The joy and discomfort of participation

 – Thoughts and reflections after our seminar

Last week the Suitcase participated and partly hosted a seminar for the network TakePart. The seminar focussed on facilitation and evaluation of artistic participation processes.

The first day of the seminar took place at The Royal Danish Opera. Christina Østerby, Director of Programming, Sales, and Strategic Analytics at The Royal Danish Theatre opened the seminar with a presentation on the institutional perspectives of why we work with participation.

Foto: Christiane Særkjær, workshop with KGL+

Foto: Christiane Særkjær, workshop with KGL+

After this followed a more practical contribution by KGL+, The Royal Danish Theatre’s out-reach department. In a workshop with an opera singer and a pianist, the network group was taken through the different stages of a participation process and felt the reactions and results on our own bodies. This left us more energized and ready for the following mini presentations and group discussions.

The second day took place at The National Gallery of Denmark. Again, the day varied between keynotes, mini-presentations and a workshop with ULK (the museum’s social and creative community for young people). This workshop gave us a break from the slightly more passive listening and ‘forced’ us to engage and participate in solving a problem for ULK (in a creative, deliberately exorbitant, and humorous fashion). See the full seminar programme here.

What did I learn?
What do I take with me and pack in my suitcase after two days of interesting conversations spent in stimulating company? One of the main impressions I’m left with, is that participation processes seem to have an inherent discomfort and awkwardness to them, which makes participants cringe right before engaging. This discomfort stems partly from not knowing what will happen, being unsure of what is expected of you as a participant, or the fear that you will suddenly be the centre of attention instead of the spectator gazing at a subject.
This uneasiness was obvious in both workshops during the seminar. When the opera singer the first day asked us to form a circle around her, you could hear people whisper concerns of having to sing themselves. They did so with a nervous giggle and a bit of anxiety in their voices.

We saw the same reluctance right before the workshop with ULK. Some of us were a bit hesitant going into the process hoping that our poor drawing skills wouldn’t be exposed. However, neither of the workshops turned out to be too anxiety-provoking. During the first workshop for instance we, the participants, moved around the room in different formations and with different speed. During the entire process, we began to inhabit the space in a new way. We became part of what was happening instead of spectators, and with this transformation comes a release of energy and the possibility of establishing a meaningful connection to the other participants, to the process, and to the space.[i]

In this way, the qualities of ‘getting our feet wet’ and being active in a participatory process were confirmed. It seemed to me that both workshops left the group more energized, gave us a sense of togetherness, cleared our minds, and made us ready for the next thing on the agenda that day.

The gap between these qualities and the nervous expectations before participating calls for an increased focus on evaluation of participation (which was the focus of the seminar), as well as a better understanding of the concerns that participants may experience right before engaging in a process. – Concerns that may end up keeping them from engaging at all.
If we learn more about the variety and complexity of this mind set, we may become better at helping participants and audiences in general over the ‘threshold’ to cultural- or art institutions (or to art experiences of any kind), as mentioned in a previous blog post. A continuous curiosity towards participants’ and audiences’ expectations and experiences could leave us better equipped to facilitate both participation processes and cultural experiences in the future.

[i] For more on how we make sensory connections to a space see various work of Dan Ringgaard or cf. the article “Musikalsk stedsans – En undersøgelse af sansernes betydning for etableringen og erfaringen af stedet” in Danish Musicology Online (N. Gram, 2014).

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