Babel, Light installation by Tom Estes at The Shell Centre, London.
Art is a very broad term and possibly one of its best virtues is its lack of precision, which means that it can mean basically anything. A lot of people are still arguing over what art actually is, and more specifically, what contemporary art does. An almost equally familiar discourse is considering if art should, or shouldn’t have a purpose, and that debate easily transforms into whether art can, and whether it should affect social change. There is a line of artists whose art presents itself as socially engaged. However, more often than not, this endeavor does not mean expressing the need to make the world a better place, but instead it focuses on very specific issues, observations and problems, and it takes many different forms, sometimes expecting from the viewer to be the active art-maker. So, even though there are some very representative artists, commonly associated with social practice, it seems hard to draw a line around the edges and say – this, here, is socially engaged art.
Socially engaged practice, also referred to as social practice or socially engaged art, can include any artform which involves people and communities in debate, collaboration or social interaction. This can often be organised as the result of an outreach or education program, but many independent artists also use it within their work. The term new genre public art, coined by Suzanne Lacy, is also a form of socially engaged practise.
Plans to redevelop the Shell Centre prompted many column inches when first proposed, thanks to the blocky, high-density designs in such a high-profile area.
The participatory element of socially engaged practice, is key, with the artworks created often holding equal or less importance to the collaborative act of creating them. As Tom Finkelpearl outlines in his book What We Made: Conversations on Art and Social Cooperation, social practice is ‘art that’s socially engaged, where the social interaction is at some level the art.’ Socially engaged practice can be associated with activism because it often deals with political issues. Artists who work within this field will often spend much time integrating into the specific community which they wish to help, educate or simply share with. Of course there are worse character traits than sanctimony, after all, it’s really just good liberal instincts taken to overly pious extremes. But the urge to sit in self-righteous judgment on everyone else, to luxuriate in one’s own moral superiority, is so often what helps the Left make enemies out of potential friends. I’m no fan of Trump or the Conservatives. But you know what? It does seem that most are more interested in virtue signalling, being self-righteous and making tedious equivalents about Identity Politics in general. And it is all just fake, hypocritical and opportunistic rather than actually achieving anything.
Tom Estes’ art work entitled Babel blurs and distorts the lines of social engagement and instead exists to encourage conversation around current issues of material, physical or psychological limitations. It also raises questions of under what conditions the artist is the author of a collaborative, participatory artwork. Estes describes the work Babel as a way of creating a space for dialogues around the role of cultural identity and its relationship to a Hyper-consumerist Capitalist society. But he also asks us to, “re-think art as commodity and experience within an age of Public Relations, Propaganda and Fake News.” Estes states:
“In a Hyper-Capitalist society people will do almost anything to alleviate their anxieties, accept any distraction. The internet on which you read this, television, booze, sex, pharmaceuticals are all part of our escape from a system designed to keep us unhappy and and always wanting more. People who are content don’t need to buy things to make themselves feel better. Words like social engagement, sustainability and community are frequently bandied about as buzz words, and their inclusion in the lexicon of corporate ideology implicates them as part of an establishment system which is in itself intended to be a form of short-duration entertainment. Some would argue that socially engaged art exacerbates social divides. As an artist I like to challenge and expose establishment art hypocrisy and paradoxes. In a sense what I am doing is using the same lexicon as the establishment in order to pervert it. I guess that might piss a lot of people off. But I don’t think the role of the artist is to be some kind of angel of mercy sent in by the establishment to help locals that feel disenfranchised. The artist should be one of the disenfranchised giving the establishment a good kicking”
Simon Jenkins — ever the critic of anything over three storeys — described the scheme as ‘a visual wall of towers on a truly Stalinist scale’. The fight to overturn the scheme was dubbed the Battle of Waterloo.
“The kind of Liberal-Left people who are going in as artists and doing these socially engaged projects are often the same people who describe the people they are working with as ‘deplorables’. A generation ago, a post-modern cult now known as “identity politics” stopped many intelligent, liberal-minded people examining the causes and individuals they supported – such as the fakery of Obama, Clinton and Tony Blair and their bogus progressive movements. Self absorption, a kind of “me-ism”, became the new zeitgeist in privileged western societies and signaled the demise of great collective movements. And Liberal ideas that once formed part of a radical worldview became increasingly expressed in individualist terms. And now we have found ourselves in a world lost to emotion, irrationality, and a weakening grasp on reality. Lies don’t faze us, and knowledge doesn’t impress us. We are post-truth, post-fact.”
To understand the work is to first of all understand the title as that is a crucial aspect of the artist’s engagement. The Tower of Babel (Hebrew: מִגְדַּל בָּבֶל, Migdal Bāḇēl) as told in Genesis 11:1-9 is an origin myth meant to explain why the world’s peoples speak different languages. According to the story, a united humanity in the generations following the Great Flood, speaking a single language and migrating eastward, came to the land of Shinar (שִׁנְעָר). There they agree to build a city and a tower tall enough to reach heaven. God, unhappy with their arrogant desire to build a tower to reach heaven, confounded their speech so that they could no longer understand each other, and scattered them around the world. Estes goes on to say:
“There is a long tradition of renaming -and thereby reclaiming- buildings in London. What is now officially known as the London Millennium Footbridge was first called The ‘Blade of Light. However it was renamed in popular culture as ‘The Wobbly Bridge‘ after pedestrians felt unexpected swaying motion. The bridge was closed later on opening day, and after two days of limited access, it was closed for almost two years while modifications were made to eliminate the motion. Another landmark building, 30 St Mary Axe (previously known as the Swiss Re Building) is informally known as The Gherkin in regards to its shape. So there is already a popular trend to renaming structures. Likewise I felt that the origin myth of Babel summed up something about our own time. As political polarization grows, the arguments we have with one another may be shifting our understanding of truth itself. People are becoming less able to communicate as a form of selfish me-ism takes hold while algorithms are creating information bubbles that separate us from people with different opinions. Meanwhile new towers are going up every day as a celebration to the glory of greed and money. The Clinton/Blair establishment has lulled us into believing the lie that as long as its politicians are paying lip service to Black Lives Matter and advocating gay marriage, that it’s acceptable for them to choke us all to death by helping big money increase wealth disparity, institutionalize the economy, shrink wages and make it a struggle to put food on the table. Meanwhile they are spending trillions of dollars slaughtering millions of people overseas in corporatist wars for oil. ‘Vote for me! Sure I’ll sell the countries infrastructure to my plutocrat owners and fight to protect them from tax loopholes while you work two jobs just so your kids can eat, but I’ll never assume your gender!’ At the same time you have institutions like the Tate artwashing and lending respectability to big oil companies like BP. Rupert Murdoch’s daughter Elisabeth Murdoch was recently appointed to Arts Council England’s National Council. This is not only deeply troubling, given her close ties to the Murdoch corporate empire, but is also a glaring example of how nefarious the UK arts establishment has become. That is the fake left. That is the entirety of the establishment right now, and it’s what we need to be fighting.”
Babel at The Shell Centre, 4 York Rd, Lambeth, London SE1 7NW