Thesis

For the Love of Reality: Social Sculpture as Self-Experiment

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Abstract

This practice-based PhD project encompasses a self-experiment in ‘social sculpture’ – a phrase coined by German artist Joseph Beuys (1921-1986) to designate an expanded concept of art. Emancipatory and transformative in nature, it involves developing the perceptive, imaginative, reflective, and communicative capacities associated with art in a more traditional sense and applying those to navigating life itself. To me, this implies living with the attitude of an affected, socially engaged researcher: one who, with curiosity and care, seeks to understand and, where possible, improve the world they find themselves in, confronting internalised and external forms of oppression. My interest in social sculpture intersects with questions around the scope of human agency, as well as what helps and hinders creativity and learning. Therefore, I have been drawing on a number of theoretical angles, from Transformative Learning theory, psychoanalysis, and pragmatism to feminism, queer theory, and systems theory, to inform my research. From September 2019 to September 2020, I took my own experience as a starting point for an auto/biographical investigation into how this expanded concept of art could work out in practice: How could I be a creative participant in shaping my own life and society – both full of challenges – as a work of art? What practices could support me on this quest? And how could my findings be of value to others? I documented the self-experiment in auto/biographical Thinking Pieces, exploring creative nonfiction as an approach to tracing my learning process in a way that does justice to the depth and complexity of lived experience. This resulted in a number of essays, letters, poems, and short films, which were published on my blog, artistsofsociety.com. The research outcomes manifest on two interconnected levels: as embodied in my personal learning and engagement with the world around me, and, drawing on the ‘processing process’ of working with presentational methods to make sense of my experiences and share them with others, as an emerging social sculpture-inspired approach to life-research as soul-work.

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