Last week I participated in an extraordinarily illuminating and eccentric event curated by Chrissie Tiller and the Participatory Arts Lab to both celebrate and mark the sad demise of the MA in Participatory and Community Arts, at Goldsmiths. Participation on Trial was, to quote the blurb, a Dada-esque, playful (but serious) critique of participation in the arts. The crime was one of misrepresentation and deception. I was a witness for the prosecution.
Translation from the fictitious and surreal space of the Dada-esque courtroom onto the written page of this blog is a dangerous exercise. There may have been kernels of truth in what I had to say but what follows should be taken with an extraordinarily large pinch of salt!
If participatory arts had had any meaning as a movement we would have been able to find ways in which the imagination could truly have been used at the service of the people.
Every child and young person would be growing up having a relationship with an arts space at the end of their street. You could walk into any theatre in the land and see on stage people in their twenties at the start of their professional careers sharing the stage with people in their seventies at the start of their professional careers. During the daytime under the utilised foyers of art houses would be transformed into neighbourhood crèches. String quartets would rehearse in the lounges of care homes.
It’s not happening. So what went wrong?
We separated and segregated the very people who we aimed to include. We colluded with the creation of a fictitious space called ‘the community’ within which we asked people what they wanted and gave them what we thought they needed. We lacked the courage to allow art to stand nakedly alone, exciting and dangerous. We had to hitch it to words like “health” and “inclusion”.
We stole from the experience of the street and the everyday lives of those with whom we served our apprenticeships. We professionalised and sanitised our practice. We bleached out awkwardness and intuition.
We placed more value in our own creative biographies than those with whom we worked. We got excited when scientists told us what we had known since the beginning of time: ‘Brain scans reveal the power of art’. (Daily Telegraph 4th May 2015)
We didn’t just do, we became obsessed by talking about what we do. We used unnecessarily dense and impenetrable language.
We even destroyed those rare moments when our work moved or touched people, by ambushing audiences with evaluation and feedback forms and questionnaires.
So for all these wrongs, guilty as charged: we abandoned people. We abandoned art.