What struck me upon reading your three very good and reflective letters was first, that despite the gloomy forecast of the lockdowns, the pandemic cannot be an excuse for inaction. Secondly, that you are already indirectly suggesting, in your letters, ways to avoid inaction. And thirdly, in answer to the original questions on participation, what we may be witnessing here, in these letters, is when participation is transcended and solidarity begins.
Your letters speak, as Dmitry puts it, of «social disintegration, lack of air, cynicism and loss». But this is not only in Russia, Dmitry. Fear, isolation, regret, frustration and powerlessness run through the three letters, as they do throughout virtually all communications right now. One could call this a worldwide existential despair. As Dmitry points out, «Chto Delat have been countering these tendencies for 17 years. And every time you feel like starting from scratch».
I say, no need to start from scratch. We are always learning and building upon previous struggles in the democratization of our practices, and our societies.
There are also some profoundly positive aspects to your letters. Your communications reveal the close interpersonal connection of a global experience that we all now share — one that is a great leveler. One feels oneself to be in the room with all three of you, writing, as Suzana so nicely puts it, like «pen-pals». You are paying attention
to yourselves and to others—in this case, your far-flung colleagues. We are all here bearing witness to each other's intimate feelings of being caught in this shared moment in the world
Philosopher and political activist, Simone Weil, thought of this notion of attention
to one another's experience as
love, «for just as attention acknowledges the existence of another, love requires the recognition of a reality outside of the self» (Weil 1966: 130). For Weil, this loving solidarity is central to social justice.
bel hooks put it this way:
The moment we choose to love we begin to move against domination, against oppression. The moment we choose to love we begin to move towards freedom, to act in ways that liberate ourselves and others. That action is the testimony of love as the practice of freedom.
Here, in these letters, we have three very experienced practitioners from different parts of the world, very well-practiced in the «art of participation», feeling the loss of your practice, your active agency. Yet, I believe you are in fact demonstrating something very important (something essential to our would-be discussion in St Petersburg)—you are demonstrating solidarity as the connective tissue between humans wherever and in whatever difficult circumstances they find themselves (Lynch 2020). This connection between people collaborating is so powerful when it exists in a conscious way, and so limiting when it does not, when it is in fact, «participation-lite».
So, let's look at «participation», that ubiquitous buzzword, central to our discussion.
Much participatory practice has been criticised as essentially flawed, providing an illusion of participation while, in reality, consensual decisions tend to be coerced, or rushed through on the basis of the artist's or the institution's control of creative/knowledge production and its dissemination, or on the basis of a funding agenda, thereby manipulating consensus on what is inevitable, usual or expected (Graham 2013; Lynch and Alberti, 2010; Lynch 2011a; 2011c; Lynch 2019; Lynch 2020; Marstine 2011; Sandell and Nightingale 2012).
Despite good intentions, participation is not always the democratic process it claims to be; rather, it more frequently reflects the agendas of the institution where the processes are in fact tightly controlled (Fouseki 2010; Lynch 2011a).
Too often in our participatory practice we inadvertently avoid the discomfort of actual participation through something else: co-option
It is the very ambiguity of participation
, and empowerment
that have made them vulnerable to appropriation for political agendas; differently positioned users put very different versions of these concepts to use.
When I wrote Whose Cake is it Anyway?
following my UK-wide study on behalf of the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, I had reviewed the effectiveness of public engagement and participation in the UK's museums. The study showed that, despite best intentions, participation in the cultural arts sector frequently runs into direct conflict between funder expectations and participant aspirations.
In the course of my subsequent research, numerous instances could be cited that epitomise the pitfalls within genuine attempts at fostering a collaborative relationship with people in our practice, one that is ethical, democratic, participatory, reciprocal and allows for genuine challenge and debate.
The product (an exhibition or programme) may look good, but the relationship too often does not.
One recurring element of this breakdown of communication is the institutional (and individual) discomfort with, and consequent avoidance of, conflict (Lynch 2017c). A rights-based approach to collaboration must enable those whose lives are affected the most (by oppression or injustice) to articulate their priorities and to make change happen.
The so-called «activist institution» is not the same as a commitment to activism embedded within a rights-based practice that facilitates people's right to express themselves—sometimes angrily—and act towards social change—and therefore hope.
The point here is not that the artist's or arts institutions' role in generating awareness of social and environmental injustice, and human rights abuses, is not important. It is that the artist, project or institution cannot, at the same time, lose sight of the critical importance of people's own active agency
—something that is so easily, and inadvertently undone under the name of participation. For example, Pablo, your Instituto de la Telenovela, your first «socially engaged project», which, you say, served as a research project exploring the impact of the Mexican soap opera industry in Eastern Europe. I want to ask if the research was co-produced?
Co-researching is a wide-open field of collaboration and solidarity, one from which participants are too often excluded, finding themselves more frequently, «the researched». It is another element— a lack but also an opportunity—in terms of transforming what we commonly understand as «participation».
So, what is to be done to improve participation, to avoid the participation trap?
I have already mentioned a commitment to people's active agency
, and to overcoming the fear of conflict
. But there is another stumbling block.
Too often, institutions and collaborative projects continue to be non-reflective, thus in effect exercising a paternalism that undermines people's self-empowerment.
The only way up and out of this rabbit-hole is through a commitment to ongoing collaborative, critical reflective practice
(Lynch 2011b). This collaborative reflective practice is central to learning, and absolutely central to breaking through—moving from participation-lite to active solidarity—in which the collaborators develop their voice as «critical friends».
I want to ask you Dmitry how much collaborative, critical reflection may be embedded in the School of Engaged Art? You speak of the seven years running your educational platform at Chto Delat and add that, «I hope that we managed to 'indoctrinate' more than 150 people who now share this feeling of lonely struggle». This sounds less like participation and more like solidarity. Is this a true depiction?
You remark Dmitry, that you see Chto Delat by now as «a community which seriously has shaped the whole alternative local scene», and you add that, «we care about it and somehow it works—at least we got a substantial number of people with whom you could keep a quality and intimate relations—personal and professional». This sounds like you have moved the participatory agenda on, but how exactly do you know how it feels for those involved? How was the process
for all engaged?
Critically reflecting together on what happened in a given experience, before, during and after, is how we challenge and ultimately shift the seemingly embedded hierarchical, patronising and disempowering relationship between people and institutions. This is how we collectively build capability while developing an acute consciousness of the complex power dynamics within these relations.
This is how we liberate all involved to develop their potential to become active agents and co-contributors, to become solidarians
Dear colleagues, the background to your letters is first and foremost, the pandemic, but it is not only that. The present anxieties we all share are to be seen, right there, between the lines of your letters—social, political, economic fears, and the largest threat of all—environmental. Arguably, we have more in common across the world right now, running between, across and throughout all cultures, with people of all backgrounds, than we ever did. I would argue that this is precisely the time of solidarity, as a social, emotional bond to jointly put into action.
It is high time to move beyond the empty words of «participation», towards practicing a politics of solidarity and active, collaborative change. We have no time for anything less, as the forces of prejudice and division rapidly gather and grow all around us in this «troubled world», that conspire to silence and divide.
Solidarity involves the conscious fostering of transformative relationships based on interdependence
, as a radical act of resistance and struggle, leading to personal and social emancipation. Solidarity rejects the notions of kindness, empathy, «charity» that run throughout too much participatory practice, that result too often in the shutting down of dignity, of resistance, the shutting down of legitimate anger towards prejudice.
Photographer and theorist Ariella Azoulay, states: «I employ the term «contract» in order to shed terms such as «empathy», «shame», «pity», or «compassion» as organizers of this gaze» (Azoulay 2008). Our work is not done because of the pandemic—it's not even interrupted. It is the time to commit to a «solidarity contract» that is attuned, attentive and in pursuit of social justice and change. We can build up and out of the shared situations in which we find ourselves, locked away as we are in our rooms.
We can be creative in our solidarity, even when limited to, as Dmitry puts it, «"screen participation"… when we cannot see faces and engage in emotional contacts through smiles, touch, smell». But just as you have effectively done here, between the three of you, you can still make contact, still be in solidarity in meaningful ways. There has been an explosion of online debate, discussion and organising (see the U.S. elections and Black Lives Matter). We can still, plan, create, co-research, co-curate, organize. Dmitry says, «I still remember how exciting it was!» Well, it still is! It is essential that we remain active, inventive, engaged and open-hearted.
Meanwhile Dmitry usefully refers to taking a position of participatory educational platforms. It means that the participants of such projects have different possibilities to shape the process of common learning. So here I would emphasize the process of commoning the learning production.
This immediately opens up the possibilities of turning our present physical distancing limitations into possibilities. I would suggest that this could be called a pedagogy of solidarity, as Paulo Freire famously termed it (Freire et al, 2014), or as Dmitry puts it, «a secret mission between accomplices». And what is not exciting about that?!!
Thank you for your thoughtful letters.
In continuing solidarity,
Dr Bernadette Lynch*Bernadette Lynch's writing is freely available online: https://ucl.academia.edu/BernadetteLynch