‘We’re trying to change the nature of art’

Lenthall Road Printshop (From ‘Somewhere in Hackney’ 1980)

Writing about community arts

The first phase of community arts in Britain (roughly 1965-1990) has not had much attention from historians, art critics or other academics. In the one really substantial book on the subject, Kate Crehan suggests that may be because the art world refused to give attention to a practice that challenged its authority. As she writes: ‘If an artist wants to be accepted as a bona fide, serious artist, it is dangerous to stray too far from the dominant institutions of the art world.’

Insofar as the art world has looked at community art, it reads the story from an art historical perspective in which theoretical texts (like Owen Kelly’s 1984 book, Art, Community and the State) have an importance they may not have had at the time. Certainly  it didn’t feel like that to me when I encountered community arts in 1981, through one of the pioneering visual art collectives. It was  exciting, challenging, silly, unknown, committed, complex, practical, pious, moving, rigid, fascinating, naïve, technical, impossible – often at the same time. It’s hard to write about because I can’t be very objective about those early experiences, but it’s important too, because I was there.

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Sharing the stage


For the past three years, I’ve been visiting participatory art projects in Spain, Portugal and other parts of Europe to learn about what is now happening there. I’m wary of simple explanations, especially in contexts I don’t know well, but it is hard not to link this new energy with the pressures European societies have faced since the financial crash of 2008. Whatever the truth of that, ideas from participatory art, activism and community development are nourishing a lot of important work.

It’s never easy to understand such activity from the outside. As well as the time and cost involved, there are differences of language, culture and policy. Things can be less similar than they appear.  And yet, since I began to see community art outside the UK in the 1990s, I’ve been struck by how much common ground there is in the practice, the human relations and the art itself. The essential keys to successful participatory art work seem to be surprisingly consistent.

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‘A gift for fiction’

Theatre changes people. Mostly, it does so in small ways by rearranging our mental furniture, hanging around for a bit and leaving odd things behind when it’s gone, with the result that we perceive things differently. Sometimes, its effect is much more dramatic, making us reassess our fears, desires, understanding, or our sense of others, at a fundamental level. That’s much rarer, but when it happens it can be literally life-changing.

It does all this through the licensed use of techniques which are in principle banned from normal life: deceit, manipulation, emotional pressure, pretence. Theatre lies constantly, deliberately and ingeniously and its only justification is that it does so to show a truth which otherwise could not be seen or, perhaps, faced. Then, as an unscrupulous film director says in David Mamet’s State and Main, ‘It’s not a lie; it’s a gift for fiction.’

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Crossing boundaries – Jazz, young people and Banlieues Bleues


‘It’s important for children to meet an artist in the atmosphere of a workshop. They too have a right to beauty, to culture and to become used to focusing on a creative project.’

Nelly Roland Iriberry, Maire de Villepinte (2011)

Seine-Saint-Denis, on the northeast edge of Paris, is the very image of France’s ‘banlieues‘, though there are similar places on the edge of most French cities and, indeed, throughout Europe.  A British parallel might be estates like Castlemilk in Glasgow or new towns like Skelmersdale – huge post-war housing schemes raised to accommodate growing populations. Torn between the modernist dream of an egalitarian society and political constraints of money and class, these developments have rarely met anyone’s plan. Today, their residents, who include immigrants from former colonies and recent war zones, often face unemployment, poverty and social exclusion. The problems of such communities are not helped by being more often talked about than listened to.

paris_banlieuesbleues_posterSo it may be surprising to find that Seine-Saint-Denis is home to one of France’s liveliest jazz festivals but of course the banlieue is just one reality of a département with 40 communes keen to attract visitors.  Banlieues Bleues was founded in 1984 on the initiative of local politicians. Since then it has brought many exceptional musicians to perform in local concert halls, schools and improvised venues across the district.

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‘Arte e esperança’: The PARTIS programme


Between 12 and 15 January 2017, the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation is hosting a showcase of of some the diverse projects they have supported in the last three years through the PARTIS programme. This has been a new venture for the Foundation’s work in Portugal, supported through the human development rather than the arts department. The demand has been huge and it has been possible to fund only a fraction of the applicants. But the quality of the proposals and the projects has been very high.

The showcase includes theatre work with refugees, a community film from a rundown neighbourhood, classical music with teenagers living in the north of the country, a circus programme with young offenders, photography, rural development work and opera by inmates of a prison – and is just a part of the work that has been supported. The showcase also includes a conference today, which gives some of those involved in the projects an opportunity to hear some initial evaluation findings and discuss issues.

With the Foundation’s help, I’ve visited several PARTIS projects and been impressed by their imagination, commitment and creativity. I was invited to open the conference: this is the text of my speech, mainly for anyone at the event who’d like to refer to it. If you’ve read other recent talks,  you’ll find similarities, but I hope some new thinking too.

* * *

‘Arte e esperança’


The title of this conference is art and hope. It’s a brave flag to stand under today. We are living in difficult, dangerous times – you don’t need me to describe the social, economic, political, security and environmental challenges. But a new year is a time of hope, if only because, here in the northern half of the globe, we have just passed the darkest time of year. The nights are getting shorter. So this is a good moment for such a conference.

And a focus on participatory art is appropriate too, because it is true that a great deal of hope is usually invested in it.

  • The hope of the artists – to create something satisfying and worthwhile, to move someone, to be understood, to connect and to make a difference
  • The hope of the funders – to alleviate some social difficulty or tension, to help people in crisis, to find a new solution for some intractable problem
  • The hope of the participants – to get a chance, to do something interesting or positive, to be recognised, to have a good day that can lead to a better tomorrow

All this hope bound up in participatory art may be one reason why, in these difficult times, it has grown so fast. It must now be one of the most extensive kinds of non-commercial arts practice, not only in Europe but throughout the world.

Its rapid growth is something to celebrate, because it has enabled so many people to participate in the artistic life of their society and because it has nurtured new art, fresh ideas, unheard voices and changing situations. At the same time, this very richness has produced a confusing spectrum of names and approaches, theories and practices, which can make it hard to understand even what participatory art is – to say nothing of its purposes and value.

So today I shall try to shed some light on those questions, drawing on my own experience and the research I have been doing with the generous support of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation here in Lisbon and through the UK Branch. I’ll look at three big questions:

  • What is participatory art?
  • How has it developed?
  • What hope could it offer?

There are many people here who know as much about these things as me from different perspectives and experiences. So I offer my thoughts in a spirit of participation, keen to hear other ideas, to share insights and to create something of value together, for us all.


What is participatory art?

Let’s start at the beginning: what is participatory art? I would like to propose that this term is most useful when it is understood very broadly, inclusively and simply. So the definition I offer you is this:

  • Participatory art is the creation of an artwork by professional artists and non-professional artists.

That’s all. Everything that could be added to that definition is part of what creates one or other sub-category of participatory art – and there are many of those. The work has been described in different times and places as socially engaged practice, new genre public art, community based arts development, community engagement, relational aesthetics, theatre for social change, community art, education and outreach, applied theatre, community cultural development and more.

Each of these – and others I haven’t mentioned – has its practitioners and theorists, its admirers and critics, but they are all structured around the creation of an artwork by professional artists and non-professional artists. It is that partnership in creation – however it happens, for whatever reasons and irrespective of what it finally looks like – that defines participatory art.

Because it is the creation of art, participatory art has three other shared characteristics:

  • a theoretical and aesthetic framework that guides those who make it happen;
  • a duration in time, with a beginning, a middle and an end; and
  • a presentation of the work created.

It seems obvious when I say it, but this does get misunderstood. Participatory art, just as much as conventional theatre, visual art or music making, is about creating art. The art work itself may be small or ambitious, innovative or familiar. It may be presented in a cultural institution or a private space. The audience may be vast or intimate, strangers or friends. Finally, of course, the work may or may not be artistically successful. All these things are to do with the work’s character and how well it is achieved. But the work is art.

Unless the intention is to create art, then the activity is better understood as education, community development, political activism or social work – all of which may excellent and important, but they are not participatory art: they are social interventions that make use of art. The critical difference here is intention and that affects everything, including the changes that can happen and the ways in which they take place.

The last point I would draw your attention to in my definition is my use of the phrase ‘professional artists and non-professional artists’. I am making a claim here, which is simply that everyone involved in a participatory art project is acting as an artist when they take part. Of course the way they act and the resources they use will vary according to the extent of their education and experience, as well as their personality and social situation. All those things influence how well they act as an artist, but not the nature of the act itself. Someone who runs is a runner, whether they are fast and graceful, or slow and clumsy: it is the act of running that defines them in that moment. When a person takes part in a co-created art project, they are an artist, not a mere participant.

That is important in many ways, but above all because it means that participatory art is not about artists doing things with, for or even – at worst – to so-called ‘ordinary’ people. It is about a group of people creating art together or it is nothing that deserves its own definition.


How has it developed?

Antecedents of participatory art

Participatory art – in all its forms – can seem quite a new idea and certainly in some places, such as North Africa and Eastern Europe, it is a more recent development than it is, for example, in Britain or Australia.

But actually, in different forms and with other names, it has been around for a long time. In the middle of the last century, theatre for development was an important force in post-colonial countries such as the Philippines and while Brazilian innovators like Paulo Freire and Augusto Boal had a profound influence on work in Europe. And we could go further back than that. The idea of giving working people access to art was powerful in the cultural development of 19th century cities – and so was the self-organisation of working people to achieve that for themselves, from Mechanics’ Institutes in Welsh mining communities to the chitalishta (community cultural clubs) of pre-independence Bulgaria.

So let’s not imagine that these ideas are new and in need of special justification. And let’s not underestimate their emancipatory power or their influence on social life. Still, it’s true that participatory cultural action gained new energy and took innovative new forms during the cultural and social upheaval of the 1960s. In Europe, that was probably most important in the UK, where a combination of social, demographic and cultural factors led to the emergence of community art.

The first generation: community art

It was driven by young visual artists and theatre makers – other art forms became involved in participatory art somewhat later – many of them from a generation of working class people who got access to art schools and universities for the first time in the 1960s. Their different culture and life experience, combined with the radical politics of the time, led some of them to reject art world values they considered elitist and self-serving. Artists such as Murray Martin, Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen and Graham Denman, who left a London Polytechnic for Newcastle in 1968 where the founded Amber Collective, wanted to make working class culture a legitimate part of the art world.

In taking elite artistic ideas and practices to social housing estates those artists had to learn a great deal about community, politics, psychology, education, local government and much more. What was possible in the privileged space of an art school studio or theatre rehearsal room was utterly changed in an unheated community hall with people who had very different life experiences, skills, expectations and reasons for being there.

Those young community artists, naïve and idealistic as they often were, had to learn fast to survive in the new situations they had chosen to create. In that crucible, they developed many core ideas, workshop techniques, organisational methods and artistic forms that are still influential today. The legacy of that first generation of community artists in shaping the language of participatory art is enormous, though it has not always been recognised, even by those artists who have inherited and built on it.

Some, probably a minority, in that generation were also influenced by left wing and radical politics and much of the theatre and visual art work they made was polemical. They became directly involved in anti-racist and feminist campaigns, as well as supporting communities resisting the deindustrialisation of the 1970s and 1980s. But by the time Margaret Thatcher resigned in 1990, community art was in many ways a spent force in Britain. The left – with which many community artists had associated themselves – had lost the struggle that would determine the future direction of the UK. Many community artists left the field: some to pursue community action outside the arts, some for other jobs on which they could better support their young families and some to pursue more personal artistic interests.

The second generation: participatory art

Those who stayed in community arts at the end of the 1980s had to adapt to a new political, social and ideological world. Post-industrial Britain was left with deep scars in communities whose reason for existing – steelworks, coal mines, shipyards and docks – facing a future in which their skills were not wanted. The discourse of community arts shifted from radical politics to social healing and its name changed too. During the 1990s, the term community arts was gradually dropped by most people working in the field and replaced by the more neutral sounding ‘participatory arts’.

This change also reflected an internal struggle between those who prioritised social change and those who prioritised art. This distinction – which I have always believed to be false – was expressed in arguments about quality, and it continues today. A few days ago an artist told me that he disliked the term ‘community arts’ because for him it ‘has a history which often undervalues the quality of artistry and creative rigour involved’. I don’t accept that. Much of the work I have seen over the years – and especially in the past 19 months – has been artistically outstanding. And I have experienced a great deal of dull art in theatres, concert halls and galleries at the same time. Quality cannot be merely a matter of form.

Since the emergence of community art, the Arts Council had consistently used the quality argument to avoid giving funds or other support to the work. So, during the 1990s, the renamed participatory arts world turned increasingly to local government and public agencies for funding – especially the urban regeneration companies established to counter the effects of deindustrialisation. They spoke about how participating in the arts could contribute to urban renewal, to health care, to education and even to the reintegration of offenders into society.

In 1997 Britain elected the first Labour government for 18 years and the idea of social inclusion entered political discourse. There was also substantial new funding for the arts from the National Lottery established three years earlier. Research into the social impact of participation in the arts (including my own) was beginning to provide an evidence base for public investment in participatory art as a form of social policy. During the next 20 years, participatory art in Britain grew in that relatively fertile context of economic prosperity and remedial social policy. It began to receive new attention in countries like the Netherlands and Belgium. The art world itself – albeit with very different ideological preoccupations – became more interested in the opportunities it presented, on the one hand for increasing its legitimacy through outreach and education work, and on the other for new relations between artists and their audiences.

And then, in 2008, the neoliberal economic bubble collapsed like a badly-cooked soufflé. The impact of what has been called the Great Recession – signalling its similarity to the Great Depression of the 1930s – has been felt across the world and in few European countries more severely than Portugal. Its consequences are still far from clear, but they certainly include the political events of last year and the uncertainties we face today

The third generation: a restless art

Direct and indirect effects of the financial crisis are already evident in the small backwater of participatory art where I spend my time. Together, they seem to be shaping the emergence of a third generation of participatory art. The first and most obvious effect has been the slashing of public funding for the arts as part of wider so-called austerity measures, many of which have hit the poorest (who are the people most involved in participatory art) especially hard. That has been accompanied – in Britain at least – by a sharp decline in government interest in socially-oriented participatory arts programmes. This is not because policy-makers have singled them out or are even much aware of what has never been a large part of public policy. It is simply a side-effect of how the post-war welfare state is being redefined on a narrow model. The rights and wrongs of that are not at issue here but the effects, in terms of lower public funding for participatory art, are clear and likely to become more so in the years to come.

The effects of the Great Recession, and the globalising economic policies that many economists now see as having contributed to it, have also created a breakdown in trust between citizens and political leaders. This has produced large votes for new and sometimes radical political movements, such as Podemos, Syriza and Five Star. This loss of trust also played a role in the Arab Spring, the Euromaidan events in Ukraine and most recently in the Brexit referendum and the American Presidential election. Again, it is not my intention to comment on these historic upheavals, but simply to note that artists are also citizens and they are as likely to be affected by this changing consciousness as their neighbours.

This is most evident among artists working in participatory projects in Southern and Eastern Europe and in other Mediterranean countries. I have spoken to many of them in recent years and I’m struck by how their work is either directly critical of the state and public policy – in ways that echo the first generation of community artists – or, more often, simply ignores the state’s interests altogether. The loss or, in some countries, the total absence of public support for participatory arts is redefining the relationship of the work with state institutions and the longer term effects of that are unforeseeable.

In this ferment of change, another factor contributes to the emergence of what I see as the third generation of participatory art. The young artists investing their energies in the field belong to the post-Internet generation. Most of them grew up in a connected, globalising, diverse and unstable world. Their ideas, expectations and ways of working are not those of the previous generations. They do not recognise the art form silos of visual art, theatre and music that proved so limiting to the acceptance, if not the practice, of their predecessors. They are reinventing participatory art as I speak, in Portugal, in Spain, in Greece, in Serbia, in Ukraine, in Turkey, in Egypt, in Tunisia, in Brazil and in many other places.

And if I do not always feel I would do the same things, or even understand why they have made the decisions they have made, I am thrilled by the energy, the commitment, the new ideas and the courage I see. I am convinced that the work they are doing is often having profound effects on everyone involved – as the best community and participatory art always has – empowering people by developing skills, confidence, networks, imagination, creativity and solidarity. Finally, I am delighted by art they are making – by turns unexpected, fascinating, joyful, angry, beautiful and moving.


What hope could it offer?

To me, and I expect to all of us gathered for this conference today, this new generation of participatory arts activists is deeply encouraging. It does offer hope at a time when that is so badly needed, above all to those who are involved.

Among the many people I have spoken to in recent months, I remember a young man in prison in Leiria, still buzzing with the rap he had recited thirty minutes earlier for an audience of hundreds during an astonishing performance of Don Giovanni by professional and non-professional artists.

I remember a couple of middle-aged women who travelled 100 kilometres to have lunch with me in Sarajevo because they wanted me to know how important was the theatre project they had taken part in with their small, volunteer run mental health centre. For months, they along with other people from Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia had travelled to one another’s cities to create and perform theatre about mental illness in a spirit of reconciliation.

I remember the women who have taken to acting since retirement and lay in their nightclothes in bed on a street in Bristol to perform their stories of loneliness and old age for anyone who stopped.

These people – and millions of others who create participatory art work together – find hope in what they do and nurture hope in others. Collectively, they are part of a gradual transformation of our attitudes, our expectations and, yes, our society. If that sounds grandiose or unlikely, remember how previous movements of popular education changed society in the 19th century and the middle of the 20th century. Participatory art – which I think has never been as mature, as extensive or as energised – can be the equivalent in our time.

And let me say, in conclusion, that the hope it offers is not some shallow form of goodwill, some vague and hollow optimism. Twenty years ago, I published research that showed how much these experiences of participating in the arts could transform individual lives, and what I have seen since then has only deepened my confidence in the importance of participatory arts in human and social development. But the reason why I take hope from this work today is not that, or not only that. It is because at a time when Europe’s democratic values are being challenged, when the very concept of human rights is undermined, when tolerance of diversity is openly derided, the best participatory art work does more than stand for certain values. It enacts them.

You cannot do good participatory art without recognising others as equal to yourself. You cannot do it without tolerating, respecting and accepting other people’s differences – indeed, you cannot do it without being actively interested in others and wanting to hear and learn from them. You cannot do it without knowing that we are better together, when we trust and depend on one another, when we share our strengths and are open about our weaknesses. You cannot do it without accepting the possibility of failure. You cannot do it if you think failure is the end. You cannot do it without care, affection or empathy. You cannot do it without a vision of a better way of living and ideas of how to get there. You cannot do it with optimism, courage and laughter. You cannot do it without hope.

Participatory art is one of many ways to enact these beliefs and values, of course, and I don’t want to place too heavy a burden of expectation on a practice that, in the end, people rightly do for pleasure. But perhaps for that very reason, because it brings pleasure, satisfaction, delight and joy, participatory art has a special and valuable place in our life today and tomorrow. And that’s enough hope for me.


The legitimacy of non-participation

El colegio del cuerpo

‘The problem, of course, is when you choose not to participate, most people don’t see it as a noble protest. Most people don’t notice at all. The absence of your voice doesn’t take up as much space as its presence. And so we have to choose: to be distorted or to be overlooked.’

Nina Simon

These words are from a timely post by Nina Simon about whether, when and how to participate. Participation can be seen as a political act, especially when that participation is organised and promoted by government policy or state institutions. By taking part, we implicitly accept the legitimacy of an activity and by extension the social structures – such as a museum – within which it takes place.

When I first worked in eastern Europe, ten years after the end of communism, memories of the old system’s concept of participation were vivid. I met an orchestral musician in Albania who had had to ‘volunteer’ each summer for construction work on the railway. In western Europe, democracy was promoted as an alternative to, and a defence against such coercive societies, and it is important that voting is not compulsory in most democracies. Participation in democracy is a right – like freedom of speech – not a duty.

That is worth remembering, as engagement continues to be promoted by public cultural policy. There are valid objections to the idea that participation in the cultural ‘offer’ is in itself desirable. Despite the protestations, that offer is ideological. All culture embodies values – that is at the heart of its purpose. And citizens may wish to reject or contest those values. Non-attendance – which is so easily constructed as a lack of education, culture or resources – may be a choice. It may be the rejection of an  offer that is seen as irrelevant or even coercive. Non-attendance may be a political act, an expression of democracy.

Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that:

‘Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community [and] enjoy the arts’

Participation is a right – not a duty.

What next for ‘A Restless Art’?

More exploration than research

The research period for ‘A Restless Art’ is gradually drawing to an end. I have a couple of further conversations with projects scheduled this week.  On Friday, I’ll be speaking at a conference on ‘Art and Hope’, organised by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation bringing together many of the projects supported through their PARTIS programme. I will see people I’ve met in Portugal in recent months, and hear what’s happened in their work since then.


But in truth it would be false to suggest that this project has a ‘research’ phase followed by a period of analysis and writing up. It might describe what happens in some scientific or academic research, but A Restless Art is much less tidy. Thinking, meeting, reading, seeing, writing, checking and revising – it has been continuous overlapping cycle of exploration.

(Re)-Discovering the richness of participatory art

So it would be better to describe the past months as a period of discovery. I’ve met people working in participatory art in many different parts of Europe (and beyond) and listened to their stories. I’ve seen some brilliant work, some of it being done in difficult even dangerous situations. Most of it has been in performing art (unlike the early years of community art) and I wonder what that might mean for the future of participatory visual culture. Much of it is being done with little or no external funding, especially in Mediterranean countries and in Eastern Europe. Without the engagement of some visionary foundations, many of the artists I’ve met would be entirely self-reliant.

That is part of the story I am now beginning to write. The period of research went on longer than I expected, but only because there is so much exciting work happening today. Everyone I met pointed me towards another project. There was always something new to see, another context to try to understand. And despite feeling that I have far more material than I can possibly fit into a single book, I know that I’ve seen a tiny sample of what is happening. I remember the packed theatre in À Coruña for a conference on the performing arts and social inclusion in Spain. I spoke to people from six or seven projects among dozens. And the same is true of Greece, Ukraine, Germany, Egypt…

A book of questions

So the book might best be seen as recording some vital signs of what is happening in a huge, diverse and fast-changing scene. It will not just give a snapshot of that, however: it will try to put this current work into a wider context, including the development of participatory art over the past 50 years in Britain. More importantly, I hope, it will frame both past and current experience in a discussion of the theories and practice that have evolved over that time. I’m interested in questions such as:

  • Why do people link this work to change?
  • How does change happen and what kind of work facilitates it?
  • What ethical responsibilities and dilemmas are involved?
  • How can we differentiate good work?
  • What are the standards by which we should judge it as art?

The questions – like the work – seem to go on and on and I’m thinking now about what is really essential, and what can wait for another day. Because I’m sure there will be another day. The publication of this book will be just one more step in a journey that has only become more fascinating as each new generation picks up the idea community arts and refashions it to meet their interests and the conditions of their time.


To end on a practical note, I’ll be meeting the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation later this week to talk about the timetable for the publication of the book. I don’t want to rush it, partly because it has to be checked with the people whose work is mentioned, as well as with independent readers who can give impartial feedback. It will also take time to prepare the Portuguese text: the book will be published in both languages. And I know from experience that design, proofreading  and printing always takes longer than I anticipate. Still, my aim is to see the book available in the autumn.

In the meantime, updates on the project will continue to be posted here – and please, if you have any comments, do share them on the blog. This is a participatory art.

Community arts and power

One way of understanding community art – using that term very loosely – is through its relationship with power. Any form of artistic work that, in one way or another, hopes to bring about change cannot avoid responding to existing structures of power and the institutions that organise them socially. Government and policy; state agencies; public cultural institutions; funding bodies; education and social services departments; the criminal justice system – there is a very long list of societal institutions with which artists working for change at community level engage.

That engagement takes an equally wide range of forms. It may involve applying for funds to finance the work they want to do. It may involve gaining access to a cultural powerhouse such as a gallery or theatre. It may involve negotiating with schools, prisons or hospitals to find common ground on which a project might happen. Compromise is inevitable and an artist’s best safeguard in these relationships is to be clear about what they are – and what they are not, prepared to accept.

Li diuen mar (Anna Fabrega) 54
Li diuen mar , Teatre Tarantana (©Anna Fàbrega)

What kind of relationship is possible – and what kind is wanted – varies according to the artists involved and the socio-political context in which they are working. In Alexandria (Egypt) one organisation I met has had to create space between powerful and opposed ideologies. Getting to the point where the police who once shut them down is asking to exhibit work on their premises is remarkable – and full of new risks and tensions. The ‘urban art actions’ of the Contemporary Art Center in Skopje (Macedonia) is often in direct confrontation with political projects. The installation last year of three shark fins in the Vardar river – where the city authorities have been expensively re-fronting the city as Hellenistic pastiche – was typical of the fine line they have been treading. It may be only the numbers of people who see and enjoy their short-lived projects that has protected their space of operation to date.

Elsewhere, in less obviously tense situations, the principle obstacle faced by artists may be indifference. That is most obvious in a refusal to provide funding – easily justified in countries facing public spending cuts, though few state cultural institutions have closed. But it may also be more subtly, even unconsciously, expressed, for instance in not replying to calls and emails, not attending events, not reviewing shows and a hundred other signs that signal your work is taken to be of no value. I’ve met many groups, such as Urban Dig in Athens (Greece) or Pele in Porto (Portugal), who do good work in uncertainty and with minimal resources. Even when doors do open, they can close just as inexplicably. Winning Spain’s National Theatre Award in 2014 has not made Grupo Chèvere, from Santiago de Compostela, more financially secure in their home town.

Geese Theatre (UK)

Where negotiations are possible, the imbalance of power – say between a prison governor and an independent theatre company – demands great diplomatic skill. Geese Theatre, from Birmingham (UK), have been creating life-changing experiences within the criminal justice system for many years, carefully walking the boundary between individual and institutional interests. It can be very difficult, if you work with power, not to accept some of its thinking, even unconsciously. How can an artist work creatively in schools except by thinking about learning outputs if the whole system is geared towards such ideas? Since the 1990s, the British participatory arts sector has found receptive partners in health, education, social care and other public services. It has consequently grown in scale and reach, often doing valuable work with people in great need. It has also influenced the culture of some of those services. But it could also be argued that it has lost much of its independence and capacity for creative action. In parts, it may have become an underfunded and insecure form of ancillary service.

There is no easy or simple answer to these dilemmas. Every artist, every group, must make their own choices, in the very real context of having to pay the bills and put food on the table. Virtue signalling may make us feel better about difficult choices, but only at the cost of self-deception. Still, as I reflect on the work I’ve seen and been involved in over many years I find myself appreciating the indifference of the powerful (including those in the art world) more than I once did. There are so many reasons to want their attention but with it comes – always – more or less subtle constraints on what you can do. The freest and most creative artistic work, it seems to me, is often happening in the gaps and on the margins, in the places and among the people who are least regarded. That is not an answer, and still less a goal: but it may still turn out to be a good place to be in difficult times.

Below: a 2 minute video that gives a flavour of Urban Dig’s work in Athens, now with English text