Socially Engaged Arts for Understanding and Re-Imagining Desirable Technological Futures


Photo credits: Atmospheres of Breathing, 2020, Anne Duk Hee Jordan © Luca Girardini, CC NC-SA 4.0

Throughout history, the arts have consistently turned their scrutiny towards questions of societal and/or environmental importance, often acting as a reflective mirror that illuminates our cultural and scientific progress, while also denouncing and preserving the lessons from our darkest periods as civilization. With the advent of the World Wide Web, we find ourselves entangled in a swift and intricate digital transformation, now deeply embedded in the daily routines of many people, exerting a profound influence on our individuality, work dynamics and societal interactions. In this scenario, artists have not remained untouched by the profound impacts that emergent technology is bestowing upon us. They have embarked on artistic explorations that transcend the mere fascination or adoption of digital tools, to critically contest the very process itself. In this piece of Artsformation’s research we focus on understanding how artists critically question and/or embrace the profound integration of technology into society and their own creative process, not just as means, but also as a reflecting process regarding the effects these tools have on themselves as individuals and members of specific communities as well as our society in general. Within this complex landscape, artistic projects emerge, articulating and rising awareness of pertinent issues relating to digital technologies, such as the implications of data collection and surveillance. Although the arts express diverse perspectives and ideas, amidst this diversity lies a potential source of inspiration, answers, strategies and methodologies to address pressing societal matters derived from the transition into a digital European society.

During the development of our research, we have had the opportunity to take a closer look at the role of socially engaged and participatory artistic practices, specifically in relation to the digital transformation at local levels and the ways it influences vulnerable and/or marginalized groups of people. As a relatively novel practice, socially engaged arts is based on the belief of an empowering effect of collective creativity and seeks to engage with societal challenges cooperatively in an exercise of democratic participation by reinventing and confronting the status-quo of current societal structures (Bishop, 2006; Finkelpearl, 2013). According to Claire Bishop (2012), the essence of this practice lies in the active participation of people, since they are both the means and the material of socially engaged arts and thus their participation as co-authors in such artworks is what most differentiates this practice from others.

This focus on communal participation has also been at the heart of this chapter in Artsformation. Through constantly asking ourselves what might be the role of socially engaged and participatory artistic practices in addressing a diversity of social issues emerging from the digital transformation, we explored aspects of this overall question through close collaboration with artists working within the socially engaged arts realm. Starting by establishing the state-of-the-art through desk research and a review of literature on the evolution of socially engaged arts, we aimed to establish a solid foundation of the intertwining between arts, artists and society in shaping desired digital futures in Europe. Moreover, this part of our work encompassed a total of five design fiction workshops and three international workshops, aiming to explore, question and communicate the potential role of socially engaged artistic practices in relation to questions of future digital technologies.

Consequently, we have delivered two types of workshop experiences: design fiction workshops and international workshops, fostering the engagement of a myriad of societal actors, including artists, individuals and communities in vulnerable situations. While the two types of workshops differed in their individual focus, they shared a common interest in discussing the potential of the artistic experience from multiple and inclusive perspectives to address possible harmful effects of the digital transformation as well as highlighting some of the advantages brought by it.

Co-creating and hosting the workshop series with a broad selection of artists and artist collectives, interested in different aspects of the digital transformation, helped us to bring light into some aspects of the artistic practice of socially engaged artists as well as our understanding of the digital transformation from a creative and engaging process. For instance, while the literature review confirmed a “classic understanding” of whom we might consider vulnerable in the light of the digital transformation, our workshop series added further nuances to the ways in which one might be vulnerable and/or excluded from the process we are currently experiencing. During the workshops, we had the chance to listen to the voices of people who are usually not part of or represented in the technology development discourse. The workshops turned into a “safe space” for many to bring into discussion their hopes and fears about the future we are facing as a society and where emergent and maturing technologies such as blockchain, extended realities and the metaverses are becoming part of our daily life, yet their effects are still uncertain as these technologies continue developing. 

Questions of power and apprehension of technology for and by the people were core to the activities carried out as part of our work. Artists and communities involved in this part of the research tried to discover, imagine and design creative mechanisms to understand the implications and evolvement of technologies that are usually unknown to the layperson. Many of the learnings from these social interactions are compiled in our Massive Open Online Course that will be freely available to everyone interested on approaching some of the issues brought by the digital transformation through a creative lens. 

As such, on the one hand this part of Artformation research was an attempt to create welcoming spaces where, through the incorporation of social artistic practices, citizens could find a place within the digital transformation mediated by artists who look to enable citizens to engage meaningfully in this process. The artists taking have dedicated a large part of their professional careers to shed light on both the positive and detrimental aspects of the transition we are experiencing towards an increasingly interconnected, digital and immediate world. However, it is vital to recognize that not all individuals possess the same privileges or capacities to adapt at the same pace. Some may lack technical skills or resources, while others might intentionally seek alternative paths of societal development, resisting the notion of predetermined futures imposed by certain agendas. These inclusive spaces foster a nuanced understanding of the digital age, embracing diverse perspectives and valuing the choice to chart our own course as a society, moving away from interests that can possibly benefit only a few minorities, accentuating the inequities that we have already observed during the last decades since the emergence of the internet. On the other hand, this part of the research was also a unique opportunity to explore and critically discuss the role of the arts, specifically socially engaged artistic practice, in relation to the digital transformation with a broad range of stakeholders. What might be the strength of the arts in relation to the digital transformation, but also, what might be its weaknesses? And critically, how might we create scaffolding that cares for artists and their “participants” alike, to nurture artistic processes that support the development of inclusive, democratic, and sustainable digital futures. We hope that the results delivered by this part of Artsformation’s research not only carry and communicate our excitement of working with these topics, but also inspiration, possible guidelines and/or frameworks, and direction for future studies. 

[Further Reading]

Bishop, C. (2006). The Social Turn: Collaboration and its Discontents. Artforum, 44(6), 178–183.

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

Finkelpearl, T. (2013). What We Made: Conversations on Art and Social Cooperation. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.


Artsformation is a collaboration between Fondazione Studio Rizoma, European Alternatives, Norwegian Business School, Copenaghen Business School, Trinity College Dublin, waag, Latra, KEA, transmediale, FACT, La Vallée. Artsformation has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 870726. The content of this post represents the views of the author only and is his/her/their sole responsibility.