For the September/October issue of the Visual Artists’ News Sheet, I’m focusing on forms of participation and collaboration. This concern stems from a continued insistence in my own practice as a curator in a local authority on interrogating the work of artists working in social, participatory contexts. We are thinking of participation as progressive – as preferable to elitism, exclusion and bureaucracy, for instance – but we need to think of the value of participation as completely dependent upon the value of the project in which one participates. It tells us a lot about how art and artists are being routinely interrogated. And I think this is extremely flawed. In order to delve deeper into the conundrum of participatory practice, I sent the following text to each of the invited contributors as a provocation: “People in the art world seem to have subscribed wholesale to the idea that participation or collaboration is an athletic sport in which artists must compete for their form of participation to be deeper, stronger, faster, longer and purer. The ideal form of participation or collaboration then hangs over every project that even hints at participation. This is not true of the experience of the spectator, who remains outside the work.
The author has more power over their work than their participants. If we are troubled by the presence of power here, we might feel tempted to abolish the practices of authorship altogether – emboldened, perhaps, by a misapplication of concept of the ‘death of the author’ – where instead there needs to be more traffic between author and reader.”
Aideen Barry’s work Silent Moves has recently won the ‘Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks’ poll for the year 2015 following its nomination and public vote in the Irish Times, beating off extremely stiff competition in the process. This is a testament to the impact well executed and rigorously formulated works like this can have on the general public. In her article, Aideen recounts her personal struggles, prior to this project, with being positioned as an artist in volatile, precarious situations and how this has informed her approach to working in the participatory field.
I invited Fiona Whelan to write on her methodology for the project ‘Natural History of Hope’, a collaborative project that explores class and gender inequality across different generations of women. She highlights the reality of these art processes, which engage people as a core feature and are each complex and multifaceted. She alludes to Claire Bishop’s observation at ‘Creative Time Summit’ 2011 on the evolution of participation throughout history from the ‘crowd’ of the 1910s, to the ‘masses’ of the 1920s, the ‘people’ of the 1960s, the ‘excluded’ of the 1980s, the ‘communities’ of 1990s, to today’s ‘volunteers’.
Developing an art project from a voluntary act was the course of action for Clodagh Emoe when formulating ‘The Plurality of Existence…’ Setting up a weekly gardening project with Spirasi, a humanitarian, intercultural, non-governmental organisation who work with asylum seekers, refugees and other disadvantaged migrant groups operated as a strategy to introduce herself and her ideas to this community. This weekly activity nurtured a trust within the group and laid the groundwork for recounting memories and writing poems that developed into sound transmissions and gallery installations.
The legacy and ownership of participatory works is an ongoing concern not only for the artist, but also for the community/participants involved. Michael McLoughlin’s project ‘Cumann’ addresses this issue through the formation of a ‘power of veto’ where participants act as custodians and arbitrators of the work they were involved in the creation of. They ultimately make all decisions over the presentation and delivery of the work and are consulted on its future.
The levels of participation and its expansive interpretation vary across each of the projects highlighted in this issue. Rhona Byrne and Yvonne McGuinness were awarded a major public art commission from Fingal County Council Arts Office to create work as part of their centenary programme. An intensive process of delivering 20 workshops to 500 people led to the development of the content, the making of props, and the creation of the final performances of ‘Mobile Monuments’. Three trikes were fabricated to deliver and transport these platforms for performances, echoing the slow networking and passing of information in the lead up to the 1916 Rising.
Participation in art might best be understood as an ethical ‘solution’ to art’s crisis of legitimation. However, participation can only appear as a solution if we forget that art’s actants exist only within art’s various forms of institutions, including local authorities, the custodians of the Per Cent for Art Scheme. Institutional critique, too, must occur within the physical or discursive horizon of the institution. This leads to a paradoxical situation for the ethics of participation. While participation appears to be the antidote to institutionalisation it can also, one would hope, be an instrument of institutional power.
Linda Shevlin is an independent curator and artist based in Roscommon.