Watch your language

‘The critique of language cannot evade the fact that our words commit us and that we must be true to them. Wrongly naming a thing is to add to the misery of this world.’

Albert Camus[1]

Language is fundamental to what human beings are and do. With it we construct, share and contest different versions of reality. It is a key to holding and transferring knowledge, as I’m doing here. There are other way of doing that, of course: knowledge can be experiential, and there are languages without words, like music. Art is fundamental to human beings because it is a language system open to all our senses and therefore all available ways of making and communicating meaning.

Art has its own language, or rather languages. Visual artists share much professional and technical language, but some terms and concepts are meaningful only to sculptors, engravers or graphic designers. Participatory art also has a language that reflects its practice and preoccupations, and which is therefore constantly evolving alongside the things that it describes. It influences and is influenced by other languages it has contact with and words are carried from one sphere to another, changing their sense in new contexts. Where I began my life in community arts, people generally understood a ‘workshop’ as a building with tools where cars were repaired. Since then, the word has become familiar in other uses and most of us now interpret the word according to context. ‘Come to the workshop’ can mean several things.

Participatory artists need their own professional language (others might call it discourse or jargon) to talk about their work. It enables them to understand, interpret and share their experience in the context of the ideas that motivate them. This website is an example of that language in everyday use. It’s written principally for people who already have some familiarity with the practice, concepts and therefore language of participatory art. People involved in the same professional work need a language in which to debate ideas and experiences, so they use terms that are unfamiliar or confusing to outsiders. They make assumptions and use short cuts that can sound like code. To anyone who has to applying for funding from Arts Council England, the phrase ‘the NPO Portal opens tomorrow’ is essential, but to everyone else it sounds like science fiction. Still, every professional language has its limits. However carefully I try to write in an open, accessible way, this text will be understood differently by every reader, according to their own experience and their familiarity with the discourse of participatory art.

It becomes more difficult when people try to speak about their practice to people who may know little or nothing about it. Then the professional language that facilitates an internal discourse can become misleading or alienating. It can prevent rather than enable communication. I’m sure the problem arises in other professions, but it is especially tricky for participatory artists because they are often having simultaneous conversations with completely different groups. On the one hand, they talk with donors and policymakers about the value of their work in relation to various socio-cultural objectives. On the other, they talk to people who – almost by definition – are not familiar with the language of art and who might also be vulnerable or otherwise disempowered.

Participatory artists frequently stand between the powerful and the powerless and face both ways. It is an ambiguous, delicate position dangerously open to hypocrisy. It also confers a good deal of power because only those in the middle see the whole. The language they use to describe it is very important. It was this power, facilitated by a slippery use of language, that I had in mind when I wrote 20 years ago, about the need for clear ethical principles.

Unclear, unexpressed objectives allow a projec­t’s sponsors and managers, consciously or not, to speak of different values to different constituencies and work to unstated agendas, with the ef­fect of disempowering participants.[2]

Whose language is being used, when, where and why, are therefore fundamental issues in participatory art. I’ve discussed before how problematic the terms ‘impact’ and ‘delivery’ can be, but knowing that is not enough. As the philosopher, Albert Camus, wrote, our words commit us. Artists working with people, more than most, need to be aware of their commitments.



[1]      ‘La critique du langage ne peut éluder ce fait que nos paroles nous engagent et que nous devons leur être fidèles. Mal nommer un objet, c’est ajouter au malheur de ce monde.’ Albert Camus, ‘Sur une philosophie de l’expression’ Œuvres complètes, Volume 1, page 908, Paris 2006

[2]      Matarasso, F., 1997, Use or Ornament? The Social Impact of Participation in the Arts, Stroud, p.88