PRAKTIKA – a critical workshop for artists in socially engaged art practice

This is the Introduction to the book PRAKTIKA published in 2008 by Deveron Arts that hosted the workshop and raised the funding to make it happen.



Socially engaged art practice has become the term that has evolved to describe the colonisation of earlier social art practices of the seventies and eighties by what might be described as the ‘mainstream’.  What is meant by this is that what was, at that time, anathema to ‘self-respecting’ artists is now being absorbed and developed by many ‘mainstream’ artists.  Through this osmosis, socially engaged art practice has gained a certain legitimacy among curators, galleries and the main art funding bodies. Added to this has been the government’s policies of social inclusion which has funnelled lottery monies into the arts on the condition that an outcome of social benefit was evident.


There were never any clear and agreed definitions of community art or public art and it remains the same for socially engaged art practice. However two key themes are evident in all three and these are context and collaboration.  Within these there are of course broad and varying degrees of engagement.  Artists have responded to them, and used them, in ways that fulfil their needs as artists.


The presentations by artists at recent conferences on socially engaged practice threw up a number of observations, questions and problems about the works they were showing.  The first was that there was an enormous amount of work going on, much of it funded by lottery and local government money, and yet it was work that was not discussed, not subject to critique and not even written about outside a local milieu.  Secondly a lot of the work was being carried out by younger more recent graduates from the art schools who had yet to develop a mature practice.  And thirdly, as a consequence of this it seemed that the work was still stuck in practices of the eighties as if there had been no development since then.  It was as if these artists felt that they were breaking new ground unaware of the long history of practice that preceded them.  One might also have discerned a certain lack of the idealism of the social and democratic urges which had fuelled  earlier artists.  Out of all of this grew the need to do something about it.


We came to the conclusion that what was needed was an opportunity for artists to discuss and critique each other’s work in an atmosphere of trust and respect.  It would have to be a formal event that would be documented.  It would have to be in camera, that is for the artists only and not a public performance.  It would have to be over a short intensive period of time.  It would have to be residential, almost like a retreat and that it should take place outside the central belt.  Finally that the proceedings must be published.  There is very little published critical writing on socially engaged practice in Scotland given the enormous amount of it going on. We wanted to be able to say, here is a selection of recent projects in Scotland along with discussions and critiques of them.


Almost without exception everyone we discussed this ‘critical workshop’ with thought it was a good idea, much needed and wondered why it had not been done before.  Nevertheless it took years trying and failing to get the funding and the location together and, when Claudia Zeiske, Director of Deveron Arts, approached us and offered to host the event and raise the funding for it, PRAKTIKA was born.


The hosting of PRAKTIKA by Deveron Arts in Huntly could not have been more appropriate.  With its motto of, ‘the town is the venue’, the workshop itself became embedded and woven into the community of Huntly. Having advertised the workshop nationally, thirteen artists were selected on the basis of their history of practice and on the specific artwork they wished to present for critical discussion.


PRAKITIKA took place over two full days and three nights in March 2008.  Each artist had one hour of which 20 minutes was for presentation and 40 minutes for the critique.  Detailed notes were taken of each artist’s session and the whole event recorded on video. We present our response to the PRAKTIKA experience drawing on the copious notes of the twelve projects and the critical discussions that took place.  It has been a fascinating and rewarding task not only in illuminating the wide range of work going on in Scotland but to be able to be reflective about the critical, subtle and nuanced differences of approach and understanding of what goes under the title of socially engaged art practice.  We hope this will offer an interesting and useful text to artists and others working in this field.


Many people have said we need more PRAKTIKAs all over the place.  Maybe this is a model for what could happen, not only for socially engaged art practice, but also for all other art forms.


Rosie Gibson and David Harding