What is it socially engaged artists do? My reply to @caracourage

Cara Courage has asked socially engaged/ social practice artists a question: What do you do?

This is my reply I shared with Cara on her Facebook post…


Little creative acts of not knowing.

Political, sometimes radically activist, acts.

Potential spaces. Safe places where dangerous new realities might grow. Grassroots. Social justice. Collective. Autonomous. Communal.

Deeply suspicious of instrumentalism and state. Outside of institutions. Around and across margins.

A practice in which art as concept is everywhere.

Unspoken, like innumerable tiny little secrets shared in moments outside the false strictures of coordinated civic time.


Always uncertain…

Participation on Trial. Not the end. A new spirit of openness?

A week after Participation on Trial at Union Chapel, I think it is worth reflecting a little upon the event as a format that could offer interesting potentialities in opening up arts and cultural debate.


Participation in the arts faced a Dadaesque mock-trial in a Nonconformist chapel in London last Friday, 1st May, on International Workers’ Day. The hearing was presided over by a real judge. There were twelve jurors, including a banker in a dapper suit. There were ten witnesses – six for the prosecution (including a last minute turncoat), five for the defence. Defence and prosecution councils. A typewriter tapping, pedantic clerk of court. A cheeky tea lady. And a non-stop knitter. The five defendants – each a seen-better-days female mannequin upper half, resplendent in an array of fancy headwear and over-the-top make up – tottered in front of the judge wearing their allegiances on placards round their necks. The ‘Artful’ Art Schools. The ‘Machiavellian’ Academics. The ‘Cunning’ Cultural Institutions. The ‘Foxy’ Artists. The ‘Canny’ Funders. All stood accused of ‘Lies, Damned Lies and Social Return on Investment’. Chrissie Tiller and her team at the Participatory Arts Lab, Goldsmiths, planned this event as a celebration of the now discontinued MA in Participatory and Community Arts. The result was extraordinarily refreshing. Open. Unusual. Sharply contrasting with the art community’s new de rigueur – self-censoring, tight-lips, sycophancy, uniformity, compliance.


As a prosecution witness, my role was, together with five others – Frances Williams, Sylvan Baker, David Slater, Jenny Sealey and, the turncoat, Alison Rooke – to attempt to convince the court of the defendants’ guilt. For different reasons, we each felt aggrieved by the hijacking of notions of participation in the arts for a whole host of instrumentalist agendas that did nothing to encourage community or equality. We also held that participatory arts lacked any depth or real engagement – a risk-free field where ‘professionalism’ and specialised box-ticking jargon had replaced people-first intuition and the uncertainty of creating art together. Our position was one of (almost) complete disdain for smothering bureaucracy, top-down administration, impact measurement, cost-benefit analyses, and many other impositions that had turned participation into a watchword for state-sponsored compliance. The foot soldiers were revolting. We’d had enough.

Meanwhile, the defence witnesses (comprising David Jubb, Sophie Hope, Deborah Curtis, Julia Farrington and Andrew Barnett) all pretty much played the party line – Whatever You Want – ubiquitous riffs that everyone likes to dance to. Everyone but us, the prosecution wondered? We all (unfortunately, perhaps) know the lyrics of the Status Quo – feel good, harmless, catchy. No. GUILTY. All five defendants were found guilty. Complicit in the wilful deception of participants and the arts world alike. The verdict was accompanied by the words ‘But who cares?’ Who cares? Certainly the Participation on Trial participants, but beyond us? Will anyone listen? Will anyone think twice about trotting out ‘arts for all’, ‘participation for everyone’, or any of those other shallow vicissitudes? Probably not. Not yet, in any case.

And yet, for me, the trial held promise. Surreal? Yes. Irreverent? Yes. Angry? Sometimes. Controversial? For some. Performative? Beautifully. There was a curiously democratic edge. It felt uncomfortable. Exciting. Why? Perhaps because we could speak openly. Differences of opinion. Great! Cross-examination was challenging. The feedback honest and immediate. The arts need this. Artists need this. The Arts and Cultural Industries elite would probably hate it. Why? I challenges their hegemonic grip – their Newspeak – their power – their control. Participation on Trial could be expanded; the format could be more or less specific; the trial could tour?  Mocking AND/ NOR deadly serious events like this might offer potential to really bring the many simmering issues in arts and culture and politics into an open space where dissensus is okay – perhaps even good?  Let’s move away from dry lectures and state approved consensus speaking.  We all should feel free to speak our minds.  No more self-censorship.  No fear of penalties.

So, for me, Participation on Trial excelled on many unusual levels, not least that pernicious forms of participation in the arts were found guilty, but also because it provided a much needed blend of serious debate and deadly serious hilarity.


An Act of Treachery

An Act of Treachery – reblog of David Slater’s excellent #ParticipationOnTrial prosecution witness statement

Creativity, Arts and Older People

Caught in the act of betrayal by Court Artist Deborah Mason Caught in the act of betrayal by Court Artist Deborah Mason

It’s been three days since I had ‘forsworn’ myself and the guilt still hasn’t worn off; three days since I committed an act of perjury, perhaps even treachery at an extraordinarily illuminating and eccentric event curated by Chrissie Tiller and the Participatory Arts Lab to both celebrate and mark the sad demise of  the MA in Participatory and Community Arts, at Goldsmiths.  Participation on Trial
was, to quote the blurb, a Dada-esque, playful (but serious) critique of participation in the arts. The crime was one of misrepresentation and deception.  Of flagrant flimflammery, chicanery and con-artistry, of committing daylight robbery,  pilfering the public purse and causing grievous artistic harm. I was a witness for the prosecution. Here’s what I said:- 

If participatory arts had had any meaning as a movement we would have been able to find ways in…

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My prosecution witness statement from today’s @artsontrial #ParticipationOnTrial

This is my prosecution witness statement from today’s Participation on Trial event…  The (eventual) verdict was “GUILTY – BUT WHO CARES?”  Comments always welcome…

Arts and Society's photo

Everyone’s a ‘participant’ nowadays. Aren’t ‘they’? Or, following the Warwick Commission’s report on The Future of Cultural Value and its magic number – 8% – should I say ‘we’ – members of the cultural class? We’re all participating today, aren’t we? But to what ends; for what means?

Participation in the arts lacks real meaning. Wander into a gallery, watch a play, help set up a festival, dig up a beach looking for fool’s gold, clog dance on cross-shaped shipping containers in the name of Christ, write memoirs in a timber sanctuary then watch it burn (physically and/or digitally), oh, and praise be the lanterns! Then there’s socially engaged art, ecologically engaged art, activist art – marginal – issue-based – commonly working for social justice.

All forms of participation in the arts. There are many others. The Warwick Commission report mentions participation 73 times. Why? Everyday Participation – can virtually anything be a form of cultural participation? Hmm…

So why do I find the ‘participation in the arts’ agendas – and participatory arts in particular – so troubling, so divisive? I put it to you that participation lacks intent. For many policy makers, commissioners, arts organisations, artists, and so on, the more fun the activity, the less socially or politically engaged, the better.

PARTICIPATION BY NUMBERS. Count ‘them’. Lots of ‘disadvantaged’ people – great! Segregate them. Categorise. NEETS, ethnic minorities, older people, physically impaired, mentally ill, on and on and on. Measure them. See – they have improved! Thank The State for sending us an artist (backed by hidden ranks of arts administrators, of course). Look – all ‘their’ woes are gone. Take happy pictures for websites and Facebook and glossy publications. Pair them with a narrative penned for a pretty penny by the consultant or academic-led elite. Add graphs, tables, carefully edited anecdotes from ‘real people’ who loved taking part. Pie charts. Sprinkle spurious references to a too-oft-cited weakly defined canon. Make a film. Cost benefit analysis. Bravo! Keeps the funders happy. Useful evidence for future projects. Splendid.

Or is it? The trouble is participation in the arts – participatory arts – are products of insidious instrumentalism. State and funder-led initiatives hoping to wash away ‘their’ troubles, ‘their’ sins with a bit of taking part in some art. Sanitised, professionalised, risk-assessed to within an inch of existence. Best practice. Toolkits. Reports. Evaluations. Metrics. Big data. Fodder for never ending quasi-academic discussions about participation at which most participants are… well… us. CHANGE THE CONVERSATION! HOW? WHY HASN’T IT CHANGED? Circular. On and on.

STATUS QUO. Hidden behind shallow dialogic frameworks. Nothing but a democratic veneer. Allowing dominant power structures to be reproduced and maintained. Dialogic exercises and even ‘radical listening’ embed as cornerstones in participatory arts’ mission of improving practice and quality – ‘professionalising’ artists. Anyone for CPD? Join with us. Sing ‘The Dialogic Song’. MISSIONARY ZEAL. Preach to the converted. Spread ‘our’ message. PARTICIPATE NOW! (Not ‘us’, them. New people.) CONVERT TO ARTS PARTICIPATION NOW! (It’s something to do. Might get you a job. Might improve your wellbeing. Might improve the economy. Might even be FUNPALACES fun!)

What. No artists in the room? Good. IMPOSE BEST PRACTICE NOW. Funders love it. Dovetail into burgeoning business plans. FILE UNDER OUTREACH OR EDUCATION. Organisations employ artists nowadays, don’t they? They allow ‘participation’ into their programming – sometimes. Voiceless artists should be grateful for meagre scraps as payment for their labour. Hurrah! Complicit in the division of their labour, the institutions cheer as they further alienate artists from art! GET CREATIVE!

New Labour shuffled in neoliberal governance. Public money bought new Cultural Industries citadels replete with artist and audience and participant proof defences. Yet the price for artistic excellence is high; the pact always Faustian.

PARTICIPATION FOR ALL. Deeply divisive. Soft neoliberal governance. MERCENARIES. Artists are always bottom of the pile. Squashed silent by the tentacles of instrumentalism. With few rights and little money, who can blame artists for taking the bait? Initiatives like Creative People and Places, Enriching GB (or should that be England?) are part of this.

MOBILISE. Artists and communities can mobilise for social justice. Self-organise. Art can counter the instrumentalism of state and institutions. A different, freer form of participation. Socially engaged art. Activism. Academics and agents of the state tend to steer clear. No wonder. Our practice opposes neoliberalism in all its guises. We want change. WE ARE NOT GUILTY!

So, I suggest that participation in the arts and the trivialising forms of participatory arts practice that feed like parasites from fillets of newly institutionalised participatory programming are guilty of a terrible crime: PARTICIPATING IN THE NEOLIBERAL PROJECT OF INDIVIDUALISM. THEIR ILLUSORY RAINBOW CLOAK OF ARTS AND CULTURAL INDUSTRIES SHOULD NOT FOOL YOU. LOOK CAREFULLY. IT IS A CRUDE APPROPRIATION OF THE EMPEROR’S NEW CLOTHES. A DEMOCRATIC SWINDLE.