Apr 01 2019

Dr Cecilie Sachs Olsen, Department of Geography, has recently published a new book, 'Socially Engaged Art and the Neliberal City', which aims to question and examine the social functions of art in the age of neoliberal urbanism. 

1. Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your role within the Department of Geography?

I am a British Academy Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the centre for the GeoHumanities. My research is practice-based and centres around the work of my artist collective zURBS. I here develop creative methods for urban research and explore how artistic practice can be used as a framework to analyse and re-imagine urban space and politics. In the geography department I am currently teaching a third-year module called ‘Urban Interventions’ which directly relate to my passion for working with creative methods to challenge how we think about and live in cities.

2. We understand that you have recently published a new book, ‘Socially Engaged Art and the Neliberal City’. Could you tell us what this book is about?

By reflecting on personal experiences from working with zURBS, as well as the work of other artists, the book questions and examines the social functions of art in the age of neoliberal urbanism. While exposing the increasingly limiting constraints placed on public and socially engaged art by the dominance of commercial funding and neoliberal frameworks, it stays optimistic about the potential of artistic practices to transcend neoliberal logics and promote alternative productions of urban space.

3. What were some of your motivations for writing this book?

I am tired of debates on socially engaged art that succumb into totalising narratives about how art practice are inevitably instrumentalised as they become part of neoliberal structures. Reflecting on my own experiences in the field, I wanted to demonstrate the challenges these practices face when struggling to adhere to the artistic aims of providing transformative experiences, while at the same time working within various neoliberal and institutional constraints and expectations. We need to think more carefully about the politics of socially engaged art in terms of how it constantly negotiates and reflects the subtle power relations that exist between artists and their collaborators in urban contexts.

4. What do you hope readers of your book take away from it?

By laying bare the short-comings of my own artistic practice in sensitive and at times humorous ways, I hope readers will get an intimate and personal understanding of the challenges of socially engaged artistic work. At the same time, I offer the readers “a way out” by illustrating how my collaborators and I manage to get up from our failures and do it all again, once more, with creativity! There is a promise here about the potential for socially engaged art to open up a range of novel and productive ways of thinking about and engaging with urban space.

5. Are you currently working on any other research or projects?

In addition to my post doctoral research project ‘Arts for urban change: negotiating the possibilities and challenges of participatory art in urban development’, I am working on a public engagement project called ‘Urban Voices: the political arts of listening’. Both projects are centred around practice-based research with zURBS. While the book focuses on how socially engaged art may engage publics in their urban environment, these research projects take this focus one step further and investigate how socially engaged art practices can be integrated in urban planning processes. In other words, I am ‘upping the game’. I am also currently curating the Oslo Architecture Triennale 2019, which focuses on the theme of degrowth and how artistic practices can help us transition towards more socially and environmentally just urban futures.

6. What’s your favourite term at Royal Holloway and why?

That must be this term as I am fortunate to be teaching my newly designed module on Urban Interventions to a group of wonderful undergraduate students. Despite the fact that the theme and the practice-led approach of the module is completely new to them, they are throwing themselves into the this unknown territory with great skill and confidence!

7. Outside of work, do you have any hobbies?

I belong to the millennial generation, we don’t have hobbies, we have to-do-lists.