What are the Participatory Arts?

Guest blog by Katch Holmes
I attended the Artworks Scotland conference in Dundee from 14 to 15 November and delivered a presentation reflecting on some of my current research and recent experience in participatory art settings.


Guest blog by Katch Holmes

I attended the Artworks Scotland conference in Dundee from 14 to 15 November and delivered a presentation reflecting on some of my current research and recent experience in participatory art settings.

I’m currently undertaking research into ‘folk’ music and participation, particularly the continuum from amateur to professional, what it means to be a ‘professional’ and how professionalism affects the accessibility of an art-form for the ‘non’ professional.

20918_largeI organize the Knockengorroch World Ceilidh festival in Dumfries and Galloway.  The festival takes place on a Greenfield site in the Southern Uplands and has been running since 1998.  We programme many artists that sit somewhere on the spectrum between amateur and professional. The festival context is by definition a participatory arts activity – everyone who attends the festival is a participant, and helps make that event happen.  Many people play instruments, dance or sing and the boundary between performer and participant is often blurred beyond recognition.

In my personal practice the same ‘blurring’ issue has come up.  I danced with a Glasgow based bollywood group, the Desi Bravehearts for 5 years.  We worked with a professional bollywood choreographer from Mumbai, performed at events and Melas across the UK, had our costumes professionally made for us and sometimes received a fee.  I also taught and we would deliver workshops on occasions.  However we all had day jobs and if asked, would probably not have described ourselves as ‘professional’ dancers.

I began to consider this issue in a more objective or observational way this last year when, as part of the Creative Scotland fellowship on the Clore Leadership programme, I undertook a collaborative enquiry with other Clore fellows.  The enquiry was commissioned by the Gulbenkian Foundation and asked us to investigate how participatory arts practice was evolving in the context of change and what the funder’s role should be in this evolution.

‘Change’ we fairly easily defined as the digital age we now find ourselves in, the funding situation and the global and political landscape.  When we started to discuss our experiences of ‘participatory arts’ however we found that what we meant by this varied greatly, from recruiting theatre extras from the Chinese community in Birmingham for a high profile production to dance workshops with young offenders, and everything in between.  We realised we needed to define the territory and identify a range and depth of experience.

We identified factors that we felt to be in common across some of these very different ‘participatory arts’ projects.  These factors included the skill level of the participants, the artistic ambition of the project, the amount of agency a participant has in shaping the project and whether the emphasis was more on the end-product or the process.  We studied various case studies for these factors, plotting them on sliding scales to compare.

Four case studies demonstrate the level of agency and the differences between process and product.

183694-leading-british-saxophonist-andy-sheppard-and-the-saxophone-massive-heSaxophone Massive was a participatory music project that was part of London’s BT River of Music festival in 2012.  Two hundred saxophone players, aged 7 to 77, of all levels took part in a series of weekly workshops.  The workshops culminated in a large-scale performance conducted by UK saxophonist and composer Andy Sheppard.  Although the performance involved amateur players the piece was performed at professional level and involved other professional musicians.  The music was composed especially for this occasion and the performance tightly choreographed. The event successfully produced a quality end-product with a mix of amateur and professional musicians.  Participants had a lower level of creative agency in how much they determined the project.

Time has Fallen Asleep in the Afternoon Sunshine was part of Birmingham’s Fierce Festival. A group of people/ performers memorized a book of their choice. Together they formed a living human library. Visitors to the library chose a book they would like to read, and the book took its reader to a place and recited its content. Participants had more agency in this project – the process of learning and reciting the book was entirely determined by the participant. The process of participation became one and the same as the artistic product, or end performance.

This Show has no Name is revealed to have no structure, actors, or technical crew unless the audience take on these roles.  There are some entertainer ‘plants’ in the audience but they only nudge things along occasionally. This piece implicated everyone in participating, even if just by choosing not to. The only way to opt out was to leave the venue. Within the confines of the project participants had a great deal of agency. Again the process of participating became one and the same as the outcome, or end performance.

downloadTogether: Artist Yuan Gong created mist and fog inside and outside an art gallery so that visitors would appreciate their independent status while being aware of other’s presence. Everyone who went to the gallery and experienced the mist became a participant in the artwork though it is hard to say what their level of agency was – to what extent they were engaging with the concept. This could be said to be true of all visual art exhibitions. Again the finished product of the visual piece was inseparable from the process of interaction with the art.

In the American Values Study Report five modes of participation relative to amount of creative control are outlined – inventiveinterpretativecuratorialobservational andambient. Inventive has the most creative control- eg composing music or choreographing a dance, interpretive the second most eg playing in an orchestra, curatorial is selecting arts to the satisfaction of your artistic sensibilities, observational is when you go to see a show and ambient is when you experience art around you not consciously chosen eg public art or background music.

All five modes of participation have their value. Music collection is a ‘curatorial’ way of participation that people are doing everyday involving a large amount of agency.  Even observational and ambient modes of participation involve agency – the audience choose how much to listen and how much to engage. If the audience didn’t clap a ballet show would be a very different beast. Creativity exists in many shapes or forms. Not all ‘participants’ want to invent or interpret!

Funded participatory arts projects are about inspiring creativity and extending access to ‘the arts’ for all.  But who defines ‘the arts’? Many participatory arts projects aim for more creative control for participants. The paradox is too much control and the practitioner would be defunct!

When devising a participatory arts project identifying the modes of participation and setting the objectives within a framework of agency or creative control might be useful.

It may be that one of the most useful things we can do to support and instigate creative participatory activities is provide the space for grassroots creativity and value that creativity higher.  This may be a way to work towards and within the rising participatory arts culture that we increasingly find ourselves in so that slowly creative arts practice becomes something that everyone owns and enjoys in their own way – bringing it back to folk, as it were.


My research report on ‘folk’ music and participation will be published in April 2014.  To find out more visit