Thursday 09/04

Whose Terms? A Glossary for Social Practice: ENGAGEMENT

by Megan Heuer, tagged with Whose Terms?, Megen Heuer, engagement, social practice, glossary
Cover Image:

British Psychological Society, Dancing statistics: explaining the statistical concept of sampling & standard error through dance, 2013 (screen capture). Digital video, sound, color; 5:10 min

Megan Heuer contributes to our collective glossary-building with an entry on ENGAGEMENT, the second of seven successive posts on terms associated with social practice, initiated via an open call.

The word “engagement” has contractual connotations. It applies equally to marriage, employment, appointments, and promises. A series of musical performances at a single venue (a five-night engagement) or a previous commitment (a prior engagement) both play with the amorous inflections of the term. If we consider the verb “to engage,” this sense of obligation, responsibility, and connection extends to attention and action. We can be engaged in conversation with another person just as much as we can be engaged by a work of art like a novel or a film. The past participle “engagé” smacks of ’68 and a particular version of the political left. When we are engaged we have made a commitment to something outside of ourselves, whether another person, an organization, a cause, or an idea.

Recently, engagement has acquired a particular significance for the civic and educational mission of cultural institutions. “Public engagement” has appeared in museums as a label for a recent, and increasing, interest in audiences (whether the assumed constituents of artists, writers, and arts professionals, or other kinds of visitors with stakes outside of the conventional bounds of objects and display). The term has come to mean offering a different kind of experience of art and the institution. At the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, public engagement foregrounds “relationships with artists, and artists’ relationships with visitors” in order to create “a dialogue instead of a monologue”1 while the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit promotes “adventurous, multidisciplinary programming in which the museum and city of Detroit function as sites for investigation and experimentation.”2 Engagement swings both ways: It can mean a greater function for the institution in the local community, outside of its own architecture and artistic program, or a bigger role for publics within the gallery.

British Psychological Society, Dancing statistics: explaining the statistical concept of sampling & standard error through dance, 2013. Digital video, sound, color; 5:10 min

A quick Google search for “public engagement” immediately points to a Wikipedia entry that locates the term not in art museums, but in neoliberal state funding schemes in the UK. There the phrase signals a new demand for a visible interface between specialists and nonspecialists and an increasing dispersion of information, if not knowledge; or, as the Higher Education Funding Council of England has defined it as the involvement of “specialists…listening to, developing their understanding of, and interacting with non-specialists.”3 Interestingly, the essay claims that the term “public engagement” came to popular use in the late 1990s while also positing that it has something to do with theories of “participatory democracy.” Formulations of “public engagement” from the sphere of culture (and elsewhere), however, seem to have less to do with political theory than with the cybernetic concept of feedback: The general principle might be participatory, but the structure and effects eschew questions of goverance in favor of a dynamic and dialogic mode of activity in which cultural producers actually interact with consumers.

Given the neoliberal roots of this use of “engagement,” how can one identify practices of engagement that honor the sense of commitment that the word connotes? Can engagement be measured by numerical statistics about audiences? In the museum and elsewhere, can “engagement” come to mean something about the quality of interactions? If any statistic does matter, I hope it’s the one that reflects a kind of repetition: ongoing encounters.

Megan Heuer is Director of Public Programs and Public Engagement at the Whitney Museum, New York.

1 Allison Agsten, “Five Years of Public Engagement,” June 5, 2014, Hammer Museum. (accessed Aug. 21, 2014).

2 “Department of Education and Public Engagement,” Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. (accessed Aug. 21, 2014).

3 Higher Education Funding Council for England, “Beacons for Public Engagement: Invitation to Apply for Funds” (Bristol: Higher Education Funding Council for England, 2006) 1.

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