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.