In unstable times, we need a restless art.


Why describe participation as a ‘restless’ art? My original reason was simply that the practice of professional artists involving others in their work has meant such different things over the years. It has grown exponentially since the emergence of community art in the 1960s and been interpreted differently in changing times, conditions, theories and cultures. A whole world separates a contemporary artist using participation in a gallery setting and a theatre of the oppressed workshop in a prison. Yet both are also connected by their use of participation, the relationship linking a professional and a non-professional in a creative act. It is not a problem if those involved don’t agree on what they are doing or why is. On the contrary, that disagreement is the creative tension that has made participatory art arguably the most vital expression of art practice today.


As I’ve worked on the project, meeting and listening to people, watching, reading and thinking, two further dimensions of its restlessness have become clearer to me. The first touches on the source of the restlessness, which is in the artist’s desire to involve others in the creative process – people they don’t command, pay, or control, people with different education and life experience, people with other values and ideas. That desire embeds a vast instability in a creative process that is already unpredictable. It extends the boundaries of the possible far beyond the landscape usually defined by an artist or even a group of artists at work. The human ingredients, and the rules that govern their interaction, are far more volatile in participatory art – at least when the the process is honest and open. And that brings in a restlessness that is at the heart of the practice’s creative potential and its artistic originality.


And now, after yet another unforeseen yet world-changing event – the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the USA –  the value of that creative restlessness seems more important than ever. It is not an accident that community art emerged during Western culture’s rebellion against authority in the late 1960s. Authority has remained on the back foot ever since, as democracy has spread and been redefined through the individualism of neoliberal thought and the instant communication of the digital revolution. No one knows what is happening now, though it seems we’re living through historic shifts in social, political and economic life after the neoliberal project’s disintegration in the Great Recession. What we do know is that the world is more unstable that it has been for decades. The Cold War’s threat of mutually assured destruction was terrible but it was at least understandable. Today only fools and zealots believe they understand the future. We live in dangerous times and one of the dangers is not to see it.


And art? What has art to do with that, or that to do with art?

Only this. Art remains one of our best ways of understanding ourselves and our experience, of expressing our feelings, or sharing our hopes, dreams, fears and terrors, of finding common ground and empathy, of imagining other ways of being, of making sense and finding meaning. We need all those capacities now and, partly thanks to the social and technological changes of the last half century, they are more accessible to more of us than in the past. Participatory art is one of the doors that open on those resources and if it is contested, if we don’t agree what it means or what it is for – no matter. In answering those challenges we answer other, bigger ones about the life we want to live.

When demagogues peddle the illusions of certainty, we need the antidote of liveable ambiguity. In unstable times, we need a restless art.


Thanks to Teatre Tarantanta for photos from ‘Li diuen mar’ in this post © 2016 Anna Fàbrega: read more about the project here.

Speaking of community art

Someone recently suggested to me that I should speak of ‘Art in the Community’ because community art seemed to be a genre, like Pop Art. It was an interesting observation and I’m always glad to be reminded how differently ideas can be interpreted. Still, there are clear reasons why I continue to describe my work as community art after 35 years. One of them is that community art is a theory, not a genre or even a practice. It is rooted in Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which begins:

Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community [and] to enjoy the arts

Community art sees that right as reaching beyond the idea of giving people access to art, which might be what art in the community offers. Desirable as that may be, it’s not enough, since it leaves us as largely passive spectators rather than agents ‘in the cultural life of the community’.  Community art, as first imagined in the 1960s and 1970s, takes Article 27 to mean that everyone should have access to the means of cultural production as well as consumption. Recognising that is not the case, community artists work so that more people do have the resources, training, knowledge and means to create their own artistic work on their own terms.

Why does that matter? What’s so important about being able to create your own art? Because art is a way of making sense of existence, of defining, expressing and values. Art enables us to represent ourselves in the world, in all sorts of ways that go beyond speech. And if we cannot represent ourselves, we are at the mercy of other people’s representation of us. Imagine a world where women’s experience was represented mainly in the creative production of men. Actually, that’s most of Western art history…

You can download an essay setting out that theory more fully by clicking on this link.

Community art is a rights-based theory about art’s place in the world. You cannot recognise community art by looking at it because it is not expressed in form or aesthetics: that’s why it is not a genre. It is a way of working – the enacting of a framework of ideas and values. Even then, it’s easily confused with participatory art, socially-engaged practice relational aesthetics, dialogic practice, new genre public art, community cultural development and the many other practices that have emerged since the 1960s, mostly as more or less conscious offshoots from, or reactions, to community art.

But community art, the original spark, remains clear and meaningful to me. Its practice is fascinating, inspiring and creative, and the need for it is as great as ever.

So thanks for raising the question: I welcome the chance to think and talk about this restless art. If you too see things differently, please use the comments space below to share your perspective.


Time in participatory and community art

Time is an important factor in differentiating in participatory and community art. The shorter the project, the less potential for the participants to influence its development. People may share a meal with an artist in a gallery or stand naked in the street to be photographed but their influence on the resulting work is marginal. Such works do not require participants to have or use any artistic knowledge or ability. Their experience, feelings or individuality are not required. One participant could be replaced by another and it would make no substantive difference to the art.

A project that develops over weeks, months or – as in the case of Granby 4 Streets – years has another character. Here, relations can become relationships. There is a basis for real negotiation between artist and participant. Power relations may shift as people acquire (or take) knowledge, skills, resources or consciousness. Time allows an art project to become developmental. The work is under no one’s complete control because it is impossible to know how it will evolve. It can only be the product of a genuine process of co-creation.

There are traps in durational work just as intense moments have transformative potential. It’s also true that short events can be the artistic marker of a long process of shared creation (as in the festival below). It would be simplistic to equate time and quality in a binary fashion. That said,  longer term work has always held most interest for me.

Note: The images on this page offer contrasting representations of Eastern Europe. At the top is ‘Total Chaos’ an immersive art project by artists collective Reactor which took place over four days in 2006. At the bottom the photos are from a 2003 Living Heritage project in Bulgaria developed by local people over a year that gathered hundreds of people to celebrate the ties of a community dispersed by economic and social change.

Artistic quality and participatory performing arts

Sharing the Stage - 1Yesterday I facilitated a learning event at the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in London as part of its Sharing the Stage initiative. The theme of the session was quality, and about 50 people from some of the UK’s leading performing arts companies came to share their experience of participatory work. There were inspiring and thoughtful presentations from Inclusive Creativity, a music group based in Northern Ireland, Geese Theatre, who work in the criminal justice system, and Sage Gateshead, whose work in West Newcastle is challenging them to rethink their very relationship with the community. Through these, we were able to open questions about what quality might mean to the artists and participants, to commissioners from outside the arts and to the arts organisations themselves.

We also watched an extract from Streetwise Opera’s recent production, The Passion, to explore whether – and if so why – as audience members we respond differently to professional and non-professional performers. The discussion that followed was illuminating, as people talked about the complexity of their feelings. One person spoke of how she relaxed and expected to be entertained by the professionals but found herself leaning forwards when the non-professionals sang, with a very different quality of engagement. Another found himself wondering about the quality of the process through which the production had been created. There was debate about the risks and value of taking on such technically demanding, score-based work.

The purpose of the afternoon was not to reach conclusions. There can be no final assessment of the quality of artistic work since that work can only be experienced individually and subjectively. There is no external authority. If Shakespeare is revered the world over as a great dramatist it is because his texts continue to provide theatre makers with the richest materials, not because his status has been fixed. In the absence of definitive judgements about artistic quality, what matters is the quality of our reflection and debate about it. Artworks are not static. They live (like Shakespeare’s words) in us and it is the process of responding to them that gives them life.

One of the ideas I shared with people yesterday was a framework for talking about artistic quality I first developed for the Arts Council in Ireland about 15 years ago. Its starting point was the same: without an objective measure, what matters is how we can understand our own and one another’s views of quality. I suggested five things that contribute to the quality of an artistic production:

  1. Technique – is something well made in its own terms?
  2. Originality – has it been done before, by others?
  3. Ambition – how far does it reach, and why?
  4. Resonance – does it connect with and speak to an audience?
  5. Magic – does it move or unsettle us, linger in the mind, make us feel differently?

There are some things to bear in mind about this structure for thinking about artistic quality. The first is that each person’s response is valid in its own terms. I might go to a concert with a musician friend and express wonder afterwards at the technical accomplishment of the musicians. If my friend points out to me the false notes and shaky timing, it doesn’t invalidate my sense of wonder. It just adds a layer of understanding – and my musician friend might benefit from being reminded that even a ragged performance can still be a moving achievement.

Secondly, it is possible to have an extraordinary artistic experience if only one of these is exceptional. The Sex Pistols probably wouldn’t rank high on the first three, but the resonance of their music for millions of young people in the late 1970s had a global cultural influence.

There are several paradoxes about participatory and community art. One of them is that artists have to believe in their own vision and values to create art. If they don’t believe in something, what are they inviting others to participate in? But unless they also believe in the validity of other people’s visions and values and that those might, even theoretically, be better than their own, they are trapped in some kind of missionary enterprise. And we know where that leads.

What matters about artistic quality is not being right. It’s how exploring it can help us understand ourselves and others better.

You can read more about quality in participatory art by downloading this short paper:

La creatividad y coraje: community art in Spain


ver más abajo para leer este texto en español…

A performance about bodies and long lives opened Spain’s annual conference on social inclusion and the performing arts in A Coruña’s Teatro Rosalía Castro this week. Created by Mariantònia Oliver, with older women in Mallorca, including her own mother, ‘Las Muchas’ was moving and joyful. Oliver integrated her own solo performance with video of those who’d inspired the work and performances by nine local women who made the piece for this performance. Like all good participatory art, it was a shared creation that could only exist because of what each person contributed to it. A gifted choreographer might make a work on this subject without involving non-professional dancers in their 70s and 80s – but not this one.

It was a great start to this event, which has grown from a one day conference in 2009 to three days of talks, workshops and performances involving people active in participatory and community arts from across Spain. A glimpse of this a couple of years ago, in Seville, alerted me to the artistic energy of Southern Europe. In Spain, Portugal, Greece and elsewhere, artists are working with vulnerable and marginalised people: migrants, the unemployed, prisoners, people with disabilities and others. Perhaps it was chance that the first Jornada happened at the height of the financial crisis, but it doesn’t feel like it. Unemployment haunted the second evening’s performance, ‘Vida Laboral‘ (Working Life), developed by Claudia Faci with three local men who gave extraordinary performances drawing on their lived experience.

Las Jornadas - 2

If this creativity has a new energy, it also has long roots. In Barcelona, Xamfra has been making inclusive music in Raval for 15 years, while TransFORMAS has been making theatre with communities in the city for almost as long. Here in Galicia, Grupo Chevère was founded in1988 and has been evolving a practice that has moved steadily towards  ever stronger community ownership, as in their recent production, by, with and about shopkeepers. Among the newer organisations is Teatro de Consciencia, which uses theatre as a space to develop empathy and reconciliation.

There are many similar experiences, from institutions to small companies, among the 250 conference participants. I kept meeting people who were thrilled to discover that they were part of a community – even a movement. They share a passion for community art, a creativity in approaching it and a readiness to imagine afresh how it is done and why. No one should underestimate Spain’s economic crisis, nor its impact of every aspect of life here. But these artists are responding with imagination, courage and hope. In doing that, they are helping renew participatory arts practice for European societies also in need of renewal.

With great thanks to Eva Garcia and all the organizers who welcomed me with such generosity, helped open doors and interpret what I couldn’t understand.

Las Jornadas - 1

En español…

Una actuación sobre los cuerpos y las largas vidas abrió la conferencia anual de España sobre la inclusión social y las artes escénicas en el Teatro Rosalía de Castro en  A Coruña esta semana. Creado por Mariantònia Oliver, con mujeres de edad en Mallorca, incluyendo a su propia madre, ‘Las Muchas‘ se movían contentas. Oliver integra su propia actuación en solitario con vídeos que inspiraron su trabajo y actuaciones con nueve mujeres locales que hicieron la pieza para esta actuación. Como todo buen arte participativo, era una creación compartida que sólo podía existir debido a lo que cada persona contribuyó a ella. Un coreógrafo dotado podría hacer un trabajo sobre este tema sin la participación de bailarines no profesionales con 70 y 80 años – pero no lo conocemos.

Fue un gran comienzo para este evento, que ha pasado de un día de conferencias en 2009 a tres días de charlas, talleres y actuaciones que asocien a profesionales de las artes participativas y comunitarias de todo España. En un vistazo que dí hace un par de años, en Sevilla, me alertó de la energía artística del sur de Europa. En España, Portugal, Grecia y en otros lugares, los artistas están trabajando con las personas vulnerables y marginadas: los inmigrantes, los parados, los presos, las personas con discapacidad y otras personas. Tal vez fue casualidad que la primera Jornada ocurriera coincidiendo con la crisis financiera, pero no se siente como del mismo modos. El desempleo rondaba la propuesta de la segunda noche, ‘Vida Laboral‘ , desarrollado por Claudia Faci con tres hombres locales que presentaron una actuación extraordinaria basándose en su experiencia vivida.

Esta creatividad no solo tiene una nueva energía, sino que también tiene raíces largas. En Barcelona, Xamfra ha estado haciendo música desde el Raval durante 15 años, mientras que TransFORMAS ha estado haciendo teatro con las comunidades en la ciudad por casi el mismo tiempo. Aquí en Galicia, Grupo Chevère fue fundada en 1988 y ha ido evolucionando de una práctica que se ha movido constantemente una identificación cada vez más fuerte con la comunidad, como en su producción reciente, por, con y sobre los comerciantes. Entre las organizaciones más nuevas está Teatro de Consciencia, que utiliza el teatro como un espacio para desarrollar la empatía y la reconciliación.

Hay muchas experiencias similares, de las instituciones a las pequeñas empresas, entre los 250 participantes de la conferencia. Seguí el cumplimiento de las personas que estaban encantados de descubrir que eran parte de una comunidad – incluso un movimiento. Comparten la pasión por el arte comunitario, la creatividad para acercarse a esta y la disposición para imaginar de nuevo cómo se hace y por qué. Nadie debe subestimar la crisis económica de España, ni su impacto en todos los aspectos de la vida. Pero estos artistas están respondiendo con imaginación, coraje y esperanza. Al hacer esto, están ayudando a renovar la práctica de artes participativas para las sociedades europeas también en necesidad de renovación.

Con un excelente agradecimiento a Eva García y todos los organizadores que me han acogido con tanta generosidad, ayudado a abrirme las puertas e interpretar lo que no podía “entender”.



Where do you stand?

Would you prefer to spend the next six months working on a project that would be artistically fulfilling but little more than a spectacle for the participants, or on a project that would have a deep and lasting effect on those participants but be artistically uninteresting?

Everyone I ask answers this question in roughly the same way – by refusing to choose. Their work, they say, aims for artistic excellence and profound social benefits. And I agree: that is what all good community/participatory art tries to do. Indeed, I have often argued that high artistic standards are inseparable from real social change. But the question is not about what actually happens in complicated, muddled everyday life. It’s about motivation: why we do what we do. Understanding  our motivations better is essential to working honestly with other people and therefore to doing good work.

Smolare (2003) 6

I learned a lot about my own reasons for working in community arts about 15 years ago, when I was working in SE Europe on a programme called Living Heritage. The years I was involved with that work were very influential on my thinking and I’ll come back to that experience another time. For now, I just want to share a story that has relevance to that question of motivation. The Living Heritage programme gave local groups small grants – typically about €10,000 – to undertake heritage projects that would support community development. It began in Macedonia in 2001, before extending to Bulgaria, Romania and Bosnia Herzegovina. At the outset, when people asked what we meant by heritage, I often produced a list – festivals, museums, folklore, arts and so on. After a couple of years of seeing what people worked on, I’d come up with a better definition: ‘heritage is whatever people care about’ I’d say. One of the places I understood that was Smolare.

Smolare (2003) - 3 The group from Smolare, in Southern Macedonia, had a simple objective. About two miles from the village at a height of about 630 metres, is the tallest waterfall in Macedonia, a lovely 40 metre cascade of white water. It was, naturally enough, a special place for the inhabitants, a symbol of their spirit. Young people and lovers would spend time there and everyone had memories and feelings about it. But it was a hard climb and dangerous in wet weather. The villagers wanted to build a path that would make it more easily accessible.

The small grant they had from the Living Heritage fund paid for materials, and the wages of a master mason and a carpenter. But the work was done by volunteers – about 80 people in all, working for several months in the autumn of 2002 and the spring of 2003. They built a 1.2 km path with 300 stone steps, cut from the mountain itself, and two wooden bridges across ravines. As one person told me when I visited in 2003, ‘You can even get there in a suit now’. Already that summer, after featuring on national television, the village was attracting 200 visitors at weekends. People began to sell garden produce, coffee and drinks, even accommodation. In a place where money was scarce even the small sums spent by visitors made a difference. The project also brought together a village deeply divided by politics as people found common cause in the work. When I was in Macedonia again last week, I heard about how popular the waterfall is now and that it had become a real tourist destination as well as inspiring two neighbouring villages to develop visitor walks. Twelve years ago, an official from the Novo Selo municipality told me, ‘We have spent seven times as much on other projects without producing a fraction of the impact’. He was right.

There was nothing artistic about this project, though the site is of deep cultural significance to the village and to visitors. Even so, as a community artist, I find it completely satisfying. It helped me recognize my own answer to the question I started with. I work in the arts because that’s what I know and have some aptitude for but my reasons for doing it the way I do lie with people.

But my answer is only my answer – yours will be different and just as valid. What matters is to be clear-sighted about our motives in working with people on community-based cultural projects. Then we can respond truthfully to theirs.