home features exhibitions | interviewsprofileswebprojects | gazetteer | linksarchive | forum



Participation: an exhibition and debate

I-res, The Poly, Falmouth, 26th -30th October

Megan Wakefield


'Falmouth’s last works had involved manipulating people’s despair, pensiveness, ennui. Those were malleable materials, lightly guarded by their possessors. The Aparty was another matter. Here, Falmouth had tried to appropriate other people’s happiness, and been met with that property’s devastatingly blithe resistance. Happiness was disobedient, had its own law.'

Jonathan Letham

You Don’t Love Me Yet (in which one character is called, spookily, Falmouth)


“We invite you to explore your personal decision to participate” states Magda Tyzlik-Carver in her introduction to the Participation catalogue, thereby shifting the focus away from the artworks themselves to the behaviour of the visitors. I had this decision in mind during the Saturday afternoon debate held in the midst of the 10-person show. The exhibition and related workshops involved artists with various connections to both UCF and the IRES Research “cluster” (Research in Interactive Art & Design) and, according to the curator, each of the pieces represented a different approach to participation.“Why use participation in your work?” Tyzlik-Carver asked the assembled artists, “What did you expect from it?”


Sara Matthews (left) wanted her work to be “playful”, something that a “non-art” audience could comfortably engage in. She had created a board game depicting segmented land masses with brightly coloured pieces you could use to “journey” across the continents. Suggestions about strategies involving the die and chance took the place of rules, and gridded paper was provided so that people could design and play out their personal journeys or those of others.

Ana Carvalho spoke about the process of learning through interaction, both learning about others and learning in the sense of sharing skills to achieve an outcome. Carvalho had two works in the show, one a collaborative piece in partnership with Tim Shear and Pedro Lima.  Journeys Through Space and Time (below right) was an audio-visual installation requiring the audience to activate film clips (depicting journeys Ana had made from Falmouth), and soundtracks by Lima. The piece was triggered by visitors impacting on a tiled floor designed by Shear.

Illustrator Susan Corke (below left) described how a viewer’s encounter with her piece could be participatory. Peepshow was influenced by pre-cinematic devices with a fixed viewpoint such as toy theatres and dioramas; a wardrobe was painted black, the door held ajar. You could peer in from the front, or through a hole in the back and have a partial view of suspended layers of drawn cutouts; petrified paper butterflies, frocks and figures. Corke described the artist’s role as only a starting point in the process of participation, and she raised the question of authorship as a collective event. She constructs spaces that cannot be penetrated physically, dramatizing our inability to return to the realm of dreams or the space of childhood, and she spoke about an element of “voyeurism and complicity” in the act of looking into these spaces, which is itself she believes a participatory act.


Magda addressed the question as to whether one could distinguish between participation and “interactivity”. Perhaps interaction, she suggested, meant that the “audience” could discover the rules for themselves. They would become active components in the development of ideas.


Jem Mackay (below right) responded to her questions about power relations within the rules of participatory engagement by talking about the participant’s control within a collaborative process. His work (and comments) emphasized the importance of collaboration between participants in exchanges that did not necessarily take place within the gallery walls. Mackay had created a sort of directed web forum where participants could collaborate to make a film based on the legend of King Arthur (see webprojects: Jem Mackay). Individuals could upload scripts, concepts, images, film clips and technical know-how, prompted by a daily email task from the artist. There was space for the editing of content by participants and a potted history by Mackay of the development in interpretations of the myth over time. Mackay’s choice of the legend as an open work for a web forum represented the continual fluid interpretation of the mythic form from disparate written, visual and oral sources.


So is everyone a participant? Are those who read Jem Mackay's web log or peer into Susan Corke's wardrobe participating on a critical level and is this equally as valid as physical participation/interaction with the work? Can one can be a co-creator, while remaining a spectator? If you discount the decision of whether or not to participate at all, it seems that none of the works prompted participation in the Brechtian sense, in that they did not require the spectator to take a political position by presenting an oppositional situation. Rather there seemed to be a pervasive desire, certainly in Mackay’s work to “activate” the subject through participation.


Guy Debord describes such activation as an essential precursor to the determination of one’s reality, but also - and here is the emphasis of the show – as an aid to the production of new social relations. In the case of Mackay’s work the mechanisms for potential collaboration are put in place and hence the devolution of authority on the part of the artist. MacKay described the process of collaboration as the enhancement of the artist’s unique vision and it was this process that really interested him.


The discussion moved on to the question of anonymity in the collaborative process. Should co-creators have been name-checked in the gallery somehow? Mackay wanted to acknowledge all contributors to his blog, but admitted that some preferred to remain anonymous and that perhaps this led to a more “genuine” input. Speaking of her piece, Chantal Brookes - although she had displayed portraits of some of the participants in her workshops - implied that the experience of the making itself took precedence over this attachment to individual identity.


I found the interplay of the collective and the individual fascinating in Brookes work. Her project Bind (above left and below) used the idea of making a quilt from objects belonging to individuals (in this case objects due to be discarded) evoking memories of a person, place or experience. The idea had arisen from her response to a story about a widow cutting up the clothes of her recently dead husband, to sew them into a quilt. Her original intention had been to invite individuals to her workshop with their objects, and there to construct one large singular object. She described how people arrived with strong and diverse conceptions of how they would bind their objects and she made the decision to relinquish control of the process to some extent and to allow the participants to author their own separate pieces.  Her display consisted of documentation (the typed lists of objects and names of individuals), black and white portraits, the bound pieces themselves alongside boxes stuffed full with objects, potential material for viewer participation.



Brookes had been explicit about her own interest in the binding process (she displayed a statement about her thoughts on intimacy and the bonds inherent in many female relationships), while this co-authored work simultaneously revealed irrepressible individual signatures, a true patchwork quilt. This interplay was reflected in some of the concluding comments in the debate, centering on control; participation as a game of power relations arising from the authorless work (described variously by Barthes and Umberto Eco), where the artist is no longer responsible for reception.


The difficulty of assessing the quality of participatory relations was raised at least once, as was the decision of the subject to refuse to participate.  For me this show reflected for the most part a drive towards relational co-creation, in the spirit of Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics, which considers the “productive existence” of the viewer. In fact the debate itself had more of a subversive potential than the work. None of the artists seemed to have the intention of creating work where the deliberate use of power play between co-authors may have induced discomfort in their audience. Most of the work was aimed at prompting spontaneous action or arresting attention towards something previously unseen, or inducing reverie; in any case the drive was towards a “positive” experience.


Surprisingly I found myself thinking about, and enquiring about spectacle. Apparently a lot of work had gone into creating a friendly user interface for pieces such as Brendan Byrnes Apparatus and Journeys through Time & Space by Carvalho, Pedro & Shear. This is great, but for me the visual seductiveness of a work is as much an aid to participation as the ease of utility.


Robin Hawes had simply displayed the end point in his collaborative experiments; photographs which illustrated the saccades (or eye movements) made by one’s eye as it contemplates an object. Looking at his beautiful framed prints, each one a huge blurred iris, I regretted that I wouldn’t be able to participate in his workshop.



Conversely, Journeys through Space and Time, the experiment in collaborative Visual Jockeying did not engage me. It was fine that I could trigger image or sound by moving over sensors in the floor, but I wanted the image to be more vibrant, less bleached and random, so that I could feel satisfaction in my act of co-creation.

I was one of the only participants in the Saturday debate to not be directly involved in the production of the work, but here I am adding to the “post-production”, expanding the discourse. Is my participation (and that of the artists in the debate) ultimately a self-reflexive activity, eschewing any social agenda to activate the viewer, or indeed the artist? Should we worry? Hasn’t art, as Magda suggested at one point, always been a marginal or elitist activity? If art were truly democratic would we still dignify it with the label art or would we call it craft or therapy or creative collaboration?

As far as general audience participation went, I cannot comment, not having fully participated in all the workshops myself. Ideally, I would like to see some of the work in different settings for, despite attempts to the contrary, it is still the gallery space that hinders my own participation, makes of me the self-conscious or reluctant participant, somewhere nearer uncomfortable audience than “emancipated” subject on the participatory continuum. Injunctions to contribute or worse still, play in a gallery leave me feeling a bit directed, or a bit of an idiot! Perhaps this self-consciousness is mitigated within the apparent safety of an intentional community - like the King Arthur contributors in Jem Mackay’s piece - and doesn’t this community carry its own momentum, something that commissioners and curators would dearly love to harness?

The debate was great because it unfurled before and with its participants and the work seemed closely thought through and varied.  It was also a relief to see something like this at The Poly, hardly a radical venue, but having just seen 'No Programme' at the Plymouth Arts Centre and the 'Offload' festival in Bristol, I was and am intrigued by the possibilities of relational/participatory/engaged/whatever art to expand beyond the gallery space.


bottom two pictures: Jane Bailey 'Vanishing points: person, place and mediation' & Jason Cleverly 'Sacred and Mundane'

for more info go to www.ires.org.uk/participation