Making Place Work: Site-Specific Socially Engaged Art in 21st Century Toronto
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Site-specific socially engaged art practices are on the rise, particularly in cities. Global migration, global networks and online communication notwithstanding, artists, curators and cultural institutions are increasingly working to “activate” audiences in and through local encounters premised on shared exploration of specific urban sites. What kinds of social engagement are made possible through these local encounters? And what kinds of engagement are precluded or overlooked when artists try to engage their publics site-specifically? This dissertation considers site-specific socially engaged art in the context of 21st Century Toronto, a city that is rife with multiple historical and ongoing displacements and that is also facing new challenges, including increasing spatial polarization along class and race lines and considerable political apathy. Drawing both on critical theories of place and contemporary literature on socially engaged art, I offer a new set of criteria for analysis of site-specific social engagement, as well as three in-depth examinations of site-specific socially engaged art practices. I look at the work of REPOhistory (New York, 1989-2000), Jumblies Theatre (Toronto, 2001- ) and DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC MEMORY (Toronto, 2011- ). My analysis suggests that social engagement premised on site-specificity is promising, in that it can foster new forms of civic dialogue, but is ideally approached with a fluid spatial imagination, relationally specific awareness of urban dynamics, and close attention to social conflicts. This dissertation contributes to the emergent literature on creative placemaking and to the burgeoning scholarship on socially engaged art.