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On ‘artist participation’

by Sofie Maj Thomsen
Ph.D. student, Dept. of Anthropology, Aarhus University.

Participation in art is about giving art an active, constructive role in the world. So writes the English art historian Claire Bishop in her modern classic, Artificial Hells, on social practice in art and its new powerful role in the world. In a world where art, historically, has been object orientated, collective art is value oriented. Where the creation of art is most often associated with the enigmatic inspiration of the individual artist, collective art is about the explanatory and activities taking place outside of the individual. Its concerns are dialogue, relationships, actions, negotiations, and social movements, and in this way participation activates new opportunities for art. If we really believe in the expanded possibilities for art, and we aspire to co-create, then, I argue, we must introduce a new term: artist participation. Including ‘the other side’ of participation makes it possible to develop original and essential perspectives and common understandings within the discourse of involvement.

The perception of the artist as a genius can be traced all the way back to ancient Greek philosophy. This concept has existed as a sacred view for centuries, but has now begun a descent from heaven to earth to all us other mere mortals. Artistic practice is no longer solely concerned with creation of material works to be consumed by passive “bystanders”. It is in this dissolution of classical distinctions, that art today enters a new activist paradigm.

Art today has gained a new social responsibility, writes Bishop, and artists today collaborate with municipalities, the state and private stakeholders to address and find new solutions to societal problems. At the same time, this social movement in art poses some significant questions in relation to the aesthetic end-product; to responsibility for the collective art production, and to how it actively relates to the context it unfolds in.

Why is it so popular to involve citizens in art projects? How does involvement in art become meaningful rather than just a political buzz-word? The social art projects in Grasslands anticipate a broader political tendency whereby the inclusion of the public in the creation of art is lauded. In the co-created works in Selde, Åsted, Junget and Thorum, we have the opportunity to delve into the participatory process, while circumventing the many normative ideas and beliefs that exist on the subject.

Birgitte Ejdrup Kristensen’s work Skivevej 13, a white, house foundation in the middle of the village of Selde, that has replaced an empty abandoned house on the site, was the end product of a longer process involving discussions and meetings with local residents from the village. A few years later in Åsted, a group of residents met night after night and transformed the gable-end of their houses into murals in a co-design with project leader Lene Noer and artists Deirdre O’Mahony and Leonardo Sagsastuy Solis.

Looking at the two villages we find the same basis for inviting art in; the predictable problems of the rural: the closed school, the endangered shop, the empty houses, the lack of public transport. But the history of these villages differs, in relation to contact with art and the creative field. Selde’s narrative about artists, who years ago worked actively in the area, is kept alive by local enthusiasts Gundhild and Herman. They are the driving force behind an active culture centre with concerts, large contemporary art works on display, affording locals an opportunity to engage in a wider art experience. Birgitte Ejdrup Kristensen’s and Lene Noer’s determination to include residents in the work, took shape through the numerous residents’ meetings where discussions on the peripheral outskirts of Denmark, art and a sense of identity took place. In many ways, the participatory element in Selde could be described as a reflexive exchange of ideas between the residents and the artists, while in Åsted it was of a more practical nature. In other words, there were different artistic strategies in play around involvement during the course of Grasslands.

The works of art and the joint processes around the Grasslands projects, became a catalyst for innovative discussions, creating new meeting spaces and generating new networks in the villages. The role of the “expert” is democratised when the residents of the village secure the opportunity to demonstrate their local knowledge and guide the artists during the creation of the works. The discussions surrounding the history of the two villages unfolded in different ways in both, but were guided by the residents’ knowledge and experience of places and spaces of their village. They were part of a dynamic expert-role that unfolded in the works of Grasslands and that made them temporary captains of the work.

Perhaps we should abandon the idea of the active artist, as the involving part, and the citizens as the (more passive) involved. In other contexts, we describe it as citizen involvement, audience engagement or, in a more political consumer-societal context, as user involvement. But hereby we apply only one of the driving forces in collaborative works.

It could also be described as artist participation, because this is primarily what is called for. When we use the word, or concept, “citizens’ involvement” we presuppose a relationship of power; that someone has the power to involve others on their terms. But participation is dynamic, mutual and multifaceted. In the Grasslands project this has meant that the works were sometimes primarily in the hands of the residents, at other times, in the hands of the artists. Art participation is a process over time, a process influenced by different stake-holders at different times. It is not an absolute or clear-cut form.

In many ways there is a need for a rethinking the concept of art participation and its complex meaning and methodology. As Bishop, and many of her art historian colleagues point out, art participation has not been widely analytically and theoretically examined, despite the fact that we frequently use these expressions in public debate and political arguments.

We must discuss why art should involve (others) and be (itself) involved, and what it can contribute with. We must add nuances to the concept of participation, because it contains a more complex and diverse configuration than often presented. But if we look at the project Grasslands and for that matter the many other projects around the country, where citizens co-create works with artists, then perhaps we do not have to question if we should. It has been on the initiative of the citizens themselves, to involve artists. When people rally round and support the creation of works, then this is a clear manifestation that art can achieve something, when it comes to reinforcing a struggle, a community or an identity of a village.