I have not spoken about the actual artistic work that I developed on this project. This has been a conscious choice as, firstly, I want to explore what needs to happen around the art in order for art to happen. Secondly, it is because I did not make any art.

One evening in June, close to the end of the project, I called my partner from the echoing, empty house. I was in the process of planning my final event, and I was frustrated by something that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. It usually helps to talk my ideas through with him, but after a few minutes of stalled explanations and unsure starts-and-stops I was at a loss to explain what my problem was. He told me to take a deep breath and just to describe the artwork. I said to him: ‘That’s the problem: I’ve made no art.’

‘Oh,’ he said. Pause. Then: ‘But you’ve been going there for six months. You’ve done loads of things with people… what do you mean you haven’t made any art?’ My response was instinctive: ‘That’s right. I’ve made no art. I’ve done heaps and heaps of engagement. Sure, I’ve done workshops and talked with folks and I’ve tried to do things with people. But, I’ve made no art.’


I have been a practitioner of participatory artworks for fifteen years, with national and international experience, so I am well versed in the practicalities of this type of work: I know its potentialities and its pitfalls. I also have a PhD in the subject, and therefore also understand the academic and theoretical frameworks around how this type of work should function, and why. In other words, I can confidently speak about ‘working with people’ and critically assess how and why I did not make ‘art’, despite working incredibly hard during this six-month-long, exceptionally well-funded project.


My PhD research (and previous work) explored the relationship between institutions, artists and a public engaged in participatory settings, specifically looking at how conflict was an integral element of making art. Without conflict, working in participatory settings would amount to nothing more than convivial distractions. In other words, we can’t just ‘engage’ with people: we have to do something more with those relationships/people/communities in order for it to be art. For me, the art emerges via conflict, and I define conflict as those opportunities and experiences that make us question and analyse our place within our world.(28) Art can only occur when difficult questions can be asked; be those questions of aesthetics, of politics, of society, or of the individual. Importantly, the opportunity for groups, individuals and organisations to ask themselves important questions cannot exist without infrastructural support. In short, when working with people in the public realm, socially engaged art cannot occur unless there is appropriate support to develop relationships with parties, to develop trust with groups/individuals, and to open up a context wherein people want to explore how their edges and boundaries rub up against each other. This ‘productive conflict’ cannot exist without inter- and intra-social networks, cannot exist without institutions to build and sustain relationships when the (temporary) artist arrives and leaves.

This is the issue at the heart of this text, and the crux of current socially engaged practices: artists are now generally commissioned by institutions to enter into temporary relationships with communities: a three-month residency, or 70 days over the course of a year, or an ‘on-going’ relationship with a community that isn’t the artist’s own, etc. There are myriad examples, all structurally different, but fundamentally all made of the same Gordian’s Knot: the ‘community’ is an amorphous, changing, heterogeneous mass… and the artist is temporary. To function, the artist therefore needs a host like a parasite needs a body from which to draw strength, but also resources. And, as well as materials and/or resources, the participatory artist needs networks, contacts, local insight, etc. These are the materials from which the participatory artists develop their ‘art’, from which they are able to begin to develop difficult and important questions. And its simple: if we can’t get to the point of asking those difficult questions, we don’t get to make art.(29) 

As I say above: this does not mean that an element of such participatory art can’t be temporary – it can, and there are some excellent benefits in temporary artworks with people. See, for instance, Incidental’s 2013 work Museum of Lies,(30) or the South London Gallery’s Shop of Possibilities,(31) or even Deveron Projects’ The Town Is the Venue methodology.(32) All of these have an institution to hold’ and host a visiting artist, and the infrastructure for an new artist to drop into that community is in place before they arrive in order for an ‘artwork’ to occur. In other words, without that infrastructure, there is only ‘engagement’, but no ‘art’.


28 – I do not mean violent conflict, but rather an experience that is socially or individually uncomfortable and causes a deeper reflection about the world around us is organised. For more information, see Schrag, A. (2016). Agonistic Tendencies: the role of productive conflict within institutionally supported participatory practices. (PhD) Newcastle: Newcastle University.

29 – I would also argue that ‘social change’ can only occur after those questions are asked. Any change requires a shift in thinking, and that shift is never comfortable. For example, one does not stop smoking without coming to understand on some level the true health complications, and that is not a pleasant understanding to reach. However, I would also argue that is not the artists job to guide those changes, only to start them.

30 – See http://www.theincidental.com/museum-lies (Available online – Accessed 29 December 2016.)

31 – See http://www.southlondongallery.org/page/theshopofpossibilities (Available online – Accessed 29 December 2016.)

32 – See https://www.deveron-projects.com/the-town-is-the-venue/ (Available online –Accessed 29 December 2016.)


A National Evaluation of Creative People and Places states:

The investment will encourage long-term collaborations between local communities and arts organisations, museums, libraries and other partners such as local authorities and the private sector. It aims to empower them to experiment with new and radically different approaches and to develop inspiring, sustainable arts programmes that will engage audiences in those communities.(33)

In case of my project: how can a CPP-funded organisation develop those long-term collaborations when they are not on-site, working in the very location they are trying to generate impact on? How does the project develop sustainable arts programmes if they do not know anyone there, except in cursory, passing detail? If they do not know its daily social experiences? Or the minutiae of its relationships and engagements? How is it expected to be sustainable if it only visits once a month, and the person who had developed and held those relationships – i.e. me – leaves after 70 days’ work?


33 – National Evaluation of Creative People and Places (n.d.). See https://www.anewdirection.org.uk/what-we-do/national-evaluation-of-the-creative-people-and-places-programme) (Available online – Accessed 29 December 2016.)


Near the end of the project, I raised these issues with the Director of The Institution in the hope of developing a deeper dialogue with them about the problematics of my project. I discussed the difficulty in the constant moving of the studio, in the constantly un-moored barge, in the lack of contacts, in the outsourcing of community relationships, in the loneliness, in the violence I experienced, and in the general lack of infrastructure. I reminded her that I had left my family, my home and my social networks of support to work on this project and was hoping to find a way to make it successful and worthwhile for me, for The Institution, for CPP and – most importantly – the community. How could we overcome all these problems and make a good, meaningful project? She shrugged her shoulders, and flippantly said: these difficulties are to be expected with these Guinea pig projects like yours.’(34)

Guinea Pig Project…

That is apparently what my project was: an experiment. This was the first I had heard of it. My own hurt feelings aside, I am not sure it is ethical to experiment on an artist, or an unsuspecting community. Indeed, identifying areas as ‘cold spots of culture’ fundamentally suggests that these places already lack cultural infrastructure  which is why they are ‘cold spots’. So funding projects to exist without investing in infrastructure seems experimental at best, and doomed to failure at worst. In other words: how does CPP expect culture to thrive without investing in the infrastructure first?


34 – Conversation 12 May, 2016. Location anonymised.