The social power of art

The social power of art lies in its possibility to create an expressive space in which the rules and regulations of social reality are reshaped, state both Bourriaud and Rancière (Trienekens & Postma, 2010). Art has the possibility to create a parallel existence, a world similar to the actual world we inhabit but with a slightly different set of parameters and components. Certain aspects of our world can be enlarged or ignored in this representational reality. Hence, experiences relevant to our present day existence are shaped and communicated. Also relation-ships can be made visible or practiced through art. In his widely referred ‘Relational Aesthetics’, Nicolas Bourriaud described the notion of relational arts as a linking element and a principle of dynamic agglutination, “…a set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space” (Bourriaud, 2002). With human relations and social context as their point of departure, many contemporary artists handle a varied range of skills, methods and tools to create space or to moderate circumstances for shared activities. These kinds of practices are usually not held in the white cube settings of Art with a distant capital A, wherefore art has built a bridge towards society, away from aristocratic tendencies. Artistic participatory practices can establish connections between people and strengthen or even create communities.

The way participatory artists shape their expressive space can differ as greatly as the artists themselves. These spaces can merge with physical places or can exist in virtual environments only, or do both. In my own art practice I often create online story spaces. In the Braintec project, for example, people were invited to engage in a science fiction story by writing diaries about their virtual experiences as test subjects for a medical research company. (see Not only the company’s website, but also a second site with virtual diaries was created as the expressive space of this project. To infiltrate physical reality, this story space was expended with company ballpoints, leaflets, flags and other promotional material used during presentations and exhibitions held at different locations.

Expressive space for De Grote Treinreis, 2005

Another story space was created for the project ‘De Grote Treinreis’ (The Great Train Journey, see online here), where people could make self-portraits in front of a life sized picture of the Trans-Siberian Express in the museum, and write travel logs about their virtual journey online.  In both examples communities of participants originated during the process. Both story spaces were carefully shaped to bring people together and motivate them to keep contributing.

In the two projects I realize during this PhD, NIVA TO NENETS and FOOD RELATED, I again work with expressive spaces. I believe the possibility of self-expression is an important aspect of self-empowernment, in which art and artistry can be very powerful as a condition and a tool.