While noting that these points can be valid, Fisher says that “we don’t have the luxury of scrapping these huge institutional systems.” Art, she argues, can push and subvert ingrained systems of power in fresh directions. She points to the collective Hello Velocity, a 2017 fellow that is developing Gradient, a system that lets users pay for purchases on a sliding scale based on their income. “We’re all complicit in capitalism,” Fisher says. “In order to change that we have to reimagine it while we’re living in it.”
They recognize that engaging so overtly with capitalism and commerce is something artists—especially socially conscious ones—prefer to avoid completely. But, said Hello Velocity’s Lukas Bentel, “If you want to talk about something it’s always better to get your hands a little dirty.”
Then there is the additional benefit of deploying art to tackle these problems: It acts as shield for bureaucracies or commerce platforms that otherwise wouldn’t dream of experimenting. Take 2014 ABOG fellow Jody Wood’s project—a mobile van that provided empowering beauty care to homeless people in New York. Or Jackie Sumell, a 2017 fellow, who is creating a “mobile prison abolition unit” that looks to create dialogue between the incarcerated and the wider public. Or Stephanie Dinkins, who is planning to work with people of color to understand how algorithms tend to replicate the biases of society, before ultimately designing a fairer artificial intelligence.
Socially engaged art is always full of contradictions. Its practitioners strive to make an impact—but also tout their ability, and perhaps willingness, to fail. They challenge systems of power—but must work within those systems in order to have real effect. But these points of seeming fissure are actually the source of socially engaged art’s power, not simply as a strategy, but as a form. As Fisher puts it, “Art is a place where we can hold contradictions and tensions.”