Federation Square, Melbourne. November 27, 2014
Deakin University’s Arts Participation Incubator (API) invited me to curate a one-day conference for them in November 2014: launching a conversation about arts participation projects in the context of contemporary curatorial practices for festivals, galleries, museums, and public spaces.
What makes a participatory project successful?
How does participation contribute to artistic innovation?
How can approaches vary between CCD, live art and social engagement, and how can artists and curators craft different roles for stakeholders and participants?
How do we strike a balance between vision of the artists, the needs of the community, and obligations to commissioners?
How do we develop processes and frameworks for participative work that grow over time, or leave a legacy in a place?
Here are some of my thoughts on the topic, prepared for ArtsHub prior to the Curating Participation conference.
A step beyond engagement, drawing participation from audiences requires the asking of a lot of tough questions. There are leaps of faith involved, a distinct lack of safety nets and guidelines, and volatile human variables swirling below.
Participatory work invites an audience in to play a role; or sometimes, extends your practice into their lives, living rooms and streets. For artists, curators and organisations, it’s an approach that offers promise, but also requires risk, on all sides.
There are issues of trust and control; how much are you willing to give up? Who’s really in charge? How do you honour individual stories while crafting a broader narrative or achieving your artistic aims? Can you push into difficult territory while maintaining sensitivity and boundaries? How do you manage the practicalities of embedded, process-driven work, operating within object- and outcome-oriented frameworks?
We hear a lot about “engagement”, but it is a hard thing to quantify: in a performance or institutional context, you might measure it from the box office, in marketing, you might count ‘likes’ or shares. But this catch-all feel-good term doesn’t capture the rough and smooth of sparking a genuine, personal emotional connection. A step beyond engagement, generating (and managing) participation (or co-creation) from audiences requires the asking of a lot of tough questions. There are leaps of faith involved, a distinct lack of safety nets and guidelines, and volatile human variables swirling below.
While the questions are complex and risks are great, the rewards from participatory projects can be rich too: in delivering meaningful experiences for audiences, and challenging artists and performers to test their mettle and expand their practice. Around Australia, I’ve noticed a groundswell of art, theatre and community development projects which delve deeper and demand more. These are projects which have direct impacts in communities; helping individuals cast their own parts in the narrative of a place, draw connections with each other, and construct relationships and communal history.
In many cases, the systems and approaches we rely on are struggling to keep pace.Curating Participation is designed to bring together practitioners and commissioners to have these conversations, drawing from the experience of some of Australia’s best curators, artists and CACD workers at the leading edge, with the goal of establishing standards and conventions for what is often unconventional work.
The Betty Amsden Participation Program has challenged one of the country’s largest institutions, the Arts Centre Melbourne, to develop new processes for commissioning, supporting and reporting on participatory projects. With projects like Play Me, I’m Yours, Raising the Roof and eMOTION, the Arts Centre has headed in a new direction, putting the tools of creativity out on the streets and unlocking the talents of the public: in some cases, overcoming a perception of elitism to serve a new role. Emer Harrington andPatrick Cronin will share strategies for measuring success, and explain how they manage expectations within and beyond the organisation.
Knowing that genuine participation takes time, artist and curator Paul Gazzola works on long-term projects in communities. His recent Temporary Democracies project spanned three years in Airds, a housing development in South Western Sydney, and drew on the resources (both physical and cultural) of a place in transition. With artist Nadia Cusimano, Paul Gazzola is now establishing the Waikerie Temporary Art Gallery in regional South Australia, revealing the values and perspectives of the community to itself.
Footscray’s Big West Festival brings art home to people, where they live and relax, turning Nicholson Street into a laboratory for new work. Artistic director Marcia Fergusonexplores what makes participatory projects successful, and explains how she has approached the festival platform with two goals in mind: helping artists develop transferrable works and careers, while growing the appetites of venues and audiences for live art.
Urban Theatre Projects is a company which isn’t afraid to venture into challenging and confronting territory - over the past 30 years, they have delved into the scars and memory lines of communities riven by violence and loss - working through personal tragedies and celebrating the complexity and diversity of Western Sydney. Artistic Director Rosie Dennis shares her perspective on the balance between impact and sensitivity, mitigating risk while at the same time leaving room for work that surprises.
CACD practice Beyond Empathy tackles situations of compound disadvantage, embedding artists into communities and contexts that confound traditional social projects. Executive Director Kim McConville says best intentions don’t always equal best practice, and discusses how to set boundaries and develop processes for participatory work that grow over time, and leave a legacy in a place.
C3West, a long-term project of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Australia, brings together uncommon coalitions of artists, sponsors and stakeholders to inspire communities through transformational experiences. Curator Anne Loxley will explore the process of managing parties and partners, while artist David Cross, and Deakin Arts Management lecturer Anne Kershaw will discuss whether there are training opportunities, or academic and theoretical frameworks to support participative arts practice.
In the spirit of participation, at every point our audience were asked for their input – with the goal of creating a practical, adaptable set of standards for artists and commissioners working in this space. I hope Curating Participation sparks a process of questioning and discussion that will clarify the path ahead for a vital and ever-evolving realm of creative exploration.