In recent decades, participatory art has drawn increasing attention. The term participatory art refers to an array of artistic expression that stresses a shared ownership in the creative process, often aimed to generate some form of dialogue, social activism or to mobilize communities towards a common goal. Art historian Grant Kester suggests that beyond ‘mere consultations’ with participants, participatory art seeks to creates a dynamic collaboration between the artist, its participants and their environment to activate critical thinking and decision making. (1)

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Three theories of participation are found in participatory art and will be presented to exemplify its conceptual differences. These models prescribe different roles for the artist-designer, forms of participation, and the degree to which people are involved and for what purposes. While the motivations are vastly different, they all depend on ‘participation’.  

Participatory art as Relational Art

Bourriaud (2002) hails this model of participation for positive interactions. The term ‘relational art’ by Bourriaud seeks to highlight artworks (often temporal and small-scale conival moments) that experiments on interpersonal relations, constructing social interstices, a term borrowed from Karl Max. The social interstices in art can be looked upon as a micro-community of collaboration, whereby in Bourriaud terms, is the collaboration between the artist and his audience. Such collaboration may engage people unwilling audiences whom perhaps might have momentarily participated in the artwork, or otherwise, willingly through elaborated collaboration processes.


Examples: Unwilling: Danish Artist Jens Haaning – Loudspeaker to play jokes (Collective laughter)

Elaborated collaboration process – Rirkrit Tiranvanija – Gallery space for audience to meet cook read (Socialising)


Both works encouraged open-ended participation and there seems to be little control as to where should the work ‘end’. The control and authorship of the work is therefore shared by anybody who participates in it.


Participatory art as a Critical Practice

Claire Bishop perhaps might be the most vocal advocate for this confrontational model of participatory art which suggests an art practice that experiments with power relations with disturbance of social order, constantly upsetting the status quo. Such participatory art is often characterised as contradictory and antagonistic, contesting existing political, economic and social structures. Bishop argues that Bourriaud’s model of participation on the other hand unrealistically staged social relations as something neutral and depoliticised, with works that are merely an instrument for bringing people together. (Bishop, 2004, pp. 67–8)


Example: Santiago Sierra, 250cm Line Tatooed on 6 paid people.


Bishop’s model of participation seeks to make visible less represented and exploited groups of society and questions individual rights to speak, act and feel. The artist in the model has control over its participants, as such, this form of participation is all inclusive. Similarly, the control and authorship is often limited to only the artist himself.


Participatory art as Social Works

The final form of participation aims to use participatory art as a form to improve life conditions for the people. Jackson’s (2011) notion of ‘social works’ put its emphasis on the social engagement of participatory art practices. She defines two forms of engagement: “While some social art practice seeks to innovate around the concept of collaboration others seek to ironize it. While some social art practice seeks to forge social bonds, many others define their artistic radicality by the degree to which they disrupt the social” (Jackson, 2011, p. 14).


Her model of participation in art is practiced in two forms, either by exploiting participants by not sharing any form of control or secondly, or including participants through dialogues and collaboration to achieve longer social engagement. Contrary to Bishop’s approach, Jackson favours the latter form of participation as communities can be built as a result.


Example: Row House 1990s


Jackson’s model of approach can be thought of as a middle ground between Bourriaud’s relational art and Bishop’s participatory art. Unlike relational art, participation here is not institutionalised. Instead, it takes place in the public realm for a select group of individuals. While control is shared with participants, the artist takes responsibility of its social engagement.

Drawing on the success story of Row House, one questions if such approach can be adopted on a larger scale.

2.0  Architecture: Not an Expert’s Art

What People Want: Populism in Architecture And Design by Michael Shamiyeh

The Efficacy of Architecture: Political Contestation and Agency By Tahl Kaminer



Architecture occurs within a field of tensions by three groups of interests – the architect’s personal interests, political interests and public interests. (Michael Shamiyeh) There has been a significant ideological transition taking place in the discipline of architecture over the last few years. Across the world, a growing displeasure towards the ‘starchitecture’ system and focus on aesthetical innovations have resulted in architects being accused for being preoccupied with making artistic statements rather than spaces where people would actually want to be.


The efficacy of architecture is being called into question here. Once a discipline in service to the population through urban planning and design of public housing and spaces, the practice of Architecture has now evolved into a niche market of real estate business for the rich and famous, subjected to the dictations of the free market.


Our urban development is experiencing a paradigm shift where existing state institutional structures and authorities are increasingly being questioned and dismantled. The tendency towards privatisation and focus on individuality meant that architects are called, more than ever, to achieve ‘what people want’, equated to the will of the consumer. Architects are subjected to alter their projects to conform to the market and in turn, populists – anticipating the will of the people. A new design planning culture is demanded. Architecture is not an expert’s art. There is a need to redefine the role of the architect. New participation processes are being brought forth in our urban development.


Participatory Art and Civic Engagement

There are increasingly new spaces and opportunities emerging for citizen engagement in policy processes, from local to global levels. Participation have become a popular buzz word in the field of urban development. However, within the civil society actors and planners alike, there is a lingering sense of scepticism over the success of such an approach. Does this shift in power open up spaces where participation and citizen voice can have an influence? How should such engagement be carried out to build our social movements, organisations and alternatives in our spaces?

A participative approach towards architecture poses a challenge to many of traditional architecture’s normative values, possibly leading to new forms of spatial conditions and emergence of new types of architectural practices.

Involving the user in the production of architecture may be considered a threat to an architect’s creative autonomy and control over the design process. Consequently, when architects do encourage user participation, it signals a democratic act. It combines the empowerment of the user with a critical questioning of the architect’s power relationships, be they with public clients or private developers.

De Carlo famously stated that ‘architecture has become too important to be left to architects … therefore all barriers between builders and users must be abolished.’

With that in mind, users of architecture, and of cities, were thus to be involved in the imagination and creation of the built environment. Whilst architects typically saw themselves in charge  of the coordination of consultation processes and the translation of ideas into buildings, users could advise, imagine, change, and appropriate the environment, users could possibility even take part in construction in the case of ‘self-building’.



Citizen participation serves as a vital pillar of democracy, with many critics noting the strong and positive effects it brings about. For instance, a greater sense of responsibility for public matters and collective efficacy in decision making is achieved through increased public engagement. Research have shown that Participatory Art has the potential to serve as a form of political expression and a medium through which society can express themselves politically, whilst nurturing skills of political literacy and values of active citizenship. (2) Beyond that, participatory art has a profound impact on communities by building social networks, and enhancing the lives of individuals.  


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