Amongst the many tensions in play in forms of public engagement, there is one that is preoccupying me more than most. There are different formulations, but it can be understood as the tension between the goal of communicating a highly-considered and rigorously researched analytical position, on the one hand, which often entails narrating a story of complexity; and, on the other hand, the aspiration to open-up, collaborate and experiment (with this connoting the inescapability of translation and reiteration and therefore also chance, improvisation, indeterminacy and a loss of control).
This tension can be negotiated in various ways, depending on the setting. The US art historian Judith F. Rodenbeck offers an insight into this in her wonderfully inspiring new book ‘Radical Prototypes’, which presents a fascinating revisionist history of the invention of ‘happenings’ in the American artworld of the 1950’s & 1960’s.
Reflecting on the subject positions offered by different forms of practice emerging at the time, Rodenbeck draws what I think may be a more widely applicable distinction between three types of participatory engagement. I’ll recount them very briefly here. Firstly, participation is sometimes used to describe a kind of immersive physiological engagement where the work is in some sense completed by the experience of the viewer. Secondly, participation can entail viewers being presented with the possibility of navigating through a limited range of options – each with a determinate outcome. Though it may involve active decision-making by the viewer, Rodenbeck observes, that navigation doesn’t change the form of the artwork. Participation, thirdly, can also involve conscious decision-making and action-taking. This can reconfigure the structure of the artwork. Here Rodenbeck says that the artists embrace of chance can extend to the received form of the work itself.
Translating this back into debates about public engagement with social science research seems to help open up a set of questions that practitioners in these different domains can each face: about the parameters of their work, once it begins to be undertaken as a form of public practice; about authorship and control; about the elicitation and channeling of subjectivity; and, about the activation, manipulation and mediation of public behavior.
Radical Prototypes, for Rodenbeck, are works which, amongst other things, are: always ‘in movement’; have their public iterability as a ‘structuring problematic’; and continuously blur boundaries between (art) work and (everyday) life.
There is a disjunction which is pretty stark here between how public engagement is being conceptualized and presented to researchers’ by funders and others and how it can begin to look once it is explored close-up, through art historical or social scientific spectacles.
As someone investigating what is at stake in public engagement, I continue to try to sensitize myself to this topic in different ways. Whether this is by translating recent work on how contemporary publics are constituted and performed, in order to trace how research processes might – intentionally or not – create publics. By reviewing the ‘grey’ and more established academic literature on this topic. Or by reading about the history of participatory art practices, to learn more about how public engagement can open up (and close-down) possibilities for forms of public (collective) creativity.