Participation: Incentives, Tenets and Time

Published in Visual Artists’ News Sheet – Visual Arts Ireland

(Issue 5 September- October 2016)

Create, the national development agency for collaborative arts, supports artists across all artforms who work with communities in different social and community contexts, be they communities of place or communities of interest. Create seeks to foster current and future potential for collaboration between artists and communities by encouraging art projects that reflect the exciting ways in which collaborative arts represent a complex range of ideas and approaches.

A very significant aspect of the support Create offers is providing informed advice to artists in the field of collaborative arts. As the Professional Development Officer at Create, I work with and advise artists on potential projects and, in turn, am privileged to be informed by artists and representatives of communities of a plethora of concepts, approaches and projects that demonstrate the incredible diversity and depth within the collaborative arts field.

In The Spectrum of Participation Chrissie Tiller writes: “In the end I think it has to do with being transparent about our intentions: being clear with ourselves and those we are working with why we, as artists, are engaged with a particular group of participants, a particular issue or in creating a particular piece of collaborative work. This means taking on the responsibility and the time to understand the social, political and economic contexts in which our work is situated: acknowledging the power structures, of which we, as artists, are part.”1

The political and economic systems that we work and live within can determine the environment in which the arts is experienced. Complex systems, driven by a neoliberal agenda with bureaucratic power structures, reinforce expectations of achievement and commodified experience. These systems influence or frame the policies that publicly funded institutions adopt.
Cultural institutions are required to outline their achievements through quantitative measures, and place value upon the institutional experiences. This has an impact on collaborative and participatory arts practice for which measurements of projects often require increased participant numbers and valuation of the product rather than more subtle measures such as the quality of engagement and the processes used to develop artistic outcomes.

These power structures, policies and reporting requirements are well known and responses to critiques of them are also seen within the same institutions. Making Great Art Work: The Arts Council Strategy 2016 – 2025 states: “Our commitment to renewal is not about a restoration of previous models, but about selective and well-planned resourcing of excellent practice, inclusive of fresh and dynamic approaches to public engagement.”2

Within the bounds of an institution, artists and communities can benefit from an awareness of the priorities and policies of the institution’s programmes, in order to choose whether their arts project may or may not be an instrument of the implementation of those policies.
The rationale for collaborative and participative arts practice has the potential to enable cultural democracy, equality and cultural exchange through the making of artworks. That is why the distinct intention of the process of making and the outcome of artworks should be understood by all people involved with the work.

Alongside the intention, there is usually a belief system that underpins the ethics of the work. Moral tenets inform practice, often without explicit recognition. What beliefs do we hold with us when we work with people? What beliefs do those people have and are they shared? Do these beliefs affect the work and do we need to be explicit about this? These questions are significant when there is an expectation of a transformative experience as part of the project.
As Dave Beech says in his paper Bodies and Subjects: “It is only by assuming that art is good that we can go on thinking that participation in it is something that ought to be encouraged and extended.” He says further: “The social and cultural distinctions of art’s social relations that prompt the ethics of participation in the first place are reproduced within participatory practices themselves.”3

Collaborative and participative practice is a field of practice that requires pragmatic actions of research, consultation, conversing, making, presenting and representing alongside clarity of intention and concept, consideration of incentives, an understanding of beliefs and, crucially, time.
It is that increasingly precious element – time – that allows for ideas, research, meetings and engagement. Time allows for the commingling of individual and collective imagination, for making, for performing and for reflection.

Katherine Atkinson, Professional Development, Create

[1] Create News 17: October 2015

[2] Making Great Art Work: The Arts Council Strategy 2016 – 2025 

[3] Create News Special: May 2016



Katherine Atkinson In Response to Summer Rising

IMMA August 18, 2014 by Irish Museum of Modern Art

There was a sense of anticipation at the entrance to the Formal Gardens in IMMA on Saturday 19th July. The Director and members of the team were adorned with orange IMMA T Shirts, warmly welcoming people and sharing the proposed activities for the day with us. Any fleeting thoughts that there may be weariness from the previous evening’s opening of Hélio Oiticica: Propositions and the adventure of WERK disappeared. Orange is the new craic.

‘They look like they’re going to a party’

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NCAD Oiticica’s Propositions

Following a ceremonial procession from the Stables to the Formal Gardens I heard a child say ‘they look like they’re going to a party.’ Members of the MA course Art in the Contemporary World, NCAD realised a selection of propositions by Oiticica as part of SUMMER RISING: The IMMA Festival.They solemnly carried the ‘Parangolés’ to the Gardens and proceeded to dress themselves in these capes and proclaim a series of propositions in response to Oiticica’s.

‘This is not a performance’ was announced ‘this is a slowly concreting proposal for public participation’ they continued. These statements became provocations ‘this is passionate insolence’ and ‘this is an insult to participation.’

Is this the time to participate? How do you challenge the proposition? We were told to ‘move closer’ however the formal and formulaic method of performance gave no physical invitation to move. The ‘Parangolés’ wrapped the actors so as to make them static and the colour and texture of the garments seemed to dissipate, as the proclamations got louder and more fervent.

Through announcing these propositions the actors were denouncing the intent of the ‘Parangolés’. ‘We are a construction of our environment’, as was this performance. Announcing ‘Trashiscapes’ I imagined using emery boards whilst lying on a mattress contemplating these images, as I circled the performance and gained a new perspective from the Penetrável Macaléia “Homenagem a Jards Macalé.”

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Penetrável Macaléia “Homenagem a Jards Macalé”

In experiencing this response to Oiticica’s Propositions I thought much about how the exhibition was mediated, the nature of showing and the expectation of a visceral response, the exploration of cultural norms, what it means to participate, how to participate, and how to share that participation with others.

After enlightened refreshment from The Hare Café at the Tiki Hut, I ventured towards the Trade School and was diverted by the atmospheric Laptop Orchestra installation where I saw a bevy of delighted children lolling and listening, banging and dancing around a series of coloured boxes amongst the hedges. With Edible Canvas, the Mobile Art School, Panti’s Drawing & Pictionary, happy children were brimming with creativity through the garden.

In the discussion with curators César Oiticica Filho and Rachael Thomas, we heard about Oiticica’s family and his influences. I gained a new understanding of his life from César and was reminded of the Neo Concrete Manifesto (1959) which called for a reinstatement of the values of intuition, expression and subjectivity. As we listened, a child popped through the hedge next to the curators and faced the audience brightly, followed by a parental figure who could not face the audience.

César responded to a question from an audience member saying that Tropicália is the Oiticia’s most anthropophagic work – when it became a Tropicalismo Oiticica ‘did not want anything to do with it.’

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The following Saturday 26th July there was a traffic jam on Thomas St. and I wondered whether the traffic was heading for IMMA. My memory of the previous week was intense and I knew that tickets for the Banquet on Friday night and the Party on Saturday were scarce as hen’s teeth.

I arrived just in time to hear Seán MacErlaine’s rich and playful site-responsive piece for chalumeau and gongs under the trees.

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Welcomed again by orange clad IMMA team members, I was encouraged to listen to the discussion Cultural Trends in Irish Gastronomy: Jess Murphy, Mark Garry and Michelle Darmody. We sat beneath the trees hearing stories of fresh bread, spuds, razor clams, raw fish, and more. We were given examples of food sourcing from farm to table. The Banquet menu and the installation of the formal garden in the space were described in detail. The beauty of the Banquet experience was expressed by an audience member. The image of thinly ripped seaweed delicately placed on yellow tomatoes as a reflection of the artist’s use of colour stays with me, including the description of the use of empathy and spectacle.

Walking through the gardens I came across the Mobile Art School with Karl Burke, and I was reminded of the images of the workshops during the week with teenagers by Rhona Byrne.

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Mobile Art School, Karl Burke IMMA

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Silent walking tours wearing colour, Rhona Byrne

The IMMA Summer Party came back with a colourful, light filled spectacle of art, food and music. Closing the SUMMER RISING Festival, all were inspired to spend time in the IMMA galleries, formal gardens, historic Great Hall and Baroque Chapel. There was a specially commissioned edition of Gracelands|The Dark Thoughts that Surround Neon transforming IMMA’s formal gardens into a temporary outdoor gallery and cinema.

Hélio Oiticica: Propositions is an immense, immersive exhibition. Incorporating SUMMER RISING: The IMMA Festival, IMMA offered a dynamic programme that explores, questions, unravels, and plays with the notion of the visitor’s experience to a cultural institution.

Katherine Atkinson works in Project Support and Professional Development at Create, National Development Agency for Collaborative Arts.

Reverie + Nemeton  Artist Publication | Artist : Marie Brett 

Transforming artefacts of loss

The gift once given

How do we respond when asked to give a gift? How do we choose what gift to give? What value do we place upon that gift? What do we expect will happen to the gift? Do we have a relationship with the gift, once given? Does the receiver have an obligation to the giver?

Reverie : Locating Absence invited responses to gifts that bore a relationship to the notion of loss. The enquiry asked for a tangible example of an intangible concept. The tangible example was an object. The objects that were gifted were as diverse as the givers, personal objects that were visual, audio, olfactory, and kinaesthetic. The sensory nature of the objects reflected physical, mental, emotional and spiritual responses. Building on a selection of these gifts, new publics were asked to respond by giving their own personal time, thought and, hopefully, a gift.

Who owns these objects once they are given? If the response to them is subjective, does this determine a new ownership? If the subject is representative of loss, is the response also intangible as well as tangible? If so, how do we mark this response?

‘There are two meanings of the word “subject”: subject to someone else by control and dependence, and tied to his own identity by a conscience or self-knowledge. Both meanings suggest a form of power that subjugates and makes subject to.’ [1]

Who wields power in the marking of intangible or ethereal concepts? Is it the artist, the art therapist, the participants? This is core to the enquiry. How is the experience of all parties marked and represented?

The knowledge generated from Reverie : Locating Absence goes some way towards answering these questions, particularly in enquiring about object and subject. The gift economy has been considered deeply during the process, and each action has been introduced with a description of the context and open invitations that allow for participants to make their own choices.

Participants voluntarily left the notion of a safe space (a characteristic integral to the practice of art therapy) and entered into the un-safe space of contributing to a public artwork. Entering the un-safe space allowed for experimentation and risk, affording opportunity for new ways for the participants to experience both the tangible and intangible elements of this enquiry.[2]

‘The discursive criteria of socially engaged art are, at present, drawn from a tacit analogy between anti-capitalism and the Christian “good soul”. In this schema self-sacrifice is triumphant: the artist should renounce authorial presence in favour of allowing the participants to speak through him or her. This self-sacrifice is accompanied by the idea that art should extract itself from the “useless” domain of the aesthetic and be fused with social praxis.’[3]

Nemeton was an arts intervention inside St. Mary’s Collegiate Church, Youghal, Co. Cork. Selected gift responses were located throughout the environs of the church. Nemeton showed the transformation of the object rather than the person. Transforming the artefacts of loss within this space to become reverential meant that they were interpreted in many ways. This interpretation informed decisions to move or remove the artefacts from where they had been placed.

The site of St. Marys has a dual purpose, firstly, as a consecrated space where Christian services are conducted and, secondly, as an arts centre space managed by the town council.

Nemeton became the “subject” of those that believe they owned the right to move or remove these reverential artefacts within the space. Both Christian and secular representatives of St. Marys responded to them in that way. Some of the rationale for the re/moving of the artefacts followed the description of power when the subject is ‘tied to his own identity by a conscience or self-knowledge’, how the artefact was interpreted was based on an individual’s own experience. The other rationale also leads to the use of power by Nemeton being subject to someone else by control and dependence.

This is a strong outcome for Nemeton. The artefacts were interpreted with such meaning and self interest with the potential for a powerful impact that, for both Christian and secular representatives of St. Marys, they believed they had the right to censor them.

The “useful” domain of the aesthetic had substantial power within Nemeton, and now the narrative of a relationship with place has created a new outcome adding to the discursive criteria of socially engaged art.

[1] Foucault ,M. Power, Essential Works of Foucault 1954-1984 London: Penguin (1994) 331

[2] The presence of a trained art therapist within this process provides support for those potentially affected by the un-safe space.

[3]Bishop, C. ‘The Social Turn: Collaboration and its Discontents’ Artforum 2006 pp 179-185

Katherine Atkinson