Three Years/Three Years

Serendipity or coincidence meant that the three years of my PhD coincided with the three years of the Artworks Pathfinder projects, and, being in Scotland, I have attended all three Scottish conferences. I grew with them and, like youthful playmates who find themselves staring into a unknown future abyss together, I find myself at a personal and professional juncture, similar, perhaps to the state of the Artworks project finds itself now. As I am now also in the stages of wrapping up my research into notions of participation, I too feel the looming ‘what next?’ question sidle up to me at vulnerable moments.

Even though I occupy a position external to Artworks Scotland, over the past three years I felt very welcomed into the discourse it espoused, and that sense of inclusivity has been gratefully accepted. Over time, I’ve also noticed my own shift from a novice outsider with high hopes, to an invited angry provocateur, to a jaded dissenter, hopelessly clinging on to notions that things will change. I now find myself wondering how the Artworks project has influenced me and I have influenced it, and how my future will be different once I finish my research: will that future have been altered because of Artworks? What do I do with my own inquiry into participation, now that formal structure of support is ending? Do the questions that we asked just fade away? How can it have meaning? And, as the conference drew to close yesterday and we were left ruminating on a professional ‘what next?’ I had my own thoughts about the day – and the future.

Cynics and Sing-a-longs: The choice to include mostly theatre/music folks in the presentations is probably an apt representation of the populations involved in ‘participatory works.’ However, more numbers do not necessarily equal a unified whole: such is the problem with ‘democracy’ – the loudest and largest get to speak for the lesser few. This does not bode well for a ‘community of practice’. David Camlin’s Dialogical Sing-a-long went down a storm for some, but for myself and an embarrassed few (mostly visual artists, it must be said) we sat cringing at our tables, rolling our eyes at such ‘kumbaya’ tactics. Its funny to consider now, but it reveals a deeper dissonance that has still yet been unpicked: the difference in intentions and methodologies that do not link us. Yes, we are, as Susanne Burns suggested in her closing speech, all linked by matters of ‘collaboration’ but the focus on our similarities at the cost of our differences is highly problematic. It would be equivalent to reducing doctors down to ‘those interested in hygiene’, or physicists to ‘those that use mathematics’. That we are linked purely by ‘collaboration’ is possibly too simplistic. Yes, we do all collaborate, its true: but things also draw us apart, and it is this difference – this ‘how are we unlike each other’ that never seems to be given enough attention. This becomes problematic if we’re being presented as a unified whole of ‘participatory practitioners’.

Internals and Externals: Too often in these sorts of conferences, we rely on those we know and the conversation becomes a bit incestuously deformed. Should the conference co-ordinator also be speaking about her research? I personally think not: it warps the findings to be quite limited. Often, we stay in this narrow band because it is easiest when planning, but if indeed the project is about the breadth of participation, I wonder to what extent the research is skewed because we have invited the right kind of people to attend. That ‘right’ kind of people aligns with ‘open-space’ seminars, but the issue with those is that it becomes justification for a narrow focus; for not doing the hard work of getting the wrong sort of people involved. What of those artists who could not attend because they couldn’t afford the entry fee; those participants who had to go to work; those dissenters who had awful experiences with participatory artists; those gallery administration staff who had to stay and open the buildings? The grist and meat of participation comes in the minutia of projects, and the same is true for research: what have we missed by not seeking out other voices? Are we patting ourselves on the back while ignoring those outside the room?

Language and Voice: I am amazed, after 3 years, that we are still no where nearer to defining what we mean by ‘participation’. 60% of me thinks this is a good thing. I would hate to reduce the diversity of practice into narrow headings and definitions. The other 40% gets filled with a vibratory rage that we use a single word to talk about many very, very different things, with very different intentions and desired outcomes. Is it correct to elide applied participatory works that hope to change and benefit communities with the transgressive, abusive-like works of Santiago Sierra, for example? If I believe it is ethically problematic to assume that participatory projects should ‘help’ other people, should I be thrown-together who feels their work should have an ameliorative impact? Education and participation are still confounded, despite meaning – and intending – very different things; No distinction is made on those that undertake ‘participation’ as paid work to supplement their practice, and those whose entire artistic career is participatory; there remains no challenge to the professionalisation of an industry vs the call for artists to be professional.

This latter, perhaps is the biggest hurdle for me: is there a difference between a professional participatory artist and a professional artist? Creative Scotland has released a report that grew from the Artworks project titled: Developing a Foundation for Quality Guidance for arts organisations and artists in Scotland working in participatory settings. Does, I wonder, Painting have a Foundation for Quality Guidance? Or Sculpture? Or Video art? In what ways are we hemming ourselves in with this professionalisation? In conferences, this lack of a specific definition is perhaps quite useful, because we can be dialogic about meanings: we can argue and unravel what we mean and discover our differences. We can speak to each other. The problem is comes when these conferences lead to reports: reports that are not able to unravel this diversity of meaning and intention because their purpose is to distill meaning down into bite-sized mouthfuls. These reports – especially because the practice is so new and many do not know much about it – are often then are taken as fact: the research is taken as the be-all-and-end-all of information into participatory settings. They will, no doubt, be implemented as policy.

And this when the ‘what next?’ becomes frightening. Because, if I do not fit into the categories of the assumed notion of participation, do I cease to exist as a participatory artist? What if I have a different notion of quality then the framework of the report? Am I then a bad participatory practitioner? If the written documents are not clear about this lack of a cohesive and shared notion of quality; of the diversity of practice; of differing ethical frameworks; of the multiplicity of intentions; of the plethora of desires we all have in ‘working with people’ then they are bound to exclude. If we are indeed trying to come together in a “community of one voice” how can we build it into a continuum that really can accommodate the gamut of practices? 

For my part, I think this must come in a recognition – in written language – that the practice is not fixable into one thing: I know this is often said, but it is not expressed nor truly communicated. It is not explicitly shown in the conferences and reports that it is a practice which incorporates those that wish to help and those that wish to transgress; those who desire a political imperative and those that want to entertain; those that want to align themselves to social work and those that find such a proposition patronising and ethically problematic; those that merely undertake participatory projects as it supplements their non-collaborative practice, and those whose very ethos is a co-authorial approach. We cannot be lazy and hope that these differences are implicit and understood. They are not. This is evidenced by the very discussions we are still having – after 3 years – about what it all means to work with people. If we, as a community of one voice, cannot collectively agree on this continuum of practice, how can we ever assume others will understand?

When Objects Confuse


MS082162b(Sporting Medal and Box (1931) / Presented to Robert Bruce. Donated to AAGM by his daughter, Mrs R Duncan / Copper alloy, enamel, leather, metal, silk. Medal: 4.7 x 3cm. Box: 5.5 x 7.5cm / © 2014 Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections)

The background to this project is that, next year, the Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museum (AAGM) will close for renovations and their collection will move to a new, purpose-built storage facility in Northfield: a traditionally rough, socio-economically challenged area.

This new Collection Centre will be not like a ‘gallery’ that anyone can enter, but there will be opportunities to explore the collection via a free booking system. It is planned that there will also be displays in the public entrance, as well as education projects, and hopes to bring much needed regeneration to the area. My brief was to explore how the Aberdeen’s Museum and Gallery ‘public art collection’ could be made more ‘public’ via developing events inspired by items within the city’s vast and enviable collection, and would trace the movement of the collection from its current home in the City Centre to its future home in Northfield. The idea was to use objects from the past to negotiate the present, in order that that we can make the future better.

The context of the new Collection Centre to be built in an area like Northfield provided an interesting backdrop against which to examine the place of public art as a contributing tool for social renewal, and hoped my project could begin to ask questions about the expectations of art considering things like ‘community regeneration’ or ‘social cohesion’ or even ‘enrichment’. These are essential question that need to be asked in regards to how museums, galleries and local authorities – institutions with ideological and financial capital – are employing public projects to promote the ‘right’ kind of culture. But what is this culture? And who decides it? And to what end?

The project therefore took a dual approach of working with the community AND the institution, exploring the intention of commissioning public art as a tool for social renewal, especially considering the Collection Centre to be built was being presented as a regeneration project, and one that could have positive impacts on the community.

For one of these events, I invited the collection staff to the Northfield Community Centre for a reflection focused around how and why a ‘public’ collection exists. To do this, I utilised a medal presented to Robert Bruce in 1931 for his amateur world record for non-stop roller skating at Aberdeen’s Music Hall: a still-standing record of 61 hours and 36 minutes. The item was donated to the collection by his daughter after Mr Bruce’s death in 1970, and felt that this object raised questions about why items were collected: for the object’s aesthetic quality? For its human story? For its relationship to Aberdeen? For its materials worth? For its social history? As an object, Mr Bruce’s medal problematised a public collection – and as someone who primarily rejects objects in favour of actions, this was complicated. My rationale for using this object then was that it could act as a reference to a physical act – the durational, grueling act of 61 hours on a pair of roller skates and the almost pointless act of that… and how that could reflect on the grueling act of ‘public collections’

I therefore used it as a way to challenge how the institution related to itself. From this object, I proposed the Department of the Grey Area that could question the structures of the museum itself and how the formal processes of ‘collecting’ might limit a public’s relationship to access, and thereby raise concerns of how/why it can be employed as a tool of social renewal.


The proposition of the Department of the Grey Area was that if objects within the collection could move more fluidly between the collection departments, might they become more accessible to those outside those departments – i.e., in the public realm? Was the rigid collecting structure limiting the social possibilities of the public collection?

I also took secondary approach that looked at the utopian projection of the Collection Centre itself and questioned the notion of its ‘success’. Slavoj Zizek suggests that in order to consider the success of something, its important to think of its failure; to imagine its utter annihilation – and it is only once that has been fully imagined, can you work backwards from that bitter endpoint to ensure the thing’s success. Considering that, what would be the failure of Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museum’s collection – and by extension, what is the failure of the new Collection Centre? How could it possibly fail in its mission and what ways could it be deficient in its provision?  I devised some of the images here as a way to provoke discussion on how a collection might ‘fail’ and what that might look like.

The event culminated with a walk to the site of the new Collection Centre by an ‘Art Gallery Invasion Force’ made up of the collection and curating staff. In their white handling gloves, they became visible to all members of the Northfield community – not hidden behind office doors and ancient objects, but on display for who and what they were. From the discussions and walks, we collected ‘actions points’ that needed to be taken so that the Collection – as a collection of objects, and as a public provision – could succeed in its goals both ethically and civically. These points have been delivered to the AAGM’s directors.

A Collection of Failure-6


As an artwork, this project existed within the questions the collection and curating staff asked themselves about their own intentions and reasons for being involved in public art. This will cause a shift of thinking in regards to the ‘potential for transformation’ that will affect how the institution frames its thinking and enacts is participation.

hard lumps of time, space and society

I’ve much to catch up on. I already feel guilty about this and the guilt sticks like peanut butter to the roof of one’s mouth. Its not that I’ve not been ‘doing’ the practice, because I have – but what I’ve not been doing is the reflective, PhD-ish stuff. And a bit lump, I’m not actually certain of how to extricate myself from the paralyzing guilt and delve into this reflective realm other than just spitting it out and hoping it makes some sense. At the very least I can see what I’ve been doing. I shall try to work backwards.

1) Soon I go to South Africa. I’ve been having thoughts and discussions with the institution I will be working with and while I don’t know any more details of my project, i do feel better in knowing that the institution are aware of my practice. The recognition that the process is the work has become salient and so it would be impossible and/or difficult to talk about that until it is happening. I think often we confuse the words ‘process’ and ‘progress’ (that is another blog post in and of itself!) but importantly with this project is that the ‘process’ hasn’t really begun (ie, we’re just at the ‘defining’ terms phase), and so will be able to speak about it more cohesive manner once it ‘starts’…

2) Utrecht: please see here:

3) Aberdeen: Originally, this project was not to be included in the research as it was not going to touch upon my research, but several things have changed this – I will make a direct post about the thoughts I’ve been thinking about, but the basic notions I’ve been looking at the institution and how the institution frames its public participation – or not – and how artworks might be able to critique this.

4) There are variety of smaller projects – The Creative Learning Think Tank as well as some presentations that have challenged me in regards to how I have become an institution

5) Physicality text. I’m in the midsts of writing this up, but the main points have been related to notions of embodied cognition which have placed my understanding as an active, physical one – rather than mental or theoretical ones. This is problematic sometimes, as I often find myself discussing my theories and projects with critical theorists – groups of people whose baselines of reality are words and concepts – i.e., the ‘truth’ lying in language Vs the ‘truth’ lying in activities. This, again, is a larger text – perhaps even a PhD study in and of itself…!!!

Generally, however, it seems strange to get back to making ‘work’ – November to Feb was – in my mind – an incredibly inactive time. I made no work, and this was the longest time in my life that I had spent without focusing on a project. In retrospect, I’ve noticed it was the MOST productive in terms of thinking and reflecting. Now that I am getting back into ‘work’ I must remember this reflective process, and how it has influenced me – I am more interested in ethics; I am more aware of how the practicals form those ethics; I am more aware of the nuances of engaging with institutions (and more aware that they are neither monolithic nor homogeneous); and I am more aware of the possibilities of what ‘working with people’ can do.

These awarenesses give me spasms of nihilistic angst: knowing all of this, can I truly act as an artist in the public realm? Is ‘doing’ of art in the public realm a de facto ethical minefield that will never get easier? if there is no ‘right’ way, can what I be doing be the ‘wrong’ way? Chewing on all of that makes it hard to breath, sometimes. It makes me think of the peanut butter stuck to the roof of one’s mouth – it changes the shape of your words, makes you sound different and makes things harder to swallow.



Two points on International Perspectives on Participation and Engagement in the Arts

Utrecht: International Perspectives on Participation & Engagement in the Arts

I was recently in attendance at this conference and met a plethora of different practitioners of various sorts: those enacting policy, those researching evaluation, those critical thinkers on the topic – all sorts of folk that build up the frameworks of this ‘field’. Although, as with all these conferences, there seems to be a serious dearth of ‘the public’ – those people actually ‘receiving’ participatory projects and engagement. It made me realise that we were all guilty of speaking ‘about’ people in the way that anthropologists also speak ‘about’ rather than with and for – and how were we doing this participation and engagement if we didn’t invite the public to be part of it? How can we invite those members of the public with whom we participate to contribute to the learning and thinking about this subject. It seems wrong that we don’t and an answer might be relate to first of my 2 nuggets that I took away from the conference and relates to notions of homogenous spheres.

Through-out the discussion, various things were critiqued and/or discussed: ‘policy’ or ‘engagement’ or ‘the public’ or even ‘art’ – and these discussions made me realise that the largest difficulty that this ‘field of practice’ has is that we speak of things as essentialised and fixed entities, when in reality, they are not. The ‘government’ is made up of individuals and groups of different factions; the public is made up of people and groups and crowds and individuals and grandmothers and babies and miners and racists and transsexuals and bird-watchers; art is composed of people who are very aware of the ethical frameworks within which to work and those who are not aware; some policy is incredibly productive in supporting 

The main issue I have is that if we speak about things as such essentialised and fixed entities, it removes the possibility of their change. This could be phrased in another manner through Rancierian notions of power – if we present such fixed conceptualisations of power, then they remain exactly that – fixed. If we present ourselves as victims to these fixed bodies, then it removes any our possible agency. Additionally, it removes the nuances that gives them fluidity. 

For example: Katie Bruce is a curator in GoMA (Glasgow) and is an employee of Glasgow Life – a place I have often critiqued as having problematic approaches to participation. However, Katie is well aware of those critiques and works with and responds to those critiques. She is able to considering them from an internal perspective and think/re-think them in a variety of ways that are productive and critical. To refer to ‘Glasgow Life’ as being uncritical would be unfair and wrong, as it does not include the nuances within the institution. I think I can be critical of institutions as a general whole, but I must do so within an understanding of its heterogenity. 

This nugget’s salience, for me, is the reminder and recognition of the necessity of context-awareness. This does not make my diagrams of social cohesion ‘wrong’ or fixed, on the contrary, it merely means to explore the nuances and flexibility within each of situation. Malleable structures are trickier beasts to slay, but they’re better beasts to play with. 


Thus, to complete the question about why we don’t invite the public to these sorts of conferences is that ‘the public’ is multiple – anyone would not necessarily represent everyone, and so it might be a futile exercise. However, ironically, I would argue that anyone might actually be all that we need to begin thinking about this notion of ‘everyone’ – the presence of a child or a miner or a racist or knitter might begin to act as a revalatory figure that reminds us not to essentailise these groups.

The second nugget I left the conference with related to a presentation I saw from a lady who spoke about enriching the lives of “reluctant participants”. She was a very earnest lady and had researched her frameworks (Heidegger and his notions of Daisein – which is about a ‘presentness’ in the world), but was also concerned about having an ameliorative impact on society. My initial response was to rip her from limb-to-limb for being so naive and so uncritical and unethical. 

But then I thought: “is it so wrong that people want to help others?” That there are large swathes of people out there just trying to do their best in the world and trying to help make the world a better place – is that so bad? If providing a homeless person with a painting project WAS a helpful experience for that homeless man in regards to his own self-worth (however brief), and that they’re doing all they can do in the face of large institutions, structural powers and just getting on in the world? Is that so unethical? Could, in fact, I re-conceptuaualise my understanding of this work so that the person working within the public realm that wanted to ‘help others’ was not a problematic approach, but merely part of a continuum of practice? And if it wasn’t so bad, what did it suggest for my entire theoretical framework about conflict and analysis of institutional intent? 

I have been sitting with this for a while with potentially problematic thought, and there is much I probably should say about it but – briefly – yes, I think it might be. The way I argue this would be to refer to Claire Bishop an her notions of this sort of work stemming from Christian values and those values actually being placed in structural frameworks of colonisation and – in the long run – continue to perpetuate that system. Thus, it IS unethical, and realistically the focus must be spent on systemic change, rather than individual colonisation. 

Secondly, and more problematically (as well as relating back to my 1st nugget), I do think a continuum of practice is important – I do think that all these diverse ways of working should exist together and somehow work together. Such a continuum already exists and the denial of one way of working in favour of another – and the exclusion of non-acceptable ways of working would suggest that there is an essentialist way of working within ‘participatory practices’, and I would neither argue for that nor think formalising the practice into strict ethical (or even practical) codes would be of use to anyone. Such formalising and structuring can only shut down the potentials of the practice and actually instrumentalise in a negative way. It would be wrong of me to suggest that my way of thinking is the ‘right’ way. However, I refer to the image below of Kester and Bishop. 

Bishop and kester

It is the conflict between us and the tensions of the discourse that actually provide productive structure because we are able to expand our thinking. 

The second nugget is actually a challenge to my own way of working – to recognise how I might change and adapt my own practices in a more agonsitic fashion in the face of those who might wish to make someone’s day better, but keep the structure of the hegemonies the same. 

This might be important for me when I get to South Africa, wherein the very ‘real’ notions of amelioration might be quite relevant. How might I face up to the very real need of South Africans in their contexts of ‘need’ (a very real and present issue) vs my ‘need’ to critique institutions. Would a more instantaneous amelioration of individual lives be more desirable than long-term, more invisible critique of systems?

We’ll have to wait and see. 


While I’ve not analysed these reports in any depth, I find them highly problematic.

Understandably, they were commissioned and designed by DCMS and the London School of Economics, so they are aligned to systems of value that are concerned with fiscal worth, rather than any notion of critical, cultural or conceptual merit, so they must be read as within that economic context, however, in terms of “participation” agendas, I find them incredibly problematic and frankly dangerous. 

Policy makers and those ‘making the case’ for arts and culture have received a helping hand from two new reports that link the arts with positive wellbeing and social impacts. Arts engagement is estimated to enhance perceived wellbeing to the same extent as a £1,084 annual pay rise”

Being able to quantify ‘culture’ into these terms forecloses the support of art on any other terms: the phrase “The Buck Stops HEre” has never been more applicable in this contexts as these reports offer a definitive worth that funding agencies can index. 

Secondly, it denies any insight into the ACTUAL (complex and undefinable and exciting) experience of art – as it has become commodified into a singular exchange: x amount of culture = y amount of money. 

Lastly, and perhaps the most dangerously, it leads to the notion that once it’s equated this sort of ‘perceived’ worth to culture, agencies can now make a direct link to someone’s dole payments to their engagement in art. Does a family get less funding support if they engage in some drawing workshops? Should a single-father have money removed from his wages as he takes his son to an art exhibit? 

I understand the need to need to ‘make the case’ for supporting art and culture, but instead of struggling to affix financial worth and aligning oneself to a neo-liberal ideology that money is the great liberator, can’t we as a society accept that culture – in whatever form it takes – is valuable. To kowtow to frameworks of finance actually works to lessen the true impact of culture, which is to ask questions about life. 


I’ve often accused myself of having little-to-no aesthetic comprehension and/or rejecting aesthetics. I realise now, through this PhD process, that much of that was a flawed position in that I was choosing a political aesthetic over a visual one: I did not feel comfortable placing the emphasis on the visual as I felt that closed down the political potentialities a work that was never intended to purely exist in the dominant visual field, ie – the artworld.

Similarly, I was often accused of having an anti-aesthetic with my cardboard and my found materials. This never rung-true with me as I felt that (like the politics/political) framing oneself in opposition to something is just as hierarchical and limiting as framing yourself within the dominant hierarchies: being anti-aesthetic was still an aesthetic, and a visual one at that.

Recently, in reading something Hirschorn had said, I have solved the rub between these two issues. While his work is much fuller and more complex, there are some obvious links in terms of approaches and ‘materials’ – he said that he used materials that “do not intimidate.”

To me, this is the crux: the materials are certainly central to an ideas concept, and they give political clues as to the world in which the work needs to belong. A perfect marble work will say “X” and demand to be framed in a certain way. Same for a drawing or a painting or even a contemporary sculpture – these works, when made, are given context by their materials, and this context limits them. By choosing materials that are easily accessible – cardboard and found materials – the works become not framed on “where is should be” but in who can access it. It does not intimidate by being rough-hewn and cheap: it allows access.

This does not mean the works are any less complex – not at all! It suggests, instead, that there are different entry points rather than the singular hegemonic one of the dominant order.


Babies and Bathwater….

The amazing Amy Fung has recently written this – and while I WHOLLY agree with everything she says, it prompted a response regarding the critique of participatory practices.

The practice of ‘working with people’ (or whatever nuanced definition of that to which one subscribes) is a relatively new process and it has most certainly been used in very prescriptive and possibly unethical manners; indeed – it has often been the very mechanism that obscures the smooth functioning of democratic and emancipatory processes, implemented to maintain and sustain the dominant hegemony.

From this perspective, it is easy to undermine and critique the practice, the policies that fund it, the intentions of those who have an urge to ‘work with people’. I worry, however, that in the processes of that critique we forget why we’re doing it in the first place: that we throw the ‘baby out with the bathwater’, and not find a way to see through the murk to find that new life growing.

What I mean by this is that the ‘working with people’ project is so nascent and so problematic, it might be easier to forget about it and move onto something else. Too much is done in its critique and not enough time focused on its potential: an interesting and unmediated ways to communicate life’s difficult questions to each other and a mechanism by which emancipatory and revelatory political insights are possible.

How do we balance out the critique with a positive (and yet critical) acceptance of this way of working as a ‘field of thinking’ (Sheik, 2003)? After all, the very act of interacting with people presents a political possibility, and so the very processes of the ‘engagement’ offers exciting emancipatory conceptualisations  – and if we spend too much criticising it, might we loose out on what that potential can offer?