Socially engaged art at UCSD provides food for thought in La Jolla

By Will Bowen

“I went from being an artist who makes things to being an artist who makes things happen.” — Jeremy Deller

Broaden the spectrum of your art appreciation with a visit to the latest exhibit at the University Art Gallery (UAG) at UC San Diego. There, you will have the unparalleled opportunity to view and contemplate some of the best and most significant examples of “socially-engaged” art that has been produced throughout the world since 1991, in a show called, “Living as Form (The Nomadic Version).”

‘The City’ by Chemi Rosado Sijo

The show was curated by Art History Ph.D. students Sascha Crasnow, Elizabeth Miller,  Ph.D. candidate Lara Bullock and curatorial fellow Michelle Hyun. Hyun defines socially engaged art as, “Art that is made from the social mediation of social relations. It’s closer to real-life experience than regular art and often has a protest or politic aspect to it.”

Simply stated, socially engaged art is work that has a social meaning, purpose, or motivation, and is meant to call attention to some facts about society or encourage a change in perspective or behavior. Socially engaged art can be anything from text, poetics, image, performance, theater, film, activity or demonstration, etc.

UCSD Art Professor Mariana Wardwell noted, “Socially-engaged art is inbred by a political-economic condition and it acts to intervene in, displace, and dislocate the political environment where it is produced.”

Ricardo Dominguez, also a professor of art at UCSD, believes, “To be effective, socially-engaged art must have a bit of ‘toxicity’ about it, meaning that it cannot be easily digested, assimilated, or appropriated by the dominant political structures. It must make them a little sick!”

The UAG show is an abridgement and localization of a much larger exhibition that was curated by Nato Thompson in New York City for Creative Time. Thompson, a social activist and editor of “Socially-Engaged Art from 1991- 2011,” collaborated with 25 gallery curators throughout the world to bring together 48 of the best socially-engaged art projects produced in the last two decades.

Professor and UAG Gallery Director Grant Kester and Exhibitions Manager Merete Kjaer teamed up with Creative Time and Independent Curators International and hand picked 22 of these 48 projects for UCSD. They then added five commissioned local projects from the San Diego area co-curated by Bullock, Crasnow,  Hyun and  Miller.

According to UAG, all the projects depicted in the gallery “blur art and everyday life, emphasizing participa- tion, dialogue, and community engagement, while pay- ing attention to the power of media. (They are) parts of an emerging reality where cultural production and politics live in an increas- ingly integrated relationship … these projects generate a space for inquiry and ulti- mately new approaches to social practice.”

Nato Thompson’s motiva- tion to build the two shows was his insight, “Something historically unique is happening in cultural production that requires different rules for art than those of the 20th century. This culturally savvy method of civic production has manifested in everyday urban life and growing civil unrest.”

‘The Border Blaster’ by Cog*nate Collective

“Living as Form (The Nomadic Version) is an opportunity to cast a wide net and ask: How do we make sense of this work? and in turn, How do we make sense of the world we find ourselves in? ‘Living as Form (The Nomadic Version)’ will provide a broad look at a vast array of practices that appear with increasing regularity in fields ranging from theater to activism, and urban planning to visual art.

“In this, the first decade of the 21st century, a critical mass of culturally-infused activism and social engagement emerges … a diverse practice, socially engaged art is shaking up the foundations of art discourse.”

“Why couldn’t everyone’s life become a work of art?” — Philosopher Michele Foucault

In addition to the international projects found in the show, there are five pieces from local art collectives that were commissioned by UAG:

1) Agitprop facilitated the development of an organization to assist people with developmental disorders in establishing independent living practices through the “mapping” of assets in their communities.

2) Cog*nate Collective will conduct a series of interventions and engagements at the U.S./ Mexico Border Crossing that will be broadcast to the UAG gallery space.

3) The Periscope Project will design a project that integrates art, architecture, and urban planning issues.

4) There Goes The Neighborhood will host a half-day program based on urban space and neighborhood issues.

5) Torolab will present a project to assist an impoverished neighborhood in Tijuana.

In connection with the exhibit, there will also be a series of lectures and films scheduled over the next few months.

It must be remembered that the works in the show are not traditional art ob- jects per se, but rather de- scriptions of art practices and projects. Reading the background and accompanying texts is necessary to understand what the projects are all about.

‘The Complaints Choir’ by Tellervo Kalleinen and Oliver Kochta-Kalleinen

Max Carnig, an under- graduate UCSD Visual Arts major who works in the gal- lery, suggested, “You can approach the show by way of a brief visit and get an overview of what it’s all about, but a patron should spend a couple of hours engaged with the projects, watching the accompanying videos, listening to the audios, or reading the provided textual materials.”

Joshua Chan, an undergraduate Earth Science major, who also works in the gallery and helped hang the show, added, “People have come in and expressed disappointment that they were not seeing objects of art hung on the walls. But I think that the way the show was installed … how it was hung … is artistic in itself, and is worth contemplating.”


What: ‘Living as Form (The Nomadic Version)’

When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday; 11 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Friday to Dec. 14

Where: University Art Gallery (UAG), Mandeville Center, 9500 Gilman Drive, UCSD campus

Roundtable: 4-6:30 p.m. Nov. 26, Structural & Materials Engineering Building Performance Space, UCSD with Nato Thompson, Agitprop, Cog*nate Collective, Periscope Project and Torolab

Contact: (858) 534-0419 Website:

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  4. New San Diego Museum of Art exhibits focus on two distinct British painters
  5. Three artists take you ‘outside the box’ with inspired works opening Sunday at the Museum of Contemporary Art

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Posted by Staff on Nov 13, 2012. Filed under A & E, Art Galleries & Institutions. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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