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September 20, 2012

The work of participation

Last Thursday I attended an event in Nottingham– The Unselfish Artist – organised by the East Midlands Participatory Arts Forum, EMPAF. The event was an opportunity for organisations within the participatory arts sector to showcase their work – under the rubric of the World Event Young Artists (WEYA) festival which was happening across the city last week.

The day included workshops, poetry readings, discussions and exhibits from various organisations across the region. I attended an interesting session about the artist as activist, which encompassed a range of perspectives on different types of politics. It was led by Gaylan Nazhad, who recounted his experiences as a documentary film-maker in a territorially contested village in Kurdistan, and by Kevin Ryan of Charnwood Arts, Leicestershire, who described his work as a kind of creative conduit for the residents of a relatively deprived area of Loughborough as they negotiated and struggled with local council and developers in re-shaping their community.

These kinds of projects – and the different kinds of politics they represent – feed into a developing research interest of mine in the meaning of ‘participation’ in participatory art – and particularly in the place of the artist in that process. ‘Particpatory arts’, as I understand it, emerges from the ‘community arts’ movements of the late 60s and 70s exemplified by organisations such as the Welfare State International artist collective for whom art was connected to political intervention. These artists drew on radical theatre, folk-art, carnival and spectacle to generate work with communities that was underpinned by belief in the potential for creative expression to empower and inspire progressive change. Filtered through the cultural policy agenda of the late nineties and noughties, the ‘community’ side of this vision has been translated into art that contributes to various socially valuable goals (improving health and well-being, easing social exclusion, even helping fight crime and anti-social behaviour). This period allowed for a significant expansion of the sector as both local and national government co-opted arts organisations as an alternative means of tackling - and being seen to tackle - such problems cost-effectively. This expansion of ‘the sector’ might, then, also have been accompanied by some taming of the romantic, emancipatory politics which forged it.

The story about the social contribution of the arts has been well discussed and critiqued by colleagues in the Centre here. One thing less considered in that story is the role of the artist – and perhaps especially the participatory artist and organisations who work at the coal-face of these social agendas. If my account of the historical development of participatory arts is accurate, how have the participatory artists who have lived through that history made sense of their own work in relation to it? To what extent have their artistic careers been negotiations with the various imaginaries of the policy-makers, local and national, who control the budgets from which they draw? And how are those artists entering this field now prepared for it? Do artists still have a politics of participation?

Participatory art can be easily stereotyped as a rather unglamorous extension of social work or an add-on to a pressured education or welfare system (think dance classes in care homes or art/craft workshops with children excluded form school - and notwithstanding how significant such activities can be for their participants). It can also, in the light of the policy ‘backlash’ against the notion a social mission for the arts generated by, for example, the McMaster report, be seen as lacking in aesthetic ambitions for ‘excellence’. The work of organisations such as Artichoke or the participatory events that contributed to WEYA, though, also suggest that participatory art can be inclusive, beautiful and challenging. At the very least, given that the meaning of participation is not obvious even to the Minister in charge of this particular portfolio, the time for a reflection on the artistic work of participation seems ripe.

Of course there might be other stories about the historical developments of work in this sector too. I’d be keen to hear from artists and organisations who would be interested in shaping these ideas into a research project. You can leave a comment below or e-mail me at .

And you can follow my research on here.

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