Mindfulness and participatory art practice

On Saturday, I facilitated a workshop about participatory art and quality at the Institute of Polish Culture in Warsaw that reminded me of the power of participation. There were about 20 of us: students, postgrads, arts practitioners and others, mostly women and mostly young. Some had a lot of practical experience, others not much. But what each person brought into the room was shared openly, in a respectful spirit of engaged inquiry. As a result a kind of community emerged, temporary and shaped by its shared interest, but still a powerful resource for shared learning. Each voice, each perspective was valued by everyone and so we learned together more and better than we could have learned separately. And we did learn. It’s hard not to sound pious when I say that whether as a community arts worker, researcher or consultant, I think I’ve learned far more from others than they have learned from me, but it’s true – and this workshop was another instance of that. I came away with many new insights and adjustments to my thinking.

One of the breakout sessions focused on the performance standards for working in participatory art. That idea recognises that if product or outcomes can’t be guaranteed, the process that creates them can – at least in the sense that there are skills, methods and behaviours amounting to good practice and which can be agreed by the profession. Good practice offers a much better probability of good results and avoiding the damage that can be done, especially in work with vulnerable people. Such standards can also help guide commissioners identify artists who are best able to undertake a project.

Some good practice standards are practical and obvious: ensuring there is a suitable space and materials for a workshop, and that tools can be used safely, is one example. Others are more complex and more difficult to achieve: sensitivity to group dynamics, or identifying each participant’s unique contribution come to mind.  It was typical of this group that it was these they were interested in, and when they reported back on their discussions, one idea came up again and again: mindfulness.

It was expressed in different ways: a quality of listening, attentiveness, presence, receptivity, open-mindedness, vigilance, awareness. Insofar as I’d been conscious of this before, it had been instinctively – hence, not really attentively. But the group was right: being alive to what is actually happening now is one of the most important qualities of good participatory art practice. It is essential to steering a session or a project well, to seeing when something damaging might happen, to rebuilding when it has and to creating a profound artistic experience. But mindfulness could also be seen to extend beyond the workshop activity to embrace an awareness of the principles and ethics on which one’s work rests. There will always be ambiguities, compromises and dissonance in participatory art because they exist in life. What matters is the extent to which we are aware of them and, being aware, able to adjust what we do next to bring our action closer to our intention.

I’ve written about art as a ‘self-conscious’ dimension of culture, which is often lived unthinkingly, and there are connections with that idea here. To create art we must be alert to ourselves and our experience now: that is the concentration sometimes described as ‘flow’. To create art with others, we must be equally alert to them and their experience now. If the participatory artist or workshop leader can bring that quality of presence into the room, others will find it natural to be present too. During Saturday’s workshop I saw that not just intellectually but experientially too. I’m very grateful for this reminder of the power of shared creativity that participatory art can foster, and also of the importance of mindfulness to its practice.