In the past 15 or 20 years, the contemporary art world has become increasingly interested in participation. Artists with established careers now involve people in their projects. Sometimes, as in Antony Gormley’s Field, people provide many hands. In the work of Suzanne Lacy, they may be sharing personal experience or knowledge. Other artists, like the Austrian group WochenKlausur, involve participants in forms of social activism. There are many other examples too, each with their own ideas and approaches. And there is a growing body of of critical writing to describe and define this work. Participatory or relational art is, in short, an important and recognised strand of fine art today.
But what is this work’s connection with the existing field of community and participatory arts? Both speak of participation, social engagement and change, but do they mean the same things when they use that language? That seems unlikely, since the community arts movement began, in large part, with a rejection of the artworld’s values. Have those values now changed so as to embrace the community art world’s thinking about the sources of cultural authority or the operation of art markets?
The point is not whether one kind of work is better than another (although that’s a discussion we might come to). It is to be able to distinguish between kinds of work, the reasons they are made and the consequences of their creation. One way of doing that is to ask whose story a project is a chapter from.
A ‘participatory’ piece created by an artist recognised by the art world will be written about by critics as part of that artist’s history. It will become a stage in their development, a chapter in that narrative. It will be called a work, not a project.
The work of community artists is not usually written about by critics because the artists do not intend it to be about them. It is about the community, temporary or permanent, they have worked with. The project, when it is is good, will become another chapter in those people’s story, a part of their shared memory and as such another tie of what constitutes community.
The most recent community project I worked on was a celebration of the village church in community life, even at a time of diminished religious faith. It produced a book, The Light Ships, a website and three community events. It has no interest for art critics and is only part of my story in the sense that we all have personal narratives of our lives. But the book is on sale in the churches and the experience belongs – I hope – to the communities’ long and continuing story.
Of course, the artworld argues that it only notices work that has value: what it ignores is, by definition, worthless. That’s the kind of self-justifying argument which once ‘proved’ that anyone who questioned Soviet Communism was guilty of bourgeois tendencies because of their questioning. It’s not that community artists want the critical approval of the artworld – many of them, as I’ve said, question its legitimacy in the first place. What matters is to recognise the difference between projects in which an artist, for various reasons, invites people to participate in their work and projects in which an artist works with people to make something that none of them knew could exist before they made it together. They are not the same, even if they both speak of participation. And one mark of difference is whose story each is a part of.