Why describe participation as a ‘restless’ art? My original reason was simply that the practice of professional artists involving others in their work has meant such different things over the years. It has grown exponentially since the emergence of community art in the 1960s and been interpreted differently in changing times, conditions, theories and cultures. A whole world separates a contemporary artist using participation in a gallery setting and a theatre of the oppressed workshop in a prison. Yet both are also connected by their use of participation, the relationship linking a professional and a non-professional in a creative act. It is not a problem if those involved don’t agree on what they are doing or why is. On the contrary, that disagreement is the creative tension that has made participatory art arguably the most vital expression of art practice today.
As I’ve worked on the project, meeting and listening to people, watching, reading and thinking, two further dimensions of its restlessness have become clearer to me. The first touches on the source of the restlessness, which is in the artist’s desire to involve others in the creative process – people they don’t command, pay, or control, people with different education and life experience, people with other values and ideas. That desire embeds a vast instability in a creative process that is already unpredictable. It extends the boundaries of the possible far beyond the landscape usually defined by an artist or even a group of artists at work. The human ingredients, and the rules that govern their interaction, are far more volatile in participatory art – at least when the the process is honest and open. And that brings in a restlessness that is at the heart of the practice’s creative potential and its artistic originality.
And now, after yet another unforeseen yet world-changing event – the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the USA – the value of that creative restlessness seems more important than ever. It is not an accident that community art emerged during Western culture’s rebellion against authority in the late 1960s. Authority has remained on the back foot ever since, as democracy has spread and been redefined through the individualism of neoliberal thought and the instant communication of the digital revolution. No one knows what is happening now, though it seems we’re living through historic shifts in social, political and economic life after the neoliberal project’s disintegration in the Great Recession. What we do know is that the world is more unstable that it has been for decades. The Cold War’s threat of mutually assured destruction was terrible but it was at least understandable. Today only fools and zealots believe they understand the future. We live in dangerous times and one of the dangers is not to see it.
And art? What has art to do with that, or that to do with art?
Only this. Art remains one of our best ways of understanding ourselves and our experience, of expressing our feelings, or sharing our hopes, dreams, fears and terrors, of finding common ground and empathy, of imagining other ways of being, of making sense and finding meaning. We need all those capacities now and, partly thanks to the social and technological changes of the last half century, they are more accessible to more of us than in the past. Participatory art is one of the doors that open on those resources and if it is contested, if we don’t agree what it means or what it is for – no matter. In answering those challenges we answer other, bigger ones about the life we want to live.
When demagogues peddle the illusions of certainty, we need the antidote of liveable ambiguity. In unstable times, we need a restless art.
- You can read more on this, and about some practical examples in this post: Making Nothing Happen, art and civil society in troubled times