Power, promises and participatory arts

Circuit is a four year programme, led by Tate and the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, that aims to connect young people with galleries and museums. Roz Hall is the programme’s critical friend and she has written an interesting post on ‘Peer Led approaches and ensuring parity’, which raises some important questions about knowledge and power in participatory arts practice. Her piece – which you can read here – concludes that:

Peer led practice is not simply about ‘losing control’, it is more sophisticated than that and is about knowing how to work out when to lose control in ways that actually support “the flourishing of individual persons and their communities.”

The question of how and how far a community artist empowers (to use the old-fashioned terms I still prefer) the people they are working with is central to both the practice and the discussions I’ve been having about it since I started as an apprentice community arts worker in 1981. Back then, I met people whose radical ideals made them refuse even to comment on a person’s artwork, still less guide them in what they were doing. That seemed wrong because it meant withholding knowledge, skills and experience that the artist had and which the person they were working with did not. At the other end of the spectrum were those who, however they dressed it up, effectively treated the people they worked with as enablers of their own ideas, which was not what community arts claimed to be about.

Good practice, as usual, lies somewhere between those extremes, though it shifts from project to project and person to person. Getting it right involves judgement, not structures, though structures have an important place in helping people make consistent judgements. It’s impossible to get it right all the time, because artists and project leaders can know only some of what is going on and of what people bring to the session. It’s also impossible to get it right because we don’t know what ‘right’ is, and we change our minds about what we think it is, partly as a result of our experiences – including those of being involved in an arts project.

South Asian Dance and Disability programme for the 1993 Year of Dance, created with Bisakha Sarker
South Asian Dance and Disability programme for the 1993 Year of Dance, created with Bisakha Sarker

Years later, when I was doing more research than arts practice, I came to see that the agreement I offered people who became involved in my arts projects was mainly that they would not regret having chosen to do so. Actually, that is also the foundation of what I’m now trying to do in the Regular Marvels projects, which have emerged from my arts and research practice as something that is neither but, I hope, something else.

Of course, it’s quite a promise, and it’s never put quite so baldly. Every participatory project is built on evolving relationships founded on trust. Trust itself depends on mutually-agreed commitments – and promises kept. Making promises that you can’t keep – because you can’t control your ability to fulfil them – has always seemed to me one of the big dangers of arts work with non-professionals.

Still, it seems to be a valuable test of whether the judgements being made during a project are good. It is something for which, within limits, you can accept responsibility. Working as a participatory artist, you can never know what will happen, how creativity might be expressed in co-production, or even whether the idea will be achieved. But you can, with knowledge, skills and experience, use your judgement to create a process that the participants can look back on and feel glad to have been part of.

One comment

  1. Not Trust but a sharing in a hidden belief that lies deep in everybodies subconconcious and dep inside ones body. Such a belief breaks down boundaries to such extent that skills have no place in experience.

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