What is participatory art and where is it going?

Whether you call it community art, participatory art or something else entirely, art work with people seems to be thriving. I’ve worked in the field for many years and I don’t remember a time when so much was happening, despite the public spending cuts. More importantly, perhaps, I see artists working in a huge range of ways and with an equally diverse range of ideas and motives. And some of the most interesting, exciting work is happening in unexpected places – Southern Europe, Brazil, Zimbabwe.

PARTIS Programme (Portugal)
PARTIS Programme (Portugal)

A new generation of practice seems to be emerging, partly in reaction to the fallout of the 2008 financial crisis and partly just because time passes. It follows two earlier phases of participatory art work. The first, from the late 1960s to the late 1980s, pioneered community arts as a radical, innovative and aesthetically adventurous practice. The second, more pragmatic, adapted those ideas and methods to form new partnerships with public bodies.

The third – well, that’s what’s so interesting. How are young artists working now? Which parts of their artistic heritage do they draw on and which do they reject? How do they see community, the state, the person? What is art for them? How do their Millennial experiences and values transform a practice for the 2020s?

Thinking about practice

Welfare State International (UK) The Final Performance
Welfare State International (UK) The Final Performance

There is also more written about community/participatory art than there ever. Most of what’s published is about outcomes (my 1997 study of the social impact of participation in the arts. Use or Ornament?, was an early instance). The logic of that second phase imposed a need to demonstrate value to funders. At the other end of the spectrum, the contemporary art world has produced theoretical accounts of its own adventures in participation, some more accessible than others. But between theory and impact is practice – what actually happens when artists work with people.

This project will explore that gap. Its name, A Restless Art, is intended to affirm that there is no ‘correct’ way of doing participatory art. There are many, perhaps even as many as there are artists dedicated to the practice. They have different motivations and ways of working. Each has its distinctive strengths and weaknesses. And it is that restlessness, troublesome as it has sometimes seemed, that gives participatory art its energy.

But it is important – whether you are involved as an artist, a manager, a funder or even a participant – to know where your work stands in relation to the rest, and why. Socrates is famous for saying that an unexamined life is not worth living. A Restless Art sets out to provide resources with which people engaged in participatory art can examine their own thinking and practice. It will do that first through this website and eventually in a book that I hope, with the authors of Engineers of the Imagination, will ‘spend at least as much time in kitchens and workshops as in studies and libraries’.