Are dialogic and relational aesthetics relevant to all participatory and co-creative practitioners?

One of the questions we asked in the conclusions of the Practising Equality paper (2013), looking across art, design, architecture and new media at practices of co-creativity and participation, is whether the development of thinking about the aesthetics of participation in art has relevance to design, architecture and new media?

The emergence of a debate around the aesthetics of process and the social in art is one of the important developments of the past 25 years. Whether we are talking about Bourriaud’s ‘relational aesthetics’ discussing participatory work in galleries, or Kester’s attention to ‘dialogic aesthetics’ in situated practices, or Bishop’s interest in the perversity of participation, all are concerned with an aesthetics of process and social relations.

Suzanne Lacy, who is both the subject of one of Kester’s case studies and also a contributor to the discourse herself, draws attention to Allan Kaprow’s concerns. Kaprow’s practice is fundamentally participatory and co-creative, though not in any utilitarian sense. His ‘scores’ and ‘happenings’ presage many of the concerns of Bourriaud, Kester and Bishop.

According to Lacy (2010, p.321-325), Kaprow offers us three key ideas. He emphasised the importance of process as the “product” of art. He was interested in the meaning-making between people more than the object or activity that is usually identified as ‘the work’. Secondly ambiguity and questioning are central to the structure of his works, and for Lacy this is a way to balance dealing with prominent issues and distinguish art from politics. Finally, the blurring of art and life in its various manifestations denies the artist recourse to the assumed authority of talent, or recourse to claiming value simply because it is art.

The point is that within the arts there is a substantial discourse that considers the aesthetics of the co-creative or participatory process. The process may result in a ‘work’ which might also have an aesthetic, which can be analysed using more traditional tools, but the process is a thing in itself as well, has aesthetic value, at least to the participants.

Some of the characteristics of that aesthetic are perhaps:

The aesthetic is firmly rooted in the everyday and on some level addresses real life, often in relation to issues faced by communities. Lacy comments on Kaprow again,

His well-thought-out boundary blurring gave us permission for framing life – domestic life, political life, relational life, and public life – as art. (ibid p.321)

Another fundamental characteristic is that the artists’ aesthetic focus is on the process. One type of process draws on ideas of critical public pedagogies (though only sometimes drawing on the aesthetics of learning – schools, classes and radical educational projects – Paulo Friere is regularly cited). Another type of process uses perversity and Bishop argues that we should look to the writings of the Marquis de Sade.

There is sometimes an intentional relinquishing of authorial control by which we mean that the structure and content of the process is negotiated with those involved. This perhaps has some roots in surrealist ideas such as the Exquisite Corpse, but it is also draws on ideas of autodidacticism and radical theatre practices – Augusto Boal is very influential.

Openness to the haptics of context, by which we mean that the focus of the art is not determined by the artist, but emerges in a relationship between the artist(s), participants and context. Kester says,

…this is a labor that occurs through the thickly textured haptic and discursive exchanges that unfold in these projects over a period of months and even years. It is linked in turn with a cognitive movement, a reflective shuttling or oscillation, between contingency and freedom, figure and ground, immersion and distanciation, which generates new insight. (2011, p.101)

We might identify the careful re-presentation by participants (sometimes using texts, audio or video as a substrate and more or less mediated by the artist) of their experiences and issues to a secondary audience.

Finally one of the key issues in participatory and co-creative process is whether it is about ‘doing good.’ Anthony Schrag’s research directly addresses this issue from the perspective of the artist in practice, and Jon Price’s addresses it from the perspective of the artist in policy contexts.

There are a number of things we need to distinguish this from.

Firstly, there are different ways of working with groups of people, not all of which are creative. Community engagement, often focused on seeking community ‘buy-in’ to an existing plan tends not to be creative. Even if there are aesthetic aspects in terms of the design of events or materials, I don’t think this is what we are talking about. In terms of one key argument in the Practising Equality paper, community engagement is definitely driven by a democratic metaphor, seeking to consult the largest proportion of the community in order to be able to claim that it is representative. It is probably safe to say that most co-creative and participatory processes are not seeking to be democratic or representative (in conventional senses).

Not all artists’ work with communities and participants has an aesthetic to the process – often the point is an aesthetic product. So an artists residency programme in a children’s hospital which results in new artworks on the walls made with the input of the children and young people might have an aesthetic to the process, but will likely have an aesthetic to the product.

The other issue is of course how we understand this aesthetic, given that it exists in the process, which more often than not is not open to direct interrogation (in fact we need to be careful of the aesthetic associated with the documentation of practices, overlaying and suggesting an aesthetic in the process which is not in fact there). Kester addresses this challenge in his recent article, The Device Laid Bare: On Some Limitations in Current Art Criticism. Here he picks up a theme previously explored by Lucy Lippard in Shaming the Devil. Both make an argument for the need to experience the work in context.

But that being said, the question we started with remains. Given that designers, architects and programmers creating environments are all using co-creative and participatory processes, are they interested in the aesthetics of process? Is it even relevant to think of dialogic aesthetics in co-design processes, or relational aesthetics in participatory architecture? Does the already aesthetic mediation of the process of co-creativity in new media erase any aesthetics in the process, or is the aesthetics in events such as culture hacks or the electron club (to cite to Scottish examples).

Perhaps dialogic or relational aesthetics are not relevant to designers, architects and programmers and this is simply the wrong question. If the characteristics of this aesthetic are rooted in everyday life; relinquishing authorial control; ambiguity and questioning; openness to context; perhaps these are normal for designers, architects and programmers? Surely their work already exists in the everyday? Surely authorial control is already at least partly relinquished to commissioners, users and consumers? And what would ambiguity and questioning offer problem-solving professions?


Bishop, C. 2012.  Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship.  London: Verso.

Bourriaud, N. 2002.  Relational Aesthetics.  Paris: Les presses du reel

Harris, P. and Fremantle, C. 2013.  Practising Equality: Issues for co-creative and participatory practices addressing social justice and equality in Participations Journal of Audience and Reception Studies, Volume 10 Issue 2 November 2013. accessed 30 December 2013.

Kester, G. H.. 2011.  The One and The Many: Contemporary Collaborative Art in a Global Context. Durham, NC, and London: Duke University Press.

Kester, G. H. 2013.   The Device Laid Bare: On Some Limitations in Current Art Criticism. e-flux Journal #50 12/2013 accessed 28 December 2013

Lacy, S. 2010. Leaving Art: Writings on Performance, Politics and Publics, 1974-2007.  Durham, NC, and London: Duke University Press.

Lippard, L.  2005.  Shaming the Devil.  in Critical Perspectives: Writings on Art and Civic Dialogue.  Washington, DC: Americans for the Arts.


  1. Reblogged this on JamesOliverCulture.

  2. Reblogged this on CHRIS FREMANTLE and commented:

    Artists understand the potential of an aesthetics of process and the social. But does this mean anything to the designers, architects, programmers and others who work with participation and co-creativity? Further thoughts on the Practising Equality paper published in the Participations Journal.

  3. Re blogged this to UHI Art and Social Practice Students via Roxane Permar

  4. Aditya Pawar says:

    Reblogged this on Making-of Social Innovation.

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