What is community art and where is it going?

Whether you call it community art, participatory art or something else entirely, art work with people seems to be thriving. I’ve worked in the field for many years and I don’t remember a time when so much was happening, despite the public spending cuts. More importantly, perhaps, I see artists working in a huge range of ways and with an equally diverse range of ideas and motives. And some of the most interesting, exciting work is happening in unexpected places – Southern Europe, Brazil, Zimbabwe.

A new generation of practice seems to be emerging, partly in reaction to the fallout of the 2008 financial crisis and partly just because time passes. It follows two earlier phases of participatory art work. The first, from the late 1960s to the late 1980s, pioneered community arts as a radical, innovative and aesthetically adventurous practice. The second, more pragmatic, adapted those ideas and methods to form new partnerships with public bodies.

The third – well, that’s what’s so interesting. How are young artists working now? Which parts of their artistic heritage do they draw on and which do they reject? How do they see community, the state, the person? What is art for them? How do their Millennial experiences and values transform a practice for the 2020s?

ARA Streetwise Opera
Streetwise Opera (UK)

Thinking about practice

There is also more written about community/participatory art than there ever. Most of what’s published is about outcomes (my 1997 study of the social impact of participation in the arts. Use or Ornament?, was an early instance). The logic of that second phase imposed a need to demonstrate value to funders. At the other end of the spectrum, the contemporary art world has produced theoretical accounts of its own adventures in participation, some more accessible than others. But between theory and impact is practice – what actually happens when artists work with people.

This project will explore that gap. Its name, A Restless Art, is intended to affirm that there is no ‘correct’ way of doing participatory art. There are many, perhaps even as many as there are artists dedicated to the practice. They have different motivations and ways of working. Each has its distinctive strengths and weaknesses. And it is that restlessness, troublesome as it has sometimes seemed, that gives participatory art its energy.

But it is important – whether you are involved as an artist, a manager, a funder or even a participant – to know where your work stands in relation to the rest, and why. Socrates is famous for saying that an unexamined life is not worth living. A Restless Art sets out to provide resources with which people engaged in participatory art can examine their own thinking and practice. It will do that first through this website and eventually in a book that I hope, with the authors of Engineers of the Imagination, will ‘spend at least as much time in kitchens and workshops as in studies and libraries’.

Welfare State International (UK) The Final Performance
Welfare State International (UK) The Final Performance

The project

Over the next year, I’m going to be visiting participatory arts projects, observing work and interviewing artists. I want to immerse myself in what is happening now and listen attentively to what artists say about their work. To do justice to this restless art, I’ll be talking to people from every generation – the pioneers who began in the 1960s and the young artists just discovering the field and their own creativity. I also want to look beyond the UK because there is great work happening in other parts of Europe, shaped by other cultures and social contexts. So projects in Portugal, Spain, France, Belgium and the Netherlands will also be included.

This project is supported by the Gulbenkian Foundation in London and Lisbon and I’m very grateful for their confidence in it. The Foundation has been committed to community/participatory art for decades, often pioneering new developments. It currently has major programmes in the UK (Sharing the Stage) and in Portugal (PARTIS) and some of that activity will feature in this project.

There isn’t a fixed plan or timescale for A Restless Art, except that I expect to publish the book (in English and Portuguese) in Spring 2017. But that will just be another chapter in this fascinating, unending story that has captivated me since I got a job as a community arts apprentice – also funded by the Gulbenkian Foundation – 35 years ago. It will certainly open new paths for discovery of which I’m still ignorant.

PARTIS Programme (Portugal)
PARTIS Programme (Portugal)

An invitation

Five years ago, for a project called Regular Marvels, I began exploring a way of working that I described as ‘thinking in public’. It accepts the subjective, contingent nature of human experience while questioning our tendency to sacralise knowledge (and those who control it). It seemed necessary to work in this open, inclusive and tentative way when reflecting on arts practice since the nature and value of that practice is precisely its capacity to enfold the rational within a larger domain of human understanding.

A Restless Art will adopt the same approach. I’ll post case studies, reports of meetings and general reflections here as the project develops. The site will record ideas as they evolve, including dead ends and mistakes or revisions. I’ll also add resources (my own and other people’s) to make it easier to find material online.

So do check back to follow the story if you’ve an interest in participatory arts practice. And if you’d like to talk to me, or tell me about some work that might be included or simply want to share some thoughts, please get in touch.

Théâtre du Fil (France)
Théâtre du Fil (France)

10 thoughts on “Introducing ‘A Restless Art’

  1. Bravo, Francois! With this project you contribute to the not so regular wonders in our life! And just one discontent with you: in some societies knowledge is not sacralised, but on the contrary – profanised, and I am not sure, what is better 🙂 Wishing you absolute success what means also a success (recognition) for the communities and cases which you will describe. Sveta

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    1. Ah, thank you Sveta. Of course you are right about the profanation of knowledge in some circumstances. Your point is a valuable reminder, and it underlines the importance of this project looking more broadly than our own horizons.

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  2. Good to talk about it all the other day. Authorship and ownership… Hmmmh!… In a policy on digitisation and digital presentation we were developing for Heritage Lottery, we were trying to define our sense of responsibilities around work and were talking about the moral rights of those whose lives had been documented. ‘Moral Rights’, however, has a legal meaning associated with the individual copyright holder. It came down to ‘The right of the documented, that usages should be consistent with the spirit and understanding implicit in any original grant of access to their lives.’ But that doesn’t recognise the varying levels of creative contribution that the documented can bring to work. It’s not about IPR or money, but the way we look at work; how we can reclaim territory from the individualist projection of high art and the creative process; picture the spectrum rather than the opposed concepts of ‘artist’ and ‘participants’ or ‘community’.

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    1. This is one of the key issues I want to explore here. In participatory/community/shared practice (maybe an acronym might be useful!) ethical questions about ownership abound. But – in a culture that struggles to recognize any other benchmark of value than money – ownership means earner-ship. But much of the work produced through participatory processes has little of no monetary value (Amber is an interesting exception). More importantly, the ownership issues that most often concern people (artists and participants) are about use of the work because it affects representation, which underlies many people’s reasons for doing it in the first place. I ran into problems with exhibitions and/or publications when I was younger and less experienced, and the issue was always how people felt they would be represented. So, you’re right, in my view: we need ways of understanding and expressing the different rights that people may have over the use of work that have contributed to (in different ways).

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  3. Hello Francois, yes this is an issue I grapple with constantly. I have found the debate between ownership and earnership a troublesome one and an issue Id like to see debated. I look forward to following your exploration. Best wishes Anne

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