Introduction: a contribution to a discussion
What is the purpose of this paper?
Participatory arts practice is well established in the UK. Week in, week out, across the
country artists are working with groups of people to make work together. This work happens
in an enormous range of contexts, including people’s homes, schools, community centres,
youth groups, charities, pubs, artists’ studios and prisons. A complete list would be very long

However, whilst participatory arts practice is well established, discourse amongst
practitioners about participatory arts, and particularly about quality in participatory arts is
much less frequent. Whilst some high-profile debate has occurred between critics (see
below for Bishop/Kester debate) there have not yet been many attempts to translate into
systematic critical discussion at a practitioner level.1 Recent discussions in which Helix Arts
has taken part seemed to reveal that we are at the start of developing a common language
and set of understandings that would enable people who care about participatory arts to
develop a critical discourse around the work that is undertaken.2

This critical discourse is important for a number of reasons. Without a critical discourse the
participatory arts sector struggles to understand and assert the value of its practice in the
wider world. What makes for good participatory arts practice? If we do not ask this question
of ourselves, it means we struggle to learn and improve as artists and organisations that
make participatory work. If we can’t provide a response to this question, it means we can’t
assert the value of participatory arts on its own terms, and will always be judged by other
people’s standards – whether those standards are from other areas of the arts, or from the
social policy contexts in which much of participatory arts occurs. Do we want to be judged by
standards developed in relation to gallery exhibitions or operas or by the number of
participants who enter employment?

This paper is therefore intended to be a contribution to developing a critical discourse
around participatory arts. It is meant to be part of a conversation amongst people who
care about participatory arts, a mechanisms to articulate particular lines of thought which
arise from Helix Arts’ perspective and to stimulate responses which enable us to further
develop both our shared understandings and our points of difference. In pinning complex
thoughts to a page in this way there is inevitably a loss of nuance and ambiguity, qualities
that are extremely important for a rounded conversation about any aspect of arts practice.
Hopefully, people can re-introduce these qualities in conversations to follow.

This paper also attempts to translate that critical discourse into tools which help people to
understand and assess quality in practice. We hope that you find these ideas interesting,
and the tools useful.

  A fantastic exception to this is Pablo Helguera’s Education for Socially Engaged Art, Jorge Pinto
Books, 2012
  Participation Lab, February 2011, instigated by Jane Dudman, and hosted by Newcastle University
and Isis Arts.

What is Participatory Art?

There is an enormous range of participatory arts practice, and a wide-variety of
understanding about what participatory art is. However, at its heart, there is simplicity about
what defines participatory arts practice. Participatory Art involves an artist working with at
least one other person to take part in a process that the artist facilitates.

Participatory arts therefore cover the full range of art forms and crosscuts many different
artistic practices. There are participatory film-makers, musicians, drama practitioners,
writers, photographers, live-artists, AV makers, textile artists, print makers, designers,
animators, dancers, painters, sculptors (and many more). There are obviously significant
differences between how each of these practices operates. This paper seeks to explore what
elements of quality they share as participatory arts practices.

Recent discussions at Participation Lab enabled the participants in that conversation to
develop an understanding of one way of viewing a spectrum of participatory arts practice.
(There are other spectrums3). At one end of the spectrum lie projects for which the purpose
is to facilitate a creative enquiry for a set of participants, at the other end lie projects in which
an artist uses a group of people as material for a creative process that they define.

The key elements of difference between either ends of this spectrum seem to be:
   • The role of participants
   • Authorship of the work
   • The ethics of participation

One potential way of naming the different ends of this spectrum is to reference the highly
entertaining debate between Grant Kester and Claire Bishop about the quality or otherwise
of different elements of “collaborative art practice”.4

  Pablo Helguera provides a spectrum which has some similar elements. His spectrum ranges from
Nominal participation (the relationship a spectator has with a piece of work when he/she experiences
and interprets it), to Directed participation (where an artist gives a participant simple task to perform,
such as making a wish and writing it down) to Creative Participation (where participants are
responsible for producing some creative content – such as volunteers in the Battle of Orgreave
project) to Collaborative Participation (in which participants share responsibility for developing the
structure and content of work). Pablo Helguera, Education for Socially Engaged Art, Jorge Pinto
Book, 2011.
  Grant H. Kester, Conversation Pieces: Community + Communication in Modern Art, University of
California Press, 2004. Claire Bishop, "The Social Turn: Collaboration and Its Discontents," Artforum,
February 2006 and subsequent responses by Kester, and then again by Bishop. Obviously this
naming comes from a visual arts field, and performing arts has its own forms of this debate (see for
example, discussions around the ethics of participatory theatre, Francis Rifkin, The Ethics of
Participatory Theatre in Higher Education, Palatine, 2010.) However, the Bishop/Kester debate nicely
exemplifies a set of distinctions which work across the range of participatory artforms.

Placing projects on this spectrum:

We can illustrate this by trying to place some projects on this spectrum:

In seeking a project that we could place at the left-hand “Kester” end of this spectrum, we
could turn to the Ynot? project undertaken by Helix Arts and numerous artists and
participants between 2001 and 2009. This project worked with young parents and young
people leaving the care system to enable them to produce a range of artwork, working with
artists that they had chosen. The young people were involved in artistic dialogue with Helix
Arts staff and the artists they chose throughout the duration of the project, in order to shape
and take key decisions about the work that they jointly made. The work is explicitly co-
authored, and required on-going negotiation between artists and participants.

In the middle of the spectrum, we could place the Glorious project by artist Rajni Shah. The
project is described as:

       “From 2009 to 2013, Rajni Shah and collaborators are creating and touring Glorious
       - a haunting and unusual new musical. Each time we perform Glorious, we work with
       a new set of musicians and local residents - dismantling, reinventing and re-
       assembling the raw material of the show over a few weeks. The show is about
       people, about what it means to live in a place, and about what it means to gather
       together in a theatre.”

Therefore, this work is described as being “co-created”, and the content of the work is
devised jointly by artist and participants through a workshop process. However, this work is
framed by Rajni. She sets the terms of participation for participants – the opportunity to take
part in making a musical. For example, the participants cannot choose to make a
photography exhibition or a film rather a musical.

On the right hand “Bishop” end of the spectrum, there are numerous pieces of work that we
could reference. One prominent example is Domain Field, by Anthony Gormley. In this work,
volunteers had plaster moulds made of their bodies. The moulds were then transformed into
wire-mesh sculptures. Participants were therefore required in order to make the work. They
gave their informed consent to the process, but they had little or no control over the creative
process, and they did not conceive of themselves as in any way ‘authoring’ the work.

Understanding this spectrum is useful to a critical dialogue about participatory arts practice
because it enables us to understand that different types of projects initially require different
critical frameworks if we are to judge them in relation to criteria that they would themselves
accept. We can think of these as the notions of quality that are internal to the project. The
purpose of sections below is to attempt to frame criteria by which one end of that spectrum
could be judged.

Helix Arts’ understanding of quality in our participatory
arts practice
Helix Arts’ attempt to understand and articulate what makes good participatory arts practice
refers to the ‘Kester’ end of the spectrum. Our practice as a participatory arts organisation, in
terms of the projects we design and the artists we commission, lies mostly (though not
wholly) at that end.5

What follows is therefore an attempt to articulate our perspective on a quality framework for
participatory arts projects that place themselves at that Kester end of the spectrum. The fact
that this strand of practice doesn’t have a name that enables it to be identified and discussed
is illustrative of the language gap that currently exists in participatory arts discourse.6 For
want of a better term, and echoing Kester, we shall from this point on refer to dialogic
participatory art.

A Perspective from Art Theory

Now that we are clear on the type of activity that we are discussing, we can begin to
construct a critical framework for it in reference to relevant art theory.

  We do have an interest in the “Bishop” end of the spectrum, and occasionally invite artists to work
with us on projects that occupy that end. But these projects are largely by way of exploration and
compare-and-contrast to our main body of work.
  The term “Community Arts” may be posited as a label for this type of work. However, that would not
be an accurate description of the range of practice described above, a significant element of which
works with individuals or groups of individuals, rather than communities. Further it fails to fit with
community arts’ self-definition as “that which is rooted in a shared sense of place, tradition or spirit
(deNobriga).” Communityartsnetwork: reading room, September 2010, http://wayback.archive-

The two most useful sets of concepts come from Nicolas Bourriaud (Relational Aesthetics)7
and Grant Kester (Dialogical Aesthetics)8. These two sets of ideas are enormously complex
and rich, and there is not space here to conduct an in-depth analysis of either. However, at
their heart, they provide two simple ideas:
    • Art is a way of exploring and experimenting with new relationships between people
        (Relational aesthetics)
    • Art is a way of enabling people to communicate and see the world, and themselves,
        differently (Dialogical aesthetics)

We can add key elements of narrative theory to this, which have been developed in the
philosophy and social psychology disciplines.9

From this theoretical background, we can extract the following principles for what makes
good dialogic participatory art:

Principle 1: Dialogic participatory art enables people to explore what is meaningful to
The first principle concerns what dialogic participatory practice is: a sense that dialogic
participatory art is a creative process that engages artists with participants in the co-
production of meaning. That is to say, it is a set of practices in which artists work with
individuals and groups to explore ideas about what is meaningful to people, and how that
meaning has come to be created.

A key aspect of this principle is that it is responsive to the interests of particular artists and
sets of participants – what are the aspects of human relations that they want to explore?

Principle 2: Dialogic participatory art is creative, challenging and potentially
Dialogic participatory art operates in the social sphere. As such, it inhabits the territory of
social science and social policy disciplines. Whilst it may learn from these, it does not have
to accept their boundaries or strictures, and often questions the established way of looking at
things that these fields and practices have developed.10

The creative processes at the heart of dialogic participatory arts enable people to create new
ways of looking at the question of what is meaningful to them. These methods use creative,
non-linear, “right brain” processes to explore alternative perspectives about their own identity
and those of others. It puts them in touch with their spontaneity, their use of language, the
way they hold their body and the music and rhythms and symbols and images to which they
are drawn and which they create.

  Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, Les pressus du reel, 2002
  Grant H. Kester, Conversation Pieces: Community + Communication in Modern Art, University of
California Press, 2004
  See for example, Jerome Bruner, Acts of Meaning, Harvard University Press, 1990
   As Pablo Helguera puts it, “Socially engaged art functions by attaching itself to subjects and
problems that normally belong to other disciplines, moving them temporarily into a space of
ambiguity”, Pablo Helguera, Education for Socially Engaged Art, Jorge Pinto Book, 2011, p. 5

Principle 3: Dialogic participatory art understands that our identities are the stories
we tell ourselves about ourselves
This principle concerns adopting a narrative approach to meaning and identity formation. It
requires practitioners (both organisations and artists) to understand that particular identities
are not pre-ordained, they are constructed by people themselves from the range of narrative
materials available to them (and sometimes forced on them) within their culture(s). This
principle affirms that dialogic participatory art is a way to help people explore and reflect on
the narratives of their lives – the story of who they are – and to communicate that
understanding to themselves and to others. It is a way of using the disciplines of arts
practices to empower people to reflect on the cultures they are part of, and which have
helped to form their identity.

Principle 4: Dialogic participatory art is situated within, and has a deep
understanding of, particular contexts
This principle emphasises the particularity of experience and identity. Dialogic practitioners
recognise the particularity of people’s narratives and situations. The raw materials of dialogic
participatory projects are the particular experiences of the participants and the artists, and
practitioners must find ways to uncover and access these.

Principle 5: Dialogic participatory art is a shared process of creative enquiry and
learning between artist and participants
This principle concerns the relationship between artist and participant. Because the
processes of creative enquiry concern the particular experiences of particular individuals and
groups, dialogic participatory practitioners adopt an attitude of mutual learning in which both
artist and participants are exploring questions together. The processes of creative enquiry
are shared journeys in which artist and participants learn from one another, and recognise
the different types of skills and knowledge that each brings.11

This principle also emphasises the process-based nature of dialogical participatory practice.
It is intrinsically process-based work. It may produce artistic products at the end of the
process – e.g. book, film, exhibition or performance – but these things are not the whole of
the art. They are, in the words of the artist Kate Sweeney, “the trace left by the art”.

A critical framework for dialogic participatory arts practice
We can use these principles to create a critical framework for participatory arts practice. For
example, has the creative process helped a participant to explore and express their
narratives in new or alternative ways? Has it enabled people to authentically explore and
share their own stories? Has it given them the time to do this deeply? Or has it just skimmed
the surface? Has it understood the context of artist and participants? Has it taken a
participant’s existing identity as given, or has it worked with them to explore how that
narrative was constructed? Does it enable different voices and perspectives to be heard
within particular cultures? Does it do so in ways that challenge or excite existing
perspectives? These are all examples of potential questions that we could use to reflect on a
piece of dialogic participatory art.
    This approach has been described very eloquently by Paulo Friere, in the game that he devised to
illustrate that he lacked of knowledge of his learner’s world, just as they lacked knowledge of his
world. Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 1968.

Translating principles into practice: the relationship between art theory and practice
The principles outlined above help to shape an understanding of dialogic participatory art,
and enable us to ask questions about it, but they are not a recipe book for dialogic
participatory art. They should not, as Helguera puts is, “be understood as regulatory
mandates”.12 Art theory only lightly touches and influences art practice because most artists,
most of the time, are driven by influences that lie beyond theoretical frameworks.

If this is the case, how should we translate the principles of dialogic participatory arts into
ways to assess the quality of projects?

One way in which to translate these key points into ways to assess the quality of projects is
to understand the ways in which they relate to the two different elements of participatory arts

These elements are:
   • Creating Space
   • Artists’ practice

Creating Space
The first element of participatory arts activity is creating the space in which it can happen.
Participatory arts practice is process-based and situated. If it is to take place in contexts that
are not used to hosting artists, work needs to be done to ensure that those artistic processes
will be able to operate successfully. For example, if dialogic participatory arts activity is to
take place in sheltered housing for homeless adults: -
     • partnerships need to be built
     • aims for the project developed
     • resources need to be raised
     • a brief for the artist(s) needs to be agreed
     • times, dates and places need to be agreed for artists to meet with participants
     • artists and host organisation need to understand and accommodate one another’s
        working practices and cultures
     • support arrangements for participants developed and implemented
     • suitable equipment needs to be available for use by artist and participants
     • on-going communication between all relevant partners needs to be facilitated
     • if appropriate, exhibition or performance space needs to be arranged
     • ‘what next’ for participants must be discussed, agreed and implemented
     • budgets need to be managed

All these things (and more) are required if a dialogic participatory arts process is to work
successfully in that context – that is the space in which such processes operate.

Artists’ practice(s)
The second element of the dialogic participatory arts activity is the work of artists. This is
everything that the artist does to research, plan and implement the process of creative
enquiry with a set of participants. The range of this practice is as varied as the range of
artists who undertake it, potentially including conversations, workshops, visits, events,

     Pablo Helguera, Education for Socially Engaged Art, Jorge Pinto Book, 2011, p. xiv.

happenings – any mechanisms which enable processes of creative exploration and

These two elements are separable but strongly related. For example, if we wanted to ask the
question “has the creative process helped a participant to explore and express their
narratives in new or alternative ways?” understanding the answer would involve reflecting on
both the way in which the project was designed and the artist’s practice. If the project was
designed in such a way that the artist only spent a small amount of time with participants,
then it is unlikely that they will have been able to explore the particularities of those
participants’ narratives in any depth.

The approach to reflecting on quality in dialogic participatory arts would therefore seem to
require an initial assessment of the quality of space that was created. This is the base on
which effective artists practice can be built, then we can we engage in a critical conversation
about the creative processes employed by the artist.

The approach that Helix Arts’ has developed to try out these types of reflection is described

Creating Space

Helix Arts has created a self-assessment framework for our projects that asks questions and
identifies criteria under the following headings.

Understanding context – recognising particular situations and histories
  • Creating partnerships which draw on the expertise of organisations and people who
      are expert at supporting marginalised people
  • Recruiting artists with experience and expertise of working with disadvantaged and
      marginalised people
  • Enabling artists and support workers to develop a shared understanding and
      knowledge about the particular contexts of participants and the way in which they
      relate to and inform the proposed creative programme
  • Enabling participants to make informed choices about their own creative journeys

Building relationships and facilitating engagement with the participatory process
   • Recruiting artists who excite and inspire participants to engage with the participatory
   • Creating budgets for work which allow artists the time to build high quality
       relationships with participants - e.g. duration of projects, and artist/participant ratios
   • Ensuring that artists, support staff and participants understand and consent to the
       roles that they play within the project
   • Providing practical and emotional support to participants to enable them to engage
       and access each workshop/event
   • Ensuring that participants feel that they and their contributions are valued

Enabling participatory arts processes to function well
   • Making use of places which provide accessible, fit for purpose environments in which
      to work

•   Providing equipment and materials which enables artists and participants to produce
       the work they want, to the standard they want
   •   Ensuring that processes are recorded or documented
   •   Ensuring that questions of authorship, credit and ownership are discussed and
       agreed between artist and participants
   •   Enabling participants to share their work as widely as appropriate, and engage others
       in dialogue about it
   •   Enabling participants to progress onto further self-directed creative activity
   •   Setting a vision, aims and objectives, and monitoring and reporting progress
   •   Ensuring that people have considered and mitigated the dangers of activity
   •   Managing budgets effectively
   •   Addressing and solving logistical problems – making sure people are in the right
       places at the right times, with all that they need
   •   Maintaining effective communication between everyone involved

The elements of this self-assessment framework are turned into standards and assessment
criteria/ The following is an example from the ‘Building Relationships’ heading.

Building relationships and facilitating engagement with the
participatory process
Standard                         Measure                           Assessment
Creating budgets         •   How many sessions were delivered
which allow artists          over what duration?
time to build high       •   What was the artist/participant
quality relationships        ratio?
with participants        •   How much of the budget was
                             allocated for direct contact time
                             between artist and participant?
                         •   How did you ensure value for
Enabling participants    •   How did participants make choices
to make informed             about the content and structure of
choices about their          the workshops?
own creative journeys    •   Are there any examples of when
                             the participant’s choices were
                             guided in order to increase the
                             distance travelled?
Providing practical      •   How were the practical/emotional
and emotional                needs of participants met?
support to               •   How did you ensure the
participants to enable       workshop/event was accessible to
them to engage and           all?
access each              •   How do you know that all
workshop/event               participants felt comprehensive

Dialogic Participatory Practice Conversations

Whilst it is possible to produce a checklist of criteria for quality for Creating Space,
developing an understanding if quality in an artist’s practice is more complex and nuanced.

As a consequence, the appropriate mechanism for reflection on the quality of an artist’s
practice is a dialogue between the artist(s) and other interested practitioners – other artists,
and people from disciplines related to the context in which they were working (e.g. the staff
of host organisations). The purpose of this discussion is to provide a space for critical
reflection for the artist(s) on their work, and in so doing, to develop a critical mass of
knowledge about the questions and answers that artists and other informed practitioners ask
of dialogic participatory practice.

The format for these Critical Conversations stems from the classic ‘crit’ session that most
artists will have undertaken in one form or another. The artist is invited to present their work,
responding to a set of questions, which derive from the principles outlined above. There then
follows an opportunity for facilitated critical reflection and dialogue between the practitioners.
Both the presentations and subsequent conversation are recorded in order to share the
learning from the discourse with others. In this way, we can contribute to the development of
a shared knowledge-bank of debate about the detail of dialogic participatory arts practice.

A sample of the provocation questions for the artists include:

Research and working processes

   •   what was or is the nature of your research into relevant
   •   what strategies do you use to develop dialogue, involvement and relationships with
       participants and how do you help participants to talk and think about the project/s?
   •   what roles did you play in developing the creative vision for the project ?
   •   how did you challenge both participants and yourself?
   •   how were decisions made about what is created/performed?
   •   How did you enable people to explore their own stories?
   •   How was the on-going direction of the project negotiated between artist and
       participants? How was the power relationship between various actors in the project
       (artist(s), participants, support staff) explored – both between and among these
       categories of people?


   •   what specific support – creative and technical - did you give to participants in making
       the work (if any)?
   •   whose work is it?
   •   Did the work enable people to find their own voice?
   •   How did you explore the potential of this medium with participants?
   •   how did you and the participants think about audiences for the work?

Critical Reflections

   •   how do you evaluate the success of the project/s in relation to i) personal practice ii)
       participants iii) audience?

To see examples of a Critical Conversation in practice, visit:

Further conversations…
We are very keen to talk with other organisations and practitioners about this Quality
Framework for participatory arts, and the tools and techniques that we have developed to
put it into practice.

If you are interested in discussing the ideas behind the Framework, or finding out more
about how to use the tools in practice, please contact us at info@helixarts.com. Or join in the
conversation on our blog: http://www.helixarts.blogspot.co.uk/

Or come and see us at:
Helix Arts
The Old Casino
1-4 Forth Lane
Newcastle upon Tyne

We look forward to speaking with you soon.

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