After graduating from the University of Cape Town in 1972 (with distinction in installation, actions, performance art and aesthetics), Shelley Sacks studied in Germany with Joseph Beuys as well as taking up a postgraduate scholarship at the Kunstakademie, University of Hamburg in 1974. Working between Germany and South Africa throughout the seventies and eighties, she continued, in the framework of the Free International University, founded by Beuys and Heinrich Böll, to explore the social sculpture ideas in dialogue with Beuys until his death in 1986.
Since 1990 she has been based in the UK. Alongside her interdisciplinary social sculpture projects such as Exchange Values and University of the Trees, she has developed the Social Sculpture Research Unit (SSRU) and the Sustaining Life Project (SLP), now the the Earth Forum Initiative. (See www.social-sculpture.org which includes a ‘history’ section describing the relationship between Sacks’ work with Beuys, the FIU and the SSRU at Oxford Brookes)
Shelley's political, cultural and artistic experience across cultures, countries and disciplines is also manifest in the new artistic strategies and innovative pedagogic practices - concerned with empowerment, imaginal thought and transformation - for which she is well known. Between 1992-1997, mirroring the new methods of engagement in her social sculpture projects, she developed an interdisciplinary approach to teaching cross art-form work at Nottingham Trent University.
At Oxford Brookes from 1997, this interest in creative strategies and interdisciplinary methods underpinned several initiatives, including the new Masters programmes in Interdisciplinary Arts and the redevelopment, in 1998, of the undergraduate art programme in 'contemporary art', with a focus on 'artists as agents of change'.
Her acclaimed social sculpture project, Exchange Values (http://www.exchange-values.org) with banana growers and consumers that was presented for the tenth time in 2002 at the World Summit for Sustainable Development; as well as Mound (1992); Thought Banks (1994/95) Sofas in the City (2002 –ongoing); Landing Strip for Souls (2000 ongoing), and new collaborative projects with geographers, composers, philosophers, homeopaths, scientists and NGOs such as University of the Trees (2005 - ongoing), Ort des Treffens [100/1000 Voices] (2008 ongoing) Earth Forum (2011 ongoing) and Frametalks (2012 ongoing) - are all examples of an expanded, interdisciplinary art practice that explores the relationship of imaginal thought to the shaping of a democratic and ecologically sustainable world.
Sacks’ work includes more than forty live actions, site works, projects and installations; grass roots cultural and political work in South Africa in the 70s and 80s with a focus on social sculpture and cooperatives, as well as writing, performing and lecturing in a range of contexts across the world.
At the end of Oxtober 2008 Shelley co-led a workshop at the World Cultural Economic Forum in New Orleans on social sculture and creative communities.
During 2008-2010 Sacks focused on questions of ‘active citizenship’ through the Ort des Treffens project in Hannover, Germany.
Since then she has concentrated on developing various new programmes and approaches within University of the Trees that focus on ecological citizenship and becoming ‘agents of change’.
These include ‘Frametalks’, an ‘Agents of Change’ process, ‘Working with Questions’, a workshop ‘What is a Human Being/What is a Tree’; and the ‘Earth Forum’.
Shelley is currently focusing on aesthetic education for ecological citizenship through the University of the Trees and other ongoing projects. She is also working to scale up attitudinal change and capacity building practices like Earth Forum, and to explore the ways in which such practices contribute to the anti-capitalist struggle and to strengthening agency for change.
Her recent publications are a co-authored book with Dr. Wolfgang Zumdick entitled ‘ATLAS of the Poetic Continent: Pathways to Ecological Citizenship’ (Temple Lodge 2013).
She has also co-authored ‘Die rote Blume’ with Dr. Hildegard Kurt – a book focusing on ‘aesthetic strategies in times of change’. This book unpacks and contextualizes practices like Earth Forum and University of Trees, and gives a sense of their evolution through Sacks’ work from the 70s until the present.(OYA publishers, 2013).
Shelley was also the main translator of Wolfgang Zumdick’s monograph ‘Death keeps Me Awake’: on the foundations of Rudolf Steiner’s and Joseph Beuys work – which was also published this year (Spurbuch 2013).
Her current writing is on ‘Inner Technologies and the field of Freedom’. A new co-authored book with Wolfgang is also underway on the history, philosophical underpinnings and evolution of the field of social sculpture through her own work and her pedagogic innovations, and their manifestation in and through the SSRU.