Participatory art is improvisation

Everyone is interested in participation and community engagement these days. I don’t think there can ever have been so much work done in the field or such varied ideas and approaches. At the European Jazz Conference in Wroclaw (Poland) I’ve met inspiring people from Norway to Lisbon, all working hard to make the music they love not just relevant to fellow citizens but an active force for positive change in society. The challenges are often great  – whether it’s Banlieues Bleues in the troubled periphery of Paris or the Panama Jazz Festival working for peace in a former military site – but so is the commitment. As Danilo Pérez said yesterday when asked to define his music, ‘Jazz is hope’.

And I come away from a conference whose theme is Listen Up, with an evocative new metaphor: like jazz, participatory art is improvisation. It requires an artist capable of listening to others, with open-hearted curiosity and responding to what they hear. A monologue can be written in advance, like an audience development strategy – it just has to be delivered. But dialogue, true dialogue, cannot be scripted. At best you can have a purpose, some ideas, a few non-negotiable principles. The rest will come from listening, responding, creating together. You have to think – feel – on you feet, fast, faster than thinking in fact. You have to respond from the heart.

Like Jazz participatory art is improvisation. It takes courage and playfulness, not indicators and plans. It is creative. It might fall flat on its face. But even then, the experience is exhilarating and you get straight up and do it again.

From personal stories to common humanity: Performance Ensemble


People’s stories have become central to participatory art in a way they simply weren’t 30 years ago. None of my work involved such personal material before a project with mental health service users in 1990. The widespread use of the term ‘life story’ is itself a sign of the growing importance of personal narratives in literature, sociology, oral history, contemporary art and throughout a culture still adjusting to the disruptive creativity of social media.

How and why we use our own stories is one thing, but when an artist gets involved the ethical, philosophical and aesthetic questions become challenging. The risks of making art from other people’s lives are real – and it is not usually the artists who take them. Such thoughts came to mind as I watched Anniversary by The Performance Ensemble at West Yorkshire Playhouse last week.


It was an unusual production, devised by and with professional and non-professional artists, all close to or well past retirement age. Some had performed for 40 years or more with leading British ensembles: others had worked as teachers or business people, only becoming involved in the arts through the Playhouse’s excellent Heydays programme. The piece was first developed* in 2015 by Alan Lyddiard, Royston Maldoom and others, and brought to a full production a year later.

The opening scenes were disconcerting. The performers were already on stage as the audience came in, but the bare stage looked like a rehearsal room under the house lights. It would be hard to say quite when the performance started, as people moved about and the lights stayed up, but it might have been when Hum walked slowly to a microphone near the front of the stage and told us, in his clear voice, something of his lifelong passion for Coalport pottery. He was followed by other members of the cast announcing dates which, we subsequently learned, were key moments in their personal histories. In the following 80 minutes of dance, theatre and music, the significance of each date gradually emerged. Performers addressed the audience directly, in front of a microphone. They shared humour, poignancy, sadness, hope and pain, all hovering uneasily on the border between art and life.

When one person, speaking about age, loses his lines, the audience waits with only the sound of his breathing in the microphone. We are not holding our own breath though, willing him to recover and somehow affirm an indomitable human spirit. We are not embarrassed. We are simply experiencing that moment of forgetting as it is, because it is real, living experience. It is not a failure. It is the performance of a truth.

Yet all this could easily have been maudlin, awkward. The apparent lack of artifice and production values made me initially uncomfortable, despite my confidence in the project’s creative team. Was this going to be yet another community production sapped by an inability to see that inexperienced performers need high quality staging more not less than professionals?

But behind the appearance of simplicity was a very sophisticated artistic structure which emerged steadily as the performance grew in power and authority. Stage hands came on to dress the set with white balloons. The lighting changed and in the new atmosphere the performances seemed to become increasingly assured while staying absolutely centred on the life experience of each individual. The music, inventive but never intrusive, became an ever-stronger support on which the cast could reach higher. Eventually, there were new costumes and a real ‘coup de theatre’ with the balloons, and the performers – despite their age – seemed to grow in energy. Behind the apparent simplicity of exchanges like ‘How long have I known you?’ it is possible to hear echoes of Chekhov and Uncle Vanya, much as the score recalls musical pasts. The boundary between art and life frays again.


It is risky to ask even an accomplished amateur to perform alongside someone who has spent their life dancing for a living. But craft and experience are only part of what makes an artistic experience meaningful. The gestures of some Anniversary performers might lack professional training and experience, or be limited by the effects of age, but they carried a seriousness of purpose and a conviction that made them distinct but equivalent to those of the professional dancers. Rooted in its truth, a performer’s unchosen slowness has its own unique grace.

All these were artistic choices and brave ones too. They consciously set out to challenge the audience’s expectations of what a performance in a civic theatre might be and, indeed, who might create it. The intention was to make something out of nothing. As Anniversary progressed, I felt I was watching art being deliberately constructed before me and only in looking back did the artifice become clear. The stories were personal, but they and their tellers were transformed by that artifice into something quite other. This was not naked performance but the performance of nakedness.

This fragile, vulnerable performance gradually won me over, to the extent that I would willingly have stayed in my seat and watched it all again. It was beautiful, moving, witty – and it found a language that celebrated each person on stage, whatever their age, shape, experience, training, culture. Irrelevant differences fell away leaving only the presence of each person’s essential and individual humanity – the best of us.


* The first development of the work  that has become Anniversary was supported by a grant from the Baring Foundation, of which I am a trustee. Photos by  Anthony Robling (1,3 & 4) and Sara Teresa (2) courtesy The Performance Ensemble.

Alternative ideas of authorship

Multistory Film Screening at Great Bridge Library - 'Turkey and Tinsel' by Martin Parr (Photo © Becky Jones)
Multistory Film Screening at Great Bridge Library (© Becky Jones)

Libraries are about books; everybody knows that. True enough – but what are books about? Over the past year, Multistory has been working with libraries in Sandwell to present film screenings and photography exhibitions. The films, by Martin Parr and commissioned by Multistory, open windows on worlds most people don’t know. In Mark Goes to Mongolia, we follow a West Bromwich pigeon fancier on a trip to trade birds with fellow enthusiasts in China. In Turkey and Tinsel, we travel by coach to Weston-Super-Mare with a group of Black Country people on a pre-Christmas jolly.

‘The films opened my eyes to how some of the older people really enjoy themselves ‘cos I don’t go out that often.’

Exhibition by Mahtab Hussain in Tipton Library (© Becky Jones)

The exhibitions include work from the four years Martin Parr has spent documenting life in the Black Country with Multistory. But they’ve also featured work by younger, local artists such as Mahtab Hussain, whose photographs portray the first Muslim generation who settled in Tipton in the 1950s and 1960s. The project was inspired by a nail-bomb attack near a local mosque and people’s responses to Hussain’s work spoke of their commitment to living together in a divisive time:

‘Very thought provoking. People should live and let live and treat others with the same respect they desire. I really like the book and its message.’

‘The people come over as being proud and tolerant. It was most informative.’

‘I think that people should have the respect to understand other religions.’

By taking this work into libraries, Multistory is making the most of their friendly reputation to share stories that are sometimes surprising, sometimes funny, sometimes even ‘a bit rude’, as one person put it – but always illuminating. Tea, biscuits and conversations turn screenings into events and this sharing of experience helps makes the artist’s work more meaningful to people who are not just its subject, but its purpose too.

Exhibition by Martin Parr at Tipton Library (© Becky Jones)

Documenting ordinary lives is vital when the mainstream arts seem to have so little interest in them, except sometimes as material for polemic. But what matters even more is that this work is done with the people involved. They may not press the shutter or sit in the editing suite but the work is made in dialogue before, during and after. The artist is in control of their art but the people are in control of their response. Without mutual respect, trust even affection, nothing can be made. New understandings of authorship are being explored, and they are very different from those asserted by community artists in the 1970s. What hasn’t changed is the test of this work: people’s response to how they are portrayed:

‘It shows that Black Country people are still the salt of the earth, people who you can trust and enjoy a laugh with.’

‘The pigeon film was incredible. I have seen it before and I’ve come to see it again. When I grew up nearly every other garden had pigeons. It’s a rich man’s sport now.’

The implicit contract between artist and the people they are representing remains consistent with that imagined by Murray Martin in the early days:

At the end of the day the success or failure of a piece of work by Amber is the community you make it about looks at it and says “That’s right”.’

What are books about? Discovery – exactly like films, photographs and the local events where you meet artists and neighbours over a cup of tea. Showing films in libraries is just another way of telling stories by, about and with the people who use – and pay for –them.

Multistory Film Screening at Great Bridge Library - 'Turkey and Tinsel' by Martin Parr (Photo © Becky Jones)
Multistory Film Screening at Great Bridge Library (© Becky Jones)

With thanks to Multistory who published an earlier version of this piece on their website.

Sharing control in participatory art


Participatory art is normally spoken about in terms of how people are changed by being involved. There are problems (at least for me) with some of the assumptions behind that, but I’ll come back to them another time. Just now, I’m wondering why we don’t talk more about how the artists and organisations who want to do participatory work might change.

It’s a simple test. Does a theatre company or visual arts organisation developing a participatory project expect to be changed by doing it? Will the work itself be different – unpredictable even – because it has emerged from a participatory project? The answer varies, of course. Sometimes yes; sometimes no. Both can be good artistically and ethically – provided the terms of participation are clear and honest. But at the heart of the distinction is where control lies: is it held exclusively by the artist or can it be shared?


Spencer Tunick’s Sea of Hull project seems to be a project that might change the people who take part but not the professionals who create it. Like all his work, it involves asking people to be photographed naked in a city’s public spaces. In the latest version, the people were painted different shades of greenish blue – hence ‘Sea of Hull’. The resulting photographs are odd and rather beautiful, if somewhat repetitive. Being naked among strangers gave participants different feelings and thoughts: it could be challenging, liberating, simple or even understood politically. What seems clear though is that their contribution was limited to being there and doing what they were told. It would have made no substantive difference to the art if 3,000 other people had turned up for the photographs.

The same might be said of Jeremy Deller and Rufus Norris’ commemoration of the centenary of the start of the Battle of the Somme, ‘we’re here because we’re here’. Again, thousands of volunteers stood silently in public places, in the uniform of British soldiers, waiting. This time the photographers were passers-by who shared their impressions on social media. The results are impressive and moving: the experience will surely stay with both participants and spectators for years. But again, the participants’ contribution was essentially their presence.


The work of National Theatre Wales is very different. From its very creation in 2009 the organisation was shaped around the ideal of reaching everyone, everywhere in Wales – at least in principle. So, like the National Theatre of Scotland before it, NTW chose not to base itself in a theatre building. Its offices are in a shopping arcade in the centre of Cardiff. As a result, its productions have to be made in partnership, if only because a site is needed for them to happen in.

Some are professional shows. Some involve both professional and non-professional performers. Some are wholly created with and by communities. In the case of the last two – from huge productions like The Passion to The People’s Platform Merthyr – the work comes into being through the active creative input of participants. Each production is what it is only because of who is there.

In developing an approach rooted in co-creation, NTW has become a different kind of theatre company – but arguably one  better able to respond to the complex interests, identities and desires of contemporary communities. It might sell tickets, but it is not selling a pre-packaged product. Because its theatre is made with and often by its audiences, and in many different ways, its evolving story is one of shared exploration. NTW’s distinctive value lies in the work’s essential unpredictability. What will happen in the next year, in the next production, in the next performative moment is uncertain because the company is willing to share control.


Participatory work can happen without sharing control and, as Sea of Hull and we’re here because we’re here’ show, it can be beautiful, moving and affect those who take part and who see it. It can be equally successful when artists commit to co-creation, shared authorship and listening to unheard voices. But it’s important not to underestimate what is different in these approaches and the different meanings and results they produce.

For me the most interesting and transformative work happens when artists share their authority – for the artists as much as anyone else. After all, if you’re always in control, the best you can hope for is to achieve what you’ve planned.

Making nothing happen: art and civil society in troubled times

This talk, for the Tandem Exchange programme, highlights the distinctive value of art and culture at a time of multiple crises. It’s posted on another site because its focus is wider than participatory and community art, but its argument is relevant to that practice. It proposes that art matters, above all, because it gives us space to meet the inescapable differences between us and the chance to grow in our capacity to live with them. To read the full text, click here to download a PDF or follow the link to the Parliament of Dreams site.

Parliament of dreams


Here is the text of a talk given on Saturday 3 September in Berlin at an event to mark the fifth anniversary of the Tandem Exchange programme. 

On the morning after Britain voted to leave the EU, the novelist Philip Pullman tweeted:

‘We had a headache, so we shot our foot off. Now we can’t walk, and we still have the headache.’

This image seemed to catch something important about the world we’re living in. We face grave problems – everyone knows that – but we and, more importantly, our leaders, often seem confused about what those problems are. Without a clear understanding of the actual challenges that face us, we thrash about in pain and fear and choose bad solutions. To take one current example, it’s hard to see a connection between controlling how women dress and overcoming terrorist murder, yet politicians still ban the burkini because action of…

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