This research and presentation sprouted from my pivot to participatory art over the past several years. Although I greatly enjoyed my time as a solo performer of opera, it became increasingly clear to me that I would be unable to address issues that I cared about, like the climate crisis, in that role. This realization derived from my personal experience in the gig economy. My life as a freelance musician in the US persuaded me that the game of single authorship is a game without victory. A dubious wealth of advice about branding, personalization, and self-promotion accompanied an ever-narrowing definition of personal success. I worked a little harder, put in more hours, and traveled a little farther to get to gigs, playing a game with unclear rules. This was no different from many of the people around me. But I saw that meanwhile, collective problems like climate change went unnoticed because problems that could not be solved as an individual are invisible in this game. So, I decided play a new one.
As I explored what I could do to approach this artistically, I noticed that the protective measures proposed to address the climate crisis would inevitably create winners and losers, and society must weigh the cost of proposed solutions against the value of what and who needs protection. this makes climate change not just an issue of infrastructure and economy, but an issue of relationships between individuals, communities, and the environment.
In my current artistic practice, I am motivated by the conviction that collective experiences can act as catalysts for societal change, changing social reality by changing the way we see ourselves and each other. As Collective Intelligence scholar Geoff Mulgan points out, learning to act collectively “is in many ways humanity’s grandest challenge since there’s little prospect of solving the other grand challenges of climate, health, prosperity, or war without progress in how we think and act together” (Mulgan, 2018, p.6). I believe mechanisms like those found in participatory art are ideal to help to enable that process by creating shared experiences.
But as my desire to facilitate these shared experiences led me to the world of participatory art, I found myself on the path that many, many artists who engage with the public tread. I felt very uncertain about where to begin; I did not know how collectivity could be invited or achieved in a performance or what would happen aesthetically if I allowed this collective to determine its own direction.
Claire Bishop notes that most participatory art is motivated by three agendas; 1) empowering an active subject who may then determine their own social reality, 2) ceding authorship in an egalitarian way to the participant, and 3) inspiring a collective sense of community and responsibility. Ideally, this promotes “a restoration of the social bond through a collective elaboration of meaning” (2006, p. 12). Underlying her insights are some fundamental properties of participatory art having to do with participants’ subjectivity and agency which tie directly to how a participatory piece differs from other artforms.
While the politics and perils of participation are thoroughly explored in Performance Studies literature, the strategies an artist might employ to engage differentiated qualities of participation are not. My curiosity about this led me to my Master’s research where I asked the following question:
In what ways can the design of participatory mechanisms (like instructions, mechanics, and environment) improve the consistency of a shared experience in participatory art?
In pursuit of a theoretical basis for my practice-led, exploratory research, I began to formulate an experimental design framework that translates knowledge from other fields like Game Studies and Psychology into my own artistic practice. My purpose in doing so was not to formulize the creation of participatory art, but rather to offer other artists access to a set of tools that incorporate core values into every aspect of design and help to clarify communication with collaborators and participants.
But before I get to that, I think it is important to clarify some of the terms I will use today, and explain why I think they might be illuminating to the structural elements of participation.
Participatory Art, as I’m sure you know, has many names (like socially engaged art, community art, etc…) and many definitions, so I think it is worth taking a little bit of time to clarify what I mean when I use the term. The characteristics I will focus on during this talk are the emphasis on process over product, its ability to simulate aspects of the broader world, and its focus on social relationships and communities.
Kwastek points out that process is the basis of aesthetic experience in interactive and participatory art and that this can be traced back to the avant-gardists of the early 20th century, who began to reject the object-oriented concept of artwork in favor of one that embraced the unpredictability of participant generated processes and events. As momentum grew for this kind of art creation, it took a more social turn, including Beuys’ manifesto declaring that “all members of society should actively participate in reshaping their environment and their living conditions” (2013, p. 15).
Claire Bishop, in Artificial Hells, refers to participation in art as “a politicized working process” (2012, p. 2) which, along with education and therapy, represent “process-based experiences that rely on intersubjective exchange.” Grant Kester echoes this in saying that participatory art is more about a communicative exchange than a physical object, and more narrowly defines the process as dialogical (2004).
And lastly, Gareth White in Audience Participation in Theatre: Aesthetics of the Invitation, discusses how the processes present in participatory art distinguish it from other forms, because the imposition of those processes on the participant makes them into the artistic medium of the performance.
I think the claim that participatory art is process-based is far from controversial, but it is important to recognize what a process actually is. White emphasizes the well-known unpredictability of participatory art by claiming that processes within it involve “uncertainty, spontaneity, responsiveness, and the chance for participants to express themselves and make choices.” (2013, p. 30). And this is certainly true, but neglects the other side of the coin. Because while participant agency is touted as an ideal in participatory art, this sometimes overshadows the fact that processes by definition structure behavior through the imposition of rules. As Ian Bogost, the prominent Game Studies scholar, states, “Processes define the way things work: the methods, techniques, and logics that drive the operation of systems” (2010, p. 3). These systems create what game theorists call a “possibility space”, within which participants (or players) can exercise agency and creativity.
So, it becomes an artist of participatory work’s creative challenge to design processes that can both structure an experience and allow participants to feel a level of autonomy and co-authorship of that experience. Being immersed in environments where this is done successfully engages an emotional process much like real life. As Katherine Isbister, describing videos games, so eloquently describes this feeling:
Gonzalo Frasca defines a simulation as a created system modeled on a source system that shares behaviors with it (2013, p. 223); for example, a flight simulator would share behaviors with the act of flying an airplane. He argues that all games are a form of simulation, and further elaborates that they require participation, incorporate behavioral rules, and differ with every iteration. This, he points out, strips the narrative authorial power “to make statements through sequences of cause and effect” (Ibid., p. 229), as is the practice in film or literature. The creator of a simulation can design one outcome to be more likely than another based on their values or opinions, but communication of those opinions relies on the participant’s experience of the system rather than a linear description of events, and this provides key insights into the inherent co-authorship of participatory work.
Espen Aarseth (2004) asserts that games are a subgenre of simulation, which he argues is bottom-up and emergent whereas stories are top-down and predetermined. This empowers a participant to cultivate knowledge, experience, and strategy, which contributes to their sense of self-mastery. He also mentions that because the rules of a simulation are explicit and internal, it is possible to learn one without having to know the rules of another. Simulations may contain narrative elements within them like characters and stories, or aesthetic elements like images and audio, but Aarseth asserts that the internal rules that govern player agency must take precedence over these.
The simulation created in participatory art, however, differs from those described in most video games in one key respect: the social. Rancière describes this kind of simulation as “a sensory reality that suggests another sensory reality” (2021, 57-58), and writes that “Human beings are tied together by a certain sensory fabric, a certain distribution of the sensible, which defines their way of being together, and the politics [of participatory art] is about the transformation of the sensory fabric of ‘being together’ (Ibid., p. 56). He ties this ‘being together’ into a feeling of ‘apart togetherness’, or a “community structured by disconnection” (Ibid., p. 59).
Indeed, a simulation does more than model a system in which a participant can act as an individual; it creates multiple subjectivities within the individual. Game philosopher Miguel Sicart describes playing a computer game as an act of subjectivization because rules are a form of power that creates behavior. “The process of experiencing a game and becoming a player needs to take into account how the nature of the game contributes to the creation of that subjectivity. (2011, p. 68). As a result of consenting to the game’s rules, a player diverges into at least three distinct subjective forms: player-subject, playing-subject, and played-subject.
The player-subject arrives to the game with cultural and societal context already intact, but becomes a player by committing to the rules, community, and game experience (Ibid., p. 72). They will still consider themselves a player of a particular game even when it is not being played. Like Rancière’s emancipated spectator, this player-subject performs an interpretive role, and maintains critical distance during gameplay. De Wildt describes a further split into a playing-subject, a mediating subjectivity between the player and the game world. This subject interacts with the code of the game, using an understanding of how to play in order to guide what interaction is expected. The played-subject is the avatar; fictional and controlled within the game by the player-subject, the playing-subject and the code. This subjectivity often represents a character with a cultural background, personality, and beliefs very different from the person playing the game, and actions within the game happen only to them, even though the presence of all three subjectivities is required to play. Sicart further posits that in some multiplayer games, all players together form a ‘unity’, and can be considered a collective subjectivity, or, a “player of players” (2011, p. 86). And I would suggest that this is frequently a desired outcome of participatory art.
This can be facilitated through the establishment of a common background through mechanics like goals, incentives, or perspective-taking exercises. A common ground of engagement is also created, meaning everyone is understanding where and with what tools/props to execute those mechanisms, and what skills are needed to do so. Having a common outcome is helpful to enable this coordination, meaning that by the end of the performance, people pick up comparable or complementary skills, roles, and knowledge. And while this does not mean they agreed during the exercise or came away with an identical interpretation, there is still a surprising coherence. Lastly, these acts of intersubjectivity in the new context of the simulation can trigger a self-reflection that is not often available in real life.
I therefore define participatory art as a social exercise that places participant-subjects into a simulation in order to experience alternative ways of being and being together. This is accomplished by mediating participants’ subjectivity and agency through a rule-based system, comprised mainly of instructions, mechanics, (spatial and aesthetic) environment, and (possibly) narrative, and then inviting them to make choices that feel meaningful within this structure. This is called procedural authorship.
The term procedural authorship has a short but exhaustive history in the arts and video games. White refers to this it as a series of ‘gaps’ created by the artist, and notes that participants should be able to “fill the gaps in different ways in each fresh iteration of the work” (2013, p. 30) Janet Murray writes, “The procedural author creates not just a set of scenes but a world of narrative possibilities” (2016, p. 143). She argues that participants are not co-authors, but rather ‘interactors’ experiencing the thrill of agency in a narrative environment that has been cleverly cued for them by the designer. Mukherjee asserts that procedural authorship in video games creates the ‘illusion of agency’ during an “ongoing process of interaction between the game and the player” (2015, p. 150). This results in an entanglement from which authorship emerges.
Because participatory art is a form of social simulation, the entanglement created includes intersubjective engagement. This results in participants becoming not just co-authors of a designed experience, but procedural authors for each other. White explains that these procedures “give rise to actually occurring performances” (2013, p. 195). In contrast to Murray and Mukherjee, he attributes co-authorship to participants, and regards the results of their agency as the medium of participatory work.
I assert that procedural authorship offers a large range of intersubjective experiences that can be designed by an artist. There can certainly be multiple possibilities from which a participant may choose, as Murray suggests, or a collaboratively produced outcome, like an improvised performance might yield. An artist, as a procedural author, must also decide which technologies, algorithms, or objects to interpolate into the agential choices of participants in order to best express the core values and objectives of the piece. Similar to White, I propose that participatory art is not the procedure itself; instead, I prefer to consider the experience inspired by it as a performance co-authored by artist and participants, with meaningful contributions also emanating from multiple subjectivities within each individual.
Using the taxonomy of player-subject, playing-subject, and played-subject (Sicart, 2011; de Wildt, 2014), I propose corresponding strata of a social simulation; by which, I mean there is an external, mediating, and internal environment to consider in participatory art design. These are not always explicitly separated within a piece, but are nonetheless distinct in their function. The external component is the global and societal context of both artist and participants that drives the real-world urgency, and hence, the values of the piece. Upon accepting the artist’s invitation, participants enter a new context where facilitation occurs. If there are mediating objects or technologies necessary for participation, they are encountered and explained in this layer. After learning what is expected during the performance and consenting to the rules, participants experience a third level; the simulation. Here, agency and interaction are determined by the design of the artist, who creates a world that includes components like internal rules, immersive and narrative elements, incentives, goals, and risks. Participants are encouraged to make choices that shape their outcome and experience within this layer.
Procedural Design is not a linear process. There is a lot at stake with little details, because a confusing sign at the door, an invitation that invites only those with the least to lose, or even the structure of a space (for instance, not allowing people to easily exit) may cause self-consciousness and social embarrassment, and threatens derail the desired quality of participation before the piece even begins. This makes it imperative that the artist be on the same page with other stakeholders like curators and event staff.
In order to find these points of potential miscommunication, it can be very helpful to try out the piece from the perspective of a participant as many times and over as many iterations as possible, because it will make it easier to understand feedback later. And that feedback should arrive before the opening in the form of prototyping or workshopping. This is, of course, very helpful for any kind of piece. But because of the unpredictability of participation, it is, I would say, almost a necessary step.
These cyclical, iterative cycles can be handled in many ways, but two game design models I've found particularly clarifying are the Values at Play model by Mary Flanagan and Helen Nissenbaum and The Mechanics/Dynamics/Aesthetics model by Hunicke, Leblanc & Zubeck.
The choices made available to a participant reflect a particular understanding of the world. Flanagan and Nissenbaum assert that this is why a conscientious and iterative approach to values within a piece is necessary. They acknowledge that these values will not be interpreted identically between participants, but assert that constraints on mechanics and narrative elements create a plausible range of interpretation (2014, p.16).
When discussing an artist’s ‘horizon of expectation’, the vocabulary of values frequently emerges. Values are culture-specific and generally fall into either ethical or political categories, depending on whether one refers to how people treat themselves and each other, or the arrangement of power in society (Flanagan and Nissenbaum, 2014, p.6)
Taking the additional step to clarify core values with collaborators can help prevent small differences in interpretation from snowballing into larger inconsistencies. The VAP (Values at Play) model is an ongoing iterative process of discovery, implementation, and verification verification of whether the piece is accomplishing the desired quality of participation through playtesting and prototyping
Designing for core values in a simulation like a game or a participatory art piece can be challenging to do in a comprehensive way, especially when artists are working with programmers, scientists, or engineers, who are trained to think differently about execution.The Mechanics/Dynamics/
Aesthetics model (MDA) is one way game designers address this.
MDA is an iterative model which recognizes that programmed rule-based actions (mechanics) chain together to create indirect consequences (dynamics) for both the player and the system (Hunicke, LeBlanc and Zubeck, 2004). The dynamics that unfold for a player in turn provoke an emotional response (aesthetics). Designing from aesthetics first foregrounds the player’s experience, but may fail to account for technical requirements and limitations, while designing from mechanics first may generate undesirable aesthetic experiences for the player.
Above are some examples of mechanics, dynamics, and aesthetics. The columns do not necessarily correspond to each other, but, for example, if I say the aesthetic goal is discovery and I have made touching a primary mechanic, participants might feel as thought they are exploring. However, if I choose discovery as an aesthetic goal and choose running as a mechanic, they might start to feel a competitiveness with other participants or a time pressure to find everything because they can theoretically explore very fast. You would have to test to find this out.
Here is a small clip of a participatory game I designed called We Called It Earth. I worked with a programmer and worked with him to translate the values of collectivity, access, and disidentification into a series of game mechanics. My goal was to allow the participants to experience the subjectivity of inhabiting a single body, and experience the idea that every contribution is necessary for collective victory.
In conclusion, I just want to mention some of the ways in which I think participatory art is an ideal vehicle for meeting the collective struggles we are living through. Starting from values and designing through iterative feedback cycles with as diverse a population as possible is a great way to have a discussion about shared values, and also to practice new ways of being together.
Secondly, incorporating the Mechanics/Dynamics/Aesthetics model allows a conversation to occupy diverse perspectives and fields of knowledge. This makes participatory art an excellent tool for interdisciplinary research, because it allows a close collaboration between artists and scientists, programmers, etc...
I would also point out that this touchstone of shared experience lays a great foundation for community discussion about big issues. Participation is not just an excellent pedagogical tool for collective action, it also teaches participation itself as a form of public discourse. I imagine in the future that we might not just have verbal debates, but also participatory experiments as part of our political discussions.
Lastly, and in this vein, I think it is worthwhile to consider what an aesthetics of procedure could add to the field of artistic research, and to art practitioners generally. If we really dive deep on the values underlying difference participatory mechanism and begin a rigorous discussion about them as a way to expand our criticality about 'participation', especially when introduced by those in positions of power as a way to supplant public aid, spread propaganda, or further disadvantage marginalized communities.