taking [a]part: contemplating the participatory in design and art

Z33 centre for contemporary art, Hasselt, Belgium
June 21st – Oct. 5th, 2014

will participatory art liberate consciousness?


Everyone loves ‘participation’, right? It aspires to be inclusive and democratic, to grant agency. It absolves. Participatory art and design intends to integrate the public, often those with less exposure to these fields. It aspires to challenge elitist forms of production, demanding artists and designers to step down from their pedestals and speak the language of the people. But, what does this mean for artists, designers and those who participate; can non-conceptual approaches and individual aesthetic intuition exist alongside co-created artefacts and shared processes? For art and design, does this root them too firmly within the realm of the possible, leaving paths to utopian and avant-garde imaginaries out of reach? Does the public become a pawn for creative branding or utilised to legitimise art/ design?

To kick-off a three year research project focusing on participatory art & design in public space, we dedicated our inaugural exhibition to articulate, map and explore the multiplicity of definitions of participation.

The exhibit is based on a sequence of Read-Play-Reflect-Contribute.


This is our starting point, 6 quotes from the 6 partners of the project, each one outlining a different struggle, question, or idea of participation the individual is grappling with.

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Using modular pieces that represent different actants in public space (the public, private, artefact, artist/designer/ blank) we encourage audiences to experiment with how they perceive the different relationships by positioning them relationally. Scenarios (design a city, design and object, create a work of art) are provided from which the audience can base their positioning. This is then captured on film to be used later for contemplating and re-representing the relationships of actants.

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This wall is composed of a constellation of definitions, which is constantly being updated by forms submitted on-line and in the gallery. Artists, designers, curators and educators in the field are asked to define what is participation in art/ design and to discuss whether art/ design should be participatory. We interpreted their answers by mapping them according to how active or passive a definition and the degree to which they felt that art/design should be participatory.

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After reading, playing, and reflecting, we ask the audience to contribute a message for the next visitor.   At this point we are moving beyond providing a definition, instead leaving a value statement about participation. Visitors are encouraged to use the flip-boards to select words to compose a phrase that they want to express about participation in art and design.



(Portraits, hand-writing and instructions were drawn by the talented Jenny Stieglitz www.jennystieglitz.be)