Reading yet another account of a community outreach project undertaken by an arts organisation, I could feel my heart sinking before I’d reached the end of the first paragraph. It was a good idea, and it seemed to have been well-executed by gifted people. In that respect, it was much like a lot of projects now being made. This is the normalisation of participatory art that I described in the first chapter of A Restless Art. My concern wasn’t with the project, but with how it was being described, and what that implied.
The text was from a website, so it was a public statement about the work, accessible to anyone, including the people who took part. But it read like an arts report, constructed of language and concepts that do not speak to most of the people I have worked with. Its tone of self-satisfaction spoke eloquently about who the writer was actually addressing: their peers, whose approval was being invited in these words – ‘Celebrate with us our excellent, kind-spirited work’.
But the critical problem, at least for me, was the difference between ‘us’ (the professional artists) and ‘them’ (the people we’re doing it for). My definition of community art includes the condition that professional and non-professional artists are ‘co-operating as equals’. There was no hint that such an idea was possible here. On the contrary – and although the writer would, I’m sure, be shocked and upset to hear it – the text was imbued with the condescension that is the occupational hazard of all professionals.
My intention is not to single out anyone for criticism, which is why my description of what I read is so generic. It is to highlight some of the ambiguities and questions that arise from the growing public discourse about participatory art. That is understandable, given the radical innovation and restlessness of this art form. The traps are not confined to the doing: they catch us when we talk and write about it afterwards. I’ve fallen into my share of them over the years, and it’s often in the writing that we’re off guard. The difficult work has been done and now, happy with our success, we relax and say what we really feel. Instead, we need to keep thinking, keep testing our assumptions and keep trying to close the gap between our values, actions and words.
I began to be concerned about the gap between subject and language in my work about 10 years ago. My response was a project called ‘Regular Marvels’, which explored ways of using writing as art, combining (to be a presumptuous) literature and sociology. Between 2012 and 2015, I wrote five books that grappled with that idea, none wholly successful, but each with different strengths and weaknesses. Mainly, I tried to write books that the people I was writing about might read and value, with some success, I think. As the work develops with the understanding of those who do it, I hope the gap will close. For now, I’d simply suggest writing about projects in ways that the people involved might read and enjoy. Or, better still, make the writing part of the creative process and do it together.