Failure of Participation 1: Good Failures

This event brought together 30 people – 10 artists, 10 commissioners/arts managers and 10 researchers – to consider the concept of a “Failure of Participation”. In attendance were artists, academics, commissioners, local, national and international representatives from organisations that are engaged in participatory practices

It featured the following:

  1. A ‘Sabotage Exercise’ with Rachel Blanche (QMU) and Chrissy Ruckley (Creative Scotland) that
  2. A talk from Dr. David Stevenson (QMU) & Dr Leila Jancovich (University of Leeds) AHRC funded project Stories of Success; Histories of Failure
  3. Case studies from the following artists, academics and organisations
    1. Kurt + Kremana (Artists, USA)
    2. Anthony Schrag (QMU, Edinburgh)
    3. Katie Bruce (GoMA, Glasgow) 
  4. And a video conferencing call from Cameron Cartiere (Emily Carr University, Canada) to discuss A Call to Further Action: Future Failures, who also shared with us the incredible Manifesto-of-Possibilities that she developed with Sophie Hope that is useful when considering the commissioning process of public/participatory projects.  

The day resulted in a series of ‘action points’ for each individual member, but we wanted to share some of the questions and discussions that emerged, that we’ve grouped into themes:

The Processes of Participation

  • There is no way that every project will be a success for everyone – how do we accept that failure is inevitable? 
  • Participating in Culture Vs. Producing culture – whats the difference? 
  • Participating in ‘culture’ Vs. participate in ‘the arts’ – what the difference? 
  • Participation ‘in’ the culture Vs. Participation ‘through’ the culture – what the difference? 
  • There is insecurity in the culture (i.e., not well supported or respected) which leads to people not being honest about failure – how do we change that culture?
  • The basis of participation is that ‘we’ (as artists, organisations, participants) don’t have control: that’s what happens when you engage with other people who have agency to do what they want! How do we construct community?

“Generally, I love failure, partly because I have confidence that I will survive, so I am not worried about showing it. But this is because I am not precariously employed”

Responsibility:

  • Our responsibility is to take full responsibility of what it is we do – is that always possible?
  • What makes a boring piece of public art: does that make a work a failure? Should we always make exciting works? 
  • Who defines success/failure? The Artist? The Participant? The Funder? Can they merge together?
  • Sharing reflection is only a potential learning: what do you do with that ‘reflection’ and turn it into action?
  • Do you have the confidence to say “no” when the money is not good enough?
  • Even artists just can’t do what they want: what makes them think they can? 

“Our blessed funders are not bad people: they also afraid of losing their jobs or allocations of funding”

Finances + Economics:

  • What does a process-based (as opposed to ‘outcome driven) funding model look like?
  • Audit culture = results-based payments: how do we complicate this?
  • The system of a ‘financial year end’ limits longer-term planning and engagement, as it assumes all projects only happen in 12 months – can we advocate for longer cycles?
  • Often a failure means firing people or not hiring them again: so there is no institutional learning – how can we learn from those people who are no longer there?

“We often need community agreement before we can get funding, but funding often takes too long to be secured, and by this time, the community has moved on.”

Finally, we wanted to end with a series of Provocations that you might consider going forward:

  • Is it a failure of project or the failure of self?
  • Should we commission less work? Would we have a broader appreciation of this sort of work if there wasn’t such a saturation? Would we like the work better? Would we be less stressed?
  • Due to the plurality of definitions of ‘participation’ does that mean its meaningless?
  • Should the onus be on artists to be explicit about the needs of projects/work,
  • Artists are the experts in what is needed for a project to succeed: If they are not explicit about the needs of the project/work, are they ultimately responsible for the failure?
  • Admitting failure means challenging core beliefs and values: if you are not shaken by failure, its not going to provide any learning. How can you make sure you are unsettled?
  • Is there too much consultation; too much democracy for projects to work? 
  • Quality exists through many different lenses: what are your assumptions of quality? What ‘ideal’ are we aiming for?
  • examining “expectations” and designing “tool kits for success” have been discussed before: have we just gone full-circle without learning anything? 

“We have to acknowledge (and accept) that resource providers report upstream to appointed politicians and bureaucrats whose agendas may not include (or understand) quality. They don’t need to understand quality. That’s not their job and they shouldn’t be blamed for that.”

Please do stay in contact – aschrag (at) qmu (dot) ac (dot) uk – to take part in future projects.

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