The place of storytelling in participatory art

Is participatory art essentially about artists creating work from the raw material of other people’s life experience? That seems to be the view of some artists I’ve met recently. Their projects begin by identifying a neighbourhood or community seen to be in some kid of difficulty. A process of ‘research’ leads to collecting the stories, memories or experiences of the people who participate, to be retold in theatre, installation, or some other form to those who shared it, or to a wider audience.

Telling unheard stories is not a new practice. It was often the essence of community plays, a form once more popular than it is now. It has been at the centre of much community arts work, such as Amber Collective’s, and my own work: 25 years ago, I worked on a project that enabled people with mental health problems to create work about their lives, when a change in policy saw the hospital in which they were living close.* A belief in helping marginalised people use art for self-representation was at the heart of the community art movement in the 1970s and 1980s.

Fireplace (Sydney Bowler)
Fireplace (Photo: Sydney Bowler)

Today, artists seem much readier to tell people’s stories on their behalf. I have seen some extraordinary work result from this, but I also wonder whether the gain in artistic virtuosity may be at the expense of other kinds of quality.

Stories are how we make sense of our lives. They are both private and public, and it matters what we share, with whom, how and why. Our stories are never objective, even if we believe them absolutely. They shape our relationships and behaviour. Sometimes, they are keys that unlock rights or access services. Stories are central to art and art is central to how we create our stories.

No wonder artists invite people to share their stories in a participatory art project. No wonder too that doing so raises complex ethical, artistic and philosophical questions. What consent is sought and given? What promises are made or implied?  Do both sides have a common understanding of what they are doing? If it is in the nature of art to produce unanticipated results, what guarantees can an artist give about how a person’s story might be used or received? Similar ethical dilemmas arise in other fields, such as documentary filmmaking or academic research, but I wonder if participatory arts has yet developed a comparable reflection on them.

Refreshment Room (Aiden Hammer)
Fireplace (Photo: Sydney Bowler)

Then there is the question of how a story becomes art. Is it simply in the act of public presentation? Hardly, or the life stories continually retailed in the media would be art. Is it in the use of artistic techniques to retell it? Perhaps it is in being retold by an artist? But then who is an artist? Many community artists base their work in the idea that anyone can be an artist – which raises further questions, for another day – so how does a story change if it is told by a hired interpreter rather than the person whose experience it retells?

Is telling a story enough? Some artists take the view that it is, that the artwork is sufficient in itself and that their task is to reflect their lives to those who participated. Others argue that mirroring past or present realities should be a step towards debate about what might change. This is not just about politics or theory. It is also about art and whether what is created in a participatory process is rich and profound enough to stand without the context that produced it.

And finally, are stories essential to participatory art? Personally, I don’t think so. Art does not have to be narrative. Nor does it have to be rooted in lived experience. Participatory and community art has a far wider range of resources and languages to draw on than life stories, valuable as they are . Rituals, metaphors and symbols; inarticulate feelings, fears and dreams; private imaginations and public images; shared creation, shared memory – the possibilities are almost endless. I have many uncertainties about how and why artists use other people’s stories to make art but I’ve no doubt that it should only ever be one of the ways in which participatory art is created.

Knife, fork and typewriter (Photo Simon Piercey)
Knife, fork and typewriter (Photo Simon Piercey)
  •  The photographs illustrating this post were made by participants in that project, working with the late Ross Boyd, a fine photographer and teacher . They were published in 1990 and 1991 in two books and toured the UK in an exhibition called ‘Looking Back, Looking Forward’.