An Act of Treachery


Posted on by David Slater

Last week I participated in an extraordinarily illuminating and eccentric event curated by Chrissie Tiller and the Participatory Arts Lab to both celebrate and mark the sad demise of the MA in Participatory and Community Arts, at Goldsmiths.  Participation on Trial
was, to quote the blurb, a Dada-esque, playful (but serious) critique of participation in the arts. The crime was one of misrepresentation and deception. I was a witness for the prosecution.

Translation from the fictitious and surreal space of the Dada-esque courtroom onto the written page of this blog is a dangerous exercise. There may have been kernels of truth in what I had to say but what follows should be taken with an extraordinarily large pinch of salt!  

If participatory arts had had any meaning as a movement we would have been able to find ways in which the imagination could truly have been used at the service of the people.

Every child and young person would be growing up having a relationship with an arts space at the end of their street. You could walk into any theatre in the land and see on stage people in their twenties at the start of their professional careers sharing the stage with people in their seventies at the start of their professional careers. During the daytime under the utilised foyers of art houses would be transformed into neighbourhood crèches. String quartets would rehearse in the lounges of care homes.

It’s not happening. So what went wrong?

We separated and segregated the very people who we aimed to include. We colluded with the creation of a fictitious space called ‘the community’ within which we asked people what they wanted and gave them what we thought they needed. We lacked the courage to allow art to stand nakedly alone, exciting and dangerous. We had to hitch it to words like “health” and “inclusion”.

We stole from the experience of the street and the everyday lives of those with whom we served our apprenticeships. We professionalised and sanitised our practice. We bleached out awkwardness and intuition.

We placed more value in our own creative biographies than those with whom we worked. We got excited when scientists told us what we had known since the beginning of time: ‘Brain scans reveal the power of art’. (Daily Telegraph 4th May 2015)

We didn’t just do, we became obsessed by talking about what we do. We used unnecessarily dense and impenetrable language.

We even destroyed those rare moments when our work moved or touched people, by ambushing audiences with evaluation and feedback forms and questionnaires.

So for all these wrongs, guilty as charged: we abandoned people. We abandoned art.

Participation on Trial: Statement For The Defence

David Jubb Battersea Arts Centre


Participation on Trial
A playful (but serious) critique of participation. A Dada-esque Valediction and Celebration of 10 years of the MA in Participatory and Community Arts, Goldsmiths.

The Crime.  One of misrepresentation and deception.  Of flagrant flimflammery.  Chicanery and con-artistry. Committing daylight robbery.  Pilfering the public purse.  Causing grievous artistic harm.

The Defendants
The ‘Artful’ Art Schools, The ‘Machiavellian’ Academics, The ‘Cunning’ Cultural Institutions, The ‘Foxy’ Artists, The ‘Canny’ Funders.

The Court: Council Chamber, Deptford Town Hall, Goldsmiths, University of London. 1 May 2015, 10am – 5pm.

David Jubb’s Statement For The Defence:

Crime – one of misrepresentation – that real participation is happening, and wanted, in the Arts

I work at a cultural organisation in south-west London.

My witness statement proposes that we should move for an immediate mistrial.

The arts are about creative participation.

Anyone who engages with the arts is a participant and is participating.

If you are someone who enjoys experiencing art, creating art, producing art, sharing art, talking about art, selling art, then you are a participant in the arts.

The idea of having a category of arts practice that is called “participation” – as opposed to another area of the arts – that is somehow not about “participation” is an absurd and destructive idea.

Therefore this whole trial is based on a false premise.

I move for a mistrial.

How can you be accused of misrepresenting something that is, in the first place, a false construct?

I would like to ask what does the prosecution actually mean by “participation”?

Perhaps the prosecution is referring to the formal “participation” programmes of some art schools, universities, cultural institutions, artistically led companies, or funders?

If so, I suggest that the prosecution gets out more, beyond metropolitan, academic circles.

Robin Simpson, Chief Executive of Voluntary Arts will tell you that around 10 million people regularly participate in what he would describe as amateur arts activity every year – orchestras, choirs, performances and so on.

Are these 10 million people artists? Or are these 10 million people participants?

The question highlights the absurdity of the premise of this trial.

By putting “participation” on trial you are actually doing your best to recreate hierarchical and corrosive structures in the arts at the very moment when they are beginning to break down and fade away.

That there is something that is authentically called “the arts” and then there is an attempt to get people to “participate” in “the arts”.

It is 2015.

This trial seems to want to go back a generation and replay old arguments.

This trial shouldn’t be seeking to prosecute cultural organisations for misrepresenting the desire of people to participate, it would be a more effective prosecution if it wanted to tackle cultural organisations that still actively promote boundaries between their work – and use words like Participation or Engagement or Involvement – with a capital P, E and I.

The prosecution should focus on prosecuting crimes that will lead to an improved future, not ones that promote old divisions – tired debates that take us backwards not forwards.

Increasingly, in the 21st century, boundaries are blurring: amateur/professional, art-form boundaries, artist/non-artist.

There is a gradual creative revolution taking place in the UK – with a drive for creativity in education (see Ken Robinson’s most viewed TED talk of all time), in the economy (see the creative and cultural sector that is the fastest growing employment sector in the UK), even in politics (see the manifestos of the two leading parties in the 2015 election with more references to creativity and culture than ever before).

Yes there are forces that will seek to fight off this creative revolution – in education, the economy, in politics, in every walk of life.

But when you look out, beyond what you refer to as “the arts” – then you will see that this is a march that is irresistible.

I ask you to leave this courtroom and ask any passer by whether they are in to “the arts” or “arts participation” or “arts engagement”. I predict they will give you a funny look.

Ask the same people whether they like music, or if they would like their child to be able to play a musical instrument at school, or if they like to go out to listen to live music, and you will get a much more positive response.

Almost twice as many people go to the theatre in London every year than go to premier football matches.

So should we be wringing our hands and asking the same kinds of questions about “participation” or “engagement” in football.

No. People play it. People watch it. People discuss it.

People are happy moving between these ways of enjoying football.

We don’t need to spend lots of time creating weird classifications that divide and confuse everyone who loves football.

So why do we do this in culture?

Why are we having a trial about “arts participation”?

We need to spend time breaking down boundaries, we need to create less jargon, we need to separate things out less.

We are all creative and we can all enjoy our creativity in hundreds of different ways. It’s our very own human super-power.

The prosecution’s case, regarding arts participation, is based on elitist jargon.

We should put the prosecution on trial for being elitist and for seeking to create boundaries:

between those that do and those that participate in doing.

What a load of nonsense.

My prosecution witness statement from today’s @artsontrial #ParticipationOnTrial


Everyone’s a ‘participant’ nowadays. Aren’t ‘they’? Or, following the Warwick Commission’s report on The Future of Cultural Value and its magic number – 8% – should I say ‘we’ – members of the cultural class? We’re all participating today, aren’t we? But to what ends; for what means?

Participation in the arts lacks real meaning. Wander into a gallery, watch a play, help set up a festival, dig up a beach looking for fool’s gold, clog dance on cross-shaped shipping containers in the name of Christ, write memoirs in a timber sanctuary then watch it burn (physically and/or digitally), oh, and praise be the lanterns! Then there’s socially engaged art, ecologically engaged art, activist art – marginal – issue-based – commonly working for social justice.

All forms of participation in the arts. There are many others. The Warwick Commission report mentions participation 73 times. Why? Everyday Participation – can virtually anything be a form of cultural participation? Hmm…

So why do I find the ‘participation in the arts’ agendas – and participatory arts in particular – so troubling, so divisive? I put it to you that participation lacks intent. For many policy makers, commissioners, arts organisations, artists, and so on, the more fun the activity, the less socially or politically engaged, the better.

PARTICIPATION BY NUMBERS. Count ‘them’. Lots of ‘disadvantaged’ people – great! Segregate them. Categorise. NEETS, ethnic minorities, older people, physically impaired, mentally ill, on and on and on. Measure them. See – they have improved! Thank The State for sending us an artist (backed by hidden ranks of arts administrators, of course). Look – all ‘their’ woes are gone. Take happy pictures for websites and Facebook and glossy publications. Pair them with a narrative penned for a pretty penny by the consultant or academic-led elite. Add graphs, tables, carefully edited anecdotes from ‘real people’ who loved taking part. Pie charts. Sprinkle spurious references to a too-oft-cited weakly defined canon. Make a film. Cost benefit analysis. Bravo! Keeps the funders happy. Useful evidence for future projects. Splendid.

Or is it? The trouble is participation in the arts – participatory arts – are products of insidious instrumentalism. State and funder-led initiatives hoping to wash away ‘their’ troubles, ‘their’ sins with a bit of taking part in some art. Sanitised, professionalised, risk-assessed to within an inch of existence. Best practice. Toolkits. Reports. Evaluations. Metrics. Big data. Fodder for never ending quasi-academic discussions about participation at which most participants are… well… us. CHANGE THE CONVERSATION! HOW? WHY HASN’T IT CHANGED? Circular. On and on.

STATUS QUO. Hidden behind shallow dialogic frameworks. Nothing but a democratic veneer. Allowing dominant power structures to be reproduced and maintained. Dialogic exercises and even ‘radical listening’ embed as cornerstones in participatory arts’ mission of improving practice and quality – ‘professionalising’ artists. Anyone for CPD? Join with us. Sing ‘The Dialogic Song’. MISSIONARY ZEAL. Preach to the converted. Spread ‘our’ message. PARTICIPATE NOW! (Not ‘us’, them. New people.) CONVERT TO ARTS PARTICIPATION NOW! (It’s something to do. Might get you a job. Might improve your wellbeing. Might improve the economy. Might even be FUNPALACES fun!)

What. No artists in the room? Good. IMPOSE BEST PRACTICE NOW. Funders love it. Dovetail into burgeoning business plans. FILE UNDER OUTREACH OR EDUCATION. Organisations employ artists nowadays, don’t they? They allow ‘participation’ into their programming – sometimes. Voiceless artists should be grateful for meagre scraps as payment for their labour. Hurrah! Complicit in the division of their labour, the institutions cheer as they further alienate artists from art! GET CREATIVE!

New Labour shuffled in neoliberal governance. Public money bought new Cultural Industries citadels replete with artist and audience and participant proof defences. Yet the price for artistic excellence is high; the pact always Faustian.

PARTICIPATION FOR ALL. Deeply divisive. Soft neoliberal governance. MERCENARIES. Artists are always bottom of the pile. Squashed silent by the tentacles of instrumentalism. With few rights and little money, who can blame artists for taking the bait? Initiatives like Creative People and Places, Enriching GB (or should that be England?) are part of this.

MOBILISE. Artists and communities can mobilise for social justice. Self-organise. Art can counter the instrumentalism of state and institutions. A different, freer form of participation. Socially engaged art. Activism. Academics and agents of the state tend to steer clear. No wonder. Our practice opposes neoliberalism in all its guises. We want change. WE ARE NOT GUILTY!

So, I suggest that participation in the arts and the trivialising forms of participatory arts practice that feed like parasites from fillets of newly institutionalised participatory programming are guilty of a terrible crime: PARTICIPATING IN THE NEOLIBERAL PROJECT OF INDIVIDUALISM. THEIR ILLUSORY RAINBOW CLOAK OF ARTS AND CULTURAL INDUSTRIES SHOULD NOT FOOL YOU. LOOK CAREFULLY. IT IS A CRUDE APPROPRIATION OF THE EMPEROR’S NEW CLOTHES. A DEMOCRATIC SWINDLE.


For the Defence

David Jubb: Artistic Director Battersea Arts Centre

Deborah Curtis: Artist and Artistic Director House of Fairy Tales http://houseoffairytales.org/

Julia Farrington: Index on Censorship, Belarus Free Theatre

Andrew Barnett: Director Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation http://www.gulbenkian.org.uk/

For the Prosecution

David Slater: Artistic Director Entelechy Arts http://www.entelechyarts.org/

Alison Rooke and Sophie Hope: academics Goldsmiths & Birkbeck

Sylvan Baker: Associate Director People’s Palace Projects www.peoplespalaceprojects.org.uk

Jenny Sealey:  Artistic Director, Graeae http://www.graeae.org/

Stephen Pritchard: Artist and academic http://www.dottodotactivearts.org/  

Frances Williams: Writer and Curator

Participation on Trial. Not the end. A new spirit of openness?

Stephen Pritchard May 8 2015


Participation in the arts faced a Dadaesque mock-trial in a Nonconformist chapel in London last Friday, 1st May, on International Workers’ Day. The hearing was presided over by a real judge. There were twelve jurors, including a banker in a dapper suit. There were ten witnesses – six for the prosecution (including a last minute turncoat), five for the defence. Defence and prosecution councils. A typewriter tapping, pedantic clerk of court. A cheeky tea lady. And a non-stop knitter. The five defendants – each a seen-better-days female mannequin upper half, resplendent in an array of fancy headwear and over-the-top make up – tottered in front of the judge wearing their allegiances on placards round their necks. The ‘Artful’ Art Schools. The ‘Machiavellian’ Academics. The ‘Cunning’ Cultural Institutions. The ‘Foxy’ Artists. The ‘Canny’ Funders. All stood accused of ‘Lies, Damned Lies and Social Return on Investment’. Chrissie Tiller and her team at the Participatory Arts Lab, Goldsmiths, planned this event as a celebration of the now discontinued MA in Participatory and Community Arts. The result was extraordinarily refreshing. Open. Unusual. Sharply contrasting with the art community’s new de rigueur – self-censoring, tight-lips, sycophancy, uniformity, compliance.

As a prosecution witness, my role was, together with five others – Frances Williams, Sylvan Baker, David Slater, Jenny Sealey and, the turncoat, Alison Rooke – to attempt to convince the court of the defendants’ guilt. For different reasons, we each felt aggrieved by the hijacking of notions of participation in the arts for a whole host of instrumentalist agendas that did nothing to encourage community or equality. We also held that participatory arts lacked any depth or real engagement – a risk-free field where ‘professionalism’ and specialised box-ticking jargon had replaced people-first intuition and the uncertainty of creating art together. Our position was one of (almost) complete disdain for smothering bureaucracy, top-down administration, impact measurement, cost-benefit analyses, and many other impositions that had turned participation into a watchword for state-sponsored compliance. The foot soldiers were revolting. We’d had enough.

Meanwhile, the defence witnesses (comprising David Jubb, Sophie Hope, Deborah Curtis, Julia Farrington and Andrew Barnett) all pretty much played the party line – Whatever You Want – ubiquitous riffs that everyone likes to dance to. Everyone but us, the prosecution wondered? We all (unfortunately, perhaps) know the lyrics of the Status Quo – feel good, harmless, catchy. No. GUILTY. All five defendants were found guilty. Complicit in the wilful deception of participants and the arts world alike. The verdict was accompanied by the words ‘But who cares?’ Who cares? Certainly the Participation on Trial participants, but beyond us? Will anyone listen? Will anyone think twice about trotting out ‘arts for all’, ‘participation for everyone’, or any of those other shallow vicissitudes? Probably not. Not yet, in any case.

And yet, for me, the trial held promise. Surreal? Yes. Irreverent? Yes. Angry? Sometimes. Controversial? For some. Performative? Beautifully. There was a curiously democratic edge. It felt uncomfortable. Exciting. Why? Perhaps because we could speak openly. Differences of opinion. Great! Cross-examination was challenging. The feedback honest and immediate. The arts need this. Artists need this. The Arts and Cultural Industries elite would probably hate it. Why? I challenges their hegemonic grip – their Newspeak – their power – their control. Participation on Trial could be expanded; the format could be more or less specific; the trial could tour?  Mocking AND/ NOR deadly serious events like this might offer potential to really bring the many simmering issues in arts and culture and politics into an open space where dissensus is okay – perhaps even good?  Let’s move away from dry lectures and state approved consensus speaking.  We all should feel free to speak our minds.  No more self-censorship.  No fear of penalties.

So, for me, Participation on Trial excelled on many unusual levels, not least that pernicious forms of participation in the arts were found guilty, but also because it provided a much needed blend of serious debate and deadly serious hilarity.