Co-creation and collective action, then and now

‘Launch’ a film by Amber Collective (1974)

It is a curious thing that the first official account of community arts in Britain should have been overseen by a classicist. Professor Harold Baldry (1907-91) had been Professor of Classics at Southampton University and Chairman of Southern Arts Association before becoming a member of the Arts Council of Great Britain in 1973. The year he joined, the Council

‘decided to set up a small working party whose task was essentially to examine the nature of community arts activities in this country and to advise the Council on what should be the extent of its own role and involvement in this development.’

Between January and June 1974, the Working Party met several times, read a variety of documents it was sent and visited community arts projects in London, Leeds, Bradford and Bracknell. It met representatives of arts associations, UNESCO, the French Embassy, the Home Office and Telford New Town Project, among others. And it produced a short, elegant report that argued for a new Community Arts Committee be established to fund the work, based on a loose definition of what community arts actually was. Continue reading “Co-creation and collective action, then and now”


‘Fragmentos’, Grupo RefugioActo (photo François Matarasso)

Changing relationships in the networked age

What is co-creation? The term has come into participatory art discourse recently, but I’ve not been able to find a clear explanation of what it describes. At face value, it seems to make sense. Participatory art is the practice of involving others in an artist’s creative process. According to Wikipedia, this allows them ‘to become co-authors, editors, and observers of the work’. Fair enough: that sounds like something you might call co-creation. But what is the nature and degree of creative input people are actually being invited to contribute?

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‘Sometimes you’ve got to take risks for the unknown’


‘Sometimes you’ve got to take risks for the unknown. You don’t know what you are going into but you’ve got to take that risk.’

Gwen Sewell, Entelechy Elders Company

On a Bristol shopping street stands an outsize metal bed. On it lies an elderly woman in night clothes, propped against her pillows.

People walk by, hurrying, careless or sensing something weird: they don’t want to know. Others stop, concerned. Are you alright? Is someone looking after you? What are you doing here? The old woman responds by talking about her life. Her children who live far away in Leeds. The baby taken from her because she was unmarried. Her sorrows, her world. Memories. She asks for something tucked in the bedclothes; she talks about a photograph.

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Cultural Collaboration and Civil Society


Last year I spent some time looking at the work of Tandem, a partnership between the European Cultural Foundation and MitOst that connects cultural actors within and close to the European space. Tandem marked its fifth anniversary last autumn, and they asked me to reflect on what they’d done and what might change. The essay below is the result of that review, and it looks at how, practically and theoretically, participatory cultural action can contribute to civil society. Continue reading “Cultural Collaboration and Civil Society”

Community art festivals in Rotterdam and Porto


There are two important community arts festivals on the horizon, in Rotterdam and Porto. I’ve mentioned them before but it’s worth doing it again because there’s news of both:

  • ICAF in Rotterdam (29 March- 2 April 2017) has now published its programme and is open for registrations: follow this link to the download the programme book and timetable..
  • The deadline for submissions to EIRPAC, an academic conference linked with MEXE IV in Porto (Sept 2017) has just been extended to 10 March: click on this link for more information.

Opportunities like this are valuable for anyone working in the field. By its nature, participatory arts work tends to be local and timely, which makes seeing other people’s work difficult. Meeting peers working in other places and situations is invaluable. The programme for ICAF is very rich and includes work from Australia, Lithuania, Ireland, China, the USA, Russia, Peru, Pakistan, Suriname, Kenya, Britain and many other countries. Even if you can’t be there, the ICAF programme book makes fascinating reading.


‘It became necessary to learn because we made it so’

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy first contact with community arts, in 1981, was as a member of the public. With the fearlessness of youth, I’d produced a piece of theatre about human rights to raise funds for Amnesty International. When social media was still a matter for science fiction, we needed posters to advertise the show. Somebody told me about a community printshop near me in South London and I turned up one morning to ask if they could print my poster. That was the first time I heard the line that would define for years my idea of community arts:

No, we can’t print it for you, but we can help you do it for yourself.’

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True to the art – Cardboard Citizens


Cardboard Citizens

‘We simply want to say we’re all human beings, and we really mean it, when we think: This could be me. This isn’t somebody different from me. This could be me.’

Adrian Jackson

Cardboard Citizens is an outstanding theatre company, producing and touring new plays about homelessness.

Cardboard Citizens is an outstanding social service helping hundreds of homeless people rebuild their lives.

If these statements seem contradictory, it is only because rigid thinking divides artistic and social work into opposing categories of action. Art and social policy are abstract concepts. Homelessness is very concrete. It is also very complex, in both its causes and its effects. It is untidy and doesn’t respond well to tidy thinking. Cardboard Citizens has developed an approach to homelessness that is creative, robust and light-footed. It adapts equally to constant change in policy and services and to ups and downs in vulnerable people’s lives. It crosses conventional boundaries between art and social intervention because it must: the success of this work depends on elements of both.

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‘We’re trying to change the nature of art’

Lenthall Road Printshop (From ‘Somewhere in Hackney’ 1980)

Writing about community arts

The first phase of community arts in Britain (roughly 1965-1990) has not had much attention from historians, art critics or other academics. In the one really substantial book on the subject, Kate Crehan suggests that may be because the art world refused to give attention to a practice that challenged its authority. As she writes: ‘If an artist wants to be accepted as a bona fide, serious artist, it is dangerous to stray too far from the dominant institutions of the art world.’

Insofar as the art world has looked at community art, it reads the story from an art historical perspective in which theoretical texts (like Owen Kelly’s 1984 book, Art, Community and the State) have an importance they may not have had at the time. Certainly  it didn’t feel like that to me when I encountered community arts in 1981, through one of the pioneering visual art collectives. It was  exciting, challenging, silly, unknown, committed, complex, practical, pious, moving, rigid, fascinating, naïve, technical, impossible – often at the same time. It’s hard to write about because I can’t be very objective about those early experiences, but it’s important too, because I was there.

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Sharing the stage


For the past three years, I’ve been visiting participatory art projects in Spain, Portugal and other parts of Europe to learn about what is now happening there. I’m wary of simple explanations, especially in contexts I don’t know well, but it is hard not to link this new energy with the pressures European societies have faced since the financial crash of 2008. Whatever the truth of that, ideas from participatory art, activism and community development are nourishing a lot of important work.

It’s never easy to understand such activity from the outside. As well as the time and cost involved, there are differences of language, culture and policy. Things can be less similar than they appear.  And yet, since I began to see community art outside the UK in the 1990s, I’ve been struck by how much common ground there is in the practice, the human relations and the art itself. The essential keys to successful participatory art work seem to be surprisingly consistent.

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