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Life Foundation 19832610_10209454831751258_1228512091_n-1 Social sculpture through dreams and conversations - Creating spaces for participatory and situation specific art based methods in social research

Social sculpture through dreams and conversations – Creating spaces for participatory and situation specific art based methods in social research

Lott Alfreds and Charlotte Åberg

“Creativity isn’t the monopoly of artists. This is the crucial fact I’ve come to realize, and this broader concept of creativity is my concept of art. When I say everybody is an artist, I mean everybody can determine the content of life in his particular sphere, whether in painting, music, engineering, caring for the sick, the economy or whatever.”

– Joseph Beuys, in an interview with Frans Hak, 1979, (Beck 2004, p.7)

In 2012, we, Lott Alfreds and Charlotte Åberg, co-founded the artistic collective ArtAgent based in Stockholm, Sweden, focusing on participatory and situation-specific art. Through art practices in the public realm, we aim to develop an increased awareness of the potential and capacity of art to impact society and we have created artistic projects at various locations such as neighbourhoods, schools, social institutions, workplaces, public squares and art institutions, both in Sweden and internationally.

The works include different international contexts such as social sculpture, (Beuys, Harlan 2004) participatory art, (Milevska 2006) and situation specific and new genre public art. (Lacy 1994) In addition to these concepts we have used a stream of questions and experiments undertaken by thinkers and art practitioners that have influenced the condition of local communities in a global change. Referring to Arjun Appadurais belief, we now live in globally imagined worlds and not simply in locally imagined communities. We also live in a world in which deterritorialisation, the breaking-down of existing territorial connections affect us on a daily basis as well as a parallel vision were we are moving towards a more comprehensive and internationally including approach. (Appadurai 2000) In this shift we see the enhanced possibility of sharing thoughts, feelings and imagination through art.

One strength that we possess as artists is that we continuously work with the unspoken, with tacit knowledge that cannot be easily described with words and therefore needs other means in order to be expressed. (Harry Collins 2010). To allow for also imaginary worlds to take part for example in the often dull and repetitive actions at a workplace, we create a possibility of exchange based on thoughts. As artists we have a long experience to work collaboratively with communities by engaging them in artistic actions aiming towards social change.

We wish to contribute to this section on methodological re-shaping and spatial transgression in glocalised social work by introducing strategies that we have been using in our artistic practice with marginalized communities in Albania, Macedonia, Croatia and Sweden. In particular we wish to describe the interplay between practice and theory in our projects, to discuss theory by way of practice, and in so doing highlight how artistic practice embodies and modifies theory. This will be demonstrated by bringing to attention different situations and conditions for art projects in Sweden and in the Western Balkans. We will begin by introducing a theoretical framework to our methodology building on Joseph Beuys ideas of social sculpture (Sacks 2016) and Grant Kester’s notions of the potentiality of conversations in art practices. (ed. Kucor, Leung 2004) We then present examples of our interpretation of what a “social sculpture” can be as the basis of our artistic and social practice. We have heterogeneous artistic backgrounds as visual artists working with sculpture, graphic art, textile design, video and photography.



The figure attempts to describe in a simple form the journey that both the artists and participants can take. The timescale can vary from days to months and the creative inputs and outcomes are hugely variable. What we have tried to make clear is that process and product are entangled and must be understood as a whole. While a final presentation or event must be artistically credible it is also informed by the process that created it. (Dix, Gregory 2010). Graphics: Lott Alfreds 2014


Social sculpture and conversation in art practices

“Social sculpture” is a term promoted by the German conceptual artist and politician Joseph Beuys (1921-1986) in a series of open lectures in the late 1970s. It is a concept used to describe an expanded concept of art that embodies the artist’s understanding of art’s potential to transform society. As an art form grounded in the social, it includes a human activity that strives to form and shape society. Beuy’s believed that society as a whole could be regarded as a work of art in which each person contributes creatively by stating the well-known phrase – “everyone is an artist.” (Beuys, Harlan 2004, p.2] This statement, however, is not an end – Beuys meant that every conscious act made by an individual is part of a larger construction of society, which is the larger work of art. The artist as a social “sculptor,” that is, a subject that actively creates and shapes structures in society, engaged in a process of social transformation by using language, thoughts, actions, objects and aesthetic situations. Therefore, everyone is an artist insofar as each individual’s activities are part of what constitutes a larger whole. This marks a shift from people as spectators of art (whereby art is one of the many activities in society) to people as participants in a larger work of art whereby society is the resulting artwork. As such, everyone is equally accountable for what society is and stands for, and there are no outsiders to the work of art itself.

Beuys’ concepts are infused with a utopian belief fuelled by political hope and spiritual values and is very inspiring for an entire generation of artists whose aspirations extend beyond the exclusivity of the so-called “art world.” With this in mind and aware of our backgrounds as trained artists, we wondered what it means to incorporate these social and collective values outside the usual art contexts of art schools, museums and galleries. How could we use artistic methods as a way of reaching out into society-at-large and consider life is a social sculpture that everyone helps to shape? ArtAgent became interested in understanding both the conditions of participation, that is, how to involve people in collective artistic actions, and artistic materials, that is, the tools and means of participation. For instance, if it is true that speech is a sculptural material, as Beuys stated, then what can happen during group discussions with members of a particular community that may activate speech in the form of an artwork? In this case, the discussion itself is the artwork created by a series of conversations, dialogues and speech acts, which together are the materials that shape the artwork.

We are equally informed by Grant Kester’s ideas about conversation where he identifies a number of contemporary artists and art collectives that have defined their practice precisely around the facilitation of dialogue among diverse communities. By breaking with traditions of object- and picture-making solely for display in museum and gallery walls, many artists, like us, have adopted a performative and process-based approach (ed. Kucor, Leung 2005 p.76-88). They are what British artist Peter Dunn has called “context providers” rather than “content providers,” whereby the orchestration of creative dialogues extend beyond the institutional walls and acquire a political and social resonance in society at large. (Lovejoy, Paul, Vesna 2011) This involves creating contexts where exchanges can take place, which have the potential to “catalyse surprisingly powerful transformations in the consciousness of their participants.” (ed. Kucor Leung 2005, p.76) Some of the questions raised that we have been interested in are about understanding how collective or communal identities can be formed. Today we are confronted with a lot of uncertainties and are thrown into many complex situations in the formation of a glocal community. A contemporary global interest does not refer to local point of views in a shift to a large-scale economical and societal global order. On the other hand there is an on-going counter-movement at the grassroots level. As Arjun Appadurai proposes; there is two kinds of globalization, globalization from above, with the aim to colonize your mind and the globalization from below where there is a focus on an emancipatory politics by smaller groups, as for example NGO organizations with focus on peoples education and participation for the promotion of their interests.

A new architecture for producing and sharing knowledge about globalization could provide the foundations of a pedagogy that closes this gap and helps to democratize the flow of dialogue between academics, public intellectuals, and policymakers in different societies. The principles of this pedagogy will require significant innovations. This vision of global collaborative teaching and learning about globalization may not resolve the great antinomies of power that characterise this world, but it might help to even the playing field.”

–Arjun Appadurai, Grassroots Globalization and the Research Imagination, (Appadurai 2000 p.18)

The practice of social sculpture and participatory art works very well with the grassroots globalization “from below” because it’s trying to empower different people to participate and live together in a more pluralistic society. Therefore, instead of centering our activities in how spectators respond to a particular work of art, we are concerned with collaborative, and potentially emancipatory, forms of dialogue and conversation as a starting point for an artistic experience

Facilitating Collaborations

We first came together as independent artists working in collective projects in 2005 and 2006 with two projects in Botkyrka municipality, Sweden Stockholm. The main idea was to let artists and artworks interact with groups of staff members from different workplaces. Our first project was carried out during six months at the Botkyrka Municipal house, 20 km south of Stockholm, Sweden, together with a group of consultants from Botkyrka (Konstfrämjandet 2011). Botkyrka municipality is unique since it is the most multicultural municipality in Sweden with a high percentage of immigrants living there. Politically, it is quite progressive and its slogan “Far from Ordinary” reflects their openness and innovation towards embracing multiculturality as an asset for the region. The municipal house in Botkyrka has over one hundred employees and reflects the diversity of its population. We worked with a group of approximately 10 administrators who volunteered to the project, mostly women.

We used role-play, installations and mobile films as artistic expressions that inspired the group in working towards a common working process and a collaboration between artists and civil servants inside their working premises. This means that our site of intervention was not primarily a location meant for displaying art, but a site where art enters the visual and cognitive realm of the workplace by way of these conversations. When groups were defined, we started out with a few questions regarding what the employees would like to see improved at their working place. In parallel, we held smaller sessions and workshops for painting with watercolours, and creating objects in clay as forms for expressing and interpreting thoughts. This initial conversation aimed to ask the participants about their needs and to investigate whether we – artists and employees – could build something together that became “art.” Our role as artists was challenged, as we became facilitators of an artistic process whose goal was to become an agent for change within the workplace. The participants reacted to our interventions and the sessions in many different ways.

Certain key inspirational elements were found in the work produced in the workshop sessions that created a strong connection between the participants and ourselves. In the discussions about the clay objects, for example, we agreed that poetry was a subversive force as well as a tool of resistance. We wanted to use poetry in a wider sense, not through written words but through the making of art objects. In this very action we focus on the listening processes, and what we don’t often think about is that listening is a form of learning as well as the pictures that form between us. When working in a territory of oppression, you cannot avoid being radicalized by people’s expression. (Donovan 2012) Play was also mentioned as an important ingredient where chance is a welcome guest. In the interactions between people there must be room for chance, because in the arts we can’t follow a pre-written agenda and hope that an equal dialogue will occur in the workshops. Chance and the new possibilities that come with it are just around the corner when the conversation is free and vivid.

The above-mentioned workshops propose what Arjun Appadurai calls “relations of disjuncture,” proposing a new process and new possibilities against the traditional ways of moral discipline, while reconsidering local problems. ArtAgent and its partners operate on the belief that contemporary art is a means to intersubjective knowledge and presentation. Creative discourses benefit from self-reflexivity. The workshops are feasible as, all parties act within an understanding that new process geographies and places of imagination for the socially marginalised are possible. (Bekteshi 2014) 

The Upside Down Day

In 2005 we worked together with a group of ten consultants, responsible for consultative support to managers and employees in areas such as labour law, safety and health, rehabilitation, equality and diversity in the Botkyrka Municipality. We asked the consultants if there was anything at their workplace that they wanted to improve and paid attention to their needs. They were disappointed with the social environment at the workplace at Botkyrka Municipal House. The consultants were sitting in their own corner of the building, they never interacted with other co-workers and their supervisors were never seen in the huge building complex.

We made a day called ”the up side down day” at the municipal house. The environment was shaped into a new form, where people could meet in unexpected ways. For instance the politicians at the municipal house were invited to have a meeting without agenda in a ”cushion room” together with children from a nearby kindergarten.

Together with employees at the Botkyrka Municipal House, we created situations where the normal routines in their working place were questioned. In group discussions, we, the artists, came up with “worst-case scenarios”, which was used as a dramaturgical source of inspiration for further conversations and activities.

The women, employees, in the group played around with ideas reflecting critically on the municipality’s slogan, which could be seen in all official printed matter and communication material: “Botkyrka Municipality: Open, Brave, and far from Ordinary.” One woman reacted strongly against these values and at the “the up site down day” she didn’t bothered to change from her pyjamas before going to work, “I still laugh at what we did that day, we dressed ourselves in strange outfits and just stopped obeying. I was acting as a closed person, instead of being open and available as usual.”


Working with dreams

In several projects we have been working with dreams as a way to form a social sculpture. In 2006 we created “The Dream Garden”, with employees at an elderly care centre that had requested an artistic intervention to transform the smoking lounge into a winter garden where they could have a new meeting room. At this time we felt it was important to bring something out of the situation that was close to our own artistic practice. We made a contract with the group whereby they would “donate” their stories of nightly dreams, which later could be turned into a movie script. There was a vision of “flooding” the workplace with moving pictures, and dreams being whispered behind and between plants.

We held meetings with nurses of all ages, most of them with a background from other countries as Ecuador, Ethiopia, Turkey and Finland. One of the participants told us a dream in which she had seen roads and environment in Sweden before she even had any thoughts of migrate. In the dream she passed by small roads and big highways in an endless route in the unknown country that later would become her residence. A young woman had recurrent dreams where she met a tiger and the spectacular thing was that her twin brother also had the same dreams at the same times. In the end she decided to stop and face the tiger, her fear and in the same moment she did it, it disappeared. All sorts of dreams came up; they were based on everyday events, families, cultural adaptations and all the range of emotions that people carries inside. There was a strong presence in those moments when we exchanged dreams with each other.

Another example of working with dreams is from our network collaboration with Albania. Within this framework, in 2007-2008 the director of Ali Demi Women’s Prison in Tirana, Albania invited us. The invitation entailed conducting workshops with staff working in this prison, with the support from the Swedish Institute in collaboration with Refraction Association, an Albanian human rights organization working with issues concerning inmates and their families. Prison director Marinela Sota wanted to see if a working method based on the concept of social sculpture and dreams could be used when working with staff suffering from work-related stress syndrome.

In Albania they have a tradition of sharing dreams with each other, which the we had no idea about when they came there, and it was a pure fluke. Some of them also believed in prophetic dreams, and the dreams were also related to the landscape, that plays an important role in Albanian folklore. Mountains surround the city of Tirana and these are often appear in dreams. One woman told that you can get rid of their nightmares if you get up early in the morning, gets up at the top of the mountain and whisper the dream quietly to the mountain. (Korpskog 2011)

With the project “Social Sculpture, Dreams and Gender Issues” at the women’s prison we continued to focus on dreams and their pictorial language as a uniting force. We had learnt from previous projects that it was very useful to have a tactile angle in the process as well. Boxes were made in which the content of the dream was expressed in a non-narrative way by using delicate materials such as Japanese rice paper. These were exhibited in a cultural centre in Tirana and the staff’s families were invited to participate.

After the conversations and exhibition at the women’s prison in Albania we wished to document the experience to be able to share it with a wider audience among artists, but also the social sector and knowledge building. We made a publication about the experience, which also became a way of expressing our subjective experience, both in the terms of writing as well as in pictures. (Alfreds, Åberg 2010) We also created an exhibition together with the book release, consisting of films and dream collections that were shown in several art institutions in Stockholm such as Candyland Gallery, Studio 44, the Culture House and Botkyrka Konsthall.




 “The Use of Art Where it’s Hard to Talk” 

Clothes have in all times been a sign for class, gender and group belonging. They are a part of one’s identity and show the persona of the individual. Old clothing still remains as a part of a memory, and might tell a story of the past. By working with clothes we hope to receive different stories and memories connected with the objects. The workshop is an example of how we can use art in order to make people talk more freely. (Clothes Workshop on Vimeo 2016)

In 2011, the Albanian human right organization Refraction Association, invited us together with two other artists, Helena Byström and Pontus Lindvall, to take part in the Western Balkan project “The Use of Art Where its Hard to talk”. (The Use of Art Where it’s Hard to Talk 2016). The working method was again a collaborative approach with practical artistic works mixed with conversations. In the “Clothes workshop” participants were asked to bring three clothing items and to tell stories about them. In the context of post-war, the experience of wars and trauma surfaced as central. Stories and memories came up in relation to the armed conflict in Kosovo 1998-1999, by the forces of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (by this time, consisting of the Republics of Montenegro and Serbia) and the Kosovo Liberation Army, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and the Albanian army.

In this project, we trained local artists and organizations in conducting these workshops, which resulted in further collaborations in the region. These local artists went on to produce their own projects together with vulnerable groups in different locations in the Balkan countries.


Visualize the Invisible

The organization ArtAgent as such was founded in 2012, after these successful experiences on the occasion of Creative Europe Programme of the European Union grant used to independently manage and create new projects. By then, we had already established a network of collaborators between small NGO’s from Croatia, Macedonia, Sweden and Albania. Countries such as Albania, Croatia and Macedonia have low funding for cultural organizations and artists and the access of culture for all citizens is still limited. Projects in each country worked on creating new ways for bringing art in direct contact with groups that normally do not have much contact with it. In the project Visualize the Invisible, 2013-2014, organisations in Sweden and Balkan implement Participatory Art projects in Sweden, Croatia, Albania and Macedonia. The artists used different art forms such as video, installations, performance and dance in co-operation with people in residential areas, Roma communities, in social institutions such as prisons, schools and care institutions and reach a wider discussion about arts impact for a societal change. All participants were part of a mutual artistic creative process, both the artists and the people they were interacting with. An important aspect in the project was to widen the art-market in the specific area and make it visible in a European context. The artists shared their experiences with each other through workshops in Balkan and finally in an international exhibition and book release in Sweden. The outline was to examine arts role in the society, to give artistic tools, concept and theories and to build interdisciplinary and international networks. There were many advantages in bringing artists to take place in institutions, communities and working places. In this project, art acted as a different role model; the relationship to the artist was more equal rather than to someone in authority. The artists inspired and gave confidence to the participants with new approaches and provided extra “tools in the tool box”. 

Concluding reflections


Art can be shared in a broader sense, through the practice of the German artist Joseph Beuys concept Social sculpture or other ways, where the immaterial material as thoughts and conversation are sculptural material and be used to bridge gaps within the society as well as transfer knowledge production through cultural barriers. The investigation is pursued by contrasting the way in which we are seeing art as non-movable objects or as information leaving space for context-responsiveness. In a global context the ”immaterial materials” such as thoughts, feelings and imagination can be part of a social force and form new collective patterns against the state or market driven interests. In this way we can be united by a desire to create new forms of understanding through creative dialogue that crosses boundaries of ethnicity, gender, religion, and culture.

”For example, the notion that art was communication, a link, a crossover mechanism, caused us to want to deal with people of different races, people of different ages. Collaboration also came out of the sensibility that if art was a communication, the process of making art and the communication that occurred between the artists was an important and integral part of the work itself”.

– Susanne Lacy. Oral history interview with Suzanne Lacy by Moira Roth. (Roth 1990)

One strength that we possess as artists is that we continuously work with the unknown – something that is often unspoken or that cannot be easily described with words and therefore needs other means in order to be expressed. To let this imaginary world take part in the often dull and repetitive actions at a workplace, we create a possibility of exchange based on thoughts.


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