Issue 2: Making Conversation

Installation and Fictioning for Engagement, Social Justice, and Change.

This essay discusses why the ‘artistic interventions’ of installation, and ‘fictioning’ are particularly suitable when the work is underpinned by social justice concerns and has the aim of engaging dialogue for change.


Cronin and Kramer (2018: 84) argue:

…the repetition of certain kinds of images creates an iconography of oppression when it comes to the treatment of animals in our contemporary society. Artistic interventions have the potential to interrupt this system.

This year I explored how to use artistic interventions to interrupt oppression, objectification, invisibility, and discourses of violence in society toward non-human animals.  My core learning from my attempts is that, if I aim to interrupt violent discourse, I need to change my understanding of art. At the start I worked within what Kester (2010: 23) describes as the ‘individual, visual and sensory’ experience of art: my work was designed to hang on the wall, and I wanted it to be aesthetically pleasing. Kester writes about moving toward a ‘dialogic practice’ which necessitates discursive exchange and negotiation. For me, too, this relates to the question of how I can bring my work into public spaces beyond the Gallery. 

In this essay I discuss why the ‘artistic interventions’ of installation, and fictioning are particularly suitable when the work is underpinned by social justice concerns and has the aim of engaging dialogue for change.


In September 2022, I was given the opportunity to study an MA Fine Art. This followed a long period of teaching education in a London university. Part of the decision to focus on violent discourse to non-human animals stemmed from the fact that for most of my life I have colluded in this cruelty. I come from generations of dairy/sheep farmers and grew up on a farm in the North of England. Like most people, I was taught that it is not only normal but necessary to eat and use other animals. Along with this belief comes dissociation: the deadening of empathy toward the suffering of others. I have come to understand that this fundamental violence to the non-human animal is, while primarily to end the suffering of the non-human, also necessary as a first step in ending all human violence. Dawson (2015:11) reminds us of what Derrida had to say about ‘this ontological and linguistic violence’ that reduces what he calls “the heterogeneous multiplicity of the living”:

… to a singular Other: the animal. Such efforts to demarcate the human have been central to a range of historical atrocities, from the legal, medical, political, and economic efforts to differentiate species that characterized slavery and colonialism to contemporary manifestations of racial and species hierarchy in industrial slaughterhouses in the rural US. To disrupt such forms of human-animal dichotomy is to challenge some of the fundamental cultural logics of modernity and empire, which render other beings killable, or at least exploitable, without the need for ethical reflection.

My work in education over the last 30 years focused on inequality. Alongside this, seven years ago I became vegan as I was finely forced to confront my life habits. The experience of studying art at Camberwell was, for me, a unique opportunity to bring together my previous work in education on various forms of inequality, commodification, neo-liberalism, and ethics with the question of how I could make art to challenge the atrocities that humans inflict on the non-human in ways that do not replicate this violence, or human gaze.

Over the year I moved toward combining two contemporary art methods:

1. Experiments in imagining otherwise (Olufemi, 2021)/fictioning (Burrows and O’Sullivan, 2019)I imagine a Museum of Human Violence, conceived ‘Post-Rupture’ that celebrates the opening of its ‘latest’ galleries in the years 2063-64. Crucially, by ‘fictioning’ the future as a time in which human violence has ended, I argue that this work is hopeful. 
2. Installation – both ‘site specific’ and non-site specific. In an installation everything in the ‘space’ is part of the installation, including the visitors. For example, visitors might consider their identify – are they human, AI, cyborg or perhaps interspecies? Installation is a useful method to shift the viewer’s experience toward discursive exchange.

In the remaining essay I discuss these two methods in more detail.  

Method. 1. Installation

Installation art most usually refers to artworks installed in a 3-dimentional indoor space: ‘install’ generally means to put one thing inside another. Installation art shifts the focus from what art visually represents to what it communicates. Installation artists are concerned less with presenting an aesthetically pleasing object to viewers, and more interested in welcoming the viewer into an experience, and environment of the artist’s creation. The desired outcome is to question the subjective perception of the viewer. Works belonging to this movement resonate with our experiences – they exist within, and are always in conversation with, their environments.

Pieces belonging to this category (visitor engagement) of Installation art shift the focus from art as a mere object to art as an instigator of dialogue. By occupying spaces so intentionally the artwork forces viewers into close interactions, so that viewing Installation art is more akin to an act of engagement than to one of contemplation.

(Lopez, 2017: 1)

Lopez (2017) goes on to explain that initially art critics focused on defining installation in relation to its site-specificity and ephemerality, but that this focus shifted as artists began to make installations referencing cultural context and social concerns.  

My first installation was site specific – situated in the Bargehouse: built by a company called ‘Liebig’ in the 1920s, (who also built the oxo tower next door), as a warehouse facility. 

‘Susan Askew. I learned not to look’. 2023 Site Specific Installation. Bargehouse. Film of auction mart, found objects, papier mache child, knitted cow (acrylic), posters informing about the Bargehouse history. 

Liebig, and their sister company, OXO,  produced ‘extract of meat’ from the late 19th century. My work ‘I learned Not To Look’ was a direct response to this history: there is evidence from newspapers at the time that ‘meat’, presumably for the OXO cube, was stored in the building right up until the second world war.  

Susan Askew. Title: I learned Not to Look. 2023. Knitted acrylic cow. (vegan) oxo cubes. Liebig cookery book.

This experience taught me several lessons. First, I could approach interrupting violent discourse to non-humans from different perspectives, using various mediums that seemed most appropriate. I could incorporate my own experience (I grew up on a dairy and sheep farm in North Yorkshire and regularly visited the auction mart where this video was taken in 2023): this is important so that I do not distance myself or set myself up as a ‘moral arbiter’. I could consider aesthetics as well as political issues. I could explore and make conceptual ideas experiential. I could discuss my work with visitors, who were keen to talk.  

Installation art also overlaps with the Conceptual art movement since they both prioritize the importance of ideas over the work’s technical merit. However, Conceptual art tends to be more understated and minimalist, whereas Installation art is often bold and more object-based. 

(Lopez, 2017: 2)

Groys (2009) raises the political implications of installation art, including the autonomy of the artist. He writes that ‘A conventional exhibition is conceived as an accumulation of art objects placed next to one another in an exhibition space to be viewed in succession…. the exhibition space works as an extension of neutral, public urban space.’ The curator’s role is to preserve the public character of the space, making art works accessible to the public.. to publicize them:

 …It is obvious that an individual artwork cannot assert its presence by itself, forcing the viewer to look at it. It lacks the vital energy and health to do so’ (the word curator is etymologically related to ‘cure’).

(Groys: 2009: 9)

However, Groys (2009) argues, while curation cures, at the same time it further contributes to the artwork’s illness.  He argues that installation art radically changes the role and function of the exhibition space. It symbolically privatises the public space of an exhibition and is ‘designed according to the sovereign will of an individual artist’.  

The point here is that the selection of what to include, where and how to place it, becomes the prerogative of the artist alone. I argue that this shift to the artist autonomy chimes with, and is congruent with, artwork that focuses on questioning ‘power-over’ the ‘other’ and with challenging the removal of autonomy from another sentient being. 

Another point to raise about installation relates to materiality. While traditional art is defined by its material support – canvas, stone etc, the material of installation art is space itself. 

The installation is material par excellence, since it is spatial – and being in the space is the most general definition of being material. The installation transforms the empty, neutral, public space into an individual artwork- and it invites the visitor to experience this space as the holistic, totalising space of an artwork. Anything included in such a space becomes a part of the artwork simply because it is placed inside this space’.

(Groys: 2009: 3). 

Laura Gustafsson and Terike Haapoja are examples of artists who use installation to challenge discourses about other animalsI saw their installation ‘The Museum of the History of Cattle’ in Bilbao at the ‘Science Frictions’ exhibition in February 2023. See

Method. 2. Fictioning/Experiments in imagining Otherwise 

Before coming to installation and fictioning I worked on a series of collages, still with the same research question in mind, in which I imagined friendship between species. I called this series ‘Experiments in imagining otherwise’. I took the title from the book ‘Experiments in Imagining Otherwise’ (Olufemi, 2021). 

Olufemi makes prose and poetry experiments, as she contemplates a future in which our modes of relating are transformed. She views the imagination as central to revolutionary movements for change. Her writing is based on a commitment to Black feminist and anti-colonial thought, and:

 Her generative vision makes us rethink temporality – time becomes memory after one has experienced it. Olufemi confronts our preoccupation with time to go beyond the experiential and into the experimental’. 

(Ashtekar, 2022: 1)

I am particularly struck by this – should we not, as artists, be at the forefront of thinking differently about our world, and should experiments in imagining otherwise not be as important in our making as the two other foci for contemporary art – materiality and performativity? Performativity is, I think, about temporality: about experience in the present.

This quote below from Ashtekar’s review of the book highlights that while Olufemi’s imagining starts from a Black Feminist perspective, she invites us to imagine a world in which our relationship to all life is reimagined. 

Yet, for Olufemi, imagination is not solely, if at all, about a cerebrally crafted utopia. It is an exercise to extricate oneself from multiple oppressions enacted by patriarchy, capitalism, and colonialism. Through her lists of ‘some places they would like us to forget’, she shakes up the reader to remind them how feminism is about ‘revolution in service of every living thing’. Herein lies the book’s greatest appeal: Olufemi is asking that we reimagine social relations and recognise the dire need to reorganise them.

(Avani Ashtekar, 2022: 2)

Post humanist writers such as Braidotti and Haraway focus on the importance of fictioning.  Braidotti (2022: pp 224-229) writes about Afrofuturist fiction, for example the work of Octavia Butler and N.K. Jemisin:

 The authority and trans-formative energy that are missing from a traumatic past and the harsh conditions of the present can be borrowed from the future, defined as a site of empowerment to come.  

Braidotti, 2022: 226)

Haraway, goes beyond suggesting fictioning, to using it as a ‘method’ herself: ‘Staying with the Trouble’ (2016) ends with the fictional story of five generations of Camilles’ who inhabit the devastated earth during the next 400 years. Humans are given monarch butterfly genetic patterning to enable them to make closer relationships with butterflies and work with them to make their continued existence a possibility.

Crucially, ‘imagining otherwise’, and ‘fictioning’ disrupt the social order:

… it is possible to imagine ourselves differently. It is incumbent upon us as readers, citizens, and authors to do so more often, in more ways, and including more kinds of people. Only through different imaginings will the world’s oppressive structures shift.

(Earle, 2019:3)

Burrows and O’Sullivan (2019: 2) write that they use fictioning:

… as a verb to signal the marking out of trajectories different to those engendered by the current organisation of life, as well as fiction as intervention on, in, and augmentation of, existing reality. In this sense, they argue, fiction can take on a ‘critical’ power when it is set against, or foregrounded within, a given reality’.

The fiction in the ‘Museum of Human Violence’ (MHV) is that by 2063 human violence has come to an end. By placing the museum in the future, we can more easily identify and critique violent discourses of our own time, and distance from them so we are less likely to feel criticised and can empathise. I chose to focus on schooling because it is an experience we share, but also because it is not an experience we generally associate with violence.

Susan Askew. 2023. Title: Learning violence: Schooling: 2063. View of installation. Blackboard, ceramic frogs, found objects. 

In MHV I look at normalising discourses of violence explicitly and am interested to trace these discourses to our treatment of other animals. The concept of the MHV, set in the future, gives many possibilities for ongoing work.

Burrows and O’Sullivan agree with Statkiewicz (2009) that fictioning involves a collapse of any hierarchies between art and philosophy – and point out that philosophy has long been concerned with modes of narration and play that produce truth or unconcealment. They suggest this is increasingly a concern in the practices of contemporary art (often related to art as activism). The authors write that fictioning is most powerful in art when there is a play of fiction AS life and reality: in other words, a blurring between ‘fact’ and fiction. I understand this in relation to my work: I present ‘The Museum of Human Violence’ (MHV), set in 2063, as fact. The visitors are asked to imagine they are in a future space and world that is very different from the world we inhabit now. They are part of that world, and this might raise questions for them about whether, in 2063, they are human, cyborg, AI or perhaps transspecies This is different from reading a science fiction novel or watching a science fiction film – here we know we are reading about the future, not in the future ourselves. The installation MHV is more like a game in which we enter a future world – but here again, we would make the choice to play the game, understanding its parameters. In MHV visitors do not know before they step inside that they are entering a future world.

Susan Askew. 2023. Poster advertising the opening of a new gallery in the museum in 2063. Posters, and booklets both help orient the visitor to the future perspective.  Ink drawing.

O’Sullivan (2016) argues that an artist of any kind cannot escape from the dominant ideologies – they are always ‘in the world’.  Pointing out problematic belief structures and behaviours that result in injustices merely compounds them. Describing them/showing them/pointing them out is, not a critique. (I know this myself from early work on sexism. I learned that if I was the only woman in a group of males, and if I showed sexist images to them, this did not enable understanding from the viewpoint of someone oppressed by the images. On the contrary, it reinforced and mirrored the very oppression being critiqued). I learned instead that work to critique oppression must always avoid violent imagery and always focus on building an empathetic relationship, as the starting point. 

I have struggled with this fact of ‘being in the world’ during my year on the MA – it is also why I have reached the conclusion that fictioning/speculative imaginaries might be a way forward. O’Sullivan (2016) suggests that, as a counter to ‘being in the world’, Art should operate on the edges of the viewer’s understanding. He recognises that this might lead to responses ranging from frustration, boredom, annoyance, or irritation. I am not convinced these responses are helpful. They push people away. I think, instead, that the artist must find a way to engage empathy and interest in the idea of future possibilities for a different world, and that the fictioned world presented should make reasonable sense. 

In fact, O’Sullivan 2016 writes that an important aspect of fictioning in contemporary art is that the audience must participate in the fiction. I think this is less likely if they are frustrated, or bored. And more likely if they empathise with the fiction. However, I agree with O’Sullivan’s general point. I did not think enough about the role of the audience in my first installation, but I did recognise that the visitor was a participant whether or not they realised it, and I was aware of Groys (2009) point discussed earlier, that everything within the space of an installation is part of the artwork, including the viewer.

My most recent work has played with ideas about audience participation in the fiction. I am currently working on a new MHV gallery, to be opened in 2064: this time focusing on Biocapitalism. One ‘spot’ will focus on xenotransplantation. In a MHV ‘event’, the audience are asked to play the role of ‘volunteer advisers’ to discuss beliefs and behaviours toward pigs ‘pre giant-rupture’, when xenotransplantation was still legal, as well as their feelings about their own xenotransplant. 

Susan Askew. 2023. Title. Museum of Human violence event. November 2063. Xenotransplantation Experience. 

I have come across artists who use fiction (but perhaps not fictioning) alongside installation in their work, for example, Iris Haussler, Zoe Beloff , Sunny Allison Smith and Ilya and Emilia Kabakov . However, I have not found artists who use either fiction or fictioning combined with installation, to explore our relationships with other animals. In future, I intend to continue exploring the possibilities presented by installation and fictioning for challenging injustices. 


Ashtekar, A. (2022). (Accessed 1 March 2023).

Braidotti, R. (2021) Posthuman Feminism. Cambridge: Polity Books. 

O’Sullivan, S. (2016) Myth-Science and the Fictioning of Reality. Paragrana.

Burrows, D. and O’Sullivan, S. (2019). Fictioning. Edinburgh University Press. 

Cronin, J. Keri and Kramer, Lisa, A. (2018). Challenging the Iconography of Oppression in Marketing: Confronting Speciesism Through Art and Visual Culture, in Journal of Animal Ethics, Vol. 8, No. 1 (spring) pp. 80-92. 

Dawson, A. (2015) Dawson, A. (2015). Biocapitalism and Culture. paper presented at the Environments and Societies colloquium on March 4. Available here: 

Jacques Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), 2. 19 Derrida, 31.

Earle, J. (2019) Imagining Otherwise: The Importance of Speculative Fiction to New Social Justice Imaginaries. page 3. in Catalyst: Feminism, theory, technoscience. No 5 (1).

Groys, B. (2009) Politics of Installation. E-flux journal. January.

( accessed 10 August 2023). 

Haraway, D. (2016) Staying with the Trouble: Making kin in the Chthulucene.

Kester, G. H. (2010). Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art. USA: University of California Press. 

Lopez, A. (2017). “Installation Art Movement Overview and Analysis”. Available from: (accessed 1 Sept. 2023)

Olufemi, L. (2021). Experiments in Imagining Otherwise, London: Hajar Press.

O’Sullivan, S. (2016). Deleuze against control: fictioning to myth-science. In Theory, Culture and Society. Vol. 33. Issue 7-8.

Statkiewicz, M. (2009). Rhapsody of Philosophy: Dialogues with Plato in contemporary thought. PA: Pennsylvania State University. 

About the author

Susan Askew is a London-based artist who makes installations, and most recently performance, to ‘fiction’ an imaginary future in which the world is peaceful. Her work interrupts violent beliefs and language about the non-human and has implications for our relationship with nature more broadly, and wider concerns about ecocide. 

She completed the MA Fine Art (Drawing pathway) at Camberwell College of Art in November 2023. Her work can be viewed here: https//