Participatory art

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Participatory art is an approach to making art in which the audience is engaged directly in the creative process, allowing them to become co-authors, editors, and observers of the work. Therefore,this type of art is incomplete without the viewers physical interaction. Its intent is to challenge the dominant form of making art in the West, in which a small class of professional artists make the art while the public takes on the role of passive observer or consumer, i.e., buying the work of the professionals in the marketplace. Commended works by advocates that popularized participatory art include Augusto Boal in his Theater of the oppressed, as well as Allan Kaprow in happenings.

One of the earliest usages of the term appears in photographer Richard Ross (photographer)'s review for the Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art journal of the exhibition "Downtown Los Angeles Artists," organized by the Santa Barbara Contemporary Arts Forum in 1980. Describing in situ works by Jon Peterson (artist), Maura Sheehan and Judy Simonian anonymously placed around Santa Barbara, Ross wrote, "These artists bear the responsibility to the community. Their art is participatory."[1]

It is important to point out that there has been some nominal obfuscation of Participatory Art, causing it's appreciation as a distinct form to be stymied. It is most likely that this occurred simultaneously with the development of the term "Relational Aesthetics" by Bourriaud in the late 1990s. Some other art making techniques, such as 'community-based art', 'interactive art', or 'socially-engaged art' have been (mis)labelled as Participatory art, simply because the subtleties of distinction are not always clearly understood or cared about. Participatory art requires of the artist that they either not be present, or that they somehow are able to recede far enough to become equal with the participants. This is the only way that participants might be offered the agency of creation; without this detail, participants will always respond within the domain of authority of the artist; they will be subjugated in this way, and the work will fail to be participatory. This detail is centrally important in asserting Participation as a form in itself, and effectively differentiates Participation from interactive, community based art and socially engaged art.[2] Any of these techniques can include the presence of the artist, as it will not impinge upon the outcome of the work in the same way.

Folk and tribal art can be considered to be a predecessor or model for contemporary "participatory art" in that many or all of the members of the society participate in the making of "art". However, the ideological issue of use arises at this point because art made in the institutions of art is by default, already part of the art world, and therefore it's perceived use is entirely different to any ritualistic or traditional practices expressed by folk or tribal groups. As the ethnomusicologist Bruno Nettl wrote, the tribal group "has no specialization or professionalization; its division of labor depends almost exclusively on sex and occasionally on age, and only rarely are certain individuals proficient in any technique to a distinctive degree ... the same songs are known by all the members of the group, and there is little specialization in composition, performance or instrument making.” [3]

In the Fall/Winter issue of Oregon Humanities magazine, writer Eric Gold describes "an artistic tradition called 'social practice,' which refers to works of art in which the artist, audience, and their interactions with one another are the medium. While a painter uses pigment and canvas, and a sculptor wood or metal, the social practice artist often creates a scenario in which the audience is invited to participate. Although the results may be documented with photography, video, or otherwise, the artwork is really the interactions that emerge from the audience's engagement with the artist and the situation."

Participatory or interactive art creates a dynamic collaboration between the artist, the audience and their environment. Participatory art is not just something that you stand still and quietly look at–it is something you participate in. You touch it, smell it, write on it, talk to it, dance with it, play with it, learn from it. You co-create it. One example of participatory or interactive art in the US is Figment (arts event).

See also[edit]

Subtypes of participatory art[edit]


  1. ^ Richard Ross."At Large In Santa Barbara." LAICA Journal. September–October 1980, Number 28. 45-47
  2. ^ Mount, Andrew (2010). "Participation, Hosting And Mimesis: The Double Being". 
  3. ^ Nettl, Bruno, Music in Primitive Culture, Cambridge, Harvard 1956, p. 10.


  • Claire Bishop (ed.), Participation: Documents of Contemporary Art, Whitechapel Gallery/The MIT Press, 2006.
  • Robert Atkins, Rudolf Frieling, Boris Groys, Lev Manovich, The Art of Participation: 1950 to Now, Thames & Hudson, 2008.
  • Anna Dezeuze (ed.), The 'Do-it-yourself' Artwork: Participation from Fluxus to New Media, Manchester University Press, 2010.
  • Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, Verso Books, 2012.
  • Kathryn Brown (ed.), Interactive Contemporary Art: Participation in Practice, I.B. Tauris, 2014.

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