Hoping for kinder, more open spaces | François Matarasso

An authority on the subject of participatory and community art, François Matarasso will be a keynote speaker at ‘Sharing the Legacy’, the third annual conference organised by the Valletta 2018 Foundation, which this year seeks to ask the question, ‘What makes a city better?’

François Matarasso
François Matarasso

How would you define ‘participatory art’, and how would you say it has shifted in tandem with our urban environments since the 1960s?

For me participatory art is a distinctive practice, which involves professional and non-professional artists working together in the creation of an artwork. It is different from arts education because it leads to the creation of the work of art, which is shared with a public – even if that public is quite small. In its modern form it began with the community art movement in the 1960s, and in the last 20 to 30 years it has evolved into something broader and more diverse, sometimes at the cost of its earlier radicalism. It is valuable for a number of reasons, but the most important to me is in empowering people in the creative act of making sense of the world, and representing themselves in democratic social life.

Have you managed to pin down any current trends in contemporary art, and how would you say these trends impact on smaller communities in particular?

The contemporary art world has become increasingly interested in participation in the past two or three decades, and some of the work that happens in that context is very good. But I see it as different to participatory art because the authorship usually remains with the professional artist. The experience people have may be rich and valuable to them, but the work is seen and interpreted as part of the art world and its concerns.

My own work has been in the field of community art, which I see both as a predecessor and now a distinctive part of the wider field of participatory art. It is a rights-driven approach that seeks alternative value systems to those of the art world, and has an explicitly empowering intention.

It is a space of democratic dialogue in which the creative act is shared by all those involved and so cannot be planned or known in advance.

Your talk at the ‘Sharing the Legacy’ conference will deal with the ‘normalisation’ of participatory art. How do you see this normalisation coming about, and what would you say are some of the mechanisms that enable it? And what are the most pressing risks of such normalisation?

The normalisation of participatory art is evident in that a practice which, when I began work 40 years ago, was genuinely marginal, even oppositional, has become commonplace. That is partly a result of historical changes in our understanding of art, and partly the result of changes in the postmodern world, notably associated with the post-war welfare state and related factors. It has been accelerated by the appearance of new information and communication technology, which has transformed many people’s ability to create and distribute their own art.

“The European Capital of Culture programme is an opportunity for cities to ask important questions about their culture, identity and values, to reflect on what kind of place they are and what kind of place they hope to be”

Such changes inevitably bring risks, only some of which are foreseeable. One which concerns me is the possible institutionalisation of a practice that aspires to be emancipatory. Another is the difficulty of maintaining shared democratic values at a time of great intellectual, political and cultural instability.

What interests you about Malta in particular with regards to these dynamics, and do you think its status as the current European Capital of Culture makes it even more relevant in terms of the nature and evolution of participatory art?

One reason for accepting the conference invitation is that I do not know Malta at all, so I hope you will understand if I don’t offer opinions which could only be ill-informed. The European Capital of Culture programme is an opportunity for cities to ask important questions about their culture, identity and values, to reflect on what kind of place they are and what kind of place they hope to be. At its best it can be transformative, if it enables a truly inclusive debate. I would hope that in a relatively small city such as Valletta, it will have been possible to nurture such a conversation through this period.

François Matarasso is one of the keynote speakers at the Valletta 2018 annual international conference, ‘Sharing the Legacy’, taking place between October 24-26