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.