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.