What makes a good participatory artist?

A couple of weeks ago in our  weekly  Art and Social  Practice  session we discussed and  pooled  ideas about the practices, qualities and skills an artist needs to bring to participatory work and why you would want to do it. I think it would be a very exceptional person who  had all these in full measure but one of the strengths of this kind of work is also that  you are involving other people and you can be mindful of their their own skills and qualities and draw on these as well.

These are the lists we came up with

Participatory art practices – dos and don’ts


  • treat people as equals
  • be organised
  • think ahead
  • plan and prepare
  • be flexible
  • listen
  • include people
  • keep confidences
  • give participants something
  • think beyond the project
  • take responsibility
  • be prepared to conciliate
  • guide the experience
  • be sensitive
  • accept constraints
  • know your limits


  • patronise people
  • exclude people
  • assume ignorance
  • assume knowledge
  • exploit people
  • put pressure on people to do things unwillingly
  • coerce people
  • have preconceived ideas
  • stereotype people
  • take all the credit
  • dominate the experience
  • be a perfectionist
  • turn up under the influence

Qualities of a participatory artist

  • patient with other people and yourself as well
  • positive
  • receptive
  • conciliatory
  • sensitive
  • non-judgmental
  • flexible
  • honest
  • empathetic
  • you have drive and commitment
  • encouraging
  • energetic
  • confident
  • challenging
  • supportive
  • generates and nurtures trust
  • responsive
  • adaptable
  • creative
  • you have genuine interest in people and in what you’re doing
  • self aware
  • cooperative
  • you understand situations and where your comfort zone  is
  • realistic
  • idealistic
  • openness
  • humility

Skills of a participatory artist

  • skill in your art form
  • reflection
  • organising
  • communicating
  • negotiating
  • listening
  • delegating
  • time management
  • questioning
  • understanding learning styles
  • teaching, instructing
  • recording, documenting
  • acting, performing
  • conducting conversations
  • facilitating
  • multi-tasking
  • making space for new directions to emerge
  • creating and recognising opportunities and making the most of them
  • editing, simplifying
  • analysing, synthesising
  • keeping people on task
  • understand context
  • understand spatial dynamics

Why would you do it?

  • to explore an untapped resource of people
  • to realise opportunities
  • to enable and empower people
  • to create communities
  • to bridge communities
  • to focus and act on issues
  • to raise awareness of issues
  • to open debate
  • to strengthen values
  • to collect and conserve (e.g. social meanings, ways of being)
  • for health and wellbeing
  • for learning and exchange
  • for social justice
  • for shared understanding
  • to promote creativity

The bar is high and there is a rigorous standard of excellence to aim for.  Looking at these lists I think that two more essential qualities must be the courage to begin (and begin again) and the ability to forgive your inevitable mistakes and shortcomings (and those of others)!



Jottings on documentation in social practice art

  • All documentation is subjective and filtered by the perception, attention and preoccupations of the person doing the documenting. Even something like surveillance camera footage is affected by the placement of the camera. Court recorders are trained to be objective but in art the subjectivity of the artist is crucial.
  • Nevertheless there is a need in participatory arts  projects for  recording that is as objective as possible, for example for reports  to funders, critical evaluations. Francois Matarasso draws attention  to this need ‘when an artist’s practice  involves work with other people, for purposes and within judgement frameworks determined by yet others, notably those who pay for it.’ (Matarasso 2013: 2)
  • We can try to achieve this by having a range of people documenting and a range of documentary methods.
  • Some forms of documentation can affect the situation, I wrote a bit about this here. In that case the documentation is arguably an integral element of the work, not ‘just’ recording it but also changing it.
  • We must  obtain permission for recording people as good ethical practice.
  • In Tiree in Your Words we used a number of documentary forms
    • At the box opening event
      • the words on the cards themselves
      • the organisation of the words into age-groups
      • photography by both artists and by other people
      • video footage
      • tweets from the event
      • art work (inspired by our own words)
      • word lists, word clouds
      • notes from memory
      • a voice recorder was available but wasn’t used
      • whiteboard to record ideas for using the words and feedback on the project (though this was particularly interpreted as feedback on the event)
    • After the event
      • video interview with our collaborators
    • At other social events
      • photography by both artists
      • note-taking
    • Throughout
      • note-taking
      • email
      • blogging
      • the island newsletter
      • posters
  • Our stated intention was always to collect the Tiree Words to be available to the community – to form a resource for use in future art projects by anyone who has an idea for one. Those potential projects would also become forms of documentation, though they would probably not include the cards we collected, with people’s actual writing – just the words and phrases –  an abstraction.
  • About half way through the course we had a video class with artist Imi Maufe. Her practice includes ‘interactions’ where she invites, for example, drawings from participants and then collates them in her very distinctive style.  The printed books and collections she produces are not intended to emulate objective documentation, they are very much the result of her creative and curatorial process.
  • In his chapter on documentation, Pablo Helguera cites Jürgen Habermas in arguing that an artist, ’embedded in the action’, is therefore ‘a subject of the action’ and their documentation cannot be relied on. He says that documentation for socially engaged art must be verifiable if the work is to be ‘more than a work of fiction’, and calls for documentary ‘co-production’: ‘multiple witness accounts, different modes of documentation’, ‘ a public record of the evolution of the project in real time’. ‘If … documents are presented as artworks then they may be scrutinized as a video installation or conceptual photograph but not as the social experience they may have intended to communicate.’ (Helguera, 2011, 74-6). By this argument Imi Maufe’s books would not be a valid record of a social interaction to the extent that they are a symbolic representation. This seems too simplistic to me. Helguera seems to give more credence to what sounds like a pseudo-s0cial-scientific style of documentation (which by its nature is still bound to be a secondhand experience), yet documentation like  that of Imi Maufe may be equally true and actual, precisely because of the subjective, creative quality she brings to it. In same kind of way that a poem can be as true as a mathematical proof.

Helguera, P. (2011), Education for Socially Engaged Art, New York: Jorge Pinto Books.
Matarasso, F (2013), Creative Progression: Reflections on quality in participatory arts, UNESCO Observatory Multi-Disciplinary Journal in the Arts, 3:3, 1-15.

‘Limitations and potentials’ – working collaboratively

Frances and I were the only students on the course  to do our project collaboratively instead of individually, and  I think for my part I drifted into that without really questioning whether it was the simplest, the easiest, the most efficient or the most creative option (no, no, maybe and yes!). I think it added levels of complication that we were unprepared for. Yet working through the challenges that collaboration brought has given us a project that is richer and more far reaching than it might have been and ‘something that  could not have been achieved alone’ (Ravetz et al., 2013: p21).

Pablo Helguera talks about the ‘limitations and potentials’ of productive  collaboration (Helguera,  2011: p52). Amanda Ravetz, Alice  Kettle and Helen Felcey, writing collaboratively, speak of the ‘balance between certitude and risk’ and the frictions that arise in  collaborative partnerships (Ravetz et al., 2013: p6) and note that ‘Attempts to undertake material collaborations can unsettle or discomfort participants, leaving them aware of what they do not know and cannot do.’ (p5). Our ‘material’ was the intangible material of social understanding and interaction, not the physical material of craft, but we also found this to be true. We are very different in experience and in personality  and we had to work extremely hard and sometimes painfully to reach solutions that preserved our individual integrity  (which is not the same thing as doing it the way we originally wanted!)

I think we made it work because we were both ultimately committed to the course and to the project and because we persevered in struggling to communicate until we were able to communicate, until we both learned to see the other’s point of view. This experience showed me that it may not always be possible in a collaboration to reach the kind of compromise that combines elements  of two opposed viewpoints; to quote again from Ravetz et al. ‘working closely with others may require a willingness to temporarily give up possessiveness towards materials, objects and associated skills’ – and I would add, towards ideas and even values. Only when I reached the point where I understood my values and was confident that Frances understood them and that I understood hers was it possible to make that kind  of  ‘temporary giving  up’ decision with a whole heart and open eyes. And getting there is an arduous  and exhausting process, but the rewards are huge.

Frances  and Fiona
Frances and Fiona, by Sophie Isaacson

Lesley Millar makes an interesting distinction between collaboration and teamwork, describing teamwork as ‘pragmatic working relationships with those who have the necessary skills to facilitate the smooth running and success’ of a project. Collaboration ‘requires a different approach based on mutuality of benefit from  the  process and the  outcome; a willingness to “let go” of ownership and to share and act on one another’s ideas’ (Millar, 2013: 24). Contributing our different skillsets to execute the project well was easy enough – pure teamwork. But it was in the conflicts and the frictions of sharing and acting on each other’s ideas that growth took place and we experienced the work as ‘not so much mine or yours as ours’ (Kelley, 1995: 147). We saw the boundaries of ownership dissolve and coalesce into something new:

‘Questions will come up around collaborative projects. Where did the original idea come from? How was it transformed by the conversation? Who had more of a hand in the final execution? The answer to all of the above is, “Who cares?” While artists each deserve fair credit and compensation, openness, humility and commitment to the output or product are most important.’ (Gupta, 2013)

Gupta, A. (2013), Artist Collaboration Fuels Creative Exploration, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/amit-gupta/artistic-collaboration-_b_3763586.html. Accessed 24/11/2013.
Helguera, P. (2011), Education for Socially Engaged Art, New York: Jorge Pinto Books.
Kelley, J., (1995), ‘Common Work’, in Lacy, S. (ed.), Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art, Seattle: Bay Press, 139–148.
Millar, L (2013), ‘Collaboration: A Creative Journey or A Means to An End?’. In Ravetz, A., Kettle, A. & Felcey, H. (eds), Collaboration through Craft, London: Bloomsbury Academic, 22-30.
Ravetz, A., Kettle, A. & Felcey, H. (2013), Collaboration through Craft, London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Accessibility: legibility

When we were designing the cards for Tiree in Your Words, we chose a font (this one) that is a little quirky, and at our planning meeting with our collaborators one of them pointed out that it might be quite difficult for people with impaired vision to read. People really liked the font, though, so we decided to create a large print insert and while doing that I looked up some guidelines for producing legible text. I’d always understood that serif fonts are easier to read than sans fonts, and was surprised to find that research doesn’t support this. These documents contain a lot of interesting information and advice for anyone who cares about accessible typography.

(In case  you’re curious, I printed  the inserts in Baskerville  font.)

Tiree in Your Words

I haven’t written much about  Tiree in Your  Words here yet, not wanting to potentially affect the result by exposing too much of the processes and thinking that went into it. Now that it’s completed (at least the word collection part –  who knows where  it might lead), I’ll be reflecting here on various aspects of the project and related thoughts.

Tiree in Your Words is a mini-project we (Frances Woodhead and I) undertook for the course we  are doing with the University of the Highlands and Islands called Art and Social Practice.

We wanted to find out what the Isle of Tiree means to people who live here by collecting six words from everyone; to give islanders the opportunity to express their idea of Tiree and the chance to see what Tiree means to others in the community.

We provided a number of ways to participate:  cards to fill in, a mobile number and an email  address. People ‘posted’ the cards into boxes around the island – wee Tiree houses made of papier-maché  – and yesterday we held a community event where  we  opened the boxes and put the words on display. At  least 26 people took part in the box opening, and we were delighted to find we’d collected words from about 140 people, nearly 900 words. During the event we collated the words and created some on-the-fly word clouds using Wordle, then mounted the cards on boards to display them in five age groups, plus ‘age unknown’.

group of people

The words will be printed in An Tirisdeach, our island newsletter, as a word cloud and maybe in other ways too, and are currently on display in  Tiree Rural Centre. They’ll be available for other projects and we have already collected ideas from participants for ways to use them.

Tiree in Your Words has a blog at tireewords.wordpress.com where we will be adding more images and word lists, together with any further project developments. We’ll  be  documenting the  project fully for the course and I’ll post a link to that soon, for anyone who’s interested.