Participation in art
A contradictory tool

Square of the European Promise
Square of the European Promise | Photo: © Stadt Bochum, Referat für Kommunikation

Civic participation is a key topic in contemporary culture. We explore why this does not necessarily make it synonymous with the democratization of art.

“Participation is hot!” declares the website of the European Academy of Participation. Participation – in the sense of people getting involved in art – is booming, and in the Academy’s view is an important tool because it gives rise to a “positive process” in which a shared European cultural space is constructed. This happens in different ways in different places.
The “Actopolis” project of the Goethe-Institut and the Urbane Künste Ruhr initiative for example is both a call to action and a call to co-author the city: artists and activists from seven cities team up to develop ideas and intervene in everyday events through their actions – in Athens, Belgrade, Bucharest, Ankara/Mardin, Oberhausen, Sarajevo and Zagreb. At the same time, the Goethe-Institut in France is organizing cooperation between ten European universities. Together, their aim is to draw up benchmarks for participation in art and cultural projects. In Bochum, concept artist Jochen Gerz called upon people from Europe to make a promise. The promises themselves remained secret, but the names of the nearly 15,000 people who took part were inscribed into the stone paving in front of the Christuskirche in Bochum; the site has now been named the “Platz des europäischen Versprechens” – the Square of the European Promise.

Public intervention is also part of the artistic calculation

These three examples illustrate the broad spectrum of projects that establish a relationship between art and participation. There are differences between them in terms of how the public is addressed, how roles are allocated and how the action is conveyed in the media. The sites, the forms of interaction and the time frames also differ. This ambiguous, undefined and contradictory aspect of “participation” is rooted in the concept itself. Even the etymology of the word highlights the contradictions between a person or group’s active and passive participation: the term participation is a compound of the Latin words “pars” (part) and “capere” (take). This ambivalence continues through the history and present of participatory art like a leitmotif.
At the latest when the Macedonian curator, art historian and art theorist Suzana Milevska called for a “participatory shift” in 2006, participation advanced to become a key topic in contemporary art. Generally speaking, boundaries are being increasingly removed from the concept of art: more and more, it is a question of creating events and situations rather than objects. Participatory art projects emphasize the element of activation and empowerment: people are actively involved in producing knowledge, sense and meaning, collective experience or indeed objects. Nonetheless, as the philosopher Juliane Rebentisch urged in 2013, participatory art works should “not be over-hastily misunderstood (...) as a kind of democratization of art production, for the asymmetry between artist and public remains: the public’s interventions in the work are part of the artistic calculation here; they take place within a horizon set by the artist.”

Often misappropriated for urban marketing

When artists, curators and theorists use participation as a creative strategy, it is important to ask not only about their aesthetic priorities. It is also a question of the hierarchies they generate. Furthermore, it should be remembered that participatory art projects are often misappropriated as an alternative to and compensation for social welfare cuts or as an urban marketing tool. Who decides who is or is not allowed to take part – and who bears the responsibility? Can experiences gained in artistic projects and processes be translated directly into concrete insights and action and set down in guidelines? Can experiences from artistic projects be transferred to other areas such as education science, social work, cultural policy or urban planning? How do traditional concepts of authorship, artistic freedom and aesthetic autonomy change? What stance do artists adopt in an increasingly neoliberal discourse about initiative, flexibility and continuous self-activation and self-optimization?
Participatory art demands a response, in the sense that one is forced to look and listen more closely and to get actively involved. It creates spatial experiences and dramaturgical “as if” scenarios, and highlights fleeting sites in which society can understand itself. Participation is always an answer. Often it is artists and creative individuals who formulate a question in order to redefine the relationship between art, democracy and participation. Whoever the question may be addressed to is free to decide whether to accept the invitation and how to answer the question. Given the topicality of and continuing boom in commissioned participatory art, there is increasingly an option to refuse. This preserves the fundamental concept of democratic self-determination and the idea of one’s capacity to take political action: you can decide for yourself!