Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


School of the Arts, English and Media


Utilising a practice-based research approach, this thesis interrogates the contingent nature of immaterial labour between artist, institution and audience to better understand the transformative potential of socially engaged art. Coined by art historian Claire Bishop in her 2006 essay, The Social Turn: Collaboration and its Discontents, the term ‘social turn’ refers to a rise in popularity of exhibiting socially engaged art across institutions, art fairs, and biennials over the last thirty years. These practices have historically generated a space for re-thinking art’s potential to critique dominant social and political structures. However, Bishop, along with theorists Shannon Jackson, Bojana Kunst and Gregory Sholette, notes that this turn has also been co-opted into neo-liberal agendas as a means of soft social engineering. The projects I have developed within this thesis serve as case studies to examine this co-option. This thesis asks: how might socially engaged art maintain a critical and transgressive position within this landscape?

Through four socially engaged artworks, League of Resonance, Strategies for Leaving and Arriving Home, Reach Out Touch Faith and Marina Abramović: In Residence, undertaken between 2011 and 2015, I seek to re-configure the position of the artist within contemporary art institutions. Drawing on the scholarship of Claire Bishop, Shannon Jackson, Marina Vishmidt and Andrea Fraser, this thesis proposes that socially engaged art no longer sits ‘outside’ of the contemporary art world against which it is historically positioned. I argue that immaterial forms of subjective labour, as defined by Maurizio Lazzarato (1996), constitute a methodology now comfortably shared by socially engaged art, contemporary art and neo-liberalism.

Through analysis of the processes and outcomes of my case studies, I have refined a method for addressing immaterial, affective forms of labour in socially engaged art. This is a site-responsive methodology developed to call attention to the significance of intersubjective relations when producing socially engaged art for an institutional setting. This method of transparency reveals the complex negotiations between artist, audience and institution, and in the process, exposes the value of immaterial labour that produces the “social” in socially engaged art..

These case studies demonstrate that immaterial labour and embodied forms of art practice cannot be separated. The thesis offers a new methodology to attend to and value immaterial forms of labour when producing socially engaged art. Consequently, it reconsiders the boundaries of intersubjective relations in art and critically addresses its own social-political arena.



Unless otherwise indicated, the views expressed in this thesis are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the University of Wollongong.