Social Sculpture

The entire enterprise EcoArt South Florida, has been conceived as a social sculpture, according to premier practitioner Shelley Sacks’ definition. Sacks believes that social sculpture provides opportunities to practice certain skills that are necessary in order to arrive at a truly “sustainable” future: “What we must develop [is] ‘participatory consciousness’ as opposed to ‘on-looker consciousness:’ new forms of knowing and perceiving that lead us to act in a more connected way; higher human organs of perception — beyond our senses of touch, smell, taste, vision, hearing– i.e the ability to empathize, to develop a conscience, to perceive the idea in things and the interconnections in the world.”

In the presentation below the various elements of the practice and examples of Sacks’ social sculpture work–and their debt to Joseph Beuys–are outlined.

Click here: Social Sculpture


Slow Activism

EcoArt practice is a highly complex undertaking as it aims to actually change, directly, for the better, various types of ecological damage in a specific location. Every aspect of making this happen is part of the art process, including interaction with government officials, collaboration with professionals in very different fields, and activation of community organizations and environmental advocacy groups that often are not accustomed to art being a form of community action. Because of the often excruciatingly extended period of time a given EcoArt project may go on, the theoretical construct of “slow activism” proposed by Wallace Heim (‘Slow Activism. homelands, love and the lightbulb’ in Szerszynski, Bronislaw and Heim, Wallace and Waterton, Claire (eds). (2003). Nature Performed. Environment, Culture and Performance. Oxford: Blackwell / Sociological Review. pp 183 – 202) nearly a decade ago is still highly relevant in considering how to describe the kind of direct action art form EcoArt South Florida is promoting.. In this classic essay, Heim provides a number of examples of practitioners who have successfully performed “slow activism.”

HEIM – ‘Slow Activism’ in Nature Performed – share copy


Socially Engaged Art

EcoArt practice as we are promoting it here in South Florida is a form of social sculpture in which practitioners work with large and small social systems, utilizing the artist’s primary skills and abilities of imagination and conceptualization toward improving, protecting and conserving fragile ecologies. The mission of EcoArt South Florida is to encourage ecological health and decrease negative human impact through the rapid expansion of EcoArt in each of South Florida’s five watersheds. A crucially important aspect of the kind of EcoArt practice we are promoting in this region is community engagement. “Socially Engaged” art practice is a rubric that overlaps and informs EcoArt practice.

In 2011, a book by Pablo Helguera was praised for its incisiveness and usefulness in providing succinct guidelines for how to both do socially engaged art, and to teach it. Here is an excerpt from the book.

Pablo Helguera.  Education for Socially Engaged Art: A Materials and Techniques Handbook. Jose Pinto, 2011.

[From chapter 1., DEFINITIONS]


The term “social practice” obscures the discipline from which socially engaged art has emerged (i.e., art). In this way it denotes the critical detachment from other forms of art-making (primarily centered and built on the personality of the artist) that is inherent to socially engaged art, which, almost by definition, is dependent of the involvement of others besides the instigator of the artwork. It also thus raises the question of whether such activity belongs to the field of art at all. This is an important query; art students attracted to this form of art-making often find themselves wondering whether it would be more useful to abandon art altogether and instead become professional community organizers, activists, politicians, ethnographers, or sociologists. Indeed, in addition to sitting uncomfortably between and across these disciplines and downplaying the role of the individual artist, socially engaged art is specifically at odds with the capitalist market infrastructure of the art world: it does not fit well in the traditional collecting practices of contemporary art, and the prevailing cult of the individual artist is problematic for those whose goal is to work with others, generally in collaborative projects with democratic ideals. Many artists look for ways to renounce not only object-making but authorship altogether, in the kind of “stealth” art practice that philosopher Stephen Wright argues for, in which the artist is a secret agent in the real world, with an artistic agenda.[2]

Yet the uncomfortable position of socially engaged art, identified as art yet located between more conventional art forms and the related disciplines of sociology, politics, and the like, is exactly the position it should inhabit. The practice’s direct links to and conflicts with both art and sociology must be overtly declared and the tension addressed, but not resolved. Socially engaged artists can and should challenge the art market in attempts to redefine the notion of authorship, but to do so they must accept and affirm their existence in the realm of art, as artists.  And the artist as social practitioner must also make peace with the common accusation that he or she is not an artist but an “amateur” anthropologist, sociologist, etc. Socially engaged art functions by attaching itself to subjects and problems that normally belong to other disciplines, moving them temporarily into a space of ambiguity. It is this temporary snatching away of subjects into the realm of art-making that brings new insights to a particular problem or condition and in turn makes it visible to other disciplines. For this reason, I believe that the best term for this kind of practice is what I have thus far been using as a generic descriptor —that is, “socially engaged art” (or SEA), a term that emerged in the mid-1970s, as it unambiguously acknowledges a connection to the practice of art.[3]


To understand SEA, an important distinction must be made between two types of art practice: symbolic and actual. As I will show, SEA is an actual, not symbolic, practice.

A few examples:

Let’s say an artist or group of artists creates an “artist-run school,” proposing a radical new approach to teaching. The project is presented as an art project but also as a functioning school (a relevant example, given the recent emergence of similar projects). The “school,” however, in its course offerings, resembles a regular, if slightly unorthodox, city college. In content and format, the courses are not different in structure from most continuing education courses. Furthermore, the readings and course load encourage self-selectivity by virtue of the avenues through which it is promoted and by offering a sampling that is typical of a specific art world readership, to the point that the students taking the courses are not average adults but rather art students or art-world insiders. It is arguable, therefore, whether the project constitutes a radical approach to education; nor does it risk opening itself up to a public beyond the small sphere of the converted.

An artist organizes a political rally about a local issue. The project, which is supported by a local arts center in a medium-size city, fails to attract many local residents; only a couple dozen people show up, most of whom work at the arts center. The event is documented on video and presented as part of an exhibition. In truth, the artist can claim to have organized a rally?

These are two examples of works that are politically or socially motivated but act through the representation of ideas or issues. These are works that are designed to address social or political issues only in an allegorical, metaphorical, or symbolic level (for example, a painting about social issues is not very different than a public art project that claims to offer a social experience but only does so in a symbolic way such as the ones just described above). The work does not control a social situation in an instrumental and strategic way in order to achieve a specific end.

This distinction is partially based on Jurgen Habermas’s work The Theory of Communicative Action (1981). In it Habermas argues that social action (an act constructed by the relations between individuals) is more than a mere manipulation of circumstances by an individual to obtain a desired goal (that is, more than just the use of strategic and instrumental reason. He instead favors what he describes as communicative action, a type of social action geared to communication and understanding between individuals that can have a lasting effect on the spheres of politics and culture as a true emancipatory force.

Most artists who produce socially engaged works are interested in creating a kind of collective art that impacts the public sphere in a deep and  meaningful way, not in creating a representation—like a theatrical play—of a social issue. Certainly many SEA projects are in tune with the goals of deliberative democracy and discourse ethics, and most believe that art of any kind can’t avoid taking a position in current political and social affairs. (The counter-argument is that art is largely a symbolic practice, and as such the impact it has on a society can’t be measured directly; but then again, such hypothetical art, as symbolic, would not be considered socially engaged but rather would fall into the other familiar categories, such as installation, video, etc.) It is true that much SEA is composed of simple gestures and actions that may be perceived as symbolic. For example, Paul Ramirez-Jonas’s work Key to the City (2010) revolved around a symbolic act—giving a person a key as a symbol of the city. Yet although Ramirez-Jonas’s contains a symbolic act, it is not symbolic practice but rather communicative action (or “actual” practice)—that is, the symbolic act is part of a meaningful conceptual gesture. [4]

The difference between symbolic and actual practice is not hierarchical; rather, its importance lies in allowing a certain distinction to be made: it would be important, for example, to understand and identify the difference between a project in which I establish a health campaign for children in a war-torn country and a project in which I imagine a health campaign and fabricate documentation of it in Photoshop. Such a fabrication might result in a fascinating work, but it would be a symbolic action, relying on literary and public relations mechanisms to attain verisimilitude and credibility.

To summarize: social interaction occupies a central and inextricable part of any socially engaged artwork. SEA is a hybrid, multi-disciplinary activity that exists somewhere between art and non-art, and its state may be permanently unresolved. SEA depends on actual—not imagined or hypothetical—social action.

[1]. In this book it is not possible (nor is it the goal) to trace a history of socially engaged art; instead I focus mainly on the practice as it exists today, with reference to specific artists, movements, and events that have significantly informed it.

[2]. See “Por un arte clandestino,” the author’s conversation with Stephen Wright in 2006, Wright later wrote a text based on this exchange,

[3]. From this point forward I will use this term to refer to the type of artwork that is the subject of this book.

[4] Paul Ramirez Jonas’ project, produced by Creative Time, took place in New York City in the Summer of 2010.



Outdoor Classrooms Resources

Over the past several years, EcoArt South Florida has been working closely with the Palm Beach County “green schools” coordinator and individual schools to promote the use of EcoArtistic approaches to making green technologies of school buildings and grounds strikingly visible and utilizable as integral to all aspects of the school curriculum: science, social studies, language arts, visual art, etc.

All schools within Palm Beach County, when either scheduled for renovation, or being built anew, must meet certain green standards such as LEED or Florida Green Building Council criteria. These elements that conserve water, create energy and handle waste are important learning opportunities. Exercising just a bit of creativity in the design process prior to building or renovation, these green technologies can become available to teachers and students as teaching and learning tools. During the past couple of years, EcoArt South Florida has made several presentations to school faculty and administrations on how EcoArt can make these technologies visible in the school building and schoolyard.

Of special interest, given Florida’s warm fall and winter weather, are outdoor classrooms, an approach not yet embraced by the local school district. To encourage adoption of outdoor classrooms, EcoArt South Florida arranged for outdoor classroom pioneer and author of Creating Outdoor Classrooms (University of Texas Press, 2008) Dr. Laurie Macmillan Johnson, professor of landscape architecture at the University of Arizona, to become artist in residence in 2008 at Dreyfoos School of the Arts, West Palm Beach, and to make a presentation to key decision makers in the Palm Beach School District.

In October 2010, EcoArt South Florida Founder and Executive Director, Mary Jo Aagerstoun, presented on EcoArt and Outdoor Classrooms at the 2nd annual Green Schools Conference, held in West Palm Beach Florida. Following are the resources Dr. Aagerstoun suggested to those attending her lecture:

Creating Outdoor Classrooms: Schoolyard Habitats and Gardens for the Southwest. Lauri Macmillan Johnson, with Kim Duffek. University of Texas Press, 2008.

Asphalt to Ecosystems: Design Ideas for Schoolyard Transformation. Sharon Danks. New Village Press, 2010

Living Library and Think Park. Bonnie Sherk. (Video)

Developing an Outdoor Classroom (University of Tennessee)


From the EETAP (Environmental Education Training Partnership) Resource Library:

How Environmental Education is Used in Schools. May 2004, Number 120

Specific Techniques for EE in Schools. May 2004, Number 119

School Garden-Based Environmental Education: A Case Study. August 1999, Number 54

Exploring Environmental Education in the Schoolyard Habitat. January 1998, Number 23



Four well-known EcoArtists provide insights on EcoArt Practice. In April, 2009, EcoArt Treasure Coast, EcoArt South Florida’s pilot EcoArt community education and apprenticeship program, developed in collaboration with the Martin County Arts Council, and funded by the Community Foundation of Palm Beach and Martin Counties, the Florida State Arts Commission and private donors, was launched at Indian River State College in Stuart with a day long symposium featuring Sam Bower, founder of, Betsy Damon of Keepers of the Waters, and Florida EcoArt practitioners Xavier Cortada of Miami and Michael Singer of Delray Beach. The talks were edited into thematic video presentations, each 15 minutes in length. View them at these links:



EcoArt South Florida collaborated December 2008-December 2010 with the Arts Council of Martin County on the first EcoArt community education and local artist apprenticeship in the State of Florida. The program, funded by the Community Foundation of Palm Beach and Martin Counties, the Florida Department of Cultural Affairs and private donors, was 20-month pilot that will become the model for programs catalyzed by EcoArt SoFla in each of South Florida’s five watersheds. The pilot program is known as EcoArt Treasure Coast, and was launched in April 2009 with a symposium, exhibition and film series. The local Treasure Coast artists to serve as the first apprentices were selected in November 2009, and were mentored by internationally renowned EcoArtist Betsy Damon. Click HERE to see updates of the apprenticeship’s progress beginning March 2010. An exhibition designed to present the apprentices’ movement toward EcoArt practice opens December 3, 2010 at the Old Courthouse Cultural Center in Stuart, and will run through mid January, 2011. There are plans to travel the show to other sites in South Florida being considered as possible next locations for an EcoArt South Florida community education and artist apprenticeship. To learn more about the exhibition, email


EASF Founder and Boynton Beach Art in Public Places Administrator at Americans for Arts Conference, Seattle, 2009–Mary Jo Aagerstoun, President of EASF, Inc. and Debby Coles-Dobay, Administrator of Public Art for the city of Boynton Beach, FL (and an EASF advisory committee member) chaired a round table discussion during the 2009 Americans for the Arts Conference. MJ and Debby shared their perspectives on how EcoArt emerges when green building and green community development overlap with traditional public art approaches, showed examples of recent public EcoArt in South Florida and examples and ideas of how new green technologies in building can become visible, green and artful amenities for communities of all sizes. They also provided suggested actions public artists, public art administrators and public officials can take to integrate EcoArt into public buildings and other properties in ways that can help local governments encourage citizens to engage with active environmental stewardship. See the presentation and handouts.


Global Warming’s Six Americas–In a recent report (2009), based on collaborative research from social scientists at Yale and George Mason Universities, six distinct groups of Americans are profiled, based on their beliefs, attitudes, risk perceptions, policy preferences, and behaviors related to climate change as well as barriers to action, motivations, and values. The six Americas differ substantially with regard to what they currently understand about global warming, how they are – or are not – acting on their understanding, and with regard to the fundamental values and beliefs that shape their interpretations of its importance, causes and solutions. Americans strongly supported a wide variety of climate-change and energy policies, including funding for research on renewable energy (92 percent), tax rebates for people buying fuel-efficient vehicles or solar panels (85 percent) and regulation of carbon dioxide as a pollutant (80 percent). Conversely, only 11 percent of Americans strongly supported the creation of a national cap-and-trade system, one of the climate change policies being considered by President Obama and the U.S. Congress. Download the study summary and recommendations or see the entire report.



Malcolm Miles on Aesthetics and Environmentalism (2006) This excellent essay provides a rich context for understanding where EcoArt came from and how it relates to aesthetic theories dating to Emmanuel Kant. His argument addresses the long standing requirement in Modernist aesthetics that to be art, a work or practice must have a “distanced” stance, proposing that a postmodern aesthetics focuses precisely on negotiating a tension between distance and engagement. Miles usefully identifies four kinds of art practice that engage environment: “[first] art which represents the natural world; secondly, art which enters a discourse of the natural world and its apprehension; thirdly, cultural production which tests methods of environmental salvage or contributes to sustainable forms of living; and fourthly, dialogic inter-action at the cusp of art and activism.” To see the entire essay, click HERE Malcolm Miles is Professor of Cultural Theory at the University of Plymouth, UK, where he directs the Centre for Critical Cultural Research, convenes research dialogue workshops for researchers and staff in the Faculty of Arts, supervises research students, and organizes research and post-graduate seminars – see


EASF Invited to Present on EcoArt to Broward Branch, SoFla Chapter, US Green Building Council LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified buildings are going up–or being retrofitted–at an increasing rate across the country, but the pace is still quite slow. Although there are many reasons for slow adoption of LEED principles by developers and their architects and builders, obviously the sluggish real estate market and the extreme slowdown during 2008 of the US economy are important factors. Nonetheless, as the need to conserve energy and utilize increasingly scarce water resources more wisely becomes paramount, high performance places for work and living will be increasingly necessary. Recently, EASF was invited to present to a local chapter of the US Green Building Council on how EcoArt could help encourage more rapid adoption of LEED principles in new and adaptively reused structures. Click here to see a pdf of our presentation, or go to the USGBC website to learn more about LEED and how you can engage with green building advocacy groups in your locale.


Study Looks at Sustainability of Public Art Elizabeth Bostwick’s 2008 Master’s Thesis “Going Green with Public Art” considers how environmental sustainability could be considered by percent for art (public art) programs. Included are literature reviews of environmental sustainability, environmental sustainability as it relates to public art, public art policy, and environmental policy; recommendations for percent for art programs in addressing environmental issues in public art; and a greening guide for public art programs on how to address environmental sustainability in their processes. The intent for this research is to inspire dialogue on the relationship of public art to the natural environment and to encourage further study so that the field of public art may lead the way in addressing environmental issues through its content and processes. Download the PDF here.


EASF has joined an EcoArt team to explore South Florida’s Miami River a multi-year collaborative art initiative beginning in the Summer of 2008 that will seek the Florida metropolis’ hidden river, following its flow from the deep past into the future, and actively supporting its revitalization. The art’s process will reveal and celebrate Miamians’ shared stories and encounters with the river, engaging the perspectives and resources of those whose lives are most directly connected to it. MRP artists will involve residents, public officials, scientists and other stakeholders (such as The Miami River Commission) in marking key moments and sites important in the river’s human and natural histories. The aesthetic palette will include performance, contemporary music, film and video, and integrated systems design sculpture tapping scientific and technological advances in bioremediation. Over the project’s several year process creative momentum and energy will build, emphasizing a fusion of art, education, ecology and life; and underscoring the challenge and potential the river’s histories pose for the city’s future. To learn about the Miami River Project Team, click here.


Dutch EcoArtist and educator Jan van Boeckel proposes a role for art in countering the psychic numbing effects in children of dire environmental predictions.

ABSTRACT: “When educators try to encourage children to establish a bond between them and nature, they are faced with a major challenge. In general, many children seem to have lost interest in nature because it is less exciting than the world of electronic illusions. Educators seem badly in need of innovative ways to awaken and nourish the sensibility of children to the natural world. Art, through engaging the senses, can be a unique catalyst in developing a “sense of wonder” about nature. Art practice encourages us to see the world again afresh, as if we see it for the first time. This state of mind and sensitivity enhances the ability to tune in with the slower rhythms of the “more-than-human-world.” Children are often rather aware of the ecological crisis that is taking place and that manifests itself most dramatically right now through global warming. A common response to this is psychic numbing, a mild form of cognitive dissociation. Art as a therapeutic practice – without being labeled as such – can help children cope with the “idea of crisis”, e.g. through the expression of (often suppressed) inner images and the subsequent discussion of these. In my paper I discuss how arts-based environmental education can both facilitate children in the opening of their senses to nature, and provide them space for coming to terms with their fears about the ecological crisis.” See the whole article here.


Two reports from Art In Ecology – A Think Tank On Arts And Sustainability. Sponsored by: The Canada Council for the Arts, the Canadian Commission for UNESCO, the Vancouver Foundation and the Royal Society for the Encouragement of the Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (London UK), Vancouver, British Columbia, APRIL 27, 2006.

The session was initiated to seek feedback from a group of art and ecology experts, primarily Canadian, about the intersection of the arts and sciences sectors, to consolidate current knowledge in this field, to better understand barriers to collaboration in art and ecology, to receive input regarding possible new programs, to envision future directions and to define areas of future action for partnership development, funding strategies, and sustainability.

Mapping The Terrain Of Contemporary Ecoart Practice And Collaboration commissioned research report by Beth Carruthers

Summary Report From The Art In Ecology Think Tank, – by Lorna Brown

For further information on the think tank please contact:



The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Arts Council of England has a focus on Art and Ecology projects, some international, including a few short residencies.

Art in Land and Water Remediation by Sarah Graddy assesses three classic EcoArt projects pointing to the central importance in each of collaboration with scientists and communities: “…If citizens are not involved in remediation efforts, it is unlikely that they will either be aware of them or help to prevent such exploitation of local resources in the future…”


GREEN Museum’s excellent toolbox series.

Some were done in the mid to late ’90s but are still more than relevant

Toolbox of Working Methods (Alan Comp, 1996)

Greenmuseum’s Toolbox for Educators

Toolbox for Communities

Toolbox for Park and Resource Managers