Art & Social Justice Working Group
Vera List Center for Art and Politics



Participation is engagement in a predetermined structure. Participants are informed and may be consulted for their opinion, but decisions are made elsewhere. Now, participation is necessary in many contexts, but only collaboration, with its emphasis on shared power, allows transformative groups to emerge. If we can understand collaboration this way, and not simply as joint work, we can see how the contemporary drive to collaborate can have wide-ranging implications for direct democracy in art projects, businesses, and classrooms.

— Caroline Woolard

Participation is not a type of action. Thus voting, joining, interacting, socializing, pressing the button, pushing the lever, speaking up, firing the gun, building the levee are not necessarily examples of participation. Participation requires the integration of action, thought and feeling so that meanings are made for and by the participant. Let's think of some extreme examples. Mere attention can be participation: a person's body may be still and their voice may be mute; but they may use their senses to witness an event. As witnesses the mere act of looking, committing to remembering the event, and being aware that their presence is making a difference is participation -even as there is no external sign of it. In contrast, someone may put some money on a dance dance revolution arcade game, move their body wildly, sing along, laugh, kiss their partner and have a good time; and still, they might not be participating. Participation requires that we be aware, as we do or in retrospect, that the actions of our bodies affect the world as well as ourselves.

— Paul Ramirez Jonas

Participation, v. |pärˌtisəˈpā sh ən| an increasingly popular term, especially amongst socially engaged artists, the term has gained imposing status today thanks in part to a general abhorrence of centralized authority as exemplified by the rise of leaderless political resistance, but also as a result of 21st Century capitalism's total socialization of labor and communication, a process which has vanquished traditional forms of individual privacy even as it spreads precariousness throughout the population. With roots in the teachings of such radical Latin American thinkers as Paulo Freire and Augusto Boal, participation and in particular participatory democracy now gains followers at a moment when traditional governing institutions are being dismantled, labor unions are in freefall, and when both the liberal public sphere and individual privacy have become the stuff of folklore. Freire and Boal sought to empower disenfranchised peasants and workers by teaching them to reject the perception that they were mere objects of authoritarian manipulation and instead embrace themselves as living subjects capable of shaping historical and political reality. By contrast networked capitalism has reinvented participation in the guise of the "prosumer": a de-politicized consumer who actively participate in the production of what he or she consumes (think of Nike's sports shoe platform where customers get to participate in customizing their running gear prior to purchase). Participatory prosumerism draws away from citizenship and larger conceptions of social organization to move towards individualized and DIY forms of collectivism. Commenting on this paradox as it relates to the sphere of culture Claire Bishop points out that "participatory art today stands without a relation to an existing political project" (Bishop, Artificial Hells, p.284). Blake Stimson asserts something similar stating "artists once saw a place for themselves in state-derived collective formations... [today] the displacement of state power by market power that has been the hallmark and battle cry of neoliberalism is inextricable from artistic collectivism's own shift to "models of dispersal and discontinuity, federalism and flexibility." To this list we should add "participation" and "participatory art." (Blake Stimson citing Rem Koolhaas on the organization model Lagos, Nigeria in his paper "The Form of the Informal," 34 Nka Journal of Contemporary African Art • 34 • Spring 2014.) The question that remains to be answered is whether or not participation and participatory art can serve to keep alive the ideal of a collective identity not grounded in market monetization until such time as change takes place. Or, if instead this concept is merely a performative rehearsal of liberation, which in the absence of a more expansive political project overlooks, as Stephen Wright insists, "what exactly is being performed." Wright, Lexicon, 16) ––Participatory Art, Participatory Democracy.

"The subjectivities we are called upon to perform in our prosumer society, though they may appear subversive, are easily read by power. All too often, it seems, we perform our rebellion." (Wright , Lexicon, 48).

—Greg Sholette

It's interesting to me that Caroline's definition is about the power that the participant does not have (to make decisions specifically), and that Paul's definition is about the power the participant does have (to make a difference or have an effect on a situation).

I agree that the definition of participation, as with many terms applicable to socially engaged art, hinge on power dynamics. But power to do what? Is there a hierarchy to these applications of power? Is the power to make a decision better or more important or more powerful than the power to make a substantive change? Does the power to make a decision privilege individualism in an unexpected way?

—Deborah Fisher

Contribute a Definition

Welcome to the Art & Social Justice Working Group.


The purpose of the Art + Social Justice Working Group is to examine core conflicts that propel, enrich, and complicate artistic efforts that assume agency to enact social change. In this examination the group expects to foster clarity around both terminology and effective artistic and curatorial practice.

This site is home to the developing dialogue of glossary terms for describing this work and strategies for enacting it.

Core Conflicts

The ASJWG is organized around conflicts central to current conversations and practice in socially and politically engaged art. The six initial conflicts include: Accountability: Artist, Curator, Institution, Funder; Authorship, Collective and Other; Audience, Participation, Spectatorship, Modes of Address; Aesthetics and Usefulness; Local and Global, Specific and General; and Now and Forever: Do Gooding, Criticality, Oppositional.

Case Study

Each conflict is grounded in a case study to provide context about a specific project and artist's practice. For example, the first conflict Accountability: Artist, Curator, Institution, Funder begins with Thomas Hirshhorn's Gramsci Monument as a case study to launch a larger dialogue.


Writing from artists, scholars, community members, curators, and others augment conversation about each conflict. You are encouraged to add your own favorites to further the conversation.

Glossary Terms

These key terms and concepts evolve out of the conflict and case study. There is no single official definition, rather many perspectives are aggregated here about each glossary term to develop a complex understanding.


Following a similar format to the glossary, effective strategies for enacting this work in artistic and curatorial practice are aggregated from many individuals. Together they create a series of suggestions, guidelines, and warnings for all participants in this work.

Your comments, fresh perspectives, and contributions of new strategies and glossary terms are welcome and needed to advance this field and support our work.

Commissioned Artwork

Artists were commissioned to attend the initial six conflict meetings and develop new artwork in response to the ideas and perspective shared. Artists include: Liz Slagus and Norene Leddy, Laura Chipley, Fran Illich, and Nobu Aozaki.

Core Group Members

Thomas Anesta
Sascia Bailer
Beka Economopoulos
Deborah Fisher
Elizabeth Grady
Gordon Hall
Larissa Harris
Kemi Ilesanmi
Jason Jones
Kim Katatani
Grant Kester
Pam Korza
Carin Kuoni
Cynthia Lawson
Laura Raicovich
Paul Ramírez Jonas
Yasmil Raymond
Prerana Reddy
Christopher Robbins
Barbara Schaffer Bacon
Robert Sember
Greg Sholette
Radhika Subramaniam
Johanna Taylor
Niels Van Tomme
Christian Viveros-Fauné
Jennifer Wilson

Plus additional guest participants.

The Art + Social Justice Working Group is launched by the Vera List Center for Art and Politics at The New School and A Blade of Grass, with support from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. The Vera List Center and A Blade of Grass are both dedicated to supporting individuals in pursuit of the intersection of art and social justice, and to developing related programs and scholarship.

Questions? Comments? Contact
1. What would you like to contribute?
2. To which conflict does this pertain?
3. What is the definition?
3. What is the link to the reading?
4. Who are you? (We promise we won't share your information.)