Ashley Smith-Hammond

Being part of a public art event like Processions got me thinking about arts participation and arts audiences. Is participation in the art a more meaningful experience for a visitor than being an audience member?

A participation procession

On 10 June I was one of the thousands of women and girls who took part in the ambitious public art project Processions. The event took place in the four capital cities around the UK: Edinburgh, Belfast, Cardiff and London. It was devised to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of (some) women in the UK gaining the right to vote. Women and girls walked together wearing green, white or violet, which were the colours of the suffrage movement. Together we appeared as a flowing river of colour through the city’s streets.

Audience versus participant 

Being part of a public art event like Processions got me thinking about arts participation and arts audiences. I contend that we mostly operate as though there is a fuzzy but meaningful difference between the two: one involves taking part in the art; the other merely involves observation.

Is participation in an art a more meaningful experience than being an audience member? On the one hand, the audience is a passive receiver of information. They sit back and let performers do the work, only getting involved by applauding at the right moments. The participant is someone who is part of the work itself. If they don’t turn up then the work won’t exist as it is supposed to. The idea is that the more we ask people to put in of themselves the more they’re able to get back from the thing they helped to make possible.

On the other hand, audiences’ presence makes the work come alive. Just because an audience is quiet does not mean it is passive. An interior experience is no less meaningful because it is not enacted. Physical participation will not automatically create a meaningful communal experience. A participant can be part of something and leave entirely unchanged. A participant can go through the motions.

It’s a silly example, but when I saw the film Juno I was pregnant and I really identified. I cried a lot. Probably more than the film deserved. Hormones played a role, sure, but I didn’t need to be part of it to have an emotional relationship to the work. It was a story that was meaningful to me at the time. By the same token, participants can have a fairly shallow experience taking part in work that has little to say to them or which asks little of them. I remember participating in Sacrilege on Glasgow Green in 2014. Bouncing on an inflatable Stonehenge was fun and all, but it didn’t ask a lot of my intellectual, emotional or critical capacity. Plus, the first time I tried to go they’d closed it for the day with no notice on the website, in the event listings or even signage on the site. I had to make a special trip back to have the participation experience at all.

The importance of setting expectations

Which leads me to another factor which will ensure the success or failure of audience participation: expectations. We’ve all been there: you’re sitting in a theatre and the performers break the fourth wall and ask you to get involved. That’s a cold sweat moment for many of us – eyes down; our interior monologue shouting, ‘don’t pick me, please don’t pick me’. You’ve been asked to switch from being an audience member to a participant when you weren’t expecting it.

However, if you come ready to participate (especially if you are well supported and forewarned about what your bit is going to be) then participation can be a wonderful experience – fun, collective, collaborative. As both performers and audiences, participation can demystify and let people feel like insiders in the arts event.

This was the case with Processions, which was brilliant. Not just because the rain held off (which is no small thing) but because the organisers had done a comprehensive job of planning with participants in mind. I had received a half dozen emails from the main event organisers and the group that I attended with (the always wonderful Glasgow Women’s Library) to give me lots of information in advance. Event organisers had made sure to partner with the organisations who already had deep connections to their communities. Plus, they’d taken the time to consider access needs for people with limited mobility. There were plenty of toilets and members of staff to answer questions. I felt looked after and didn’t waste any energy worrying about where I was supposed to be or what happened next. That let me focus on enjoying the positivity of the moment and the communal experience of being part of that flood of women.

Many of us are more and more focused on building connections or being a positive force in our own communities. What matters for artists and cultural organisations is giving good information up front, regardless of whether you are envisioning a room full of participants or particular audiences at your event. This will likely mean doing a lot of thinking in advance about who you want to come, who the work might matter to and what they need to know. What adaptations might they need to have a successful experience? What is the positive outcome we want and how can we support people for it to happen? Participants or audiences, the questions you ask should be the same.