The Failure of Participation: Save The Date (Monday 13th May, 2019)

“There is an urgent need to undo the innocence of participation” (Mouffe + Miessen, 2007)

Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh will be hosting the first of 3 conferences exploring participatory art practices and failure. The first event –  titled: The Failure of Participation 1: Good Failures – is being held 9am – 5pm, Monday 13th May, 2019.

We will be sending more information out in due course, but if you are interested in attending or speaking, please contact: 

Tallaght, as a houseBackground Context: 

Over the past 2 decades, there has been a sustained growth of public/participatory art projects. However, cultural organisations and artists operating within ever decreasing funding cycles are invariably required to “provide evidence of their benefit to the economy, urban regeneration and social inclusion” (Maclean 2012)  for continued fiscal support. Thus, in order to ensure continued financial survival, artists and organisations seem to only ever be able report and review successful projects 

This (financial) dependency on the ‘positive’ successes of participatory arts has led to a lack of criticality about the practice, causing us to ask: Where is the learning? It is, after all, through failures that we are able to develop and grow as a field: how can academics and practitioners of participatory art projects learn and develop if the failures are invisible?

The Failure of Participation: Good Failures event is the first of three conferences that aims to productively explore the failures of participatory projects with both organisations, artists and participating publics in order to explore how failures can be productive. We are seeking practitioners, academics, theorists, organisations and participants who are not afraid to discuss their failures within participatory projects and who wish to explore this subject productively.

The Series. 

The current series is proposed to address various elements of ‘Participation’, including the infrastructures that support ‘participatory practices’, the practice of ‘participation’ and its effects, as well as the policies that surround it. The proposed titles of each conference are:

The Failure of Participation 1: Good Failures – projects and infrastructures

The Failure of Participation 2: Loser Win – people and practitioners

The Failure of Participation 3: Fail Better – policy and the futures

Stay Tuned.  


Art projects that occur in the public realm – with flawed, beautiful people and a complex multitude of interconnected organisations – cannot be explained in a simple, linear narrative. A participant will, for instance, experience the project differently than an organiser, while a funder does not take the same route as the artist. Some of us will be highly involved, others only tangentially, fleetingly. Any participatory art project therefore will have many strands and paths that are followed at different times and speeds, but they are all linked and knotted together as part of a singular project. It’s like an underground rail network, with different trains, railway tracks and interchange stations, but all part of the same system.


With such complexity, it is therefore perhaps impossible to cohesively and comprehensively know the whole system, especially if that system seems to flow smoothly. Often, we don’t even notice there is a system: we rarely think of the infrastructure of an underground transport system when trains run on time and we arrive at our chosen stations. ‘Good working infrastructure is transparent to use.’(3) What we do notice, however, is when there are gaps in that infrastructure – when trains are too crowded, or where one carriage doesn’t quite match up with a station’s platform, or where things don’t quite run on time. We notice when accidents occur. The following explores those ‘accidents’ of a participatory art system. 

In the process of doing the residency, I found it incredibly difficult to verbalise the accidents and failures of the project. As Donald Schon suggests (paraphrased by Moon): ‘Professionals are not necessarily able to describe the basis on which they act. [P]rofessional development is to make this “knowing-in-action explicit so that it can be the subject of further reflection and conscious development.’(4) In this regard, this text is an attempt to understand those ‘accidents’ and make explicit my ‘knowing’ to aid professional development – both for myself but also for the field as a whole. It takes the form of a ‘practitioner’s critical reflection’(5) and sees my particular experience as a microcosm of the practice in general, allowing us – as a loose affiliation of those engaged in this type of work – to take stock of how we’re working with people, why we choose this way of working, and to what end. The aim is not to be unduly critical or lay blame on specific people, but rather to encourage the field as a whole to reflect on the various ethical pitfalls that can occur when participatory projects are insufficiently planned. It is relevant to the fields of cultural policy (i.e. government/organisations), cultural management (i.e. arts organisations/institutions) and cultural production (i.e. artists/communities) as it concerns the infrastructure that ties those fields together; the places where these notions meet and merge.


3 – Neumann, L.J. and S.L. Star (1996). ‘Making Infrastructure: The Dream of A Common Language’. In PDC’96 Proceedings of the Participatory Design Conference. J. Blomberg, F. Kensing and E.A. Dykstra-Erickson (eds.). Cambridge, MA, 13-15 November, pp. 231-240. (p. 231).

4 – As  paraphrased by Moon, J. (2000). Reflection in Learning and Professional Development: Theory and Practice. London: Routledge.

5 – Ibid.

TrainWreck – 1

Imagine you’re waiting for a train; you’ve just flown into a new, bright city, and you’ve found the main station for the underground system, and you want to get to a particular station.

You are here to perform at an exciting Event. You have been invited by The Organisers and they have been clear to you that you are not the star of the show, but an integral contributor nonetheless. The Event is an exciting opportunity for you, and while The Organisers did not give you a specific thing to perform, or an exact time for you to be there, you’d like to get to the venue soon so that you can plan and prepare. You’d like to make something special for the audience. So you go straight from the airport to the underground station and begin to explore which train you should take.


I want to reiterate that what follows is drawn from my own limited insight through playing a small part in a long process. I am aware that any public, participatory commission does not leap, fully formed, into existence, but rather involves many stages including inception, planning, negotiation, fundraising, discussions, framing, etc., before an artist – or indeed the community – is even involved. I cannot therefore speak for the entirety of ‘my’ project, as I do not have insight into every element.


This position is actually a useful provocation from which to start: how involved can everyone within a community-based project be engaged in its design and set-up? This question alludes to one of the first major academic issues within socially engaged art: the distinction between ‘doing to people’ and ‘doing with people’. If communities are not involved with the inception/planning/development, are they being done to? How can organisations do with these communities in collaborative co-development? This issue was first mooted by Su Braden in 1978, and after almost four decades shows no sign of abating.(6) To give some background to how this relates to my project, it is useful to explain it was part of the Creative People and Places (CPP) programme. CPP is an Arts Council England (ACE) initiative that emerged from governmental policy in the 2010s, which aimed to redress the lack of high-quality art outside the central hubs such as London, Manchester, etc. Rather simplistically, it stems out of centralised cultural policy framing, and the funding for it is filtered from government, to ACE, then to commissioned organisations, then to community partners, and finally to artists and (indirectly) to the community/participating individuals.


6 – Braden, S. (1978). Artists And People. London. Kegan Paul Books.


The structure of funding therefore seems an exceptionally ‘top-down’ process, and there is a question as to what extent policy-makers at the ‘top tier’ are engaging with those at the ‘bottom tier’ within the regional communities, and vice versa. Or even with those in the middle, like myself. To what extent are all agents of participatory projects – from framing to experiencing – ‘participating’ in these works? Are we really all in this together, or are we only individually ‘participating’ in isolated segments and therefore only witnessing small, isolated glimpses from our particular train windows?(7) How could it be different? Could we imagine a project wherein a national policy-maker is participating in a highly localised community project?(8) What might the benefits be of knowing exactly what is occurring ‘on-the-ground’ for the policy-makers, and what (and how) policy machinations occur that affect the daily lives of a local citizen? And how do we ensure organisations are infrastructurally sound so as to not only deliver these projects as art (because these are art projects, not social work: much has been written about this(9)), but also be accountable to the guiding policy frameworks? The longevity of the debate begun by Braden perhaps gives a clue about the ethical knots of working with people, and it is these ethical concerns that drive this examination.

As alluded to above, CPP projects emerge out of cultural research that illustrated areas of ‘low cultural uptake’: places within the country where ‘involvement in the arts is significantly below the national average.’(10) CPP therefore aims to ensure everyone has access to ‘high-quality culture’, and states on its website: ‘We believe that everyone has the right to experience and be inspired by art and culture.’(11) While CPP and ACE’s intentions are undoubtably honourable, the policy also emerges from the fact that – as a national, publicly funded body – arts councils needed to mitigate the ‘imbalance’ of the cultural offer in which large cities received swathes of cash, and the rest of the country received little more than token gestures.(12 and 13) Thus ‘cold spots’of culture were identified and local arts organisations were encouraged to sweep in and give the unwashed masses ‘culture’.(14) While this is highly problematic in regards to who is defining ‘culture’, what ‘good culture’ is, and by what criteria a ‘cold’ spot is being identified,(15) the CPP has still granted over £32 million over the past few years to support projects within communities. It has provided platforms for community art engagement and jobs for participatory artists like myself, and funding for organisations to operate within areas that would otherwise have little-to-no contemporary art projects.


7 – Matarasso F. (2013). ‘‘‘All in this together”: The depoliticisation of community art in Britain, 1970-2011’. In Community, Art, Power: Essays from ICAF 2011, Eugene van Erven (ed.). ICAF: Rotterdam.

8 – I mean really participating, fully, and not just showing up on the day of the final event.

9 – To explore this, please read the following seminal texts that explore this problematic: Bishop, C. (2012). ‘The Social Turn: Collaboration and its Discontents’. In Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship. London: Verso; or Belfiore, E. (2002). ‘Art as a means of alleviating social exclusion: Does it really work? A critique of instrumental cultural policies and social impact studies in the UK’, International Journal of Cultural Policy, Vol. 8, No. 1, pp. 91-106; or Hewitt, A. (2011). ‘Privatising the Public: Three rhetorics of art’s public good in ‘‘Third Way” cultural policy’, Art & the Public Sphere, Vol. 1, No. 1, pp. 19-36.

10 – See: (Available online – Accessed 13 April 2017.)

11 – See: (Available online – Accessed 13 April 2017.)

12 – Gordon, C., Powell, D., Stark, P. (2015). A New Destination for the Arts: Between a RoCC and a Hard Place (Reflections, Recommendations and Conclusion). GPS Culture.

13 – For a more erudite discussion, see Jancovich, L. (2015). ‘The Participation Myth’, International Journal of Cultural Policy. Vol. 23, No. 1, 2017, pp. 107-112.

14 – Gilmore, A. (2013). ‘Cold spots, crap towns and cultural deserts: The role of place and geography in cultural participation and creative place-making’, Cultural Trends, Vol. 22, No. 2, Exploring policies on participation and engagement in the arts, pp. 86-96.

15 – For a comprehensive but quick-and-dirty review, please see: Cultural Value and Inequality: A Critical Literature Review commissioned by Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Cultural Value Project in 2015; or Stevenson, D. ( 2014). ‘Who is a non-participant? The imagined targets of cultural engagements policies’. In International Perspectives on Participation and Engagement in the Arts. University of Utrecht: Utrecht.