Several writers we’ve studied identify two extremes of a participation spectrum: where the participants are co-authors, and where the participants are raw material. Helix Arts call these the ‘Kester-end’ and the ‘Bishop-end’ (referring to a critical exchange between Grant Kester and Claire Bishop) (Lowe & Helix Arts, 2012: 4-5). Helguera calls them ‘collaborative participation’ and ‘nominal participation’ (Helguera, 2011: 14-15).
Our project occupied a middle ground. We as the two artists had ultimate control and directorship, providing a framework that defined the project.
Three of our participants from Tiree Trust collaborated with us and helped to formulate the initial parameters and the original idea came from one of them. They had creative input during the planning stages and changed the process of the project in significant ways.
Participants in our social events volunteered freely but were strongly directed: for example the box-houses could only be papier mache and we limited how they were to be painted; at the box opening, people were involved in a process that they had contributed to; they made small decisions and used initiative in the way they recorded and displayed the cards, so for example the cards were stuck to the display boards in different orientations to fit; however, if we had anticipated this we might actually have directed more clearly and specified one orientation for aesthetic reasons.
The core majority of participants (those who responded with words) had the opportunity for self expression and/or decision-making within the constraints of the art form (choose six words, write them on the card). Some drew pictures, others arranged the words visually. We had 143 participants, but we think still more people may have reflected about Tiree and even chosen six words, but not participated fully by sending us the words. The people who did participate by sending words were represented individually (albeit anonymously) both in our display of their words in the original format, and by the transcribed lists on our Tiree in Your Words web site. They were there in their own right and not just as parts of the artist’s vision. I would place this in Helguera’s ‘creative participation’ category: ‘The visitor provides content for a component of the work within a structure established by the artist.’ (Helguera, 2011: 15)
The social events (papier mache house construction, painting the houses, and the box opening) had elements of exchange: skill sharing, learning, making. Physically they were more like a structured team activity than a creative participation. It was the conversations as the participants worked and, at the box opening, the conversation over the cake as people read the words together, which brought the events alive. With hindsight, we might have arranged for someone to go round at the box opening and capture more of what was said. Even without this it was clear the reaction to the cards was transformative, changing the perceptions of the participants. Feedback mentioned surprise, refreshing honesty as well as fun and excitement.
Helguera, P. (2011), Education for Socially Engaged Art, New York: Jorge Pinto Books
Lowe, T. and Helix Arts (2012), A quality framework for Helix Arts’ participatory practice, www.helixarts.com/pages/research.html (accessed 1 December 2013).