Catherine Cartwright reviews Social Works?: Open edited by the Models of Validation Team, a partnership between Axisweb and Manchester Metropolitan University, Rebecca Senior, Mark Smith and Amanda Ravetz.


Now is the time to instigate our collective thinking into writings, that can further help the sector, cross pollinate ideas, and strengthen the voice of the artist.’ R. M. Sánchez-Camus

In this collection of new critical writing on social art practice, R. M. Sánchez-Camus, co-founder of the Social Art Network, calls our community to action. He extols us to share and reflect, to talk and promote our practice. To celebrate and collectivise social practice projects under the social media tag #SocialArtUK, as well as reach out to mainstream media. His evident passion for our sector seeks to inspire the growth of dialogue and debate between us.

Sánchez-Camus’s voice is one of a gathering of practitioners brought together in Social Works?: Open to discuss issues on socially engaged practice. This need for critical communication was revealed through research undertaken by the Models of Validation project. When they interviewed artists, commissioners, producers, funders, representatives of local authorities, researchers and academics, they identified several recurring issues which centred on difficulties with communication and connection, undermined by a lack of critical writing in this field.

The inaugural edition encompasses a diversity within its bright yellow and red cover and includes a range of formats from anonymous letters to participant diary excerpts. It opens with two dynamic articles that launch us into the heart of socially engaged practice.

The first highlights good and poor practice from art institutions in their response to the mainstreaming of queer culture (Claire Mead), and the second raises the worrying issue of erasure for artists of colour in Scotland who find themselves simultaneously invisible and hyper-visible (Harvey Dimond). Recurring themes are ethics (Kerry Morrison, Les Monaghan, Jody Wood), the wellbeing of practitioners (Jen Delos Rezyes, Anon) and conflicting pressures in commissioned work (Lauren Velvick, Anonymous). Last to speak are the vivid voices of the people themselves; the collaborators, the participants… the material of social practice (They Are Here, Les Monaghan, Joe Cotgrave).

Relative Poverty and ROUTINE are two artworks where process of the making has been captured for the journal through transcript (Relative Poverty, Monaghan) and diary extracts (ROUTINE They Are Here). With Relative Poverty Monaghan seeks to address the frustrating lack of media coverage given to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation report on destitution and so give a voice to Doncaster locals in poverty. Through documentary photographs installed in community settings, including libraries, churches, meeting halls and schools, Monaghan raises awareness and provokes dialogue on poverty across the community. In the article Monaghan raises the issue of informed consent and says it has ‘haunted’ his practice since it began, for ‘photographs live on after their making. Their meaning shift through the contexts in which they are shown but also through the unknowable future prisms with which they are viewed’. His conversation with subject and participant Dave about these issues, is out there in the open for us all to read. Ideally such transparency would permeate all our practices.

ROUTINE (2018) by collaborative practitioners Helen Walker and Harun Morrison as They Are Here, is an artwork comprised of a series of comedy workshops and performances. Invitations to attend free comedy workshops led by professional comedian Logan Murray, were extensively distributed across London, and the people who responded given the opportunity and support to prepare and perform their own public routine. In this article, snippets of diary extracts from the comedian-participants suggest the shifting dynamics between the comedians and narrate the project. As the reader, it is a privilege to read their intimate reflections, worries and hopes.

Interwoven with the articles are letters addressed, ‘Dear Social Works’. Penned by anonymous practitioners these alternative voices allow a raw immediacy to issues around working with people as material. These letters, which are printed with white text on black pages, catch your eye as the pages flick past and are a brilliant way to pull the hesitant reader into the journal. The first of these letters, signed by ‘A pasty, female in’t North’, reflects on a national arts conference she had recently attended where what struck her most about the event ‘was that every speaker that I heard on the main stage began with a preamble about themselves’ because she felt their ‘intention was to distance themselves from… the modern-day baddie the stale, pale male.’ Her letter is a plea for tolerance across our sector, focusing not on how we aren’t the baddie, but instead eradicating qualities that know no boundaries, ‘such as greed, arrogance, aggression and elitism’.

This book review is somewhat skewed by my interest in ethics and the dynamics between artists and the people they work with. My radar fixed onto the advice given to socially engaged artists by Kerry Morrison and Jody Wood. Morrison draws our attention to the fact that although ‘socially engaged art is an actual social action’ she has never once been asked about ethics. I agree with Morrison that ‘ethics of practice not only appears poorly considered within socially engaged art practice, but all-too-often absent’, and I very much welcome the raising of this as a central issue in our sector. University researchers have to abide by a code of ethics, the principles of research being: Autonomy, Beneficence, Non-maleficence, Confidentiality, Integrity. Why aren’t we subject to similar questioning on our practice and process? As Morrison puts it, ‘does this arts practice remain locked into the hierarchical Modernist agenda whereby the artist is genius?’ I have no doubt that individual best practice continues but in the absence of a debate on ethics, whether a code of ethics is required and what it could look like, we threaten the validity of the sector in its lack of transparency and potential poor practice.

Particularly resonant for me were the seven lessons given by Wood.  Each lesson is deeply rooted in real-life experience and Wood is clearly a practitioner who knows what she’s talking about. It was tough to choose just one to share here, but I settled with Lesson #1 for its pragmatic honesty:

Showing care doesn’t mean making someone’s problems go away. Being present, consistent, and honest in the face of chaos, trauma, and change goes a long way in showing care. Understand that no matter how much you ‘feel’ for this community, you are not in their position and you can never truly relate with their reality. No one needs your pity or guilt. Recognize and accept that your limits are also your strengths – then you can offer true care.

Being party to the conversation of Social Works?: Open has personally enriched my practice as a socially engaged artist and I would love for there to be another gathering. The hopeful news is that the Models of Validation team have funding bids in progress and are in talks with artists and authors about a new series of writing commissions for another edition of Social Works?:.

I have my fingers crossed.


Claire Mead It’s Trouble – Using, Misusing and Reclaiming Queer

Harvey Dimond (In)visibility: Black Artistic Practices in Scotland

Jen Delos Rezyes Tell Me How You Really Feel

Kerry Morrison Let’s Talk About Ethics

Lauren Velvick A short reflection on a couple of current projects

R.M Sánchez-Camus Righting on Social Practice

They Are Here ROUTINE, 2018: Fragments of a process from the participant’s perspectives

Jody Wood Lessons Learnt

Les Monaghan Relative Poverty Artist Commission

Joe Cotgrave POZ? Artist Commission

Journal can be viewed online or purchased from here. 

For more information on the Models of Validation project contact Lucy Wright,

Catherine Cartwright is a socially engaged artist and PhD student in Cultural Geography/Visual Arts at University of Exeter & University of the West of England, funded by the South West Wales Doctoral Training Partnership. Her research is on how artists work with people affected by trauma, focusing on her visual arts practice with women affected by rape and/or sexual abuse, working in partnership with Devon Rape Crisis and Sexual Abuse Services. Twitter: @cathcartwright