Interview with R.M. Sánchez-Camus

How does social engagement fit in your practice and what single opportunity informed that change?

I was not the kind of artist that had a transformative experience where they realised they wanted to come out of their independent studio and engage in social practice. Rather, my work with social engagement came about through a process of developing my voice as a creative practitioner, which was aligned with finding a way to express how I wanted to work in co-production. I feel that a sector has grown around me, which is wonderful, particularly when I thought that I was the only one doing this and it wasn’t actually ‘art.’ It’s been a process, both of how I have come to embed social inclusion into co-production, and how co-authorship has become central in my work.

Can you give me an example of one of your projects that you think was successful in inclusion and co-production?

Success is a really interesting term and quite contentious. I probably have to unpack what we mean by success in order to answer that question. We live in a late-capitalist society in which the art world is dominated by a language of the art market, an unregulated financial world that is alien to most of us.

To me, success looks at factors including authentic and ethical engagement, individual and social change and how that might be born out of ally-ship and the ability to participate in cultural democracy. It could also include rewriting a narrative of the ‘self,’ because when the work is able to help individuals or groups, that is when social change can happen. I can find those measures of success in all the projects I’ve done.

Currently, I’m concluding two museum projects. I have done public programming for museums before, but to have two main commissions for a museum meant connecting to the larger professional network in a new way. Those projects have allowed me to think about what makes a project ‘successful’ because a measure of success is how we begin to bridge social practice, which has often sat on the margins and instead break it into the centre of cultural power. This has been a role for me recently, partially through my own work as an artist and running a social practice studio, but also because I’m part of the Social Art Network (SAN).

To give a short answer, a huge success for me is a shortlist nomination for Scrolled Life Stories by the Museums + Heritage Awards Exhibition of the Year 2021. It’s a win for the sector, it’s a win for all of us. When we see others win, we all win.

What do you think are the biggest challenges of social engagement?

There are a lot of challenges. A lot of what I’m going to articulate has come through the conversations that we have as part of SAN. One of the real challenges for artists working within this field is that we are working outside the conventions. We don’t have the models of understanding, validating, funding, reviewing and building a critical language around the arts. We have to rewrite, develop, create and share a new language, especially around aesthetic appreciation. Language, aesthetics and critical appreciation are some of the challenges, which are complicated by validation, recognition, and funding. How is money distributed? And if you don’t know how to even understand the work, value it, and appreciate it, how are you going to know whom to give that money? It’s about building a new concept and thinking around how we understand and validate all this work.

The other challenge around breaking conventions is that we’re moving past what has been the conventional approach of the single virtuous individual and thinking about collaboration. The artist becomes an instigator or provocateur, a facilitator. We need to recognise a collaborative approach as central, whilst not disregarding how the artist is an incredible person to bring that all together. That requires restructuring how we think about cultural production, but also how we subsume the artist’s ego. Even in art school training, you might have been taught this whole time that you, your concept, and who you are, is tantamount. There’s very little, if any, social practice training in art schools, so a whole re-education of the ego, especially within Western capitalist society, needs to happen. 

Can you explain why and how you decided to set up Applied Live Art Studio?

I coined the term Applied Live Art as part of my research as a way to frame art that is embedded in the community. Hosting my creative practice under that term became a way of working that was not about the artist R.M. Sánchez-Camus, but about an embedded social way of working. Having my name listed on a website or whilst presenting work was not reflecting the collaborative approach that I wanted.

Applied Live Art Studio is working towards becoming a charity organisation, which is exciting. There are practical reasons for registering as a charity, such as being able to apply for grants and venue building. But the most important element for me is building livelihoods for artists. A lot of the artists and collaborators who work with me on a weekly basis have long term commitments. Our work comes through cycles of project funding. I spent most of my life just struggling. This isn’t to say I’m not struggling now, but I absolutely know how it was to be on the poverty line for a very long time. The importance of offering livelihoods to emerging practitioners dedicated to social practice has become really important to me as an individual and as an artist. Also, a social practice studio could really offer that collaborative model that I discussed before.

Our work sits within communities, but we also sit in the art world. Surprisingly, there are very few bridges between the two. The fact that the Arts Council put out a 10-year strategy about social practice without actually being linked to social practice astounds me. The intentions are good, but the fact that there’s no bridge-building is problematic.

How do you sustain your practice?

I never had the intention or the desire to have my art be my livelihood. I was very happy to work in the world. Without it, my artwork would be nowhere near as well rounded as it is today. This idea that your art needs to be your sole money-making activity is a confusion brought about in art school training, the art market and the economy. Challenging that is really healthy. Any kind of labour that you do that informs your practice is brilliant, and do it with gusto! I’ve cycled through a lot of commissions, but that’s only thanks to the place that I’m now in my life because I just happen to be around a long time. I’m still often applying for commissions and getting rejected. That will happen until the day I die. It’s part of the process.

What’s key, for any project, even if it’s a small project, is to look for partnerships. It brings a multiplicity of voices into the deliverables. It also branches out your amount of possible engagement and measurable impacts. Knowing how to identify and balance all the players in a project is important.

I was really influenced by Ward Hunt Goodenough, a sociologist who wrote Cooperation in Change: An Anthropological Approach to Community Development. It was written in the early 1960s and yet there is very little out there that matches it. Goodenough discussed international community development. It helped me understand how to position all these different roles, identifying in each of them by what Goodenough defines as the ‘wants and needs.’ To see the difference between the wants and needs of all these different groups: the community, the funders and your own; you have to play an incredible balancing act. Knowing this has helped me manage partnerships. Something I would say to any young artist is don’t ever see yourself as working alone.

How did the international work come along? 

The international work started with meeting people and establishing conversations. Some of this work grew from my own personal interests: I went somewhere, met people, and said I want to do something there. Then I was driven to develop a partnership, find the funds, and deliver the project.

Some of my international work began through UK-based projects. For example, I worked in the UK with a Colombian company that was doing a social circus. Following this, I travelled abroad to run a two-week project with them and found myself staying for months. I ended up directing a show that did a national tour. Had I not applied for a job in the UK, I might not have gone on that journey. 

What impact did COVID have on your work?

Probably the opposite to what it had on many creative practitioners. A lot of energy has gone into my work. It’s been quite intense and powerful. That’s often the case in times of crisis for social practice artists, and it’s different from artists who are working on stage and theatre for example. For me, it has been an explosion of response work. Some of that has been with my own creative artistic commission work and some has been with my consultancy work, a new role for me which, again, has to do with getting older and having collected all this knowledge.

I believe in ally-ship, and the social practice field is growing. A big part of my interest is to make sure that we work collaboratively and not through competition. I can now play this role, to come in and consult in various different places, and help people and organisations grow and deliver.

That kind of partnership building and using a social network as an ally-ship and mutual aid group is important because in doing response work, you need support. You need to know you are not alone. That kind of care-taking has been a big part of the last year. It’s been an incredibly busy time, but a very fulfilling one, because I feel that I’ve been able to respond to the times productively and creatively, which has helped me emotionally deal with them better, too.

ID 1: From Birth till Death: Scrolled Life Stories
ID 2:Woolwich Speaks, London 2021. Image credits Stephen Burridge
ID 3: El Ensueño del Dorado, Circo Para Todos, Colombia 2012