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Performance and Visual Art 101: Participation and Social Practice


Performance and Visual Art 101 is a series of articles that uncovers points of connection between performance and the visual arts, looking at key moments in the history of relations between these forms and giving attention to the current rise of theatrical aesthetics in contemporary arts practice. Art museums are increasingly programming performance and live art events and at the same time, visual artists are looking to the theatre for aesthetics and forms to incorporate into their work. This series will address the on-going influence of the visual arts on performance studies and chart attempts by art institutions to embrace the experiential and confront the challenges that live work poses for museums and curators.

Performance and Visual Art 101 is divided as follows:

5. Performance and Visual Art 101: Participation and Social Practice

6. Performance and Visual Art 101: Curating Performance

Performance and Visual Art 101: Participation and Social Practice

The movement away from an object-driven economy that has influenced the scope of contemporary art and contemporary art spaces in the 20th century places different demands on the 21st-century museum that concerns programming events and curating exhibitions that are audience-centred. This movement instructs museums and galleries into a new era characterised by social impact. It reconfigures museum-gallery practices toward a dynamic of joint enterprise – where audiences are partners in production as opposed to just passive recipients of wisdom from on high (Black, 2005). As artists and constituencies in the museum-gallery industry evaluate their practices in a changed economy, once solely educational ‘temples’ become dynamic social spaces and arenas of exchange.

How material is presented to the public has evolved as a consequence of pressures from within museums and heritage sites, as well as from the audiences engaging with them. Museums and heritage sites are pushed to enhance access by diversifying their audiences and engaging their local communities in the name of supporting lifelong learning and structural educational provision (Black, 2005). From the belief that heritage has a role in enriching people’s lives and supporting community regeneration to engage and involve all audiences: current, potential, and diverse – with the available sites, collections, and heritage, requires an optimisation of opportunities for visitors to achieve a full experience (Black, 2005). Experience being at the root of engagement suggests that museums and heritage sites are – or ought to be - contact zones in which their collections establish ongoing historical, political, and moral relationships that observe a reciprocal and equal exchange between them and their communities/audiences (Clifford, 1997).

Image 1: 'Picturing Climate' (2019), a multidisciplinary public engagement programme at the Tate Modern (Tate Exchange), to generate discussion and action on climate breakdown.

James Clifford, author of ‘Museums as Contact Zones’ (Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century, 1997), offers an account of the social impact and dynamic exchange when local communities are involved in the process of producing and communicating knowledge with and for existing collections. At the Portland Museum of Art in 1989, the director of the institute, Dan Monroe, invited a representative group of Tlingit authorities to participate in the planning discussions for the museum’s reinstallation of their Rasmussen Collection. The assumption was that the museum’s intention in involving clan representatives of the tribe, who were presented with objects from the collection, was that they would comment on them in a detailed way, providing information about their makeup, history, and traditions. Instead, what unfolded was an unexpected practice of oral history and ritual, in which the elders used the regalia as aide-memoirs of ancient stories and civilisations. The elders performed oral rituals through story-telling and song, and so the materiality of the object was placed at the margins by the actual cultural uses of the objects and performance of memory and culture that they inspired. Originally displayed as records and documentation of a culture and period in history, the objects were then interacted with as a heritage that is socially impactful and relevant to modern contexts and societies. The stories and songs were aided by the objects, comparable to the history books or encyclopedias of western society, and were told in a representational tongue that immersed the audience in the culture and beliefs of the native peoples. The narratives that were represented by the objects and enlivened by the clan members through the performance of their socio-cultural histories spoke toward their current socio-political contexts - surviving their traditions within the struggle to protect their native lands against modern threats (Clifford, 1997).

Responding to a need to readdress traditional museum methodology, this encounter was indicative of that of the 21st-century museum, a methodology that works within a social context toward creating intersubjective spaces for education, experience, and service. The social impact and relational value in both contemporary art and in the cultural currency of ancient and historical collections require that museums and heritage sites re-evaluate their roles and actions in reference to their national, regional, and local targets and development (Black, 2005). This is followed by the pressures from within the heritage profession to respond to the demands of a social economy in researching and developing methodologies that provide dynamic and all-around access to the museum and its contents. This necessity is based on the recognition that the audience is no longer ‘one’ but is plural and ever more diverse (Black, 2005). As such, there are increasing demands for development from the audiences themselves to expand intellectual and emotional access to inclusionary and representational experiences (Pringle, 2018) and to diversify interests and compete against other leisure activities. These demands are rooted in social behaviour that requires active participation in the cultural and social production of the museum (Black, 2005).

Image 2: Tlingit artist, Killer Whale Pendant, ca. 1886, whalebone, Rasmussen Collection of Northwest Coast Indian Art, Portland Museum of Art. Categorised as a pendant in the collection, Tlingit clan members offer a much more experiential and performative use in Clifford’s encounter (1989).

The museum, therefore, must become a space and place of dynamic nature. Considering the range of activities and ambitions that there are for learning in the art museum, for example, demonstrates that contemporary practice is informed by a variety of disciplines and intellectual traditions. The influences of sociology, cognitive and developmental psychology, critical pedagogy, progressive education, critical theory, art history, philosophy, and anthropology are active in today’s museological practices and speak about the importance of socially motivated practice (Pringle, 2018). As seen in Figure 1 (Black, 2005), the role of the museum and those who work in it as educators require that it attains the ability to shift among disciplinary roles, at times taking the perspective of, or kin to, the philosopher, artist, art historian, and critic, in response to the needs of the learner (Rice, 1988; Pringle, 2018). As contemporary practice is characterised by socially engaged practice, understanding whom the work is for and how the pedagogic relationships are structured to benefit them and their learning is essential for the development of the field (Pringle, 2018). Art museums, for instance, are becoming increasingly proficient in adopting digital media as a mode of access (Pringle, 2018). Useful for education purposes, social media, digital programming, online exhibitions, and so on are platforms that provide opportunities to break down formal communication barriers and share information (p. 13). It also goes as far as to provide access between geographical boundaries, and evidence that the further access goes in terms of translation, audio, and visual assistance, to name a few, offers wider access for the disabled and unable, distant and foreign demographics, and even go as far to enhance the experiences of the diverse, local and able-bodied visitors.

Figure 1: 'Box One' reflects the huge changes in attitudes toward the role of museums in the 21st century (Black, 2005)

Access was “almost grudgingly provided to the public in return for a sense of reverence and gratitude, reflected in an authoritarian protection of the site” (Black, 2005, p. 1), creating disabling power dynamics, exceptionalism, cultural barriers, and ableist architecture. The idea of ‘temple’ architecture, with precious objects behind glass cases, security guards, and ‘do not touch’ signs, creates a certain atmosphere of inaccessibility. Providing other formats of access, through talks and lectures, workshops, performance, community engagement, as well as social response and feedback, opens new channels of communication that not only serve to make the artefacts impactful in a social economy and contemporary context, but offers social relationships and a higher quality of engagement to an increasingly diverse, educated, and experienced demographic. Relationships built through experience inspire community-driven relationships in audiences to seek to participate, question, and receive a high standard of service from the institutions that collect, conserve, and represent their culture(s) (Black, 2005).

Bibliographical Sources

Bishop, C. (2006). The Social Term: Collaboration and Its Disconnects. Artforum 44, pp. 178-183.

Bishop, C. (2012). Artificial hells: Participatory art and politics of spectatorship. London,UK: Verso.

Black, G. (2005). Introduction: Meeting the demands placed on the twenty-first century museum.

In G. Black, The Engaging Museum: Developing Museums for Visitor Involvement. Routledge.

Clifford, J. (1997). Contacts: Museums as Contanct Zones . In J. Clifford, Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century (pp. 188-195). Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Cutler, A. (2013). Who will sing the song? Learning beyond institutional critique. Tate Papers, 19.

Cutler, A. (2018). Ten Years In The Making. London: Tate.

Ingenuity Arts Partnership: Process Chart. (2019, July). Ingenuity.

Pringle, E. (2018, Novemeber). Teaching and Learning in the Art Museum. Oxford Research Encyclopedia: Education, pp. 1-26.

Ridout, N. (2008). Performance in the Service Economy: Outsourcing and Delegation. Double Agent [Exhibition Catalogue], pp. 126-131.

Rice, D. (1988). Vision and culture: The role of museums in visual literacy. Journal of Museum Education, 13 (3), pp.13–17.

Image Sources

Cover Image: Guillermo Gómez-Peña: The Most (un) Documented Mexican Artist. (n.d.).

Image 1: Tate Exchange. (2019). Picturing Climate.

Image 2: Killer Whale Pendant. (n.d.).


Figure 1: Black, G. (2005). Box One: The twenty-first-century museum.


Author Photo

Gina Darwin-Gitonga

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