Digital Participation

John Whall from QUAD in Derby became the digital participation champion for ArtWorks Alliance a few years ago and is now working with Rob Watson from Decentered Media and other AWA members to establish a Digital Participation Action Group. Watch this space for news of the Group’s first podcast, coming soon!

Below John introduces the Digital Participation Expedition initiative he worked on with EMPAF during 2018-2020. You can read his Blog about the background to the work here.   

The Digital Participation Expedition

The East Midlands Participatory Art Forum (EMPAF) approach to questions surrounding ‘What is digital participation?’ was a series of exploratory participatory events called the Digital Participation Expedition. The first event was held at QUAD in July 2018, a second one in April 2019, a third in October 2019 looking at artists’ perspectives. The fourth event My Creative Future focused on young people and digital took place on 15 February 2020 at City Arts, Nottingham.

Launch event, July 2018

The launch event included discussion and workshops around the topics of Interactions and Interfaces, Hands on with Digital and Digital Co-creation and was open to all audiences with an interest in digital, arts and culture and education. The event was designed to be as participatory as possible, with digitally participatory feedback tools used to capture qualitative and quantitative feedback.

Generally, the feeling was the Expedition launch event fulfilled all of its objectives, and more. It was a refreshingly honest and ‘critical’ look at ourselves in the participatory sector (ie it wasn’t self congratulatory). There was a very nice and positive atmosphere to the event, and this could have partly been to its ‘accessible’ nature – which meant that everybody, no matter what your level of digital confidence, still felt included and could learn and be inspired.

The event did touch on the darker and negative sides of ‘digital’ and one of its strongest outcomes were the multiple conversations and debates it sparked. It was felt the opening lines were perfect to set the tone ‘I don’t know what my job title means’, where ‘digital’ is now being added to job titles in arts and culture.

The event gave a strong message that ultimately we should be calling this ‘participation digital’ because the ‘participation’ element was the key to it all. There were questions raised too, for example, when does/can the digital part become a barrier?


Digital feedback methods: Everwall and Kahoot!

There were two main ‘digitally participatory’ feedback and evaluation tools used at the event, Everwall and Kahoot!

  • Everwall is a live Twitter ‘wall’ that collates Twitter conversation around a set hashtag – #digitalparticipationis. It was used to record contextual summative feedback and to encourage participatory conversation at the event and online.
  • Kahoot! is an online game-based learning and trivia platform that can also be used as a digital feedback form, which is completed by all participants at the same time in the form of a ‘quiz’, using smart phones and a web browser (displayed on a projected screen).

Participants found Kahoot! enjoyable to participate in, although it could be argued that answers were pre-programmed and therefore did not offer much choice or freedom of expression. This is to be explored further.

With Everwall using a hashtag to collate images, comments and summative feedback from the event, it becomes a strong participatory/co-created evaluation tool when used in connection to Twitter Moments. The current Moment can be found here.

We’ll continue to use both these methods at future events and the evaluative process for the Expedition will look at how the combination of these tools can provide meaningful feedback and evaluation to digital participation.

The event also inspired a participant to create a Vlog of their experience, which helped to contextualise the event from a participant perspective.

Other key findings from the event

There was much discussion about how much ‘choice’ digital can really offer, compared with other art forms, if you are not able to code or re-programme the technology yourself.

From the feedback, it was clear that artists and smaller companies felt some kind of guide to resources, funding and support would be useful.

Kahoot! provided some interesting insights into who the participants were, their expectations and needs. Highlights from this include:

  • A high percentage of participants had mid-high digital confidence prior to attending the event (64.9%), with a large increase in digital confidence at the end (58.3%), with key participants indicating this increase being Artists/Facilitators and Young People
  • A significant number of participants were inspired to use more digital in their practice (80.5%)
  • Surprisingly, Young People were mostly interested in support for identifying suitable funding (50%)

Additionally, the event had a Twitter reach of 222,800: however, it’s unclear how much external online interaction was attracted during this time.

Where the Power Lies? The Illusion of Choice, April 2019

The second event in the Digital Participation Expedition with EMPAF focused on the levels and types of inputs participants have in digital engagement, while also opening up discussion around the dangers of digital in our lives. It looked at how these engagements present participants with real or presented power when it comes to creating and interacting with digital art work.

It was hosted by Level Centre, whose rural setting is home to some ground breaking arts projects with learning disabled people and which has fully accessible creative spaces. Projects also focus on the development and display of new and exciting digital art works including Grzegorz Rogala & Joanna Krzyszton’s ‘Instrument’ and Will Hurt’s ‘Abstract Playground’.

As well as engaging with ‘Instrument’, delegates were able to participate in an audience performance piece called ‘Breath’. This was a participant-led and created work where a performer invited the audience to contribute to a surrounding soundscape through the act of breathing into a microphone, with the sound being manipulated through a sound desk controller.

While the act of breathing is universal and accessible for anyone to take part, the controller, with the participant performer, did initially seem to be the conductor of the experience. That was until an audience member, who at first just appeared to be a member of Level’s staff, joined the controller at the sound desk and took part in manipulating the sound. This highlighted early on in the day, that digital can be accessible to all, but skilled interaction takes some knowledge and experience.

A key experience was participating in Richard Ramchurn’s ‘The Moment’, a brain controlled movie. Audience groups were able to witness the movie, while a single participant wore equipment measuring their brain activity and manipulating the film accordingly. As the controller for my group, there were certainly aspects of this I felt in control of and some which I am still wondering where the connection between conscious thought and outcome are connected.

What I found most interesting about the day, were the discussions around participant needs and input with the works and the arguments that justified them. These conversations mostly centred around when in the creation of work are participants most valued in relation to contribution? Two levels presented themselves: the audience level and the co-creation level.

Audience level

At this level, participants may want more choice or input, where the emphasis is on the artist’s work. Audiences are interacting with a work created by the artist, with the artist’s desired inputs and aesthetic outcomes – and how the artist wants the participants to respond. ‘Instrument’ was a good example of this. The participant is invited to be the conductor of their own instrumental orchestra, providing gestural instructions, like a conductor, for the work through a Kinect camera tracking their movements. The outputs of this interaction were beautifully constructed musical scores and visual sculptures, unique to the participant and giving the illusion that they have a high level of competence in orchestral composition. At this level, the audience can take part in the work created, but isn’t invited to change it or take it in another direction. For example, there is only the choice of two instruments to ‘play’, so if a participant wanted something else, they would have to have the intricate knowledge and coding skill to re-create the work – and that would only be if the artists let them.

Co-creation level

At this level, participants are invited to contribute to the development of the work. They are part of the process of creation and the outcome has a stronger emphasis on participant input. Will Hurt’s ‘Abstract Playground’ is a good example of this. Although much of the work is devised around the artist’s overall skill, vision and aesthetic, participants were part of the process of creating the interactive soundscape of the work, as well as being a major consideration in the design of the inputs for audiences to interact with the work. This was a skills-led participant interaction, where ‘Breath’ was again more universally accessible. ‘Breath’ also presented instant participation, where Hurt’s work would involve the construction of the participants’ contribution to create the final outcome.

At both these levels, there is a power dynamic at play. At the audience level, the artist has the most power, giving participants illusions of control that are already predetermined and only manipulatable at an individual level. At the co-creation level, participants have more power: either through influencing the outcome of the work, or giving direction to how the work is interacted with. Where participants have the most power, the results appear to be instant (although this is not always the case); and where the artist has power, they become a participant in the process, albeit as a participant with the most digital skill.

There is another aspect to consider around choice in these interactions. That is the role of participant as performer. At audience level, the participant is asked to interact with the work through a degree of performance. Some participants are more comfortable with this than others and much depends on the setting and the number of audience members attending. We find this a lot with VR works, for example, where by the act of interacting with the work, the participant is put on display for those around them to watch. In some cases, where the only way to view the work is through the VR headset, the participant becomes the performer of their own experience, which can reveal more of themselves then they may be comfortable with.

At co-creation level, the participant has been invited to be a performer, giving them the choice to be centre stage or take a supporting role. This may even change depending on how their confidence changes throughout the process. We find this when participant created work is put on display. Participants who may have felt insecure during the creation of the work, start to feel a sense of pride in seeing their work displayed, especially in a gallery or museum setting.

Key feedback findings

Overall there was a lot of positive feedback from the event, with 90% of delegates saying it met or exceeded expectations.

  • Most who attended felt more empowered with digital (80%), although only 40% indicated their confidence had increased.
  • Most felt their understanding of digital had changed and increased (70%)
  • When it came to who’s in control in relation to digital and the delegates current role, 40% felt that participants are currently in control and 90% think that participants should be in control.

Some comments:

‘The event helped me to understand my distrust/dislike of digital work and it’s because my skillset is limited, which made me question: I am not a graffiti artist, does that mean I would shy away from a graffiti project? No, is the short answer – I would just work with someone that did have that skillset.’

‘With limited budgets it isn’t possible to give participants / audience unlimited control. So we are always looking for new ways to pass control from leader to participant. The event gave good examples of engagement methods and ideas for what you can do with more budget.’

‘It gave me the insight to see how I can play a part in moving our Digital/technology use forward, which would make a more inclusive and exciting environment for our participants.’

‘I enjoyed it, loved the practical element of it and was great to get my hands on ‘Breathe’ and participate! Looking forward to the next one.’

The Artist Perspective: Digital as a Craft, October 2019

The third event in the Digital Participation Expedition with EMPAF focused on the artist perspective of digital and participatory work. Where participation is a necessity for funding or a key component of the development of artists’ work. This expedition focused on artists and projects that use digital technology as a key component of their artwork and/or within the process of making, designing, exhibiting and participation and included examples of mass participation, engagement with disabled communities, professional co-production, as well as high end artistic output.

This event was hosted by The National Centre for Craft and Design (NCCD) who commission artists for a wide range of arts projects, community, educational and engagement programmes and exhibitions. Speaking artists included Davy and Kristin McGuire (Studio McGuire), Zachary Eastwood- Bloom and Jason Wilsher-Mills, with video documented work by TROPE also being shared. Debbie Cooper also spoke about Derby QUAD’s Digital Artist Training Programme and where participatory inclusion has been more and more present in funding requirements. There was also the opportunity for a guided tour of the Jerwood Makers Open 2019 and most attendees took a gallery sited silent disco. The event was also financially supported by Jerwood Arts and ArtFund.

In a different approach to previous events, The Artist Perspective took a more traditional symposium form, with artists presenting work rather than providing participatory activities. EMPAF organisations active in the steering of the events noted that even though we set out to make each event as participatory as possible, it was acknowledged that this may not work for all events. The presented symposium approach did lend well to group discussions and delegates could get hands on with some of the work. The silent disco also provided a performative participatory activity, which included delegates and artists responding to music, as well as the artworks within the space.

Something that was a breath of fresh air about the event was its honesty around the fact that not all artistic practice can or should be participatory. During the event the importance of the varied perspectives of the EMPAF organisations around what participation was to each became an important thinking point. For example, if I was hosting the event at QUAD, the day would have been loaded with participatory artists. However, because of the nature of the work taking place and exhibited at NCCD, this was not the case. Marion Sander, Programme Manager at NCCD, invited artists with a strong artistic practice, where participation was not the focus of their work, but digital was. The exception to this was Jason Wilshire-Mills, whose work is inspired by participatory engagement with disabled participants. Relating his practice with digital he highlighted that “Disabled people are fantastic at adopting technology” and this is the same as artists adopting it.

Interestingly, there was a natural spectrum of artistic and participatory practice presented. On one end of the spectrum was Jason, with his highly participatory digital practice and at the other was Zachery Eastwood-Bloom, who’s work with sculpture has been expanded through various uses of digital tools and practices. Zachary’s examples of participatory practice included professional co-production with the Scottish National Ballet, as well as other artists. It was an important reminder that participation isn’t just for community and educational engagement, but a valid factor in artists developing their practice. In the middle of this spectrum were TROPE and Studio McGuire, both of which had used elements of participatory engagement, but this was related to particular projects, rather than a main factor of their work. Codex, by TROPE was a digital installation in St James Church, Dry Donnington in May 2014. Trope worked with local participants to create and perform audio elements of their projection mapped installation. The work also invited audiences to participate in the work. Studio McGuire’s examples of participation included audience participation in site specific theatrical work, as well as more in the guise of mass participation in their Hull City of Culture work ‘Micropolis’. What was interesting about this was that Studio McGuire didn’t reference this as participatory work. However, there were elements of community engagement and co-production present, where participants were filmed dressed in work attire from their own jobs. The work then becoming both representation of the community as well as having an artistic vision.

Finally, an element of the day which received a lot of interest from audience and artists’ speaking was Debbie Cooper speaking on the QUAD Digital Artists Training programme, which provides artists the opportunities to learn digital skills, as well as the rise in artists’ needing to include participation and community engagement to be considered for funding. The Digital Artist Training programme began as a platform for participatory artists to learn digital skills, as well as digital artists to become more familiar with participatory practice. However, the programme became focused on digital skills when it became clear that artists were more interested in this than participation. This session opened up a lot of debate, highlighting the need for artistic practice as something separate from participation, with Kristin McGuire noting “I found it really eye opening and a good counter perspective to the agenda of the day”.

Feedback and key findings

Feedback methods for this event included Everwall and Kahoot, with NCCD conducting a post-event survey through Mailchimp.

Overall there was a lot of positive feedback from the event, with 92% of delegates saying it met or exceeded expectations and 92% saying it inspired them to start a digital project (38%), seek out a digital artist (27%) or make a digital artwork (27%).

  • 42% thought that participants should control when digital should be included in participation (compared to 90% from the previous event), where 38% thought that they/their organisation controlled this at present
  • Most who attended felt more empowered with digital (74%), although only 23% indicated their confidence had increased
  • Around half felt their understanding of digital had changed and increased (54%), compared to 70% at the previous event.

Post event survey feedback had a 100% positive response to the event, with the most enjoyed aspects of the day including the diversity of the artists and their practices perspectives, as well as the practical activities. Improvements noted were around having more time for discussions, more practical actives and better notification of events.

There was certainly more of a focus on the artistic profession at this event, with Emily Luce,  contributor (NCCD/artsNK Dance team) commenting:

‘I had some people say to me after the Silent Disco how interesting it was to experience the exhibition in this way – they found it really enjoyable and helped them to see the artwork in a different way.

‘This made me think that perhaps Silent Disco style headphones could be something we offer in the gallery space at certain times or settings – could be particularly useful for people with additional needs or anyone who finds it difficult to just look in a quiet environment.
When I was testing the headphones in the gallery with certain music it became a really immersive experience – particularly for this exhibition.’













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