ARTIST AND RESEARCHER: PARTICIPATORY ART CAN BE EXPLOITATIVE

Summarising this culturally rich year, Valletta 2018 programme coordinator Joanne Attard Mallia admitted facing an unexpected challenge: what happens when 30 international artists descend on a small island and want to work on either traditional music or migration? Everyone thought they would be unique in their vision, but their similar expectations could exhaust target communities. For Francois Matarasso, an community artist and researcher based in the UK, this over-saturation could be another example of the challenges when participatory art becomes trendy. From prisoners to refugees, international artists rush to plug into the stories of individuals in a vulnerable state. The researcher outlined some of these issues at the Sharing the Legacy conference and spoke to Eve about the joys and perils of participatory art.

Eve: In your keynote speech, you asked, “Who validates your work? The community? Alternatively, do you see the validation of the art world? To me, it’s clear on which side I stand.” What happens when the project finishes and the community involved must continue living as before?

Francois Matarasso: There is always an inequality of power between any professional and any non-professional. An artist is a professional, who has done it before, has a lot of knowledge, a different social status, is wealthier, better educated. There are regulated professions like a doctor, teacher, or therapist. These professionals often have to make decisions on behalf of the people they are working with, [not] based on what they prefer. We don’t have the same discipline, working with people as artists.

If the non-professional is bringing their experience into the work, they may have things to share in the intimacy of a workshop, but not to make art of it. I’ve seen a theatre director put pressure on a woman who didn’t want to stay in a theatre project by telling her that she would be letting everyone else down if she withdrew.

Eve: Did you actually witness that?

FM: Yes. Of course, it was said very nicely. ‘People will be very disappointed if you don’t carry on…’ So [participatory art] is widely open to problems. We all make mistakes – nobody’s perfect. Fortunately, now there are some guidelines [in the UK] about how to manage these relationships.

[Some of the questions are], where do you see intellectual property in a co-created work? Who is going to benefit from the result? Who is at risk? Who is vulnerable?

Eve: How should artists protect their subjects from abuse of power? The people may not know what happens when their stories are online and searchable.

FM: What guided me in my work is this: I wouldn’t do to anyone else anything I wouldn’t want to be done to me. [It is] very common that a project says, if we work with these young people, we’ll help them get back into school and give them a more productive use of their time. An artist would come up to them and say, ‘Hey, we could make a video!’ Nobody’s talking about the implicit change that is supposed to happen. If somebody tried to change me without my knowledge of consent, how would I feel?

It’s about relationship, it’s about basic human values. I’m really not telling people how to do their work, that’s why I largely talk about good projects and not bad. [One of the good examples he mentioned in his speech was a project in various countries in Southeastern Europe. “We gave them a small amount of money, training and support, but then we left them. It’s the best programme I’ve ever worked on, and 93% of the projects exceeded the agreed objectives.”]

Eve: Should state institutions and the public sector at large play a role in protecting individuals or communities?

FM: The state has a legitimate role in cultural development, promotion and policy. But the state has its own interests. I wouldn’t rely on a state to protect vulnerable people in participatory art relationships, because this is too small, too subtle and too complex for the state to understand. I think it is for artists who work in that field to develop these standards and responsibilities, and agree on them together, because nobody else understands or cares enough.

Cover photo: Inside the border by Alberto Favaro for Utopian Nights