10 Profound Socially Engaged Art Happenings of 2014

This year (2014) was a great year for some really profound socially engaged exhibitions, public art, performances, and happenings. Below, I list 10 of the most memorable socially engaged art events of the year. I’d love for you to comment with your own contributions too.

1. OPEN ENGAGEMENT 2014 at the Queens Museum
This was the social practice event of the year. It was very exciting when it was announced that the international conference would finally be coming to the East Coast, and more significantly Queens, one of the most diverse communities in the world. The conference from May 16 – May 18 featured keynote presenters Mierle Laderman Ukeles and J. Morgan Puett  and this year’s theme was LIFE/WORK. There was a great variety of talks and workshops that examined how the impacts of artists living and working in community are connected to the larger political and social issues including labor, economics, food production, ways of being, and education.

2. Dread Scott: On the Impossibility of Freedom in a Country Founded on Slavery and Genocide

Impossibility of Freedom from More Art on Vimeo.
This one time public art performance produced by More Art, featured revolutionary artist Dread Scott engaging in a “Sisyphean attempt to walk into the battering force of water jetting from a fire hose.” The performance recalls the violent crowd control tactics that were used by authority figures on Civil Rights protestors during the 1960s. The performance also reflected the struggle of marginalized individuals through discriminatory policies in immigration, criminal justice, welfare and education. Unfortunately, this poignant work was all too relevant in light of the the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, Staten Island, New York City, and throughout the nation as a result of police brutality which led to the deaths of several unarmed black men. One particular highlight was the interaction and discussion that followed between the artist and a group of High School students from the neighborhood of Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn. The entire school of had come as a class trip. The students, many of whom were learning about the struggle for civil rights in class, had a mixed range of powerful reactions and contextualized the experience in relation to their own struggles as a community.

3. Swoon: Submerged Motherlands at the Brooklyn Museum
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There are few street artists who have had as great of an impact on social engagement within the community as Swoon has. Past projects included the Konbit Shelter (2010), a sustainable building project in post-earthquake Haiti, which created homes and community spaces through the collaboration and sharing of resources from the local community; and her participation in the Braddock, Pennsylvania collective of artists and activists known as Transformazium which focuses on creative re-use and re-imagining of Braddock’s neglected urban spaces and resources by providing classes and opportunities for hands-on learning in the community. In Submerged Motherlands Swoon transformed the Brooklyn Museum’s rotunda gallery into an incredible immersive environment that reflected contemporary and historical events that are a result of climate change. This was a very personal exhibition for Swoon because it was in part a response to the devastation from Hurricane Sandy which affected many people in Brooklyn, where she resides.

4. Jody Wood: Beauty in Transition


Artist Jody Wood initiated Beauty in Transition in 2006 at Lawrence Community Shelter in Lawrence, Kansas.  As a Blade of Grass Socially Engaged Fellow, Wood brought the mobile outdoor beauty salon to NYC homeless shelters in Manhattan and Brooklyn. The mobile unit provides beauty services including a hair wash, cut, color and/or style service to willing participants. The intimate connection of hairstylists and community volunteers working together with the homeless individuals on shaping their image, is an important element in breaking down borders the cliche and boarders that often exist when helping the homeless. In Jody’s words “This project requests a space beyond legislative and socio-economic spheres and articulates what equality might look like outside of bottom-line bureaucratic functionality, wherein homeless shelters function to provide fixed services within an ongoing and largely unchanged social order. Rather than increased invisibility behind the institutional doors of a shelter, this project considers increased visibility through reclaimed authorship to one’s self-image, while breaking long-standing and pervasive social barriers of touch that stigmatize someone who has become homeless.”

5. Ai Weiwei @Large at Alcatraz
Ai Weiwei’s activism and art has gotten him confined to house arrest in his homeland so it is apt that he created a large scale installation for the former “inescapable prison” Alcatraz.  Ai Weiwei’s seven site-specific installations – such as With Wind, a Chinese dragon decorated with flowers from countries that oppress the civil liberties of its citizens; Trace, 176 portraits of exiled or imprisoned political dissenters; and Illumination, an installation that draws parallel between Chinese and American people who have opposed and resisted political and cultural oppression – seek the question “can the mind be liberated when the body is not?”

6. If You Build It
If You Build It was a site specific exhibition curated and produced by No Longer Empty  at the recently constructed new home of Broadway Housing Communities in Sugar Hill, a West Harlem neighborhood that was the epicenter of the Harlem Renaissance. The exhibition consisted of installations, photography, and performances by over twenty local, national, and international artists including: Dread Scott, Nari Ward, Hank Willis Thomas, Shani Peters, Freddy Rodriguez, Bayeté Ross Smith, Omo Misha, and Radcliffe Bailey. The works in the exhibition seeks to establish interactivity between art, architecture, community, and activism. Themes throughout the show included cycles of urban decay and gentrification; building community through shared heritage; immigration and displacement; the longing for home in all its senses; and the vast economic disparities that plague our cities.

7. AiOP FREE

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Jim Dessicino’s Eric Snowden Statue in Union Square Park during Art in Odd Places FREE festival.

Union Square Park is full of monuments. There is one for George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and even Gandhi. But did you happen upon a statue of Eric Snowden sometime this fall? It was a work by artist Jim Dessicino for a highly successful and engaging public art program along 14th Street in Manhattan organized by Art in Odd Places. FREE was a series of socially engaged interventions by artists who seek to bring their art to the public at large.

8. Through My Lens: A Photographic Survey from Society’s Margins at the Bowery Mission
This is an exhibition that culminated over the summer when some homeless New Yorkers were given cameras and told to shoot “that which they hoped others might see.” The works in this exhibition are incredibly powerful and will certainly be eye openers for many New Yorkers. The show will go on into the New Year at the Bowery Mission weekdays from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. and 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. until January 17th!

9. Funk, God, Jazz, and Medicine: Black Radical Brooklyn by Creative Time
This great project by Creative Time explored the19th Century African-American community called Weeksville. Weeksville flourished in what is today the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights. Funk, God, Jazz, and Medicine Black Radical: Brooklyn was organized throughout local schools, churches, community centers, and houses which used to be important establishments in Weeksville. Creative Time commissioned installations by Xenobia Bailey, Simone Leigh, Otabenga Jones & Associates, and Bradford Young. The exhibition’s theme was to show radical collaborative organization both in the past and present where local battles for land and civil rights are still major issues.

10. JR’s Portraits from Ellis Island’s Immigrant Hospital
French artist JR’s powerful portraits from Ellis Island’s Immigrant Hospital returns humanity to the abandoned site.

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