I’m Toby Lowe, Chief Executive of Helix Arts. We help marginalised and disadvantaged people to explore, reflect on and share their stories by taking part in a wide range of artistic activities, including film-making, dance, music, photography, creative writing, design, animation (and much more). This blog is to share our ideas and practice about the arts, and the role of the arts in society, and provide us with a mechanism to get feedback about what we do. We hope you find it (by turns) interesting, irritating and thought-provoking. We’d very much like to hear what you think.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

What does Participatory Arts mean?

Hello! For my first blog I thought it would be appropriate to say something about Helix Arts’ philosophy, and about our take on participatory arts practice. I’d like to share some of our thinking, and see what people make of it.

The first thing to sort out when talking about participatory arts is a language issue. What does the term participatory arts mean? There’s a wide variety of practice that exists under the banner of participatory arts, and, in addition, different people use different language to describe really similar practice and ideas.

So – let’s start with our understanding of what participatory arts is:

Participatory Art involves an artist working with at least one other person to take part in a process that the artist has instigated.

Participatory arts therefore covers the full range of artforms and cross-cuts many different artistic practices. There are participatory film-makers, musicians, drama practitioners, writers, photographers, live-artists, AV makers, textile artists, print makers, designers, animators, dancers, painters, sculptors (and many more).

This covers many different approaches that artists take to working with people. It can range from artists holding conversations with members of the public (such as Alan Smith or Kerry Morrison) or artists who undertake long-term workshop programmes with groups (see, for example, Kate Sweeney).

At Helix Arts, we think that it’s possible to define a spectrum of participatory arts practice that could help us to understand the differences between different practices. At one end of the spectrum lie projects whose purpose is to facilitate a creative enquiry for a set of participants, at the other end lie projects in which an artist uses a group of people as material for a creative process that they define.

The key elements of difference between either ends of this spectrum therefore seem to be:
  • The role of participants
  • Authorship of the work
  • The ethics of participation

One (crude) way of naming the different ends of this spectrum is to reference the highly entertaining debate between Grant Kester and Claire Bishop about the quality or otherwise of different elements of “collaborative art practice”.

At Helix Arts, we’re interested in work that covers all parts of this spectrum, but most of the work that we ask artists to do lies towards the “Kester” end of the spectrum. We think of this type of Participatory Arts as a tool to help people explore the narratives of their lives – the story of who they are  - and to communicate that understanding to themselves and to others. It is a way of using the disciplines of arts practice to empower people to reflect on the cultures they are part of, and which have helped to form their identity.

It gives people the opportunity to explore their own stories and find their own voice within their cultures. It empowers people to represent themselves rather than being represented by others. It provides playful, reflective, critical spaces in which people undertake a shared creative journey with an artist who inspires them, and who is also learning and developing along the way.

It’s not “community arts” – because it’s not necessarily working with communities (it could be with individuals, or groups of people who don’t constitute a community). And it doesn’t necessarily fit with community arts’ self-definition as “that which is rooted in a shared sense of place, tradition or spirit” because the work may involve none of those things.

That’s what we think participatory arts is, and why it’s important. We think it’s a distinct sector or movement within the arts world. It is situated practice, that requires space to be created in which it can work well. It needs its own standards of quality, and its own critical conversations about artists’ practice. But more on that another time.

In the meantime, what should we call the two ends of the spectrum? I’m tempted to call the ‘Kester’ end “Dialogic practice”, after Kester’s conception of dialogical aesethics: “we need to understand the work of art as a process of communicative exchange”. But I think that’s a bit clunky, maybe? I’m sure others can do better. And what might the other end be called?


  1. Hi Toby (and all at Helix),

    Looking forward to reading and discussing this more - makes for some of the most interesting 'business' meetings I've had in a long time!

    Just a quick thought, I love the idea of an artist sometimes using a group of people as a material for a creative process. Looking again at what artistic material can be, rather than the end point, seems like a valid line of enquiry. It's not just people either, I've been talking to the very interesting Tom Schofield at Culture Lab about his phd, which is focussing on how data can be viewed and used as an artistic material in and of itself.

    Labels can be extremely problematic (community, participatory, digital, media followed by the word 'art' all seem to have huge amounts of baggage and differing understandings), but that reinvestigation of the starting point, and what the artistic material and process is, seems much more interesting.

    It's certainly not just paint, canvasses and/or timber anymore.

    Wunderbar Festival / Modular Projects / Press Play

  2. Interesting post Tom and an interesting definiton.

    I have found that participation has a shifting meaning so attempting to fully define it is a headache.

    I view Kester as slightly confusing participation with collaboration. A strategy I have found myself using in order to identify the differing features is to view the participants role in the final outcome. Do they influence or own the final work? I would argue that particpants influence, collaborators own and to co-author is to co-own.

    Great first post.