Archives for posts with tag: Participation

Written by Dani Abulhawa

I’ve been thinking about these terms a lot recently. They relate to my research on gendered play in the public built environment. For the past six years I’ve been engaged in a practice-as-research project that involves me going into town and making playful use of street objects, paving, railings and other things. I have performed this work in places where there are no people around and where there are lots of people. I have performed in Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool, Chester, Rugby, London, Bristol and Sheffield.

For this practice I wear a dress, which has developed over time, but is best described as something in a style that is reminiscent of fictional girl/woman characters. It is a sort of fairytale dress with puff sleeves and a full skirt. The fabric of this costume is grey cotton, referencing the generic outfit of city workers, and having connotations with uniformity, blending in, and the seriousness of a work environment.

I play ‘like a child’, but I avoid this identification because the activity is really a reclaiming of the act of play for an adult, and a woman. We human beings are players. Simple, improvised, spontaneous play is not merely something that children should do.

For me, the city is a social forum, a place that has been built by people and in which people’s lives play out. Practices of this urban place are like flows of social information; what people wear, how they move, and how they behave speaks to you. It is a flow of telling what is expected, what you can do and what you can’t. And the flow of information coming from the city is increasingly commercial. Our movements in the city are focused around the smooth transacting of money or the productive movement of workers to and from places of work.

My performances are an interruption. They aim to disrupt the flow of dominant social information. I am an interruption as a woman who plays, and I am being unproductive and non-commercial in this space. I don’t invite participation, but sometimes people join in with me, talk to me, and shout things at me. They interrupt or modify my flow in their own ways.

I always liked the idea of interruption because it doesn’t imply any kind of fixing of a problem (like intervention does) and the necessary privilege and authority that goes along with that. It simply points to another possibility or perspective, representing a different voice in the milieu of social soliloquies.

IMG_9721 - 600 narrow

Image credit: Dani Abulhawa






Following on from On Participation. Part I – written by Tim Jeeves, following the Interactions Peer-to-Peer session #2, held at Theatre in the Mill, Bradford.

On Participation. Part II – Problematics and tactics

Dave Beech, of the art collective Freee, draws attention to the problematics of participation, in particular the principle, prevalent in some quarters, for the artist to renounce their authorial status in the name of equality. As he notes, there are pleasures to be found in asymmetrical relationships such as the ‘relationship between host and guest, [… where] there are pleasures in being the host and pleasures in being a guest. Equality cannot be forced onto these intersubjective relations without killing off the care and the pleasures of caring and being cared for.’

Even aside from the bland equality such relinquishing might encourage, there are also questions to be asked around how possible it might be anyway: the movements of cultural capital are complex, and have a tendency to remain within particular groupings. Denying authorship in one area will often mean that is re-asserted, perhaps more subtly, in another.

Beech also highlights the neutralizing affects of inclusion. Making a parallel with the way that the European Union has assimilated its old cold war enemies into principles of neo-liberalism, Beech notes that art institutions – with their policies of engagement and relationship development with excluded communities – similarly pacify cultural dissent and conflict.

Dissent and the outsider are an essential component of a functioning democracy, as much so as giving voice to the disempowered, or agency to the dispossessed. To integrate a voice is to quieten it, and to encourage participation too strongly risks homogenization and recasting the participants in the mould of those who initiated the project.

None of which is to be taken as an argument against participation per se, there is much to be in favour of it; but neither should it be seen as inherently positive, even in instances where flagrant exploitation might be avoided. Rather participation should be seen a tactic, one among many; a formal container that holds ideas, aesthetics and political ideology. It may influence how such content manifests, just as using any medium influences the way that an artwork is encountered, and these influences are not neutral.

References: Beech, D., 2011. Art and Participation. dbfreee, [blog] 13 March. Available at:

Beech, D., 2008. Include me out!. Art Monthly, 42(6), p.1-4. Available at:

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Written by Tim Jeeves, following the Interactions Peer-to-Peer session #2, held at Theatre in the Mill, Bradford.

On Participation. Part I – Influences

Recent years have seen what Clare Bishop identifies as a ‘social turn’ in art practice. Very present in socially-engaged work, this tendency towards participation can also be seen in more aesthetically / entertainment focussed immersive theatre work as well as gallery-based contemporary art. As Bishop suggests, such work ‘rehumanizes – or at least de-alienates – a society rendered numb and fragmented by the repressive instrumentality of capitalism’. By positioning the participatory elements of these works against the sense of disillusionment and lack of engagement that is to be found in mainstream politics, they are often understood as emancipatory and politically vibrant. Alongside this politicised understanding of such work, it is also perhaps worth noting the possible influence of online environments that, in recent years, have seen a normalisation of the participatory voice as a means of generating content, alongside more traditional top-down distribution.

The combination of these factors has lent participatory practice a powerful force and presence in recent years, meaning that – at times – any problematics with the form can be overlooked.

As Bishop suggests, some analysis would appear to suggest that ‘There can be no failed, unsuccessful, unresolved, or boring works of collaborative art because all are equally essential to the task of strengthening the social bond [forgetting that] it is also crucial to discuss, analyze, and compare such work critically as art.’ As Bishop argues, a number of other considerations remain essential.

References: Bishop, Claire. 2006. ‘The Social Turn: Collaboration and its Discontents’. Artforum 44:6. pp.178-183.

To be followed shortly by On Participation: Part II.

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Table Discussion Notes : Interactions, Liverpool. 19th September 2014 (collated discussion and thinking from all the participants in dialogue with and written up by Tim Jeeves)

How does legacy affect socially-engaged performance and artwork?

First things first

The way in which the question is worded is interesting – ‘legacy’ is typically assumed to be what follows a project (one suggested definition was that it’s ‘what comes after the evaluation’) and yet here it is at the front of the question, asking us to think on how this after-effect determines the how the project manifests or is planned.

This primacy (and perhaps the actual word ‘legacy’) could be derivative of the way in which projects are pitched to funders and, as legacy can get very rigid / limiting / fixed / centralised when it becomes an essential and measurable part of a project, maybe we should be rethinking the language of legacy: bringing it back to the intention of the art / artist?

We didn’t get time in any of the groups to really think how this shift in language could be expressed, though the words ‘outcome’ and ‘impact’ were suggested as alternatives.


It’s not just funders that use this language though.

The idea of legacy was used as significant justification for the £9bn spent on the 2012 Olympics. It was this that led to the public accepting such a massive spend at a time of austerity and funding cuts elsewhere.

Although these negative effects of legacy were something that all the groups returned to, and felt needed emphasising, a number of more positive aspects were mentioned, not least the effect of intangible and personal legacies.

For instance, memories…

Two kinds of memory were noted; those which are more passive, recalled in quietude and which encourage reflection, and then there are those memories which act to trigger something very active.

Socially-engaged practice (amongst many others) can act to stretch imagination – suggesting different ways of being and thinking about things – the experience of an artwork or performance can encourage people to re-examine what they have otherwise taken for granted.

  • Legacy is another word for those relations and links that can be established within a community.
  • It can encourage rigour.
  • If, as participant, we see that it means something for the artist as well, there is greater impact. It injects authenticity into the legacy.
  • The legacy of any project can also interact with and influence other artworks; either later works by the same artist or within the broader cultural heritage.
  • There’s also a legacy in terms of language – the terms that are used to describe what has happened (or what will happen) come down to us from what has happened before.

The Legacy Table’s Final Thought…

Although there is a significant link between legacy and artistic responsibility –a few horror stories were shared of people appropriating communities to serve their own research / project ends and then ‘deserting’ them when they have what they want – if there is appropriate closure to a project, and all involved understand that as the terms of the project, then it’s worth remembering that it’s perfectly ok for there not to be legacy.

A project is allowed to end.


Image credits: Sarah Spanton

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Table Discussion Notes: Interactions, Liverpool. 19th September 2014 (collated discussion and thinking from all the participants in dialogue with and written up by Gillian Dyson)

How do the artists’ motivations and intentions inform /affect the impact of socially engaged performance practice?


  • What is the engagement?
  • Can be problematic …
  • About the more fascinating – seeing possibilities


  • Often those of other people (commissioner, patron, et al) can be imposed
  • Who is ‘in need’ of this art work?
  • The construct of ‘communities’ > based historically on ‘need’ around industry/ family/ geographic grouping
  • Financial imperative (earning a living) – exchange of our skills and knowledge
  • Reciprocity
  • Are we the artist/ makers the ones with ‘need? – you want to engage; recognise your past, understand who you are
  • Doing it for yourself
  • Well being – makes me feel ‘like I’m here’

What is engagement?

Why are there ‘subjects’ for the art project- and who are they?

How do you avoid ‘dilution”?

Do the artists and community objectives differ? – Managing expectations

Over time intentions (might) change – responsive, social, shared



  • How do participants get recruited?
  • Problems of ‘artist taking over’: need for good ground work – the organisation/ agent/ commissioner ‘holds’ the legacy.
  • Avoid artist’s ‘parachuting in’.
  • Questions around ‘targeted’ groups.
  • Put in the leg work – artist has to experience
  • Empowerment – artist and group
  • Importance of ‘liveness’ – to this process – in temporal and geographic shared space
  • The living/ embodied legacy

Key thoughts:

Be authentic – only then can work be meaningful for participants/ audience

This is about proposing different social structures  – social connectivity – challenge ‘loneliness (artist and community) – enables us (all) to get to know who I am/ we are.

Playing with overlapping frameworks  & infrastructures for socially engaged practice

Why are we here? –for change

How do we engage people? – through need

Who needs the work ?– artist and community (existent/ non existent)

How do we engage with art? – a process of social engagement – physical (live) connection

Product orientated art is less ‘engaging’

Process, liveness, located art = more socially engaging (for all parties)

It’s Ok for it to be a one off experience – legacy in the embodied, shared experience/ collective memory.


Image credits: Sarah Spanton

To book online—

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Social Works, by Shannon Jackson, Routledge, 2011

  • A wide-ranging study on socially engaged practice in a variety of contexts. Particularly interesting is Jackson’s analysis of how art practice can usefully intersect with institutions; she makes a well-argued challenge to the assumption that radical interventions can only operate at the grass-roots level.

Include Me Out!

Art and Participation

  • Two blog posts by Dave Beech of the Freee Art Collective on the risks and dangers within the current tendency towards fetishizing participation in art practice.

Homebaked / 2Up2Down

  • Originally initiated by artist Jeanne van Heeswijk and presented in the Liverpool Biennial in 2012, this cooperatively run Bakery and Community Land Trust provides a rich example of a meaningful intersection between art practice and a local community.

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The Author as Producer, by Walter Benjamin, New Left Review, 1970.

  • It’s nearly 50 years old now, but there’s still a lot of value in Benjamin’s demand for the manner in which art work is produced, to be an essential component of how it is understood.

On refusing to pretend to do politics in a museum, by John Jordan, Art monthly, 2010. Available online:

  • When the Tate Modern invited the Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination to run a workshop, they thought that they were just going to play at social justice. John Jordan documents this workshop, Tate’s attempts to censor them, and the birth of what has since become Liberate Tate.

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Written by Dani Abulhawa

Continued from Post #1 (17.7.14).

The politics of MILK by Nicola Canavan and other performances presented at Hazard, including Kris Canavan’s The Leveller, No More Page Three’s Hidden Women Trail, and Stephen Donnelly’s Driftmob is something I’d like to return to in more detail for another post, but for this I wanted to look at the response from some members of the public to have a selfie taken in front of Canavan.

There were only a couple of occasions when this happened, and both times that I witnessed it, it was adolescent boys who posed for a selfie during the first half of the piece whilst Canavan’s face was covered. There is something very interesting in this act; it comes across as a performance of bravado, since both people taking selfies were posed in front of a fairly large crowd of people. It is an attempt to take control of the space, to re-orient our attention onto the person making the selfie and to detract from the work (look at me). It is also an attempt to make a ‘souvenir’ from what is clearly a very thoughtful and carefully constructed piece; to designate this performance as strange spectacle and object (here I am in front of ‘art’).


The selfie is not really about documentation, but primarily broadcast. It is an affirmation that ‘I am here’; it is an act of placing the self into a stream of communication. The selfie as interruption, in this instance of Canavan’s work, is a way of recognising that something important and serious is being communicated, and the desire to want to subvert that, to make a joke of it, to diminish its power. These selfies, then, are a signal that there was something very powerful and pertinent generated through people’s engagement with MILK.

An event like Hazard raises several interesting issues, aside from the explicit politics a piece of work is engaged with. Particularly in relation to what ‘we’ designate as art – something Martin Hamblen piece Level Head dealt with – and the reclaiming of public space as a site for verbal and physical expressions of difference, discussion and interaction between strangers.

Image credit: Sarah Spanton, Nicola Canavan


Written by Dani Abulhawa

Nicola Canavan’s MILK garnered a lot of attention not only because it subverted the commercial space of St. Anne’s Square (as all the Hazard performances did in their own ways), but also because it raised a political question through the physical display of a woman expressing breast milk in a disused shop window. Several other performances addressed political issues explicitly – a notable example in reference to this piece would be No More Page Three, who put together a tour of great women, also located in shop windows – across the city centre.

Canavan entered the window space wearing a long red evening gown and a headdress of flowers that covered her face entirely. She was positioned, with the help of an usher onto an ornate chair in the right hand window. In the left hand window were several artefacts, including a taxidermy butterfly pinned behind a frame, the skull of an animal – perhaps a dog or a fox, and a decanter with two sherry glasses. After the expressing of milk, Canavan was joined by her partner who entered carrying their baby. Canavan removed the veil of flowers from her head and her partner, Kris (who also presented work at the event in a piece entitled The Leveller), poured the expressed milk into two sherry glasses. The couple toasted each other before drinking the milk, and following this Canavan returned to her seat and breast-fed their child for the remainder of the performance.


Questions surrounding the act of breast feeding in public have been circulating the UK’s collective public consciousness recently, with reports that women have been asked to refrain from feeding their babies in restaurants and other public places, alongside a general feeling that breasts are seen to be more publicly acceptable when they are presented in a sexual context (Page 3, men’s magazines, etc.) rather than when women are feeding babies.

To be continued on 18.7.14 …

Image credit: Sarah Spanton, Nicola Canavan

Artists Dani Abulhawa, Gisele Bone and Sarah Spanton attended Hazard, Manchester on Sat 12.7.14. We’re planning to unpack our observations of the experience of participating in and witnessing Hazard, noting both individual works and as much as possible the audience responses to those works, as well as the micro festival as a whole.

Our thoughts are as artists, each with our own distinct perspective, responding to other artists’ work, how people engaged with the work and crucially we’re interested in unpacking and fleshing out themes and questions around socially-engaged performance practice.

Look out over the next couple of weeks for posts on disrupting city-spaces, gender politics, intimate encounters, alternative economic exchanges, time-wasting, ‘selfies’, mapping and audience responses.


Image credit: ‘The Leveller’, by Kris Canavan, in St Ann’s Place, taken by Sarah Spanton


Image credit: Cardboard (re)Generation by Oliver Palmer, on King Street, taken by Sarah Spanton


Image credit: People watching ‘Lifeboat’ by Institute for Crazy Dancing in St Ann’s Square, taken by Sarah Spanton

Interactions launches today! An artist development project led by a group of 5 experienced artists who make socially-engaged performance work and are based across the North West and in Yorkshire. To get involved in the programme, follow this blog (which provides a platform for reportage and debate on socially-engaged performance practice) and come to the two public Mini-symposiums on themes and issues currently arising from this key area of contemporary practice. These discursive and practice-focussed events will be held at:

  • The Bluecoat, Liverpool—Interactions Mini-Symposium #1  Fri 19.9.14         4.30—6.30pm
  • Yorkshire Dance, Leeds—Interactions Mini-Symposium #2  Weds 8.10.14    6.30—8.30pm

 Hazard Dani, Gisele and Sarah will be at Hazard on Saturday (12.7.14) investigating responses and reactions to the programme of work being seen in Manchester city centre. Hazard is ‘the biennial micro-festival of incidental intervention and sited performance, which blurs the boundaries between art and activism…’ Kris Canavan Hazard - 600 Image credit: Kris Canavan and Word of Warning