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Participation or involvement? — When art contributes to rural development

by Jens Ulrich, Ph.D. and management consultant, VIA University College

There is a difference between participation and involvement
Citizen participation describes listening to the citizens and subsequently utilising the knowledge and information one has gathered in the creation of the artwork. Citizen involvement, on the other hand, revolves around encouraging citizens to become actively engaged in the shaping and development of the artwork – and this involvement often forms a co-creative path to new, original ideas and innovations.

In a participatory process, the artist listens to the citizens but the citizens are not included in a specific development or decision-making sphere. An involvement process, however, implies that the citizens are welcome to contribute to tangible development and decision-making processes. Contrary to participatory processes, the citizens are not left on the sidelines, but are welcomed into the engine room, thus helping to expand and form the artwork, and are directly included in the actual fabrication process.

It would appear then that citizen participation and citizen involvement are an expression of two different intentions and two quite different methods of engaging with citizens. (Ulrich 2018).

At first glance, one of the advantages of citizen participatory processes is that they reach a broad swathe of the citizenry at once. One can thus harvest a wide range of contributions, which can subsequently inspire the content or shaping of the definitive artwork.

Conversely, the problem with the participatory model is that it rarely fulfils the many received and articulated wishes. Partly because the sheer number of contributions in themselves can be difficult to manage. And partly because the numerous aspirations received, can all too easily diverge in many directions.

One consequence of participation can be that citizens, who have bothered to engage, feel they have been ignored when they cannot recognise their contribution in the finished artwork. It is, of course, a condition of democracy that not everyone can be a direct part of the decision-making process; however, the citizens can often experience this as “a rigged process to legitimise what has already been decided”.

Involvement assumes more than mere participation. Through the process of involvement, an artist does not simply listen to the citizens and then singlehandedly create an artwork. Involvement implies that the citizens are included in the determining development and decision-making processes.

Involvement processes typically pose a number of challenges; they are problematical if conducted with a large number of participants, require extensive resources and often result in complicated scenarios that can be difficult to control. Experience has proven, however, that through competent facilitation, it is possible for citizens to experience a real sense of involvement and thus develop a greater sense of ownership and accountability in relation to the finished product than would be possible through a participatory process.

Through involvement, citizens are given a seat at the table, participating on equal terms in the dialogue surrounding the development and execution of the artwork. In this way, something new is created. The dialogue in involvement processes confirms the principal of “one plus one gives three” resulting in more being developed than what each individual brings to the table as a starting point. And in this context, more than the artist could have produced themselves.

One positon of expertise or a shared expert role?
There are also variances in the position an artist adopts when employing participatory or involvement processes. (Ulrich 2016).

In a participatory process, the artist retains their role as expert, which can of course be quite legitimate. In the case of involvement processes, a more balanced access to expertise supplants the artist’s position as expert. Here, the citizen also dons a form of expert-role, not necessarily based on artistic professionalism, but perhaps in relation to local knowledge, experience or other factors that are relevant to the process. This does not imply that the artist must abandon their professionalism in the involvement process; merely that their professionalism does not come to stand alone.

One could say that a participatory approach can result in the artist creating and moderating a work for the citizens while an involvement approach encompasses the development of a work together with the citizens.

Involvement supports co-creation
Processes of participation and processes of involvement can both have their justifications. However, involvement processes are best suited to realising the ambition of a co-operative approach.

Co-creative and involvement processes are a relative new approach, whereas the participatory processes has been in use for some time. A lot of experience and information has been gathered in relation to participatory processes and here the artist may feel on more solid ground as the actual decision-making process, and thus power, is not mislaid.

It takes courage and willpower to work within an involvement and co-creative approach. Nevertheless, this approach affords the opportunity to progress in new directions, if one moves beyond one’s comfort zone and utilise facilitated co-creation and participatory processes.

Ulrich, Jens (2018). ”Inddragelse eller involvering - hvordan når vi borgerne i samskabende processer?” (“Participation or involvement – how do we reach citizens through co-creating processes?” in Danish.) Denoffentlige.dk (20th. December 2018) Ulrich, Jens (2016). ”Samskabelse – en typologi”, (“Co-creation – a typology”, in Danish.) in Tidsskriftet Lederliv, VIA University College