engaged art projects. This will include up to 900 projects worldwide spanning 30 years, from dedicated archives, exhibition catalogues, and socially engaged art awards. We will focus on sociopolitical objects to identify patterns of their relations with other participants in socially engaged art projects, expanding Tilly’s grammatical analysis method with Knorr Cetina’s object- centered sociality. We will also examine a specific case with a higher resolution qualitative data comprising approximately 1000 anonymized participants’ feedback forms from Make Your Own Passport

WP3: Empirical studies on the behavior of objects in socially engaged art.

To assess findings in WP 1 and 2, we will observe socially engaged objects empirically. Each respective stream will address the imaginaries of the world beyond the nation-states, and the imaginaries of a specific country:

WP3.1. Iterative. 

We will reorganize an ongoing socially engaged art project, Make Your Own Passport based on the proposed theoretcal framework and relational objects typology. We will iteratively work in public spaces in highly diverse communities with different access to mobility – in Sweden (Gothenburg), Italy (Venice), and USA (Queens, NYC), to collect high resolution data across different cultural regions, aiming to get 3000 respondents. This will employ the networks that the project had established since 2014 including the Make Your Own Passport Network at the Centre on Global Migration, University of Gothenburg, as well as in collaboration with institutions such as Queens Museum. We will evaluate the trajectory of the handmade “passports” that participants make during the workshop through initial pilot studies, and accordingly adjust our sampling methods to also invite a selected number of participants for a longitudinal study of changes in worldview. 

WP3.2. Longitudinal. 

To observe objects, imagination, emotions, and institutions in and through the digital realm, we will design a socially engaged art project based on the proposed theoretical framework, taking place in the online/digital realm. We will collaborate with 1965 Setiap Hari – a transnational research-and- relay collective working with social media in Indonesia, one of the largest social media community in the world – to incorporate this project within their methodology of collecting and disseminating narratives. The focus will be on the transformation of boundary objects into things-in-common. We will also trace the digital object and invite selected participants for a longitudinal study of the digital objects’ trajectories, focusing on changes in their relations with imagination and institutionalization. 

WP4: A theory of aesthetic objects in imagination, emotions, and institutionalization through socially engaged art

I will then aggregate and interpret new findings from WP 1 to 3, towards a theory of aesthetic objects as a mediator of social change. 

THINGSTIGATE is expected to challenge the course of the ‘usefulness’ debate in socially engaged art theory, by returning to its pragmatic and aesthetic entanglement with society through aesthetic objects. This will impact studies on objects across disciplines and establish the aesthetic objects as one of the most significant links between imagination, emotions, and institution, a long debate in art and beyond. 

From a methodological point of view: the academic presence of artistic practice-based research is not new, but is also far from established. THINGSTIGATE will therefore significantly contribute towards securing a position for artistic practice-based research as a methodology of interdisciplinary research in academia.

Partial bibliography

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