Socially engaged arts practice

Helene Illeris

An important artistic source of methodological inspiration for the pedagogy of imaginative dialogue comes from Socially engaged arts practices (SEAP). SEAP is a broad concept current in contemporary art that was coined in the 1990’s, and which includes relational aesthetics (Bourriaud, 2002), social practice (Bishop, 2012, p. 1) and socially engaged art (Helguera, 2011). In order to define what such practices have in common, Anundsen & Illeris (2019, p. 120-121) use the three characteristics of performative, processual and participatory:

By performative we mean that their focus is on art as a form of doing rather than as a form of representing, and that this doing, whatever it might be, is framed as an art form. By processual we mean that the ‘outcome’ of the project is more to find in the quality of the processes enacted than in some kind of final result or product. By participatory we mean that the audience is not meant to be spectators of the activities of the project, but to be active partakers and sometimes even initiators of whatever goes on within the framework laid out by the artists. 

SEAPs often take the form of quite ordinary events such as having meals together, constructing something together, walking together or studying together. The artist’s role is to provide the framing for something social to happen among the participants, often with the perspective of initiating some kind of social change. SEAP has thus also been connected to the so-called ‘educational turn’ in art and curating (Graham et al., 2016).


A good example is the Building Conversations platform for dialogical art that has been developed by the Dutch theatre director Lotte van den Berg and the artists Daan ‘t Sas and Peter Aaers. Here, the art of dialogue or dialogue as art has been explored over 10 years through the realization of an overwhelming number of performative dialogues. A typical feature of this project is that the choreography of the dialogues is curated down to minimal details such as how/where to sit, what to eat and how to speak (Aers et al., 2022).

The group work in Wehe den Horn during the PIMDI intensive week in the Netherlands was inspired by some of the ideas in the Building Conversations platform. For example, some of the student groups chose to work with the ‘Time Loop’ (Aers et al., 2022, pp. 64-71), where the participants have a dialogue from different time perspectives. These perspectives are physically embodied by the participants standing on lines that represent 100, 1.000, 10.000, and 100.000 years from now, both in the past and in the future. One of the PIMDI student groups chose to elaborate through a ‘time spiral’ made from thread lying on the ground symbolizing Gaia, creating a workshop where the participants could stand, sense, speak and move around Gaia ‘in time’. 

The time loop–workshop Gaia is enacted led by master students at the closing event of the PIMDI intensive week in Groningen and Wehe den Hoorn, April, 2023. Screen shots: Helene Illeris

Relevance for the pedagogy of imaginative dialogue

From the SEAP perspective, organizing and participating in imaginative dialogues can be seen as artistic practices in their own right. When we facilitate imaginative dialogues, we include the aesthetics of the physical space and the choreography/dramaturgy of the encounter with an opening/introduction, a timeframe, and a closure. In addition, the sensorial aspects of the encounter can be taken into consideration: sound, lighting, and eventually smell and taste (e.g., through access to refreshments).  


Aers, P.; van den Berg, L. & Lotker, S. (2022). Building Conversation, The Scripts. Third Space Foundation. 

Anundsen, T. W. & Illeris, H. (2019). Inhabiting practice: Performative approaches to education and research as art. In A.-L. Østern & K. N. Knudsen (Eds.), Performative approaches in arts education: Artful teaching, learning, and research (pp. 119-135). Routledge. 

Bishop, C. (2012). Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship. Verso. 

Bourriaud, N. (2002). Relational Aesthetics. Les Presses du reel. (Original work in French published 1998).

Graham, J., Graziano, V. & Kelly, S. (2016) The Educational Turn in Art. Performance Research, 21(6), 29-35.Helguera, P. (2011). Education for Socially Engaged Art: A Materials and Techniques Handbook. Jorge Pinto Books.