‘Fragmentos’, Grupo RefugioActo (photo François Matarasso)

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

‘Sea of Hull’, Spencer Tunick (Photo Press Association)

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 (Benedict Johnson) 3
‘Men & Girls Dance’ – Fevered Sleep (Photo Benedict Johnson)

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.

Bed, Entelechy Arts, (Photo Roswitha Chesher)

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.

‘Anniversary’, Performance Ensemble (Photo Anthony Robling)


  1. Not only do we lack clear definitions of ‘co-creation’, we also have the term ‘co-production’ which is more used in area of public services (social services in particular), but interestingly the question of who has power and how is it shared remains central.
    The examples used are effective in offering three positions of authorship from the single to the multiple, all of which are interesting and all of which are valid. Is Spencer Tunick’s work bad? No – is it bad that he retains authorship and a large number of people volunteer to take their clothes off for him? No. Is it a public art spectacle that’s getting a bit repetitive? Yes.
    Where I question the argument is when you suggest that artists retaining a degree of authorship are like parents improving a child’s artwork. That’s patronising to both. Society values and needs to value expertise. Every society since time immemorial has told stories and every society has also had storytellers – people who were particularly good at the art of storytelling (just as societies have had people good at the art of war and the art of cooking and the art of making fences, gates and stiles.
    The current paradigm shift towards co-creation/co-production (evidenced in things like wikipedia – which still has people with editorial control telling users how to improve their entries, and still has experts contributing entries on specialist subjects) has significant challenges for our understanding of knowledge, skill and expertise. We need to be willing to accept that in breaking up existing hierarchical power relations (artist to audience, editor to contributor, etc) that we allow conflict to be more present, and we have to have very good ways of coping – things like the Liz Lerman Technique of Critical Feedback (which Roanne Dods RIP introduced me to). We need to learn how to co-create and co-produce without assuming that it’ll be lovely and we’ll all agree.


    1. Thanks for these reflections, Chris. I don’t mean at all to question the important reality of expertise. I’ve always argued that some opinions are worth less than others: an engineer’s assessment of a bridge is worth a lot, mine would be worth nothing, So I hope that this piece doesn’t suggest that artistic expertise is not important. But in the context of something that seeks some kind of co-creation it cannot be imposed – and that is the word I use when I made the parallel with parents and children. Imposition of authority is acceptable where children are concerned – indeed it’s sometime essential. I just don’t see it being appropriate in a context of co-creation, where negotiation and agreement produce what are for me the richer outcomes of ‘Men & Girls Dance’ and ‘Bed’. ‘Sea of Hull’ seems to me to offer a kind of parental participation, and that’s a choice that people can make: I just question whether it’s meaningful to call the result co-creation.

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  2. The “co” is the “creation”

    With not for
    “Our work is developed with and not for others”.
    This is Entelechy’s elegant first guiding principle.
    This suggests to me some sense of “singing from the same song sheet”.

    Joint attention
    I think this requires two things.
    Discovering what it is we are both paying attention to.
    Finding what we are doing in this

    To work with you, I need to discover what is significant to you. What is worthy of your attention?
    Some participants in Ambient Jam, I guess, see the world in somewhat different ways to me.
    This difference has two aspects.
    What we readily see as significant
    How we pattern or organise these significances

    Frequently, it appears that what would immediately seem of significance to me or a fellow facilitator as is of no apparent consequence to the participant.
    This could be a gesture, a shout, an object. These may all draw the attention of facilitators, yet appear to be utterly ignored by a participant. The opposite is also true.

    What do you see here?

    Does everyone see what you see?

    On a larger scale how I see the significance of how things are arranged can be very different from that of a participant. The patterning of objects, sounds into rhythms and scales, the sequencing of movements in interactions. There are ways of patterning that are immediately, obviously and automatically significant to me and fellow facilitators. To some participants these are entirely inconsequential. And again, the opposite is also true.

    I love the challenge in discovering what that “song sheet” is and how are we going to sing it. This thrill’s me.
    When we don’t have language to find out, that thrill is intensified.

    What is it that is of importance to you right now? And if we find that, what is important to do about it?
    Finding that “co” is the “creation”.


    1. Thanks for these fascinating reflections. I agree with you that the challenge in co-creation (as in life) is accepting that there is no intrinsic reason to place greater value on what I see as significant than on what you do. (That doesn’t mean that everything is of equal value, just that working out what the value of things is requires dialogue, argument, evidence etc.) It might be even harder for artists, who invest so much in what they see as significant. I prefer to think about making rather than seeing significance because significance exists in the viewer (the maker) not the observed. A mountain is significant to humans, but probably not to most other creatures who see the world at a different scale and therefore interpret it differently.

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    1. Thanks Bhav – it’s good to know about that. Sherry Armstein’s ‘ladder of participation’ is one of those powerful ideas that you never forget once you’ve seen it because it captures a fundamental truth. It’s almost 50 years old now but just as relevant.


  3. Re-reading your article the early line “Participatory art is the practice of involving others in an artist’s creative process” jumped out!

    It seems to me that a rather major purpose of participative art is to address a power imbalance.

    Rather than the participant being co-opted into the artists creative process, the artist immerses themselves in the participants vision, and lends it their support.

    The artist is then truly transported out of their own familiar creative process, and the participant truly tastes the power of authorship. Co-creation.


    1. As it happens, I’ve been trying (and failing) to write about this all day. I would term what you are describing ‘community art’ which precisely has that intention of recognising and overcoming inequalities of power. Participatory art is a much looser term which includes lots of practice with (to me) questionable power relations.

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