What is participatory art?
There are many different kinds of participation. It can range from an interactive installation in a museum to a conversation on the street or a 3 year long theatre production with a group of elderly.
If I had two chairs on the street and a sign that writes “Let’s talk about home.” Will you call it art?
If I conduct a workshop with a group of children, can I call it art? Where is my ‘art’?
How do we define what participatory art can be?
There is Relational Art, defined by Nicolas Bourriaud in the late 90s:
According to Bourriaud, relational art encompasses “a set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space.” The artwork creates a social environment in which people come together to participate in a shared activity.
We, however, are living in 2018. The socio-economic context is different from 20 years ago. The political and social trends that influence us as artists to make works that we make now are different. Bourriaud’s understanding of Relational Art in 2000 is probably different from our understanding of it now. To be able to define what participatory art means for our time, perhaps we need to first understand our current context and situation.
Capitalism influences: Art as a product and personal branding
The economic value of art markets worldwide has given rise to increasing amounts of commodified art. From my personal observations, to be able to live off your art as an artist is all about personal branding and how well your art can be commodified for sale. You, the artist, as a brand and your art, works that investors would want to buy that’s easy to store at home (high demand = greater value and net worth of the artist). This also contributes to greater public interest, which museums love. Fundamentally it’s like a business and the selling point is your brand. Sometimes, the meaning of the work can be thought of after it’s made. Sometimes, there is no meaning, just fancy words put together by art critics who have decided which artist has the potential to be the next big thing. But of course, not all the time. I might be jaded by my personal experiences and this is by no means a wholesome representation of the entire industry.
The opportunities and work an artist can get are also often tied to personal branding and reputation, number of followers, how many features in articles or publications etc. It’s about mutually beneficial relationships, as with most relationships in this world. A company that sponsors an art prize would rather choose an artist whose work has a large following and whose work is not politically sensitive such that it taints the company’s reputation. Unless the company can gain publicity through a controversial piece of work. When applying for funding or residency opportunities, there is often the neccesity of a final product. The selected artist is to produce an artefact to be shown to the public in a final exhibition. This residency supports artists in the fields of painting, sculpture, printmaking, pottery by providing studio work spaces.
Our understanding of ‘art’ is inevitably influenced by the commodification of art as a product to be sold or displayed.
Process over product
But then how do you justify participatory art or socially engaged art? Often there is no product. No product to be commodified, nothing that can be sold, just the connection and relationships formed in the process. Even documentation of it are mere dead stills of something that was alive in the moment of here and now.
The real impact of participation is in the conversations between participants, the opportunity for barriers to be broken, differences to be reconciled. It is the beauty of human connection, given the time and space to bloom.
So, Participatory Art. Art that is built in the process, art that has no final product. How do we want to define it for our time? This is a term which requires us practitoners in this field to share a common understanding of. It is not up to me alone to provide a definition of or even attempt to. As with the ethos of horizontal participation, we need to form a collective definition and vocabulary of this field.
Impact of participation
There is a growing trend among funding bodies nowadays that lean towards public engagement as a key determinant to the awarding of funding. Often their interest is in the number of people who can enjoy or benefit a project that they are funding. The greater the numbers, the better.
But it is important that funding bodies understand, the greater the numbers, the lesser the depth and the smaller the impact on each individual. A huge lighting night festival can attract thousands to enjoy and engage superficially in a relatively short period of production time. But what is the impact of it on each individual who comes and enjoy the lights? Pretty instagram pictures? A great night out? Proof to citizens that the government is putting money into activities tax payers can enjoy?
A long term social engagement project with a smaller group of people, however, reaches a depth and intensity that can potentially change lives. For example, a theatre workshop for 10 months that brings together a group of elderly and young students. It requires more time and money but in this process of 10 months, loneliness among the elderly can decrease with healthy and positive social interaction; young students have the opportunity to interact with seniors outside of their family and potentially gain invaluable life advice. It creates bridges on so many levels for our emotional and social needs. This is what we need in increasingly busy and isolating big concrete jungles we live in now. With automation looming near, the future of jobs will lie in technology and social sectors like this. There needs to be more attention in this and funding to kickstart experiments.
This is why I am working on 1) An international network for socially engaged practitioners 2) Research and documentation of participatory projects worldwide, to learn from festivals and projects their financial models and relationship with government, organisations, private investors and local community in order to analyse successful trends to create a framework to build a sustainable sector.
The fact is that artists making participatory or socially engaging projects cannot do it on a full-time voluntary basis. It is ridiculous to even have such expectations. No matter how good-willed an artist is, as mentioned before, unless the artist is successful at personal branding and has commercial art to sell and earn money from, chances are she or he will have to work additional side jobs to pay rent, foot bills and expenses. There are propositions of universal basic income or artist allowance that allows artists to continue the work they do without having to worry about basic living but before we get to that level of consensus and social support, it is not reasonable to expect free labour in a capitalistic world that demands money for everything we need.
The impact of participatory art is huge but it requires collective effort. One person initiating a participatory project in her local town is a small but good start. Imagine one hundred people working on participatory projects in the same city. Now, how about ten thousand practitioners working on projects in various cities around the world but are all connected to each other and access a pool of collective knowledge and learning in this field? We can change the world.