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…