In attempting to look at whether participatory art can support sustainable social change, it is probably worth exploring different perspectives relating to this question. So I’ll start by looking at different approaches to sustainability of arts practice. Future posts will then attempt to define participatory arts and concepts of social change. But for now it’s all about sustainability…
There are three distinct perspectives about how to sustain systems: make existing structures stronger through a myriad of methods of organisational change; support the development of a limited number of new organisations who will either gently become part of the existing structures or quietly fail; or, like obsolete power stations, demolish the old monolithic structures to make way for a new wave.
The first option is safest. It’s also a consultant’s dream where endless new changes can be steadily implemented in the hope of encouraging adaptability, mining new philanthropic pockets, securing firm investments, selling like a commercial business and becoming resilient to fickle futures. It’s about sustaining the system as it currently exists by making the organisations restructure, remodel and rethink their missions. Done well, this can be really positive and new partnerships can arise (although often between other similar organisations.) But it can lead to protectionism, maintaining the status quo and staleness. This approach is a bit like building higher walls, digging a deeper moat and drawing up the gates. It is a siege mentality. Those outside will not survive or will go elsewhere.
Encouraging some new start ups can also be positive. It adds a new little wall around the old wall whilst it is repaired and improved. Trouble is that there can be a tendency to be a bit different from the long-standing organisations but still follow the same models and modes of working as them. This is partly because there is still a ‘toolkit’ mentality where best is… well… ‘best practice’. Blueprints, road maps, mentoring, knowledge-sharing, time banking, etc. etc. are all useful for many new (and existing) organisations to collaborate and improve their chances of conserving their positions whilst ‘helping’ new start ups following in their ways – become like them. The trouble is the old order will support this process safe in the knowledge that they will not (often) be threatened by these little newcomers and will (often) speak on their behalf, maintaining some form of hierarchy. This is sustainability with a degree of ‘selected openness’ – a managed form of conservation which recognises the need for ‘expanding the stock’ – like planting new forests using tried and tested species.
And these first two perspectives form today’s dominant mode of thought about sustaining the arts in the UK today. Often supported by central and local government initiatives, Higher Education institutions and especially by new consortia agreements and partnership working between organisations. It is certainly true that organisational sustainability can be improved by restructuring, sharing resources, joint fundraising, cost-cutting, partnering up, collaboration, increasing philanthropic support, attempting to better measure values, supporting new start ups using old models, etc. etc. but this is sustaining systems that grew up in a different era and have developed into complex organisations that cannot change quickly. I understand that it is important to have a range of arts providers from individuals to large organisations and to have a mix of new and established organisations and individuals involved in the arts but I see many of today’s attempts to make the arts (and social change) sustainable as inherently unsustainable. This is because many of those driving ‘change’ want slow, coherent, thoughtful, careful change. Leaders of many organisations want to maintain hierarchies where artists, audiences, participants, communities – in other words individual people – are at the bottom of a pecking order. This is natural. This is how they were created and it worked and still works and should continue to work. But leaders perhaps need to remember they have a social mission in which they are working for everyone to enjoy art rather than to safeguard institutional wellbeing.
But there needs to be space for new ways of working and this is brings me onto a third way of thinking about sustainability. This approach is about accepting life cycles. Old fires will eventually die out. Adding new fuel to them can keep them going but not indefinitely. New fires in new places can be worrying – they may spread – they may get out of control! But I am not suggesting anarchic arson here. No bonfire of the vanities. But starting different fires can bring renewal to every part of a system (dare I say ‘ecosystem’). Indeed, this is how many of today’s established organisations began – as one time radicals who introduced new ways of working. Obviously, there are many different ways in which new approaches to arts and society can develop and some may be highly threatening and completely unsustainable – further unbridled neoliberalism being a prime example. This is not what I mean. I am talking about new ways of working that involve everyone and are for everyone; that do what people want; that might help support and build communities from within. This is not audience development, this is true participation. It is a way of being and doing that shares ownership, that listens, that does what people want, that stops doing some things and starts doing other things when people want. It is a society where art, sport, work, place, play, etc. are all part of social activity.
So perhaps art is most sustainable when it acknowledges life cycles and lets some parts die but supports (and, yes, I mean financially as well as more broadly) new ideas and forms of DIY working, networked non-hierarchies, individual artist initiatives and true participation that can reinvigorate the entire art world. Perhaps they could share these new structures with old organisations? Undoubtedly, the new models will (just like their predecessors) the old models, the blueprints, toolkits, et al. of tomorrow. They will no doubt die at some stage too or reinvent themselves in the wake of other new ways of working we may not even have thought about yet.
And perhaps if art was better integrated into community activities, it would be less threatened and more sustainable too? We must remember that the constant segregation of ‘things we do’ and ‘creative things we do’ is to some extent a modern construct. Necessary so our systems of government can measure things, fund things, cut funds to things, etc. – yes – but this can lead to unsustainable approaches to making art driven by economics, social outcomes, aesthetics, etc. This systematisation of art can separate it from society (or certain sections of society) which, whilst good for some, is not good for most people (artists included).
So perhaps sustainability is about realising things become unsustainable eventually and that only perpetual rebirth and renewal can ensure long-term sustainability? Lots of new little fires to complement the older bigger fires. Constant regeneration not catastrophic destruction. This can be exciting. It is difficult to measure and predict. But then so is life (really…)
In terms of my bigger question: ‘Can participatory arts support sustainable social change?’ I guess I am suggesting at this point that social change must be sustainable in the sense that it must always seek to keep changing – responding and developing to new challenges life will throw at us – keep renewing itself. I am also proposing that participatory art, when led by participants and supported by artists and new organic creative structures, can be sustainable as an artistic mode of working because it is specific to the needs and life span of each action. Perhaps then this way of working can support future social change in positive, time-limited ways so art and creativity again become part of the lives of everyone? This is the subject of future blogs however and I’ve gone on far too long already…