Participatory Art… or Relational Art… or Activist art

In my quest to develop an exhibition with input from the local birding community in Noosa, I want it to go further that simply audience viewing and an artist talk. I want to engage the audience in a range of ways. To deepen my understanding and to define this approach I typed “interactive art” into Google Scholar Several terms pop up. The most rigorously examined term is Relational Aesthetics was introduced by Nicholas Bourriaud in 1998, and describes an art that ‘concerns itself with creating encounters or moments of sociability within “communication zones” (such as meeting places, art galleries etc), for non-scripted social interaction’ (2006, no author listed, Eye, 59). This appears to be a flexible definition and there are many examples of Relational Aesthetics on the web, and the terms participatory art and activist art are also used. These concepts have similarities, as well as differences.

My intention is to create work that is primarily in response to community interviews and allows audiences to interact, re-create and create within the final exhibition space. This aligns with this definition of relational aesthetics and moves away from the didactic, traditional, closed approach exhibition which is essentially top down (2006, I propose that in the first stage of the research there is an interaction between me and local environmentalists particularly those whose focus is the glossy black cockatoos. For example Bob Carey is an expert and observer of the black glossy cockatoos. In conversation with these experts I will seek knowledge of the birds and their habitats, the issues, coupled with my ideas on how to interpret this into an art form, which will be further informed by knowledge from the experts.

This process of creating new knowledge as two unrelated sources collide and is negotiated through conversation has been examined by Gadamer. In synthesising Gadamer’s ideas, Smith (2001) observes that “in conversation, knowledge is not a fixed thing or commodity to be grasped. It is not something ‘out there’ waiting to be discovered. Rather, it is an aspect of a process. It arises out of interaction.”  Thus, in this study, phenomenological observations by the local birder which are informed by his scientific understandings of the focus bird will collide with my artistic interpretation of this information and our conversations, as I grapple in collaboration with the birder to find some relevant poetic way into the birder’s data. Fisher (2005) examines the notion of social creativity, and proposes that collaboration is critical in expanding the artist’s capacity for creativity, because “complex problems require more knowledge than any single person possesses.”

As the artist guiding this project, I will create an artistic, hopefully poetic manifestation of these dialogically formed emergent ideas from this socially creative interaction. This will be the body of work central to the final exhibition.

As the research progresses I will keep a journal documenting relevant aspects, drawings, notes, technical aspects of making ceramics, design ideas and reflections and responses in prose and poetry on the discussions about the focus birds. This will be foundational to the final exhibition.

I am also interested in the interactivity of the work in the exhibition space. This space need not be a gallery,  in fact I hope it will not be. It might be outside in the bush, or at our local environment centre or the library. They would be places where people come together to meet, gain information, discuss, and be social. Many of these elements will be defined through discussion as the research progresses. Finally within the exhibition space the audience will have opportunities not only for discussion, but can engage with creative opportunities. They may create something that adds to the exhibition, or an artwork they can take away. Again the form this will be emergent. An evaluation of such a process is an essential part of the research process, and this will be conducted through some form of feedback, during or after the final exhibition event. On example cited in Eye Magazine was at the Tate Gallery where a room was walled with paper, hanging on dowels, and the audience were invited to write their thoughts about the exhibition (this prompts me to think of wishing walls I saw in Buddhist Temples in Ueno, Tokyo). (2006, This example could be called Relational Aesthetics, but is not what I want to achieve. In my teaching career as an environmental educator I was working with drama interactive techniques and the visual arts to provoke thoughtful and transformative responses in our audiences of primary school children. I have seen much deeper and informed responses and discussion to artistic stimulii even in young children. This needs an approach that informs without being didactic but constructivist in that it builds on the prior knowledge of the audience members (ref).  It needs to provide the opportunity for the audience to be explore some aspect of their creativity in a stimulating and safe environment, with a sense of enjoyment even play. Such autotelic experiences which are undertaken for their own sake with no gain other than the experience itself, mean the participant is fully focussed and engaged on the activity (Csikszentmihalyi). In turn such experiences generate an emotional response and as such are memorable, and sometimes transformative, breaking down stereotypes and mis/false information and uninformed opinions (reference on emotional responses and learning) The notion of emergent art process has been critically examined and I will explore this in my next post.

Fischer, G, 2005, Proceedings of the 5th conference on creativity and cognition, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO, pp 128-136

Smith, M. K. (2001) ‘Dialogue and conversation’, the encyclopaedia of informal education. [ Retrieved: 22/1/15]

no author listed, Eye No 59 Spring 2006

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