You might have noticed a few terms that pop up when I talk about my work which feel familiar but can perhaps be a little intangible and blurry around the edges. I talk often about participatory, performative, public and sometimes community art, and they can overlap and depart from one another in various ways. So I thought it might be useful to take a little time to unpack what the terms really mean and what the implications of that are to audience engagement.
Participatory ArtParticipatory art is a form of artistic expression that involves active participation from the audience. In a traditional gallery setting, the role of the audience is, for the most part, passive; the artwork conveys information, and the audience receives it. Though it is widely accepted that the audience is central to completing the artwork, there is no opportunity for the audience to influence how the artwork is experienced or received. In participatory artworks, the audience is invited to contribute directly to the artwork. In my own practice, you can see examples of participatory artworks in Something Good and Growing Giants. Both these artworks exist in their own right – much as a traditional artwork – but these pieces become activated by interactions with the audience. In the example of Something Good, the art is less about the sculptural form that the work takes, but more about the communal act of giving: the artwork is completed by the audience. In Growing Giants, the audience is invited to place wildflower seeds within the sculptures so that, as time goes on, they are directly responsible for the growth of the artworks and their environmental context.
Participatory art work allows for an artistic experience to become more dialogical, personal and experiential. It often challenges traditional notions of authorship as it allows for collective creativity where the audience contributes to the final piece.
One of my favourite artists working with participatory practice is the French conceptual artist, Sophie Calle. Her works explore themes of intimacy and vulnerability, and often invite the audience to contribute letters or responses to deeply personal events and trauma. In one extreme example, Rhythm 0, Marina Abramović placed objects on a table and allowed the audience to use the objects to interact with her. Through these interactions, the audience were able to act with kindness or cruelty, with Abramović being stripped, threatened and physically attacked through the duration of the artwork. Through these examples, it’s possible to see that, though framed by the artist, it is through the actions of the audience that the artworks gain their meaning and significance.
Performative art can be seen very similarly to participatory art, and sometimes I can be prone to using the two terms interchangeably. Performative art, I would argue is slightly more specific. Like participatory art, performative arts are activated by the engagement of the audience, but the focus on performative art is on the movement of the people in relationship to the artwork. In my own practice, probably the best example would be the exhibition, The Geography of Time, wherein the audience is encouraged to move through the exhibition in certain ways due to its curation and audio interventions. The audience can be viewed, through their navigation of the space, as performing as part of the artwork.
A great example of performative art is Yayoi Kusama's Infinity Rooms, which places the audience within the artwork through a complex maze of mirrors to become part of the aesthetic of the artwork. And showing the synergy between performative and participatory art, Abramović’s Rhythm 0 can be seen as both participatory and performative, depending on our position as spectator or actor within the artwork.
Community art, in contrast, is a form of artistic expression that is created by, with, or for a community. This type of art usually aims to address social issues within the community or to foster unity and a sense of belonging among its members. Community art projects can take any form, from murals to festivals, but are usually designed to reflect the specific communities and location they serve. The focus of community arts tends to be on the benefit to the community rather than the artistic outcome – though it could very easily be argued that the community benefit is the artistic outcome.
My workshop-based project, Ad Memoriam Charcoals, worked with communities to interrogate narratives around time and resulted in the creation of participants’ own charcoal artworks. Whilst I was able to guide the theme, process and format of the works, the artistic output wouldn’t have been possible without those who took part.
The creation process in community art often involves collaboration between artists and community members, and can range from workshops to co-creation. Co-creation involves the audience from the very point of conception through to the final outcome of the artwork. They drive the direction, content and format of the final piece, and the artwork can be seen to speak with a collective voice, rather than the singular voice of the artist.
Community art can serve as a powerful tool for social change, providing an avenue for communities to express their identity, voice their concerns, and advocate for change. Community arts programmes can be seen to offer new skills and confidence to individuals who have been underserved through other means, and can be transformative in people’s lives. However, the nature of funding in the sector means that often projects can be short-term in their engagement and impact, and are sometimes used to fill more structural gaps in provision for our communities.
I wanted to add a note here on public art as, though it has historically been quite separate to community and participatory art, contemporary theory asks us to consider what role public art plays in the development of our shared spaces. Given the focus that this discussion has had on how the audience interacts with art through these different artforms, it’s really interesting to note how public art has increasingly embraced the notions of participation, performativity and community arts. Many contemporary artists now working in the public sphere are considering the social and ethical impact of taking up public space – how their interventions can benefit the public or lead to more profound or thought-provoking experiences. One pioneering example of this is Esther Shalev-Gerz and Jochen Gerz’s 1986 The Monument Against Facism. This extraordinary work was a 12-meter-high column which invited people to inscribe their names and messages into its surface, and which was gradually sunk into the ground as more of the surface became covered. Now all that can be seen is the very top of the monument, yet it stands as one of the most effective collective memorials in public space.
Participatory Art, performative art, community art and public art: What’s the difference?
Whilst all these disciplines vary in their approaches, each of them can be seen to put the audience or participant as a central focus of the artwork. Whilst participatory and performative arts are activated through the actions and interventions of the audience, the overall vision and conceptual drive comes from the artist. They are usually – though not always – set in an artistic or gallery context. Community arts takes the focus from the artistic output or experience, and places it on the collective voice and communal creative experience. It is usually created and placed in settings which are accessible to the local communities. Public art, meanwhile, has always had an ability to reach audiences outside of the traditional gallery-audience, but only sometimes focusses on the impact of the artwork to the space and community it inhabits.
For me, the most interesting art works come from shared dialogue and experience - the intersection of different people and different lives - and all these practices can engage a range of audiences in novel ways. They challenge traditional notions of art and artist, fostering a more inclusive and interactive approach to artistic expression. The places where these practices converge can be rich sources of creative inspiration for both artist and audience, widening conversation and perspectives, developing shared experiences and memories, and embracing the unknown and unpredictable.