Sophie Hope on Participation

Sophie Hope

13 Feb 2013
Artist, curator and educator Sophie Hope is our guest at the next Friday Salon on 15 February.

Artist, curator and educator Sophie Hope is our guest at the next Friday Salon on 15 February, to discuss participatory practice and the key themes that have emerged over the years. In this article she reflects on the links between commissioned participatory art practices and the histories of leisure policy in the UK.

Access to the Mountain: Navigating the complexities of participation

On 24 April 1932 a mass trespass took place at Kinder Scout in the Peak District. Organised by Communist Party members and the British Workers’ Sport Federation, over 400 people walked into the landscape as a statement, demanding that everyone should have the right to access the open country not just aristocratic landowners. Five people, including one of the organisers, Benny Rothman, were arrested. The trespass led to new legislation: Access to the Mountain in 1939 and National Parks in 1949 (Henry 2001, p.16). The mass trespass was a provocative, unofficial and collective act that succeeded in having an impact at policy level. It also relied on a leader who could organise others to get involved.

This text presents some initial research I am embarking on which situates the debate on participation in the realm of work and non-work. To do this, I draw on the history of leisure policy in the UK in order to explore the political, cultural and ideological drive to keep busy. This leads me to question why participation, as framed by socially engaged art, is in itself often considered a positive act of empowerment but one that relies on maintaining the distinction between unpaid participants and professional cultural workers.

I locate ‘participation’ in a history of leisure policy in order to highlight some of the underlying motivations for occupying people’s time productively. I do not want to assume or generalise the complicated motivations for participation, but I do want to draw attention to the fact that this is not neutral territory and that there are diverse individual and ideological agendas for what to do with our time and resources. The extent to which participation is self-determined, a response to an invitation or a coercive act depends on the circumstances, but a look at leisure policy might help us explore the concern governments and authorities displayed as the working classes started to have disposable incomes and weekends. During the election campaign in 1959, for example, leisure was a key issue, with both parties publishing leisure policies (the Labour Party published Leisure for Living and the Conservative Party The Challenge of Leisure). In 1965, The Civic Trust’s survey, also called The Challenge of Leisure stated that “[a]lready the weekend multitudes are congesting our roads, fouling our downs and commons with litter and soiling our lay-bys...” and asked “[c]an we enhance the lives of our people without ruining the island they live on?” (p.5).

What people did in their spare time on their own terms has at various points in history been seen as a threat to disorder, a breeding ground for political dissent, a distraction from the discipline needed for productive work and a market to be tapped into and exploited. Ian Henry in his book, The Politics of Leisure Policy (2001) points to a number of factors that led to the introduction of leisure policy in the UK. In the 19th Century, working class recreation was seen by some as an act of personal fulfillment that compensated for the alienation experienced at work (p.5). Unofficial forms of leisure, particularly those practiced by the working classes, however, were also seen as a threat to civil society and as slowing down industrial production. Self-organised mass gatherings and forms of working class leisure were banned or regulated in the 1800s. For example, street football was made illegal in 1835, public cock-fights in 1849 (although middle class blood sports continued to be legal) and betting shops in 1854. The licensing of Beer Houses was introduced in 1820 (p.9-10).

During the 19th Century the controlling of leisure pursuits began to be embraced as a civilising process. For example, the ‘muscular Christian’ movement promoted values of self-discipline and teamwork through the establishment of rugby and football teams (p.11). Middle class philanthropists and reformists were also ‘taming popular recreations’ through the creation of public parks (Recreation Grounds Act 1852), mechanics’ institutes and public museums and libraries (with the Museum’s Act of 1849 and Public Libraries Act of 1850). An accepted, civil, polite form of participation for all classes in leisure pursuits was being nurtured and other forms of participation were being discouraged or made illegal. It seems that participation in productive, healthy, educative recreation was being shaped by policy as a means to ensure people were satisfactorily occupied and therefore not in danger of demanding anything too drastic, unconventional or upsetting to the status quo.

Some of these attitudes towards leisure time are synonymous with the evolution of cultural policy since the founding of the Arts Council in the 1940s. They also underpin some of the more recent rhetoric of social inclusion, the Big Society and ‘participation’ in the arts. The (New Labour) industry that sprung up to include the excluded and engage the unengaged has been involved in setting up schemes to occupy people's leisure time by actively encouraging useful, liberating, entertaining or distracting forms of participation.

Debates on participation in the arts in the UK have been ongoing for some time (for example, Baldry 1974, Braden 1978 and Kelly 1984). My own research has focused on acts of ‘participating in the wrong way’ in formalised, contracted socially engaged / participatory art commissions (Hope 2011). I have found that socially engaged art commissions are often framed by particular conventions of participation based on the will to empower and civilise (Cruikshank 1999 and Levitas 2005). While some of the roots of socially engaged art can be found in more politically radical ideas of cultural democracy and campaigns for social justice, the model of commissioning artists to develop participatory projects in particular settings often reflects a more dominant model: the democratisation of culture. In brief, this means opening up the work/world of professional arts to all, rather than creating sites, situations and resources for people to develop/express themselves on their own terms (although there are often cross-overs between these ambitions in practice).

If participation is based, for the most part, on a model of democratisation of culture, does the role of professional author and amateur participant need to be kept at a respectful distance in order to survive as a professional practice? What are the conditions and circumstances that maintain, disrupt or blur the relationships between participants, artists, curators, commissioners and funders? I am interested in this (at times blurred and at other times very distinct) line between professional paid cultural workers and amateur volunteer participants.

For there to be a participant there needs to be something to participate in. In the case of socially engaged art, this is usually a project which has to some extent been thought through by artists, curators, commissioners and funders before ‘participants’ are invited to get involved (although other methods, such as Participatory Action Research are experimented with, e.g. see Kemmis and McTaggart, 2000). Recent policy under New Labour was built on the notion that participating in art would bring social and economic benefits to the individual and society at large. This belief has to a certain extent continued with Cameron’s Big Society, but without the public funding, or the art. The point is, participation of a certain kind (permitted, polite, socially accepted) is encouraged and expected and there is a service industry that has built up over the years to provide voluntary opportunities to engage in all sorts of things that may or may not look like art but that invite different sorts of ideas and conversations to take place. Rarely, however, has this involved direct action such as the mass trespass of Kinder Scout or led to progressive changes in policy. The participation industry has instead come to rely on the conventional (compliant) participation of others in order to survive (the professionalisation of socially engaged art workers, myself included, during New Labour is a reflection of this).

The future sustainability of this formerly publicly subsidised service industry is uncertain, whether it returns to the completely voluntary status of artists and participants as in the pre-professionalised community art activist days of the 1960s and 70s (Braden 1978) or if it is left to the market to decide. As it is, cultural workers involved in the participation industry continue to search for and encourage people to ‘get involved’. The question is, what are we rallying people for? Benny’s mass trespass had a point to make about the right to access land and this action relied on participants taking to their feet and walking with Benny, risking arrest, to make that point. With many socially engaged and participatory projects, the point is not as obvious or risky as demanding access to the mountain.

Whether the reason for participating is obvious or opaque, there is still a question as to who participates in their free time. Perhaps those with more leisure time and less caring responsibilities are more likely to participate than others. A reluctance to participate in something during one’s unpaid, ‘free’ time may also stem from a suspicion of what is on offer, fear of humiliation or just a preference to do one’s own thing (it might be too cold and tiring to go up that mountain). Curiosity to find out more and perhaps get involved (answering an advert posted by an artist calling for participants, playing football, starting a reading group or direct political action like the mass trespass) might be inspired by the need to meet other people or make a difference but can also come with a sense of risk, such as embarrassment about revealing one’s ignorance, not being liked or being arrested. Whether tolerated, prohibited or encouraged by the authorities, participation tends to be a socialised act that requires an acknowledgement from both the already initiated and the reluctant or willing participant of that marginal sense of being on the slippery borders of inclusion and exclusion.

I suggest that this industry of participatory arts stems from a trajectory of policies that try to address the ‘challenge’ of what to do with people when they are not working. In order to ensure power does not change hands entirely, an industry of participation has grown up which maintains that distance whilst keeping people ‘occupied’ (e.g. artists in the form of low paid employment and participants in voluntary roles as co-producers, performers etc). The future of participation on these terms is uncertain as leisure and work become less distinct and the volunteer worker entails a life of perpetual participation in other people’s projects. As the participation industry starts to crumble, at least financially, we are having to re-evaluate these distinctions between paid professionals and unpaid participants. This may force us to rethink what it is we want to fight for in our free time.

Sophie Hope
11 February 2013


Baldry, H., 1974. Community Arts in Great Britain. London: Arts Council of Great Britain.
Braden, S., 1978. Artists and People. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd.
Cruikshank, B., 1999. The Will to Empower. Democratic Citizens and Other Subjects.
Ithica. Henry, I., 2001. The Politics of Leisure Policy. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.
Hope, S., 2011. Participating in the Wrong Way? Practice-based research into cultural democracy and the commissioning of art to effect social change. Available at: www.sophiehope.org.uk/research
Kemmis, S. & McTaggart, R., 2000. Participatory Action Research. In N. Denzin & Y. Lincoln, eds. Handbook of Qualitative Research. Second Edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Kelly, O., 1984. Community, Art, and the State: Storming the Citadels. Stroud: Comedia.
Levitas, R., 2005. The Inclusive Society? Social Exclusion and New Labour. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan. The Civic Trust, 1965. The Challenge of Leisure. London: The Civic Trust.

Sophie Hope joins Felicity Allen at the 'free' Friday Salon: On Participation, 15 February 2013.

The Friday Salon is in association with Art Works and supported by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation.

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