Participatory art can be misused by developers and councils. But done well, it gives voice to citizens


What are the new arts of politics? In what ways can citizens feel their own power, and validate new kinds of power and resource, in the places they live? What can art and design bring to these questions? We have been exploring these possibilities in A/UK since our inception in March 2017 (see our “Artists” and “Democratic Innovation” and “creative activism” tags/categories).

Here’s a great overview from someone who has been in the trenches of participatory art, put to the service of people trying to shape the planning and development of their localities - with both good and bad experiences. In The Conversation UK, Cecilie Sachs Olsen, an artist and researcher at Royal Holloway in London, opens her piece frankly about the times that developers and council use and exploit artists.

“I have found myself doing projects with homeless people for housing developments that they will never be able to live in”, writes Olsen. “All too often, well-meaning community organisers cast artists as social workers, expecting us to use art as a way to mediate and intervene in heated social situations, rather than asking difficult questions about the situation itself.”

But the second half of the piece lays out what participatory art can do, as a genuinely empowering tool:

From experimental performances to collaborative model-making, urban expeditions to co-produced audio walks, treasure hunts to city archiving – participatory art can help people articulate their experiences of the city on their own terms. And this has the power to question and challenge any given order, which directs how people think about cities, and live in them. 

Administrators of urban space would like to have the public believe that the urban environment has a predetermined function: a bench is for sitting, not sleeping, on; a train station is for people on the move, not for people seeking shelter; a park is for families with children, not for groups of young people – and so on. 

This “given order” of things risks making residents feel alienated from urban spaces. When the city’s functions are already decided, there is little room for residents to adapt its spaces according to their own needs. Urban space becomes a sort of jigsaw puzzle: the pieces can be moved around, but they only fit in one way. There is only one predetermined and rational way to assemble the pieces. 

But in participatory art, urban space can be reimagined as a mosaic: the pieces fit together in many different ways, and the final outline is not predetermined. Different pieces can relate to each other to produce different forms and make new connections, depending on how you arrange them. This way of thinking about the city gives local people the freedom to articulate what matters to them, and express their own vision for the city’s future. 

  • For example, when participants in Zurich, Switzerland, made an alternative city archive to document their own “unofficial” stories of urban living, they were given the power to decide what information counted as worthy and significant about their city. 

  • When people go on audio walks, listening to local residents’ stories that imagine their neighbourhood as if it was already changed for the better, this challenges the view that the city’s future can only be produced by planners and designers. 

  • And when participants engage in collaborative model-making, using found objects to express their dreams and desires for their city, they are given space to imagine alternatives, without being mired in everyday realities and demands for concrete solutions on “how to get there”.

In the present political climate, democracy is seemingly becoming less sensitive to the demands of citizens calling for more just distribution of resources, a cleaner environment or the defence of common goods.

Participatory art has the potential to give city dwellers a sense of agency, empowerment and entitlement, by promising that everyone is capable of imagining how things could be different. And that’s the first step toward forging a better future.

More here. Olsen is part of zURBS, which describes itself as a “social-artistic urban laboratory”. Some of their mapping and futuring work - Invisible Basels, and their reimagining of a Swiss town called Montopia - are reminiscent of the “Inquiry” stage we completed with our Plymouth and South Devon communities (see report here).