Changing relationships in the networked age
What is co-creation? The term has come into participatory art discourse recently, but I’ve not been able to find a clear explanation of what it describes. At face value, it seems to make sense. Participatory art is the practice of involving others in an artist’s creative process. According to Wikipedia, this allows them ‘to become co-authors, editors, and observers of the work’. Fair enough: that sounds like something you might call co-creation. But what is the nature and degree of creative input people are actually being invited to contribute?
One clue is that the term seems to have originated in industry rather than the arts. Since the 1990s, businesses have become interested in engaging customers directly in the creation of products and services. ‘Harnessing customer competence’ as it has been described, is possible because of the disruptive opportunities arising from new information and communication technology, including the Internet. Some theorists suggest that such open engagement between producer and consumer – difficult though it may be for large, conventionally structured businesses – will be critical to future competitive success.
Cultural institutions face complex change too and they are also rethinking their relationships with their audiences. Nina Simon is an American museum director who has written about these issues in The Participatory Museum. In a chapter on ‘Co-creating with visitors’, she suggests that ‘Co-creative projects originate in partnership with participants rather than based solely on institutional goals’. The idea of shared decision-making would have been unthinkable to previous generations of curators (and to some today) but it is becoming accepted, at least on the margins of curatorial work. Nina Simon suggests three reasons for taking this approach:
- To give voice and be responsive to the needs and interests of local community members
- To provide a place for community engagement and dialogue
- To help participants develop skills that will support their own individual and community goals
A similar rationale guides the outreach programmes of many British cultural institutions. It could also describe the reasoning behind Arts Council England’s Creative People and Places programme. Although it is presented in social and cultural terms, this thinking is not without self-interest. Like industry, the public cultural sector is beginning to see that its future depends on developing a less hierarchical relationship with their customers. This is part of a historic realignment of culture power that has been gathering pace for decades, but it is not the issue today. What is important, in the context of co-creation, is how and how much power is ceded.
One reason for making a distinction between participatory and community art is that they have different concepts of power-sharing. That is partly a matter of degree. Participatory art usually offers people the opportunity to become involved in something that already exists, at least in the planning of the artist and/or the cultural institution. The starting point is an idea on whose value they are agreed. Only then are people invited to take part.
Three degrees of relationship
When the Ferens Art Gallery commissions Spencer Tunick to create Sea of Hull, the extent of people’s participation is to turn up, get undressed and be photographed as and where they are directed. Whether or not this results in ‘good’ art or an enriching experience for participants is not the issue here. It is simply that this model reflects the producer-consumer relationships of the industrial age. In offering customers his first cheap car, Henry Ford famously said that: ‘any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black’. Or blue, in the case of Sea of Hull. The rules are set by the artist (producer). Taking part (consuming) means conforming to them. That is not in itself an unfair choice to offer people and thousands of people accepted it. But in what sense can it be described as co-creation?
Fevered Sleep also make a precise offer to participants in their piece Men & Girls Dance. It is a selective process and requires the chosen girls to commit to a demanding rehearsal schedule over two weeks or more, as well as a public performance. But those are practical, not artistic demands, and the young dancers who take part do have a real influence on the choreography of the performance. There is a structure, and some parts of the work do not change. But the company recognises that each girl who participates brings her own physical presence and personality to the piece. More than that, the professional artists welcome the children’s contribution and the rehearsal period is used to explore how the new participants’ individuality will be incorporated into the piece. As a result, audiences who see Men & Girls Dance in different places see different works of art, not just different performances. That is co-creation within some clear boundaries.
Even further towards the community art end of the spectrum is Entelechy Arts’ Bed, a piece that has evolved slowly out of conversations, drama workshop activity, sharing of memories, testing with audiences, and further development. The people involved have included professional artists, non-professional artists and others who come to Meet Me at the Albany. There is no single author. Bed is a genuinely collective piece shaped through the interaction of many people, none of whom knew what it was going to be before it existed. This certainly is co-creation, if the term is more than a fashionable label.
From hierarchy to network
What strikes me, in reflecting on these three examples, is how the complexity of the relationships changes. In Sea of Hull they are binary and unidirectional. The artist invites: the participants respond. The concept would have been understandable at the height of Romanticism even if the resulting artwork was not. The producer-consumer relationship belongs to the industrial age, not today’s networked world.
In Men & Girls Dance, the relationships are more complicated and flow in both directions. There is a choreographer but each performer – professional and non-professional – puts their imprint on the choreographer’s idea. How they move, the ideas they express physically or verbally can have a profound effect on the final work. Except that there isn’t a final work in the Romantic sense. There is no definitive, authoritative text. Each version is different, and each is valid in itself, which is not to say they are equally successful for everyone.
In Bed the producer-consumer distinction is erased. Everyone involved is both. There is no meaningful sense in which these relationships are hierarchical but like a network in which each node is directly connected to all the others. Some are more central or more powerful than others. But at various times and for different reasons, any person in the group may have authority and a decisive influence over the creative process. Everyone can be a teacher and a learner, according to what is needed.
One reason for describing this kind of work as community art is because it creates community as it progresses. That community should not be idealised: it might be temporary, fractious and contested, but it is jointly owned by its members. In such a group, the artist has a specialist role, but not a dominant one. Agreements stand when most people are convinced, not because the artist instructs.
An artist intending to co-create in this way has to find ways to disperse the power associated with their skill, knowledge, experience and position. There are various ways of doing that but they only work if the artist is genuinely committed to empowering others. One test of whether that is happening – and whether the work is really a co-creation – is whether the art takes directions that the artist doesn’t like. Are they then willing to cede power, even if the art that results is less good in their view that it might have been? Only then can the process really be empowering. It may be less successful in some ways than if the artist imposed their cultural authority but only in the same way that a parent can ‘improve’ a child’s picture. A superficial success masks a more important denial of another person’s autonomy and their right to follow their vision discover its qualities and limits, and build on its failures and successes. Co-creation – real co-creation – attempts to make that process possible.