Participatory art

Participatory art is an approach to making art in which the audience is engaged directly in the creative process, allowing them to become co-authors, editors, and observers of the work. Therefore,this type of art is incomplete without the viewers physical interaction. Its intent is to challenge the dominant form of making art in the West, in which a small class of professional artists make the art while the public takes on the role of passive observer or consumer, i.e., buying the work of the professionals in the marketplace.

Some works on commission, which have made known participatory art, are the theater of Augusto Boal’s oppressed and the happenings of Allan Kaprow. An artistic work, which is interactive and participated, can be defined as participatory art and can also be categorized with terms such as relational art, social practice and a new form of public art.Commended works by advocates that popularized participatory art include Augusto Boal in his Theater of the oppressed, as well as Allan Kaprow in happenings.

Participatory arts refers to a range of arts practice, including relational aesthetics, where emphasis is placed on the role of the viewer or spectator in the physical or conceptual realisation and reception of the artwork. The central component of Participatory Arts is the active participation of the viewer or spectator. Many forms of Participatory Arts practice foreground the role of collaboration in the realisation of an artwork, deemphasising the role of the professional artist as sole creator or author of the artwork, while building social bonds through communal meaning and activity. The term Participatory Arts encompasses a range of arts practices informed by social, political, geographic, economic and cultural imperatives, such as community arts, activist art, new genre public art, socially-engaged art and dialogical art.

Participatory Arts can be artform specific, such as visual arts, music or drama, or they can be interdisciplinary involving collaboration across a range of artforms. They can also involve collaboration with non-art agencies, such as social inclusion organisations, local authorities and community development groups. The artwork produced can take many forms and, due to the collaborative nature of Participatory Arts, this may comprise an event, a situation or a Performance, rather than the production of an object. The interactions that emerge from these encounters are often translated into documentary mediums, such as photography, video or text.

Participatory art is a term that describes a form of art that directly engages the audience in the creative process so that they become participants in the event

In this respect, the artist is seen as a collaborator and a co-producer of the situation (with the audience), and these situations can often have an unclear beginning or end.

Subtypes of participatory art:
Comic Book Project
Create a Comic Project

Participatory art has its origins in the futurist and dada performances of the early twentieth century, which were designed to provoke, scandalise and agitate the public. In the late 1950s the artist Allan Kaprow devised performances called happenings, in which he would coerce the audience into participating in the experience. The French film-maker and writer Guy Debord, founder of situationism, also promoted a form of participatory art in that he wished to eliminate the spectator’s position by devising industrial paintings: paintings created en masse. The contemporary artist Marvin-Gaye Chetwynd relies entirely on willing participants to create her performances, as does the activist artist Tania Bruguera. In her work Surplus Value, participants were asked to wait in line and then randomly selected into those who could enter the work and others who were submitted to lie detector tests, in order to highlight the problems of immigration.

The emergence of Participatory Arts is informed by earlier avant-garde movements such as dada, constructivism and surrealism, which raised questions with regard to notions of originality and authorship and challenged conventional assumptions about the passive role of the viewer or spectator. In doing so they adopted an anti-bourgeois position on the role and function of art.

The social, political and cultural upheavals of the 1960s and the perceived elitism, social disengagement and commodification of art associated with modernism contributed to new forms of politicised, reactionary and socially engaged practice, such as conceptual art, fluxus and situationism. The development of new technologies and improved mechanisms of communication and distribution, combined with the break down of medium-specific artforms, provided greater possibilities for artists to physically interact with the viewer. New forms of practice were developed by artists, who proactively sought out new artistic mediums to shape mutual exchange through open and inclusive practices. These new forms of practice appropriated non-hierarchical social forms and were informed by a range of theoretical and practical disciplines, such as feminism, postcolonial theory, psychoanalysis, critical theory and literary theory. While questions of authorship raised concerns about who participates in the definition and production of art, the relationship of the artwork to its audience became a central axis for these emerging forms of arts practice.

One of the earliest usages of the term appears in photographer Richard Ross (photographer)’s review for the Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art journal of the exhibition “Downtown Los Angeles Artists,” organized by the Santa Barbara Contemporary Arts Forum in 1980. Describing in situ works by Jon Peterson (artist), Maura Sheehan and Judy Simonian anonymously placed around Santa Barbara, Ross wrote, “These artists bear the responsibility to the community. Their art is participatory.”

In the late 1990s participatory concepts have been expanded upon by a new generation of artists identified under the heading of relational art or Relational Aesthetics. This is a term coined by the French curator Nicolas Bourriaud to describe a range of open-ended art practices, concerned with the network of human relations and the social context in which such relations arise. Relational Art also stresses the notion of artworks as gifts, taking multiple forms, such as meals, meetings, parties, posters, casting sessions, games, discussion platforms and other types of social events and cooperations. In this context, emphasis is placed on the use of the artwork. Art is regarded as information exchanged between the artist and the viewer which relies on the responses of others to make it relational.

In response to the rapid acceleration of real time communications in the twenty first century a new term, altermodern, also devised by Bourriaud, proposes an alternative to the conceptual lineage of postmodernism. According to Bourriaud, the opening of new market economies and the mobility of artist and audience has stimulated new models for political and cultural exchange and participation. Through global distribution systems, artists can cut across geographic and political boundaries. A new cultural framework consisting of diaspora, migration and exodus offers alternative modes of interpretation and understanding of the artwork. The decentralisation of global culture presents new formats for exchange between artist and audience, which are continually susceptible and adaptable to readily-available technologies. Digital technology and the internet’s global social networks can promote a sense of participation without the physical gathering of people in any one location. This represents a fundamental shift in traditional notions of community and our experience of artworks.

The presumed authorial control of the artist was challenged in particular by Conceptual artists who placed an emphasis on the idea or concept rather than a tangible art object. They created artworks which could be realised by others without the direct intervention of the artist. Artworks could take the form of a set of instructions, where participants were directly involved in the co-creation of the artwork. Instructions were communicated through a variety of media, such as photography, video, drawing, text, performance, sound, sculpture and installation.

Similarly, Fluxus artists rejected traditional principles of craftsmanship, permanency of the art object and the notion of the artist as specialist. Fluxus artists viewed art not as a finite object but as a time-based experience, employing performance and theatrical experiments. Fluxus artists were interested in the transformative potential of art through collaboration. Spectators were encouraged to interact with the performer, while plotless staged events left artworks open to artistic chance and interpretation. Artworks were realised in a range of media, including musical scores, performances, events, publications, multiples and assembled environments constructed to envelop the observer. These initiatives were often conceived with workshop characteristics, whereby the artist operated as facilitator, engaging the audience in philosophical discussions about the meaning of art. Artworks often took the form of meetings and public demonstrations, happenings or social sculpture, whereby the meaning of the work was derived from the collective engagement of the participants. A common goal of Fluxus, Happenings and Situationist events was to develop a new synthesis between politics and art, where political activism was mirrored in streetbased arts practice as a radical means to eliminate distinctions between art and life.

It is important to point out that there has been some nominal obfuscation of Participatory Art, causing its appreciation as a distinct form to be stymied. It is most likely that this occurred simultaneously with the development of the term “Relational Aesthetics” by Bourriaud in the late 1990s. Some other art making techniques, such as ‘community-based art’, ‘interactive art’, or ‘socially-engaged art’ have been (mis)labelled as Participatory art, simply because the subtleties of distinction are not always clearly understood or cared about. Participatory art requires of the artist that they either not be present, or that they somehow are able to recede far enough to become equal with the participants. This is the only way that participants might be offered the agency of creation; without this detail, participants will always respond within the domain of authority of the artist; they will be subjugated in this way, and the work will fail to be participatory. This detail is centrally important in asserting Participation as a form in itself, and effectively differentiates Participation from interactive, community based art and socially engaged art. Any of these techniques can include the presence of the artist, as it will not impinge upon the outcome of the work in the same way.

Folk and tribal art can be considered to be a predecessor or model for contemporary “participatory art” in that many or all of the members of the society participate in the making of “art”. However, the ideological issue of use arises at this point because art made in the institutions of art is by default, already part of the art world, and therefore it’s perceived use is entirely different to any ritualistic or traditional practices expressed by folk or tribal groups. As the ethnomusicologist Bruno Nettl wrote, the tribal group “has no specialization or professionalization; its division of labor depends almost exclusively on sex and occasionally on age, and only rarely are certain individuals proficient in any technique to a distinctive degree … the same songs are known by all the members of the group, and there is little specialization in composition, performance or instrument making.”

In the Fall/Winter issue of Oregon Humanities magazine, writer Eric Gold describes “an artistic tradition called ‘social practice,’ which refers to works of art in which the artist, audience, and their interactions with one another are the medium. While a painter uses pigment and canvas, and a sculptor wood or metal, the social practice artist often creates a scenario in which the audience is invited to participate. Although the results may be documented with photography, video, or otherwise, the artwork is really the interactions that emerge from the audience’s engagement with the artist and the situation.”

Participatory or interactive art creates a dynamic collaborati

The development of Participatory Arts practice has also been informed and shaped by the development of public art programmes, many of which evolved in the context of large-scale urban renewal and regeneration initiatives. Participatory Arts programmes with their emphasis on public engagement and participation can be an important element in both the consensus-building process and critique of such regeneration initiatives. The economic downturn and social political turmoil of the 1980s combined with the alienating effects of capitalism and its impact on community structures, resulted in an increasing awareness of the potential of the arts as a vehicle to address social issues, in particular issues of social inclusion. Influenced by earlier forms of socially-engaged and activist art, many Community Arts organisations and initiatives emerged during this period. Community Arts emphasised the role of art in bringing about social aspects of the art initiative were imperative. Dialogical Aesthetics is a term used to describe the active role of dialogue in such socially-engaged art. During this period, state bodies funding the arts began to impose contingencies on their client organisations, such as museums, galleries, theatres and arts organisations, with regard to encouraging public participation in the arts, especially on the part of marginalised or socially excluded constituencies. The utilisation of the arts to address non-arts agendas contributed to an ongoing debate about the role of art and its relationship to its audience, which continues to inform consideration of Participatory Arts today.

Culture has grown to expect instant gratification and an all-access pass by posting feedback and opinions online. We are wholly accustomed to interactivity, and art that reflects such reciprocation and proactive involvement resonates deeply with us. By turning art viewing into an inclusive experience, the artist strengthens our understanding of the piece, and perhaps inspires the visitor to spend a bit longer on each painting or sculpture.

Today’s art museums are wising up to the benefits of interactivity. Many institutions have adapted to the needs of increasingly web-oriented, digitally-minded visitors who expect instant access and involvement both inside and outside museum walls. Such institutions have begun utilizing iPhone apps and social networking to promote events, online galleries to inform those at home, and touch-screen technology to guide perceptions within exhibitions. The savvier museums are also mastering how to define and regulate issues of conserving, displaying, and owning conceptual works that conflate art and audience.