Professor Shelley Sacks

Director of the Social Sculpture Research Unit, Subject Coordinator: Masters in Interdisciplinary Arts; Masters in Social Sculpture

School of Arts


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 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 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.

Teaching and supervision


Modules taught

Undergraduate teaching

Periodic lectures on Art and Experimentalism; Art, Culture and Sustainability; Social Sculpture; Joseph Beuys; Becoming Agents of Change.

Postgraduate teaching

Subject Coordinator: Postgraduate Masters Programme in Interdisciplinary Arts.


Shelley has supervised three students to completion [two practice-based: Nicholas Stronczyk and Jo Thomas; and one theory - Mary-lou Barratt). She is currently supervising 10 practice-based students as Director of Studies and is Second Supervisor for 4 others. She has been a PhD External Examiner and advisor to PhD students at the University of Ulster and Humboldt University, Berlin.


Shelley's interdisciplinary work is both text and practice-based. She is concerned with dialogue, creative agency, the relationship of aesthetics and ethics, freedom and responsibility, facilitating new vision, art and activism, working toward an ecologically viable and just society, and the role of imagination in transformative social process. Her work ranges across performative actions, mapping processes, pedagogic practices, lecturing, text-based work, interventions and dialogue processes. She describes the 'flexible frameworks' and 'kits' in her social sculpture projects as 'instruments of consciousness' not 'objects of attention'.

Research interests

  • Artists as agents of change
  • New methods of engagement towards a just and ecological society
  • Joseph Beuys’ social sculpture proposals and ‘expanded conception of art’
  • Dialogue and listening processes
  • Participatory practices and creative agency
  • The role of imagination in transformative social process
  • ‘New organs of perception’
  • The poetic and imaginal in 'instruments of consciousness'
  • Practice-based research methodologies
  • ‘Connective practices’ across sectors and disciplines
  • The gap between information and awareness
  • Phenomenological and experiential knowing
  • The connection between love, play and social sculpture
  • Rethinking the 'aesthetic' as the basis of our 'ability to respond'
  • Imaignation and ecological citizenship.
  • Commoning

Her work also considers:

  • The relationship between art, culture and sustainability
  • Creating spaces in civil society for ‘making visible the invisible’
  • Strategies for becoming ‘imaginatively active’
  • The relationship between responsibility, the aesthetic and an ecologically sustainable future
  • Non-discursive thought and its relationship to strategies for connecting more deeply with the world around us
  • Participatory practices, ‘tools’ for consciousness and ‘spaces for new vision’, that engage participants in working consciously with thought, feeling and will as materials of an expanded conception of art
  • 'Parallel process' methodologies that combine rational argument with imaginal thought
  • Different modes of consciousness and thought, with special reference to areas of new science and Goethe’s holistic methodology; Schiller’s ‘aesthetic education of the human being’, archetypal psychology and eco philosophy
  • ‘Memory work’ and approaches for shifting from habitual thinking into new territory
  • The role of the net and ‘mapping’ technologies in social sculpture processes
  • Joseph Beuys’ idea of an expanded conception of art and its relationship to freedom, direct democracy and sustainable economic forms
  • The role of active imagination and synthetic thought in empowering us to shape a different kind of world.

Research projects

Ort des Treffens: 100/1000 Voices Hannover, Germany 2008-2010; since 2011 continuing as a citizen's initiative. A social sculpture project including dialogue and listening processes, and a city-wide sound-field. Original team included Alex Arteaga (Berlin); Anja Steckling and Nicholas Stronczyk (Hannover); Lukas Ortel (Bonn); Wolfgang Zumdick (Aachen/Oxford). Invited and supported by the city of Hannover and several German cultural foundations. The project continues as a citizens’ initiative entitled: Forum Ort des Treffens.

University of the Trees is a long-term social sculpture project, hosted by several organisations including the Centre for Contemporary Art and the Natural World in the UK (2005 -2012), by the Uberlebenskunst project, Berlin 2011, and by Citizen Art Days, Berlin (2012, 2013). From 2014 University of the Trees will be part of the ongoing Renewable Energy, Renewable Culture programme at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Zagreb. Its ongoing development in India will also be facilitated. (see

Exchange Values on the Table – Zurich, 2011. (New version of the project, first researched for Social Sculpture Today exhibition, Dornach, Switzerland 2007). New catalogue: FIU Verlag in German and English, edited by Wolfgang Zumdick, with texts by Zumdick, Sacks and von Plato. Catalogue from the 2002 World Summit for Sustainable Development includes texts by Sacks, Richard Demarco, Luke Desforges, Polly Patulo, NGOs and farmers' representative, Renwick Rose; unpublished material from Social Sculpture Public Forum and Think Tank (International Project Space, Birmingham 2004) includes papers by cultural geographers Gail Davies, Luke Desforges and Prof. Paul Cloke) (See

Earth Forum is a mobile ‘permanent conference’ process that emerged from the ‘Sustaining Life Project’ in 2002. In 2011 it was redeveloped as a module of University of the Trees, incorporating imaginal processes and methods from Exchange Values on the Table (Switzerland 2007 and 2011).

Earth Forum in South Africa was initiated and developed by Shelley Sacks for the Climate Fluency Exchange in the run-up to the Climate Summit in Durban, 2011. It has been used extensively in South Africa by a small team of Earth Forum facilitators, and continues to grow as part of the Climate Summit legacy project, designed to engage people at all levels in connective practices that 'mobilise them internally'. Earth Forum in South Africa was funded by the British Council.

In Germany (Berlin and Kassel) over 75 people have been trained as Earth Forum facilitators. (For more on Earth Forum in South Africa, Germany, UK and India.

With its focus on creative, connective practices and actions promoting transformation - it opens up a space for new insights and dialogue across disciplines and sectors, enabling project people, policy makers and other practitioners to share their experiences and to explore:

  • the connection between values and actions
  • different ‘takes’ on our relationship to the world
  • the role of imagination, creative strategies and new methodologies of engagement in moving toward ecological and social justice
  • capacity building for transformation toward a sustainable future.

Frametalks is a new ‘instrument of consciousness’ project, incorporated in University of the Trees. It was first presented as a 24-hour action in Bern (2012) and then in Berlin as a 3 x 12 hour action, as part of Citizen Art Days (2013).


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Further details

Other experience

  • Schweisfurth Foundation, Munich (2013)
  • Boell Foundation on ‘Enlivenment’ with Kurt and Andreas Weber (2012)
  • RMIT, Melbourne: The Art of Changing One’s Mind[set] (2010)
  • From Bauhaus to Social Sculpture and Beyond’: Weimar International Summer School – (2003 -2009)
  • Verein Soziale Plastik, Achberg, Germany 4-day workshop. (Dec 2009)
  • Forum Altenberg: Social Sculpture 3-day seminar (2012)
  • Agents of Change and Ecological Citizenship (10-22 July 2011. 20 participants)
  • Summer School on Social Banking: Advisor for integration of social sculpture approach into 5-day programme and contributions to programme (Florence, July 2010)
  • The Substance Group -2008 -2010 (Switzerland and Germany; 5 meetings)
  • Tate Modern Research Seminars on 'social sculpture and the work of Joseph Beuys' led by Shelley Sacks, April to May 2005

Colloquia organised by and with contributions from Shelley Sacks for the Social Sculpture Research Unit since 2001 include:

  • Dialogues for the Future: What is Social Sculpture? (January 2003). Contributors included: Johannes Stuttgen, Enno Schmidt, Prof. Caroline Tisdall, Dr. Volker Harlan, Peter Schata, Shelley Sacks.
  • Dialogues for the Future: Working with Water (May 2002). Contributors included: Jyoti Sahi (Bangalore); David Mosse (SOAS), John Wilkes (Virbela Institute), David Haley (Manchester Metropolitan Univ), Sven Riemer (Student – OBU), Shelley Sacks (SSRU)

Organised by (and including contributions from) Shelley Sacks for the SSRU or Sustaining Life Project:

  • 1st Social Sculpture / Connective Aesthetics Methodologies Colloquium – 45 participants - 25 June 2003. These two one-day colloquia have been organised by the Sustaining Life Project to explore methods and strategies that artists and other interdisciplinary practitioners are using in their work toward an ecologically sustainable society. Contributors:  Brandon Ballengee (Ecological artist, US), David Haley (Ecological Artist/Researcher, Manchester Met. Uni.,UK), Dr. Hildegard Kurt (Cultural Researcher, Berlin), Shelley Sacks (SSRU/SLP).
  • 2nd Social Sculpture / Connective Aesthetics Methodologies Colloquium - 15 September 2003. Contributors:Tim Collins & Reiko Goto (Eco-artists, Research Fellows, Carnegie Mellon Institute) Heike Strelow (Curator/ Writer, Germany), Ann T. Rosenthal  (Eco/feminist artist /educator, US) Dr. John Colvin (Environment Agency, UK); Shelley Sacks (SSRU/SLP)
  • Protected Areas and Governance – Feb 2004 and Feb 2005 – a three day interdisciplinary event for 25 scientists, ecologists, conservationists and activists– as part of the SSRU’s Sustaining Life Project.  In collaboration with African Parks.
  • Visible Thought: 2-day symposium (2003) relating the exhibition 'Visible Thought' at Oxford Brookes, of Rudolf Steiner blackboards and the 'Oxford Series' by Enno Schmidt. Contributions to symposium by the exhibition curator, Prof. Walter Kugler, Enno Schmidt and Shelley Sacks.
  • Connective Practices symposium (June 2008)A 2-day participatory event for 25 participants, supported by the Oxford Brookes Institute for Historical and Cultural Research.Designed and led by Shelley Sacks and Dr. Chris Seeley. Linked to the Art, Culture, Sustainability initiative at Oxford Brookes.

Agents of Change and Ecological Citizenship series at Oxford Brookes University including:

  • 2009 From Paradise to Social Sculpture and Beyond: 3 lectures by Dr. Wolfgang Zumdick
  • 2010 – 2012 Speakers in series included: Arran Stibbe (UK), Prof. Alex Arteaga (Berlin), Beth Carruthers (Canada); Peter Gingold (Tipping Point, UK), Hildegard Kurt (Germany), Allan Kaplan (South Afirca)
  • 2013 On Commoning –with Silke Helfrich; on Permaculture with Tomas Remiarz