Participatory Art – Research Essay


Author: Emanuel Ciobanica

Institution: York University

Date: 13.12.2013

Pages: 12

Participatory Art

Critical analysis of the genre and effects of the movement on society

Case study: Inside Out Project by JR

In a Toronto Star article in 2011, Debra Black writes of the French photographer and street artist, JR, and describes his surprise at finding out he had won the TED prize that year. A relatively recent phenomenon, the Inside Out Project’s stunning worldwide success is hard to deny. JR says, “…I didn’t realize the impact it could have”. Many are equally surprised at the growing scope of the venture, with group actions happening in over a hundred countries worldwide in the first year. With so much fanfare, a comprehensive account of the man, and organization, is absolutely elusive. The artist JR is championed by many, and new members are signing-on, and participating in the project every day. In time, the successes and failures of the project may become more clear. For now, a factual review of the mandate and results of the Inside Out Project, must be pieced together (Debra Black). This essay undertakes the work of clarifying the mandate of Participatory Art in general, and tying it to the specifics, as many as are available, of JR’s philosophy of art. An effort is made to clarify the individual statements of the artist under review, and to demonstrate them to be less original than JR and his many supporters may imagine, and may, in fact, derive directly from existing trends in The Art, in general.

Amy Novogratz, Director of the TED Prize, explains that “…(t)he idea is to give the TED Prize to somebody who has already made a difference in the world”. “One of the reasons we were so excited by JR is he worked collaboratively”. As well, Debra Black points out that “… prior to the award, JR had earned an international reputation among both street artists and art critics”. At the time, the artist was only 28 years old (Black). The artist was given the opportunity to share his dream of art changing the world, with a larger audience, who have become participants, and co-authors, of the project. “All these pieces are making up the largest world’s participatory art project, explain(s) Novogratz. JR calls this a “democratization of art”. There are some limitations, like the use of black and white portraits, or the request by JR “… that participants use the image of their face to stand for something, whether it is a political statement or philosophical one” (Black). Barring these, and other guidelines, the participants, as co-authors, are encouraged to make a personal statement with the poster of their image. In the “One year of Turning the World Inside Out” video on TED, JR speaks of the project acting as a political platform. Individual participants, or those taking part in group actions, are encouraged to make whatever expression in the portrait they feel conveys their unique message, and to display the work in a way that conveys their message to the world (One Year of Turning the world Inside Out, 2012).

In a recent New York Times article, Allan Kozinn describes how “…the project message changes to suit the setting”, which also means that it is site specific, and would not be effective in any other site. Since the project message is comprised of many group actions, performed by different groups, no one clear message is discernible, or dominant. In New York’s Times Square, in May, 2013, JR set up an exhibit (Fig. 2). A photo truck distributed the posters, and the participants pasted the images to the ground, as it was the only available space, due to the predominance of advertising in the area. JR explains how “… it’s people versus advertising”, and that the Inside Out message was made up of “… people, amid all this advertising, saying ‘We exist’, and ‘We’re together”(Kozinn). However, despite the noble intention, the message is not clear, there is no use of symbolism, or body language that could be interpreted as “we are togeder”. Thus, potentially falling under the umbrella of advertising originality and not activism.

As a contrast, in Johannesburg, Allan Kozinn reports that “… JR photographed children with AIDS with the idea of removing the disease’s stigma and presenting the subjects as heroes”. That presents a clearer message and brings the photographs togeder in a more consistent way.

In Israel and Palestine”, JR said “… it was about agreeing to the need for a two-state solution”. The project encompassed Ramallah, Jerusalem, and Tel Aviv, with thousands of people participating simultaneously (Kozinn). There, photographs were pasted on both sides of the palestinian wall, each side containing intermingled portraits coming from people from both sides of the wall. The silent message being, that not even the avid supporters could tell the difference between the palestinian portraits and the israeli portraits, thus, making an important point about discrimination and missplaced hatred coming from both parties.

Liz Robbins of the New York Times writes in May, 2011, of the Bergen Street Inside Out Project, where neighbours of Bergen Street protested the destruction of the community in their neighbourhood, and shop owners being forced out of business by the Atlantic Yards Stadium Project, a block away. The organizer, Dana Ekelson, said “(i)t’s really hard for businesses to stay in our neighbourhood because the stadium is coming”. “The project, JR said, transcends class. It’s about dignity for whoever you are”(Robbins). Here JR attempts to clarify the broad message of the movement by talking about self-esteem and improving people’s lives with his work. The article also mentions the project in Tunisia, in March, where “people posted their posters on to billboards and buildings where images of the former dictator, President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, had been. Such actions are often conducted at great personal risk to the individuals involved (New York Times, Liz Robbins, May 2011). The people involved in many of these projects had to paste the photos during the night, fearing capture and consequences of expressing their views. It is particularly this element that JR focuses on in his work, namely, freedom of expression and civic activism. All rounded up by placing the opportunity of expression in the hands of all his co-authors from all around the world.

Battling the elements, 16 members of the #savethearctic movement traveled to the North Pole, installed a banner comprised of a thousand member photos in the shape of an eye, and dropped a time capsule to the bottom of the Arctic Seabed. The action was undertaken to “…stand in opposition to government and corporate interests” intent on exploiting the regions natural resources (Inside Out Project Website, News, May 15, 2013,p.14). It is clear that each group action has been conducted with different personal messages in mind. The various worldwide participants, many of whose group actions and countries have not been mentioned, have undertaken their art projects with varying interests and messages, in an attempt to reach the world and produce change.

In the book Women Are Heroes: A Global Project by JR, text by Marko Berribi, the nature of the Participatory Art Movement is over-viewed. A major change in the cultural landscape is posited, and a technological evolution is cited as indirectly causing this change in the landscape of art. Four main factors are attributed to this shift. “The first factor leading to change is that everyone has become a potential artist”. Anyone can produce images, and the challenge is to create a larger story, not just an image. The second factor is that the news links places with events, and we develop associations. The artist “…move(s) away from the territory of the news by ignoring it, by reinterpreting it, or by caricaturing it( Berribi, 9). The third factor relates to the speed, and ease, of global travel. This has allowed artists to become international players. The final factor outlined by the author is the “practice of debate”. “People around the world can be part of the creative process by adding comments and intellectual content to the initial piece (Berribi, 9).

The author, Marko Berribi, outlines how this approach is “…challenging the common conceptions concerning art”. The traditional model of art practice gives way to a process in which “…people change their daily routines to create an ephemeral art project that will evolve with the communities that complete the work and infuse it with their added intellectual value”. JR is described as being at the forefront of this new movement, which is seen as a “…catalyst in the evolution of art (Berribi, 9). But is it? I presents itself more like a catalyst in the evolution of activism, and civic engagement rather than visual art proper. There are minor artistic qualities to his approach, more likely bordering journalism and documentation rather than personal artistic expression of inner tensions. It is interesting to note, simultaneously, that many of the projects are illegal (Berribi, 7). JR, himself, at the age of 27, is quoted as saying, “90 percent of what I do around the world is illegal”. “Most of the countries I’ve visited, I can’t even re-enter…” (Sooke). That said, JR is definitely taking risks for the causes he believes in, and putting emphasis on end result rather than the consequences. Approach, which could lead to success in his endeavours to bring social change and dignity.

Notwithstanding such obvious critiques of the activities of the artist JR, Participatory Art-Making is increasingly seen as an as a new interdisciplinary 21st century approach to building civic engagement. Civic Engagement is defined as the “…commitment to participate and contribute to the improvement of one’s community, neighbourhood, and nation”(Lewis, 2). Participatory Art is defined as “an approach to making art in which the audience is engaged directly in the creative process, allowing them to become co-authors, editors, and observers of the work. Therefore, this type of art is incomplete without the viewers physical interaction. It’s intent is to challenge the dominant form of making art in the West, in which a small class of professional artists make the art while the public takes on the role of passive observer or consumer”. In that sense, this new wave of collaborative projects, and more public engagement has lead to some significant changes in society and their experience and engagement with art.

So, what is the purpose of engaging the public in group actions? Building Civic engagement. The goal of building civic engagement is twofold, affording the opportunity to reach underserved populations, as well as increasing the overall “vibrancy, and connectivity” of the community (Lewis, 2). Goods become public whenever a collectivity of citizens attributes itself a shared ownership over them (Visconti, 3). Increasingly, policy makers and organizations are seeing Participatory Art-Making as a means of strengthening communities, and “bridging the differences between diverse groups”. Participatory art activities “can revitalize neglected city spaces and active public plazas, parks, and underused facilities”. It contributes to the “liveliness of creative cities”, and is credited with “promoting safe, inviting, and livable neighbourhoods”. Finally, this approach to civic engagement is believed to support local economic growth (Lewis, 3). This approach does succeed in inviting other sections from the community to interact with art, and does manage to accomplish it’s community creating goals. However, by setting this method as the standard to which all other forms of art-making are subordinate to, will have a very negative effect on the personal expression of subjective experiences by individual artists preferring to work in a more isolated manner.

Participatory Art movements often posit an automatic “…connection between user generated content and Democracy. Claire Bishop, forwards the opinion that many examples of Participatory Art in recent years “…have constituted a critique of Participatory Art, rather than upholding an unproblematic equation between artistic and political inclusion”. While JR’s work may well represent a better example of Participatory Art-Making in action, the author speaks of “participation” in “democratic regimes as often being reduced to a question of filling up the spaces left empty by power”(Ranciere, 283). “Genuine participation “, asserts Jaques Ranciere, requires “the invention of an unpredictable subject who momentarily occupies the street, the factory, or the museum rather than a fixed space of allocated participation” (Bishop, .283).

Claire Bishop offers a note of caution, feeling that it is a lot to expect, that art can somehow change, on it’s own, larger societal problems. She speaks of a “Ladder of Participation”, culminating in “citizen control”, and argues that “art has to hand over (control) to other institutions if social change is to be achieved; it is not enough to keep producing activist art”. The author points out that “(t)he historic avant-garde was always positioned in relation to an existing party”, “which removed the pressure of art ever being required to effectuate change in and of itself”. Claire Bishop, goes on to say, that the “post war avant-garde’s claimed flexible content as a radical refusal of organized parties…” and “…the dogma of the party line” (283).The author asserts that the predictability of Participatory Art’s “…results seems to be the consequence of lacking both a social and artistic target”. In this sense, Participatory Art “…stands without a relation to an existing political project”. Finally, Claire Bishop concludes, that “…participatory art is not a privileged political medium, nor a ready made solution to a society of the spectacle, but is as uncertain and precarious as democracy itself”( 284). Bishop focuses on the recent enthusiasm with the use of the term “project”. She sees the use of that term as indicating a renewed social awareness of artists in the 1990’s. The author outlines a sociology based definition of the ‘Project ‘ as a way of working. Boltanski and Chiapello argue that the current ‘spirit of Capitalism’ emerged in the 1970’s and 80’s in response to two critiques that coalesced in 1968. “The artistic critique (a demand for more autonomy, independence and creative fulfillment at work) and the social critique (a demand for more parity, transparency, and equality)”(215). Bishop posits that the current rationale of Capitalism is focused on the notions of networks and projects. A “connectionist” world is envisioned, in which “fluidity” and “mobility” are the highest values. This ethos is termed “The Projective City”. Artists are caught in this same circle of “networking”, and the continued search for “producers” with whom more projects can be initiated(215-216). As the term ‘project’ was used in the 1960’s, it usually describes a proposal for a work of art. A ‘project’ in the sense that the author identifies as central to the art discourse after 1989, is systematized to replace the traditional work of art, a finite object, with an “open-ended, post-studio, research based, social process, extending over time and mutable in form”. Bishop points out that “the word ‘project’ arrives when there is a conspicuous lack of what we call a social project, a collective political horizon or goal”(193-4). The author outlines the connection between the “heroic last stand and collapse of a collectivist vision of society”, and the current social discourse in art (3). Central to this notion of social art in the 1990’s has been the attempt to “overturn the relationship between the art object, the artist, and the audience”. In this new paradigm, the “artist is conceived less as an individual producer of discrete objects than as a collaborator and producer of situations”. “The work of art as a finite, portable, commodifiable product is preconceived as an ongoing or long term project with an unclear beginning and end; while the audience previously conceived as a ‘viewer’ or ‘beholder’, is now repositioned as a co-producer or participant”(2).

This description closely resembles the self-professed goals of JR himself, and we are at last arriving at a close description of the deeper drives and motives of JR the activist. As well, in orchestrating the Inside Out Project, JR is possibly attempting to find a more ‘true’, and ‘meaningful’ art. In Women Are Heoroes, the author Marco Berribi’s description of JR’s approach to his work echoes the previous points. He states that JR’s approach “is a crucial element of his work… because it shows a new way of working in which the real work of art is not what has been framed or pasted on the wall, but rather the act of taking the photograph and pasting it up(Berribi,14). More meaningful and true by the standards of the paradigm he has chosen to work under, and yet he applies it to the whole art world as being the better way. Social criticism through an artistic medium is a good approach and may “exorcise” some inner psychological tensions of expression (due to frustration with a certain unpleasant social event), but it is not the only form or art, nor should it be deemed superior.

The use of people as the material of art may be undertaken for differing reasons. Bishop speculates that such a course of action may be undertaken as a means to “…challenge traditional artistic criteria by reconfiguring everyday actions as performance; to give visibility to certain social constituencies and render them more complex, immediate and physically present; to introduce aesthetic effects of chance and risk; to problematize the binaries of live and mediated, spontaneous and staged, authentic and contrived; to examine the construction of collective identity and the extent to which people exceed these categories”(283-4). Interestingly, Marco Berribi in the same description of JR”s work approach, describes JR as a choreographer, mirroring the aspect of performance described here. As well, his account of JR’s work, and how it is about “people telling a story, their story”, and how the participants are often “anonymous people in whom the media takes only a fleeting interest”, matches well with the above statement concerning giving visibility to people, and rendering them more complex(14). Certainly, many aspects of JR’s mission statements, while being portrayed as exceedingly original by his ardent proponents, are, in fact, entirely predicted by academic overviews of current trends in art discourse in general, and notions of Participatory Art, in their specifics.

In his article, Street Art, Sweet Art? Reclaiming the “Public” in Public Space, Luca M.Visconti reports how “dwellers and artists are increasingly demanding the beautification of cityscapes, targeting distressed urban areas with the ultimate goal of smoothing socioeconomic inequalities encumbering local communities”(7). The author refers to Belk (730), who describes how “sharing” versus “proprietary ownership” has once again become a contested area. Visconti clarifies that public and private space are chosen , or chosen against by citizens. Public space is negotiated, and while individuals may choose private space over public choices (eg. Private versus Public schools), public space, however, is difficult to avoid completely (Visconti, 9). Visconti goes on to say that “…contemporary street art is at the forefront of such spirited confrontation”. The street artist transforms public space, and this may demonstrate the difficulty of defining what public space is, and should be: an ideology of public space. “Street artists seek to overcome the rigid separation of roles(,) … with street artists acting as artists and ideologists” (2). Shelly Sacks (2005) “…defines art as instruments that involve transactions between people, issues, and places. Thus, this participation draws spectators in as participants and brings about discourse”. The action aspect of the work is oriented toward achieving a social result (2). The work of street artists is seen as helping “chip away at perceptions that the ‘environment’ is something ‘out there’ (Smith, 15-16). Visconti touches upon the egotistical aspect of the artists work, and that they are accomplishing self-affirmation. “It’s a form of exhibitionism . you write your own name, and it has to be bigger and nicer than the others”. The size of the pastings presented by JR and the Inside out project is on a truly vast scale. The desire to see ones own image on a video screen in Times Square, or in large poster format, is understandable, and may answer some innate need. In the book, Women Are Heroes, The first words written by Marco Berribi describe how “JR owns the biggest art gallery on the planet”(7).

In a CNN article, Flora Zhang points out that “(f)or the crowds in Times Square, maybe the portrait was about a moment in the spotlight. For the Tunisians, it was altogether something else”. Zhang reports that “JR’s cohort of photographers stealthily pasted portraits of ordinary Tunisians in a public square in the middle of the night. When day broke, people started tearing them down. It seemed Tunisians, who just went through a revolution(,)… were not ready to accept any other large portraits in their public spaces”. The author reflects, that “portraits are powerful in their ability to evoke vastly different responses. It just depends on where you are, and who you are” (Zhang).

In this sense, the author is correct in pointing out that there is no single answer to the question of the nature of JR’s and the Inside Out projects work, nor a single conclusion that can be drawn regarding the projects results. Some love, and champion the work, and some hate it. JR remains somewhat of a puzzle to the world audience, and the projects global impact has had to be understood. JR is quoted as saying “(a)rt is not meant to change the world, but when you see people interacting, when you see an impact on their lives, then I guess in a smaller way, this is changing the world. …So, that’s what I believe in . That’s why I’m into creating more interactions” (Zhang). So, it seems the only thing we can be certain of, is that more projects are forthcoming.

In conclusion, participatory art should only be seen as one of many worthy strategies of achieving an artistic goal. It manages to reach different parts of the global community and potentially change their way of interacting with art. JR’s project is a worthy contemporary example because it uses a very consistent medium (photography) and all the participants have the freedom to create, roughly, the same product and impact. Being part of such a grand artistic project and know you are one piece of a greater puzzle of social change is very fulfilling, especially when one does not consider themselves an “artist”. And that engagement could lead to fresh perspectives from previously non artistically engaged community members. However, to oversize, overestimate, and impose its value over other respectable artistic practices is dictatorial and inaccurate.

Copyright Emanuel Ciobanica 2013 (c)

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Works Cited:

Black, Debra. “Changing the World, One Giant Portrait at a N.p., 27 Oct. 2011. Web. 13 Dec. 2013.

Kozinn, Allan. “New Yorkers Walked Over, for Once .” New York Times [New York] 3 May 2013, n.pag. Web. 13 Dec. 2013. <>.

Barrebi, Marco and JR. Women Are Heroes: A Global Project. New York: Abrams, 2012. Print.

Sooke, Alastair. “JR: Artist with the City as His Canvas.” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 28 Feb. 2011. Web. 13 Dec. 2013.

Lewis, Ferdinand. “Participatory Art-Making and Civic Engagement.” Thesis. 2013. Animating Democracy (2013): 1-17. Homepage. Animating Democracy, Jan. 2013. Web. 13 Dec. 2013. <>.

Visconti, Luca M., Joh F. Sherry Jr., Stefania Borghini, and Laurel Anderson. Street Art. page.< Art.pdf>.

Bishop, Claire. Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship. London: Verso,2012. Self Organized Seminar. Self Organized Seminar, Aug. 2011. E-Book. 13 Dec. 2013.<>.

Zhang, Flora. “Can Art Change the World?CNN. Cable News Network, 01 Jan. 2013. Web. 13 Dec.2013. <>.


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