Learning some humility

Notes and Interview transcripts - 1
Interview transcripts and notes for ‘A Restless Art’

When I began this project, I thought it would take two years. It’s going to take at least three – and that’s just for this part. Actually, I think I’ll be working on it until I stop working at all, and then it’ll just be for others to carry on. Understanding that has been hard; coming to terms with it harder still. If it’s worth explaining why, it’s not because my struggles are specially interesting, but because of what I’ve learned about participatory art and the human dimension of writing.. I’d imagined distilling the experience of decades into a short, pithy guide to the ideas and practice of community art for the next generation. How foolish, naïve and vain that now seems.

The most important discovery is how little I really know, and how shaky is even that. Ideas I’d developed 20 or 30 years ago were tested by the radically different situations, experience and thinking of young activists in participatory art – tested and found wanting. There is far more work happening than I knew and it is more varied, complex and ambitious too. It responds to a world that is changing fast and that I, shaped by another one, often understand less well than younger people. So far from being able to draw on past knowledge, I’ve had to sit down, shut up and listen, trying to understand not only what people are doing but what it means in and why it comes from their unique context.

My thinking wasn’t useless, but it had become stiff with habit. Being asked for your opinion in conferences, training events and print can lead you to believe that your opinions must be good. You start talking more than listening, but you don’t learn much that way. No wonder I sometimes found my own ideas boring. The best part of these years – apart from meeting so many genuinely inspiring people doing participatory art in different parts of Europe – has been testing, stretching and pushing my own ideas into new, tougher, better shape. It’s not that I now think they’re right but that they are much more rigorous and coherent than they were. That makes them more useful to others, whether or not they agree with them, because they have a clarity you can engage with.

In April, I abandoned everything I’d written so far because I realised that it focused on what I already knew, when I needed to respond, through that knowledge, to what I was discovering. The decision was also personal, because the mistake had come from writing on the threshold of my sixties and the new fears that has brought.  One of the traps I fell into was the need to get everything ‘right’ – and the worst reason for that was to avoid or pre-empt possible criticism. But of course, it’s not possible to write a perfect book, one that everyone will like, and least of all in a contested field like participatory art. It’s only possible to write a book that you like, if only because its limitations are a truthful reflection of your tested experience. Twenty years ago, I was less haunted by perfection because there’d be other bites at the cherry. Today, I’ve had to learn that perfection is no more attainable because this might be my last book.

So the book has slowly, very slowly, changed from the self-satisfied thing it once was. It is an account of participatory art’s theories, history and practice, but neither a complete nor a correct one. The voice has become simpler and more direct: I say what I think, but without believing it to be the only good place to stand in this contested territory. There’s less history because, though we all need to know our roots – especially when some people say we don’t have any – nothing is duller than our parents’ old battles. And the book will have many omissions. It’s already 10,000 words longer than I intended and I have 20-25,000 still to write. I keep throwing stuff overboard as I paddle slowly towards the shore – a section on ‘community’ is teetering on the rail as I write, and yet how important is that? I feel especially bad for the projects I can’t include, but at least there’s this blog for some of that material.

There is a way to go, but the book will be ready in the first half of next year. In the meantime I sincerely thank all those I’ve involved for their generosity and patience, especially the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, and everyone who’s read this far. I hope you’ll like the book when it’s done. Now, stop blogging and get back to writing…

Books about community art - 1
Some books about community art, and pictures by John Fox and Benozzo Gozzoli


  1. Reblogged this on deadgoodguides blog and commented:
    As one of your oldest followers/ readers of this blog, I love this bold and courageous admission of why you had to throw away 2 years work. Few of us could admit our thinking had become ‘stiff with habit’, that we were talking more than listening, and therefore finding our own ideas boring. Hats off to you for testing, stretching and pushing your own ideas into a new and better shape.

    ‘May the road rise to meet you, may the wind be always at your back’. Here’s wishing you a good journey.


  2. I was speaking to a participatory artist the other day about how you’d said that graffiti art isn’t ‘participatory’ but a community art. She disagreed. I’m beginning to understand more about participatory art but still not quite there yet. Keep going!!


    1. Hmm… she might have been right. The distinction probably works in my understanding (and definitions) of participatory and community art, but other people use the terms differently. The important thing, I believe, is to keep asking ourselves questions about what we’re doing and why. The terms can help us do that, if we remember that we don’t all use them in the same way.


  3. My daughter Alice has just started doing Environmental art and Sculpture at Glasgow school of art. Her first lecture was about the plinth. It made me think about the traditions we work within and the impact they have on us. The fantastic pointlessness and point of talking about plinths isn’t really the issue it’s more that when you set out to understand something it’s important to know where it comes from. I have followed and loved your talks and writings for years and I’m really excited about buying your new book, sitting down and reading it and getting angry and also nodding my head and reading bits out to people. The point I suppose is thank god you are still there writing thinking and trying to work things out – at the very very least your work is helpful and challenging to people trying to work out how to do better work – and of course worrying about plinths.


    1. University / art college should be about stretching our minds in just that kind of way. I hope Alice has a brilliant time in Glasgow, working out what to do (or not do) with plinths and all the other stuff… very exciting. Thanks for your generosity; hearing that someone values your work is brilliant. I’m sure there’ll be plenty in the book people will disagree with but I never intend to make anyone angry!


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