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.