Am I Not A Mutually Curious, Too?

I recently saw this.

The blurb on Vimeo says: “Scotland’s cultural sector has an excellent reputation for its participatory practice – artists and people working creatively together in communities, education contexts and other areas of public life such as social care and justice. This film gives a voice to artists and participants and highlights the processes involved in their projects.”

The film is called Mutual Curiosity and its title is taken – I think – from quote by the artist Mandy McIntosh when she says describes the process of an artist working with people: “You need someone who’s going to kind of poke you around a little bit and say ‘try this, try that, look at this, think about that. It sounds like mentoring, but its actually not that either. Its just about mutual curiosity.” But, what happens when that curiosity is defined in terms that are not mutual to me?

Before I go on, I need to preface this whole article by saying that I am glad that work in this wee film exist: it looks like good, educational work, and their approaches to working within the public realm seems collaborative, participant-led, yet still artistically-authored and seems to be right up my street, both aesthetically and conceptually.

I do have slight concern about the artist being paternalistically positioned to go into communities to give ‘permission’ for them to be creative: For example when (‘participant’)artist Roberta is showing the filmmaker at a line drawing she did with (‘real’)artist Mandy and she says: “…this is like a mother with a small baby and a small child… I didn’t see it at first” Mandy responds: “When Roberta did that I was just going ‘oh my god, oh my god, thats amazing!’ and that happens sometimes where I can see something really sophisticated and I’m trying to communicate to you how good it is, and you’re going: ‘no, that’s no very good’. …Its like trying to explain to someone where someone has made something that they perceive as a really big scribble, and I’m like, actually, this is incredibly sophisticated abstract work. … I’m interested in [when] this stops being amateur art and start being real art?”

Personally, the question of what is and is not ‘real art’ as well as that paternalistic approach needs to be addressed in a lot of participatory work, but I won’t be addressing that here. I also know that in the editing of a film, it can present a certain ideology that perhaps is not the original or true intention of artists/art projects, so I shan’t address that within this blog, either… What does concern me with this film, however, is its definitions and semantics.

This concern has to do with the fact that the work presented is ONE kind of participatory practice, but it has been presented as THE form of participatory art. The film is called A Look at Participatory Practice in Scotland and is commissioned by the major funding body in Scotland. And it is in this naming that my bubbling hackles of anger trickle to the surface.

To illustrate, Janice Parker says: “I really like no auditions. We’ve never auditioned people in that we’ve invited people for certain projects, but I never auditioned. Whoever walks in the door has a right to be there…but I think essentially, when I think of participant-led, its a collaborative responsive process that happens between people.” However, the only ‘people’ included in this entire film are disabled, youth, vulnerable youth, and women. ‘People’ – as defined by the film (and therefore tacitly agreed by Creative Scotland) – are those that are not those involved in everyday life: they are those either in need, or those with the time/leisure to spare. This might not be considered problematic but if one applies an Interpretative Policy Analysis framework to this, it all gets a bit iffy, both aesthetically and politically.

Interpretive Policy Analysis is a methodology for interpreting, revealing and exploring a policy’s true meaning as opposed the intended, written from:

Interpretive policy analysis…is informed by post-positivist social theory which attends to matters of representation through language, text and symbol in the constitution of social life (R. Freeman, (n.d.) Social Science and Public Policy

Within this study, I am specifically interested in ‘Policy Artefacts’:

Agency artefacts are show to symbolise tacitly known meanings as well as those which are part of a policy’s explicit language. Not only do implementers and other situational actors interpret these artefacts; the policy and these interpretations maybe ‘read’ as a ‘text’ about societal values and identity…[calling] on us to ask; what does policy mean; to whom, aside from its drafters and implementers, does it have meaning; and how do various interpretations of meaning affect policy implementation… how does policy accrue meaning? …. Dress codes, agency names, program and space design, and so forth are artefacts of an organisation. The artefacts embody the values and beliefs of the organisation, and they are meaningful for organisational members in ways that are particular to their context. Artefacts, together with their underlying beliefs and values, constitute the culture of the organisation. (D. Yanow (1993) ‘The communication of Policy Meanings: Implantation as interpretation and text’ Policy Sciences 26. pp. 41 – 61)

Interpretive Policy Analysis then looks at the activities and actions of an institution to reveal the implicit, ‘true’ meanings and intentions of an organisation, rather than the written or explicit meanings. Utilising these approaches is not to suggest the implicit and the explicit intentions of an organisation are necessarily mismatched, but rather that they can be, and it is the role of the Interpretive Policy Analyst to explore that (possible) mismatch. I think this film shows a mismatch, or at least, a problematic misunderstanding of the term ‘participatory,’ as it only includes one kind of making: we can therefore infer that all those types of ‘making art with people’ not included within this film is not considered ‘participatory’.

Thus, for Creative Scotland to to name/define this kind of work as ‘participatory’ begins to act as a policy which closes down the other potentials of other kinds of participatory work – activist, agonistic, community-based, political, dialogic, relational aesthetics, public art, etc. There is a political ramification in that defining ‘participation’ as intended for those ‘who do not participate’. Within this entire blog, I am paraphrasing the amazing David Stevenson – but the key thing for me is that from the point of view of a practitioner, I feel excluded from this definition of ‘participation’ and am left asking myself: Is my practice – which isn’t necessarily or intentionally with youth, or the elderly, or the infirm, or the disable – necessarily excluded from being called participatory? Do I have no recourse to funds or support because I choose to not work with those ‘excluded’ participants? What of others who work differently with other sorts of people?

Rather than ‘participatory’, I might have defined the works shown more as ‘educational’ or ‘pedagogical’: this might not seem like such a big issue, however, I would argue this lies at the rub of how – and why – we might choose to ‘work with people’. The Latin root of ‘pedagogy’ literally means ‘to lead the child’ stemming from the Greek pais (child) and agogos (leader, from agein meaning: ‘to lead’). Educational projects are therefore designed around specific learning outcomes set by ‘a leader’ – i.e. the commissioner, the artist themselves, or the funding body (i.e., Creative Scotland) – and the student/participant is required to follow those outcomes until she/he has been led to the correct understanding. In other words, there are ‘end products’ that the educational project should aim to achieve via the teacher ‘leading’ those involved in the project.

Participation, in contrast, comes from the Latin participat meaning ‘shared in’ and stems from the verb participare, stemming from pars, part (part) and capere (take), and therefore suggests a more collaborative and egalitarian process that has no necessarily premeditated outcomes. It does not – crucially – formulate those engaged in the process as working within a hierarchical format, but rather as equal. (Side note: One could argue that an artist working with the disabled, young people, abused women, vulnerable youth are already pre-supposed within an hierarchical framework – regardless of the good intentions of the artists -because they have been placed into that framework by both society and the policy that supports art projects for such contexts… but that’s not for this bit of musing…!)

Education and Participation are therefore very different approaches, and while I know that the two are more-often-than-not collapsed, and complexly interwoven – no doubt participation involves some education and vice versa –  but I do think it is highly problematic that the main funding organisation has chosen to define the ‘people’ of participatory projects as those that are somehow lacking, faulty, or in need…. All that’s missing is projects with the elderly or some BME groups and we’d have a complete set: everyone except white middle-class males! The White Patriarchy wins! Horrah!

I am being somewhat facetious, of course. And, as I said, I have no issue with the projects themselves: for me, this is squarely a policy issue which replicates fairly limited notions of what this work can do, and who it is for and I want to challenge Creative Scotland to think again – or expand – a definition of ‘participation’ to be more complicated and nuanced.

Importantly, I am not suggesting there was conspiratorial nor Machiavellian desire on the part of Creative Scotland to intentionally shut down other types of this practice: I obviously do not think they are deliberately trying to limit the political or critical possibilities as they could challenge/question governmental policy. I also know that Creative Scotland are continually attempting to research and explore how it functions within a public realm and I honestly credit them for that constant analysis and reflection: few organisations do such things.

The issues – again – arises from a lack of research and understanding of this kind of work, and both its history in general and its specific history in Scotland, which is rich and varied. This can partly be forgiven as there is a serious lack of historical research that delineates the edges of this work. But it also comes in the multiple ways that this work functions and is defined. I refer back to a previous blog post that got attention at the time and hopefully raises more chat about how/what/why we continue to work with people, and how we might be a bit more mutually curious in a more expansive manner.

The Scent of History


In the Value Rant  I blew my top at some poor hipster for not being aware of the history of social practice. The nice bearded-boy seemed to want to be able to use the practice for political ends and had wondered if anyone had done that before…

As Alexia Mellor and I have often argued in several papers (the latest will be in Issue 37 of the engage Journal, this is an on-going issue of participatory artworks that emerges out of its “ability to cross ‘art’ and ‘non-art’ contexts, to operate between disciplinary boundaries, and in the public realm. It is these qualities of the practice that are its most salient, yet also make it vulnerable to instrumentalisation.

In other words, it is because we operate in a fuzzy-edged field where the boundaries of where the art/artist merge with other things, it can fall into a dangerous places where the practice gets endlessly reinvented. This, at first, sounds like a brilliant thing as it can be the very thing that 1) keeps the practice fresh and 2) does not allow it to fall into a closed-loop of self-obsession (i.e., art about art). It is its fuzzy-edges that bleed new thoughts and thinking, and this is exciting. Others are not us, and thus we have to think differently. “Levinas claimed that, as relational beings, humans can only ever successfully learn about themselves through engagement with another.” (Lynch, B. as quoted in Hollows, V. ‘The Performance of Internal Conflict and The Art of Activism’ in Museum Management and Curatorship Volume 28, Issue 1, 2013)

Thus, this endless difference keeps us energised.



This bountiful reinvention blossoms such a sweet scent, we can all fall lulled into the most dangerous trap: collective amnesia.

The flower that grows from the Borrachero tree – white and yellow and dangerous – is used to develop the drug scopolamine. ‘Colourless, odourless and tasteless, scopolamine is slipped into drinks and sprinkled onto food… Since scopolamine completely blocks the formation of memories, it is usually impossible for victims to ever identify their aggressors.’ (

To be clear: I am not, in any ways, attempting to associate the horrific experiences of victims of this drug to something as piffling and trifling as problems faced by participatory art. But I am using the idea of a beautiful thing that can be dangerous in that it makes us forget as a metaphor for this current problem of collective amnesia. We can be so enticed by the ‘new’ and of a clean slate that we forget that giants have walked before us. And they have faced the same things – in different ways and in different contexts, sure, but we can learn from their learning.

So, I have been thinking about the lineages of social practice for a couple weeks now, and I realise now that it was slightly unfair to expect someone not within the field to know its history, when, in reality, so few practitioners are similarly ignorant. And it leaves me with a bit of a passion for some research to explore how might this be rectified. I know there have been attempts here and here as well as the history that Bishop explores in Artificial Hells, to mention a few.

But I wonder how a collective history might be feasibly presented that might incorporate the massively different perspectives and intentions in ‘working’ with people. To be sure, I don’t want to suggest that it needs to be THE history – I recognise and welcome a diversity of practice and lineages – but I do think we’re at a point where there is a critical-mass of languages and theory and history that we, as a field, can begin to pint-point some clear and over-lapping points in a shared chronology that institutions or artists can choose to follow. Doctor Who lore suggests there are ‘fixed points in time‘ which are ‘moments in the space-time continuum at which events were set in stone and could never, ever be changed, no matter what. There are, surely, some of these in all of our shared history? Enough to bring us together and extrapolate our own trajectories from? 

To be sure, I do think it is the duty of the institution or the artist to be aware of whose shoulder’s they’re stepping on. Whether that history filters into the community is project-dependant, but without that knowledge, we are doomed to be drugged, repeated and seduced by reinventing the wheel: tied to the Sisyphean task of rolling rocks uphill.

And it doesn’t matter how sweet the scent of that rock is, its just going to roll down again.

The Value Rant


Stuck in the Middle With You


So, I know it’s been a long time since I posted, but I have been a bit busy doing this thing. Apologies.

Recently, I went to one of the ArtWorks Critical Conversations: Dialogues around the practice of arts in participatory settings at Baltic 39. It featured a conversation between Ilana Mitchell, Artistic Director of Wunderbar, and Darren O’Donnell, Artistic Director of Mammalian Diving Reflex, hosted and guided by the incredible and incomparable Sophie Hope. The event, tangentially, aimed to look at issues of longevity, sustainability, reproducibility and the possibility of ‘up-scaling’ of their projects.

I’m a fan of some of the ArtWorks approaches, and they’ve been supportive of me and my various critiques in the past, so I must be clear that this is not a rant specifically aimed at that organisation.

But it is a rant, a rant that I have to get of my skinny chest before it burns through my thin and little ribs

Illana and Darren spoke about the careful negotiations, the detail-oriented, political and interpersonal navigations that led them to their various practices and projects. Both projects/people have excellent charm and good ideas and both projects are various flawed in their own ways: like everything. It would be unfair of me to speak of these projects in detail, and more information can be found online, in books, in reviews and from the folks themselves directly. During the event, however, there seemed to be a hesitation on both their parts to talk about how such projects can be reproducible or professionalised or scaled up, because of the the careful negotiations, the detail-oriented, political and interpersonal navigations that had to be made, sustained and supported to ensure the works function as they had intended, i.e., relational, critical, and aesthetic.

This ‘scaling-up’ or professionalisation of approaches however, seems to be the very brunt of what cultural strategies are trying to do lately: find ways to support this kind of working by formalising it. The urge to instrumentalise to practice comes, I think, not from any machiavellian desire to co-opt and destroy the practice, but from heartfelt belief at how this type of working could best be supported. But this approach, as most practitioners know, is flawed, because the detail-oriented, context-specific, relational aspects of the practice: the very things that make meaning, cultural impact, political change – the very things folks like ArtWorks want to support – are the very things that are unreproducible, un-scale-up-able, un-repeatable. 

So, while Sophie, Darren and Illana talked, I had these buzzing thoughts scrambling around my head like a cage full of angry possums. I tried to play the lyre of rationality and force-sooth some of those angry thoughts into a clear, calm argument. I sat on my fidgety hands.

I managed for a good 20 min when some man-bunned politics student showed up, with ALL his worldly knowledge twirled into his hipster-moustache and began drawling monologues at the panelists about how interesting the practice is – politically, of course – and had they ever thought about using it to political ends, like the socialists did in the 1910s, and what an interesting, new way to work, wasn’t it? Novel that such practices could be used with people! Imagine! And, why wasn’t more to be done to support the political elements of this way of work?

At which stage, I snapped and the angry possums came ripping their way out of my throat. I think I mentioned something about some folks be able to trace the inception of this type of practice to the 1600s with Edward Allyn, and even further back if we think about art and politics, but, yes, Eisenstein et al’s work worked with people like this in the 1910/20s, and the Futurists  designed relational experiences to challenge the bourgeoisie in the 1910s, and so did the Dadaists and Fluxus and GRAV from the 30s to the 50s, and then we had the happenings of the 1960s and 1970s to the Community Arts movement and APG of the 70s to Augusto Boal and the Theatre of the Oppressed in the 70s and 80s to the ‘New Genre Public Art’ of Lacy in the 90s and the explosion of works that came out of the USA and UK in the 90s and 2000s, to the current work being done now and the funding-specific strands of support, the institutionally-based support, cultural policy, websites, theorists, thinkers and hundreds of other practitioners that are too numerous to mention/link to. And none of that references the all amazing permutations of this type of work that happens in non-western/non-northern hemispheres.

The thing is: its not new. It does not need to be professionalised and it does not need to be touted as a new saviour of art. Its has its own credible and deep history and language and critical thinking, and the sooner we as a practice start demanding that people pay attention to this, the sooner we can stop folks like me from going apoplectic on some ill-informed audience member. 

I would like to apologise to the nice young man for attempting to rip him a new asshole. I am sure he was very-well meaning. But what his ignorance of the history rubs against me like meth-head crack-whore trying to sell me their body just for their next hit, and the whole evening left me unsettled.

Heading home on the train, I could not put my finger on what was so unsettling. Apart from his ignorance – which is understandable, because no one can expect to know everything – why was I so irritated?

I tried to calm myself, knowing I had a houseguest to whom I should probably present some sort of facade of normality, rather than a swivel-eyed, rant-monger.  But I couldn’t reel it in and exploded not long after I got through the door… Thankfully, Gerry – Lovely Gerry, The Lovely House Guest – helped me unravel the knots by slowly asking the right sorts of questions.

The issue is: on one side practitioners of the practice have got the institutions trying to use the practice, either to fit funding agendas or because they truly want to support it…. but having little comprehension that the practice’s salience lies in nuanced interpersonal exchanges, and to formalise those would kill the practice dead. If they’d done their historical homework, they would know this. 

And on the other side, there are people who want to use the practice for activist and political ends, who have no idea of the history that came before, the thinkings that have been the very essence of the fields’ development, a criticality that has developed like all other ‘fields’ of practice that have emerged in the past 100-200 years: photography, film, painting, sculpture etc.

And in the middle, there are just some lovely, passionate people. Flawed people, sure, but knowledgeable, talented, interesting, and critical people. Being crushed by institutions or ill-informed folks. 

Why, Lovely Gerry The Lovely House Guest asked, was that? Why are so many people squabbling over it. No one, he suggested, would dream of telling a painter or a sculptor or a photographer how their work should be employed, how to formalise it? How to ‘professionalise it? And so, why was that happening with Socially Engaged folks? Was it, he suggested, because we didn’t make ‘things’ like print-makers, sculptors, painters, etc.

I think he’s right.

The ‘thing’ that SEP makes is the intra-social relationships. We make the conversations happen, the shifts in thinkings, the minutia of transformative behaviour (or, as I would argue, the ‘potential’ for transformation, because its not our job to changes people’s minds, but to explore our place in the world, but that’s a different argument). But we don’t do that through ‘things’. We do that through social interactions. Yes, there are objects and yes, Bishop has some key points about spectatorship and power and the ‘mediating object’ of documentation that needs to be addressed, but fundamentally, our work is what happens between and with other people.

And is that the thing of which the institutions and the activists want control. They see the practice as a way to influence other people.

It is the narrowest and flimsiest of lines that we need to tight-rope across to avoid the crush from either side, both push-pulling us and tempting us with money or power or support or fame or just kudos for changing the world.

And here we are, the practitioners, stuck in the middle with our communities or the people we work with/for/at. Yes, we’ve got some ethics to sort out, and yes there are some major squabbles within the field, but frankly, that’s the same everywhere else. This endless re-invention of the wheel by those people who do not know their history does my nut in.

Indeed, we practitioners are also guilty of that. To be sure, we cannot know everything that has come before. But, I do think if we all took some time to brush up on the steps the giants have made before us, we might feel more comfortable up here on their shoulders. Comfortable enough to not have to kow-tow to institutions or think that the practice has to do X, Y or Z; comfortable enough to come together in a shared understanding of how we might go forward without being instrumentalised; come together to find a continuum of practice from those thin strands of history.

This is a question of how we choose to value our practice, and is a lesson in fundamentally about knowing – and being clear – on our intentions: What do we want to do with our work? What are the things we will not sacrifice? What are things that we need to demand from funders, and what are the things we’re willing to give to them in return?

I would hesitate this is about defining and categorising and formalising the practice – we must continue to ask how we should work with people and what it means – but rather, this is about knowing which direction we might be heading in, who might be our allies and who might not know what they are talking about; about who has done their homework and who might just be a man-bunned tosser,Hot-Man-Bun-Hairstyles-For-Guys-10 trying to look cool.

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.