Contesting Agendas of Participation

Panel: International perspectives on participation and engagement in the arts.

Utrecht, June 2014. Douglas, A, Gausden C, Price, J, Smith H.

  • Friday, June 20, 2014


What are the principles and motivations behind different forms of policy and action? This panel proceeds from a shared discomfort with the idea that there is any one ‘agenda’ of participation and engagement. It proposes a critical debate about the accepted definitions and assumed values of these terms.

At one level, participatory practice emerges from community activism and the political intention to challenge existing power relationships from the bottom up.  Contradictory to such impulses is the co-option by various governments of participation and volunteering as strategies to mask the withdrawal of resources from community priorities.  Participation has thus become the site of ideological conflict.  Between these polarities, institutions and authorities are themselves pressured to engage and consult in response to a perceived democratic deficit and the need for a social licence to operate.  Meanwhile, in artistic practice, participation may also proceed from a political purpose and be driven by concerns relating more substantially to ethical and aesthetic questions.

In this ideological confusion with the same terms representing different values, it is very difficult to make consistent judgements. How can this situation be made legible?

Individual presentations will examine specific practical and theoretical interpretations of participatory processes.  Together they highlight how important differences in purpose and practice are masked by the terminology they share.


Jon Price begins by outlining a range of participatory approaches in the arts that focus on radically different outcomes and can be traced to different conceptions of culture and democracy. This does not lead to a simple taxonomy of methods, but highlights questions of leadership, involvement, identification and outcome that provide a framework through which different scenarios may be read.


Caroline Gausden analyses a recent project, Participatory Economics 2013, by the artist collective, Wochenklausur. They worked with a group of women in Drum Chapel, Glasgow and the project was hosted by Glasgow’s Centre Contemporary Art (CCA). The project demonstrates a difference in attitude towards engagement and ownership between socially engaged art practice and its history in community art practice. It speaks to the question “who owns participation?” through the tension between artworld values and radical intentions for community engagement. In response to these contrasting priorities socially engaged art emerges as a careful negotiation between worlds, translating and reframing acts for different contexts. Rather than conceive of these acts of translation as uncomplicated, this paper explores the complexity and potential slippages that can occur when moving between spaces.


Helen Smith proposes a new beginning for how artists might be active in their communities. With reference to the theoretical framework of Artist Placement Group (APG) and their working concept of ‘open brief’, Smith challenges the motivations and assumptions implied by the concept of a ‘participation and engagement agenda’. The particular example of APG’s Civil Service Memorandum (CSM) is revisited as a means of asking whose voices are invested in the impulses “to compensate for diminishing state investment” or “to give voice to grassroots activism” (as articulated in this conference’s original call). Smith informs her provocation from her position as artist researcher setting out to understand her role and practice as a social process. To this end, she pursues the meaning behind participatory rhetoric in official policy such as the UK’s Big Society initiative.


These presentations frame a vital debate that will then be opened up to the floor for questions, responses and new contributions.  The significance of exploring the debate through contrasting experiences in art is to identify the similar pressures produced across the different sectors involved in public art practice by prevailing policy currents and the responses from each sector that can inform the other.  Through this dialogue we seek strategies for practitioners that allow them to detect jargon and assert their integrity in a keenly contested field of cultural action.

To this end, Anne Douglas as chair will introduce the aims of the panel discussion and summarise the key points of each presentation. She will then frame two key questions that result from the panel:

1.    In what ways is it important for artists to have better political insight into processes of engagement and participation (so as not to be co-opted, to gain control of practice, to understand the values at work in particular situations)?
2.    How does the arts sector take responsibility for itself?

Anne Douglas Caroline Gausden, Jon Price, & Helen Smith,
Gray’s School of Art, May 2014.


Who Owns Participation? Smith, H (2014).

To address this panels response to the conference ‘Who owns participation?’ I ask who’s voices are invested in the impulses to discuss participation on the one hand in reference to ‘compensation for state investment’ and on the other hand ‘to give voice to grass roots activism.’ (Conference call).
I do this by:

  •  Recalling my own involvement in a protest movement.
  •  Asking if this offers clues to how ‘we’ participate in society?
  • An example of a direct artist/ UK government relationship.
  • Asking if this might Inform how artists make sense of their art as a social practice.



When David Cameron was elected as the prime-minister of the UK in 2010 he made an invitation for us to participate by saying

‘Today is the start of a deep, serious reform agenda to take power away from politicians and give it to the people.’

This is a photograph taken of one of the thousands of demonstrations against the cuts to public spending across all sectors throughout the UK that proved his statement to be the political rhetoric of a neo-liberal government.
I show this particular protest rally because it is one of many that still take place in Newcastle, my home-town. It also one way in which I and fellow artists in Newcastle responded to the discrepancy between his words and their effect on us, our families, friends and other communities throughout the country.
We began by going to Coalition against the Cuts meetings and were asked to make a banner. We felt the cliché of this situation, but because as artists we did have the skills to do it we agreed.
The interesting thing about this banner is not that others identified artists as having the skills and creativity to do a good job, or that we came together to design and make it. But that we didn’t have a budget so we donated the materials or used our own money to buy what we didn’t have as well choosing to use our time without being paid for it (and none of us had work at that time).
What I also find interesting about the process of making this banner is that it was stored in our studios in a place where many people from the coalition network would collect it, without any of us needing to be there. They would take it on demonstrations all over the country and return it afterwards. It is still out there, saying ‘No to the Cuts’ that have been proved to lye beneath Cameron’s reform agenda. It developed a life of its own. It became alive in a way that it might not have if we had thought about our actions as art.
But what happens if I reframe it as my practice? Do our actions and interactions with others offer a way to rethink my role as an artist in society?

What I think happened is that as artists we
•    faced the same issues as our neighbors about how society was changing around us.
•    We were free to act in relation to these social issues alongside others by being invited to contribute our skills as they perceived them.
This leads me to ask
How might we have direct relationships like this with ‘participants’ in which they set the agenda for their own engagement, negotiated with artists at a deeper level than this example demonstrates?


The Civil Service Memorandum or CSM is an example of how artists attempted to negotiate a deeper relationship through art within governmental structures and organizational situations.
Artist Placement Group an artists’ organization led by artists John Latham and Barbara Steveni were based in the UK between 1966 and 1989. Steveni negotiated the CSM with Tony Benn Minister for Technology from 1966 for the Government in the UK at that time.
Michael Corris in an article for Art + Text in 1994 says that The CSM 
‘became a prototypical "contract" for APG activities and enabled them to bypass what was at that time a hostile governmental arts agency. (They had recently lost their support from Arts Council). The document that emerged from Steveni's efforts is perhaps unique in the annals of artist-state relations. As she says "there has never been an artist-government instrument of association on record except for this one instance’, (Corris 1994, P 70 [Steveni 1986 P14]).
More recently in 2005 at the celebration of the John Latham Archive at Tate Britain Steveni screened a conversation of her and Tony Benn discussing the CSM while looking back at the correspondence that took place between them in its negotiation. Art + Social Intervention 2005. To celebrate the launch of the Latham Archive on Tate website.


Open Brief

Steveni acts out one of APGs working concepts, the Open Brief in this negotiation. Its purpose was to

‘Generate circumstances in which.. art... becomes active in the context of administrations and their concerns, the artist becomes a representative of the long-term whole of which the hosting organization is a part’ (Steveni O + l Aims and Purposes. Unpublished document. 1993).

In this concept the artist is asked to create the conditions in which they interact effectively with the individuals employed by the government department or organization. They do this in relation to the subject of the person’s work and take an informed and broader perspective that embraces the issues they are dealing with.  In the Open Brief the artist is free to set up the ways in which in which they are active from the perspective of the bigger issues of society. They also point to the fact that the organization is not outside of these issues, but is part of it.

Steveni does this by establishing a working relationship with a key individual, or participant of the organization she sees as necessary to achieving the longer-term goal of artists being active in society. This negotiation led to artists such as Ian Breakwell  being placed The Department of Health and Social Security and John Latham in the Scottish Office. The changes they achieved were pragmatic; Breakwell revealed the in-human conditions of people dependent on the social services. As well as symbolic; Latham declared a series of Industrial Ash Heaps to be a world monument to labor. Both, however, experienced resistance from the broader infrastructures of their host organizations and were ultimately frustrated by this.



Interestingly the letters in the archive reflect a relationship with Benn that spans his periods of time in and out of ministerial office. During their conversation Steveni reads this quote from a letter in the archive that express his approach to working with them.

“However I have in mind that the placements for artists will be found most easily in large organizational (19.54) structures and in Human Resources situations? This leads me to suggest that you might care to consider approaching Barbara Castle to explore possibilities in the social services for which her department is responsible. You referred I recall to an artist as an engineer in concept and that sounds to me as though it might have a number of applications in the Health Service’


In the archive Tony Benn reflects on his reasons for engaging with artists triggered by Steveni asking him
BS. ‘What directions can we hope to influence?’
He replies
TB. ‘If you look back over history the people who have made history are the scientists and engineers, and actually that is what shapes society…. But if you do that in a mechanistic way you obliterate the mental conceptions and human relations, which an artist brings to it, because an artist sees it in a wholly different way from the way its seen by the people who do it. And so it’s the influence of the one on the other.’


How do artists make sense of their art as a social practice?

  • Direct relationships between artists and individuals.
  • The first example is initiated by a community including artists to participate in trying to influence government policy effecting this community.
  • The CSM is initiated by a community of artists lobbying an MP sympathetic to their cause of placing artists within the infrastructures of Government to influence society.
  • Both examples are motivated by a common purpose to resources their activities.
  • This common purpose motivates Artists and participants to resource the activities with their time, resources of their organizations and networks, even money, freely and without obligation.
  • The subject of the work evolves in response to negotiated events over undefined time-frames.
  • The subject of the work evolves in response to how the actions and interactions between artists and ‘participants’ negotiate events. And this occurs over undefined time-frames
  • Both generate further interactions and events that can be seen to be known and not known.
  • Neither the Coalition against the Cuts network or Tony Benn identify as ‘participants’ in an art process


Who’s voices are invested in the impulses to discuss participation as ‘compensation for state investment’ or ‘grass roots activism?’

  • For the Coalition against the Cuts participation is an expression of a resistance to participate and in this sense is owned as a grass roots activism.
  • This example does not separate the act of making the banner with its social purpose. In this sense participation in art is owned as a memory of the invitation to make it and by the many individuals who continue to walk behind it to register their resistance to participating in the dismantling of our welfare state.
  • The CSM is the most effective example of Open Brief. Desire to repeat experience leads to brokering and mis-appropriation of the interests of participants and artists?
  • In the example of the CSM this occurred between two key individuals who’s aim was to implement APG’s concept for how artists can be free to influence  society. However, this negotiation is itself the most effective example of Open Brief.
  • Is this when the ownership of participation slips between our fingers (Greg Sholet Dark Matter) and becomes an instrument to ‘compensate for state investment?
  • Is it therefore this desire to ‘step-in’ to repeat a model that grows from individual experience that leads to the brokering and mis-appropriation of the particular interests of participants and artists? Is this when the ownership of participation slips between our fingers and becomes an instrument to ‘compensate for state investment?
  • New ways of working for artists and those they interact with to take hold of their own needs on an individual basis in relation to a new perception of time and resources.