Interview with Anthony Schrag, Co-programme leader 

@ MA in Applied Arts and Social Practice

Can you tell me how you chose the name of the MA and what do you teach?

We had a long debate about the name. I still don’t think we’ve got it right, but the final decision is taken by the marketing team. The course has six modules and a final dissertation, but it looks at not only the theoretical and conceptual groundings of what it means to work with other people, but also what are the practical realities of that. We have a Marketing Module, a Finance and a Development Module, the kinds of things that might be needed to sustain a professional career in social practice. Obviously, we don’t want to present a singular idea of what social practice is and I think that’s really important that we recognise that someone might be more interested in arts and education but someone like myself is more interested in conflict and activism. We don’t want to present a single model of working so we have modules that look at ethics and ethical engagement, we have something that looks at the historical narratives, in which way you declare your legacy.

There are artists who might come through more radical positions and there’s some people that might come through John Cage’s conceptual legacy. There’s quite a practical element which looks at different types of engagement strategies. You might be a musician who’s interested in group music but we will do some sort of theatrical or written work, or we might do visual work to explore different types of engagement strategies. The last module looks at Practice Research: how can we think of this type of practice as a research strategy, which is important because practices have to be critically and conceptually framed within a context or a way of thinking.

All leads to a Dissertation Module which is a practice piece of work with a community supported with some reflections. But within that, we have a variety of assessments: from filling out an application form to develop a sponsorship pack. A lot of individual artists might question why that might be necessary or needed but whether you’re working for yourself or you’re working within a context of a community or an organisation, at some point, finance is going to be part of that.

Do you think that an artist can learn to become more entrepreneurial?

Thinking about the entrepreneurial side of things is a way to sustain the work. The way we teach it, is that there isn’t one right way but a multiplicity of different strategies. We recognise, that a lot of artists want to set up their own charities or their own organisations to develop what they want to do for example.

Is there anything that you don’t teach and you think you should be teaching?

I wish that we had a studio side, where we could present more of our creative work. I would frame the studio and the individual practice at the core, and then all the modules to sit on top of it. But we don’t have the practicalities of that within the university because we’re not, a production University in that regard, though we have production skills and media labs. The logic is that you should be working in the field, you don’t necessarily need a studio and I have never had a studio. My living room is my studio and actually there’s a liberation in not having a studio. But for some artists, a studio is a better space of thinking.

Do you liaise artists with communities and projects, or do they have to devise their own networks?

We have quite a few good relationships with individual organisations. For example, with Out of the Blue, which is a Community Investment Company just down the road. They run studios and they do something called Out of the Blueprint which is a social enterprise, in which out of work, young people learn how to do screen printing and develop brochures, small pamphlets and prints for sale. Or we work with Lyceum Theatre for those with a theatre-based practice. We have good relationships with organisations that come in to the programme to not only talk about what it is they do and how they got there, but also to offer opportunities. We have memorandums of understanding with them that if an artist wants to develop their final practice with one organisation or the specific community that they’re working with, they can sort of piggyback on those organisations. A year programme is a very short period of time to develop a relationship with the community and so we work with these organisations. Our practical engagement course is based at North Edinburgh Arts, a social practice organisation, which gives our students an on site, on the ground experience. We try to combine the theoretical with the practical realities of doing it.  

How do you teach community engagement?

I think it’s a lot easier than people imagine and you can teach processes and strategies. We have a class, for example, that looks at different ways of engaging with communities and students develop different strategies alongside a local community group where we introduce them to different types of workshops, or provide them with ice-breaking tools, different conversational frameworks, different ways of engagement etc etc. As such, I think you can pass on a variety of strategies quite easily: a good artist will take those strategies and make them their own.

Can you recommend any readings or references that help understand or explore the conceptual framework of social art?

I think problematically, there is no one ‘right’ way of social art: there are are lot of people, artists, organisations and even government agencies that claim this work and position it in certain ways: they want this art to ‘do’ certain things – to help the sick, to fix the poor, to address crime, to stop global capitalism, whatever. For me, if you’re trying to espouse a specific politics, how is that any different from propaganda? I am personally a very liberal lefty who believes in decolonisation, intersectional feminisms and take an anti-capitalist approach to my life: but that doesn’t mean I am going to use my art – my social practice – to try and make everyone think and be like me. Our job in the social art world – because it is social – is to keep conversations and relationships open…not to shut them down by being didactic or excluding people because they have a specific way of thinking about the world. That can be very difficult, I recognise. But I say this because any of the resources or references that are presented will often call for specific types of social art, so would encourage any artist interested in this work to read across the books; to read multiple perspectives; and to understand that writers have agendas, so to be critical about what you’re being told that social practice ‘should’ be: make it your own!

The main references that have been useful to me are Claire Bishop’s Artificial Hells (2012), and Grant Kester’s Conversation Pieces (2013). I also think Sophie Hope’s “Participating In the Wrong Way” PhD (2011) is brilliant in giving a a good contextual background to work within the UK. I’m also going to plug my own anthology (published in Spring 2022) that looks that the “Failure of Public Art and Participation” (Routledge) that touches on some of these concepts.