Public / Participatory Art Post #2: Some Questions to Continue With

So your answers to the previous set of questions have led you to some kind of public / participatory project, where you’re in public places offering people something and/or inviting them to do something. What’s next? More questions! As before, I’ve divided this up into structural and practical considerations, and I recommend answering the structural ones first.

A review of the major questions:

1) What thing do I want to do, and who might be glad I did it?

2) What parameters will make it most likely that I will do the thing?


– What do I (meaning you) hope this project will do for me?
– What do I hope this project will offer the people who talk with me / draw with me / meditate or do a ritual with me / whatever?
– How can I make that offer clear to them in a quick, inviting way?
– How much do I want to talk? How much do I want to listen? Is this more of a call-and-response thing? Is it an action we do together, or take turns doing?
– If I want to listen, what are a few open-ended questions, relevant to what I’m offering, that I could use to invite people to talk?
– Do I want the project to have other lives (like documenting it / writing about it / taking pictures / whatever) or are the conversations where the project’s happening? If I want to make one of these “other lives” public, how can I make sure I have people’s permission?
– What are my boundaries? What will I do if someone crosses them? What will I do if I start feeling scared, angry, embarrassed or impatient? How can I adjust tending myself and responding to others?


– #1 VERY IMPORTANT if you’re doing this in person: Where could I do this project that I already go or stay in my ordinary life? This is important for two reasons:

(1) It makes it more likely that you’ll do the thing and do it well. If this is a place you know well, you have a sense of who else is there and what for, how people inhabit and / or move through it; you will be recognized; you’ll have a reason to take care there.

(2), flip side of (1): It is extremely common and frankly dehumanizing for artists to go into places that they are not a part of, without invitation from people who are part of that place, and make or do something that the people who are part of that place did not ask for.

I ignored this when I set up at the Washington County Fair, and while I do think the “special occasion, lots of people in from elsewhere, got permission from the organizers” qualities offset the rudeness somewhat, I don’t think they offset it entirely.

– Who do I want to be able to participate? Where, within the areas defined by the previous question, can I place myself / the project so that they’ll see it and be able to get to it?

– How can I be visible, accessible and not in the way of other things that happen there?

– What kinds of permission do I need to be there, and who can I get it from — is anyone “in charge” of this space and do they check it? Does it cost money and, if so, do I have that kind of money? If not, where will I get it?

– How often and how long do I want to be there? How will my presence at those times fit into the other things that happen there?

– What materials and equipment will I need, where will I get them, and how will I transport them to and from the site? If I’m going away and coming back, can I leave them there or will I have to pack in / pack out each time? How can I do this without straining my own physical abilities? How hard will they be to repair if they get messed up?

– If it’s outside, will I do it in non-ideal weather? If so, what will I do to protect myself and my materials from precipitation? Wind? Heat or cold? How will any of these conditions affect setup / takedown? How might they affect who sees / participates in the project?

– Will I be on site long enough to need food or a bathroom? If so, where are those things in relation to the site and how can I get to them? Can I safely leave my stuff at the site long enough to get to a restroom, even a nearby one?

– Am I interested in having people come by with the intention of participating? If so, how will I let people know the project is happening?

– Do I want accomplices to help me with any of these things? (Not talking about collaborating, that’s a different post — talking about people who are willing to briefly and generously be your minions, essentially.) Who can I ask, and will I need to redesign the project if they can’t do it?

PLEASE NOTE: If you are considering a project where you confront people, AND/OR you are a member of a group that has reason to fear police or other authorities, I strongly recommend consulting someone who has done civil disobedience work (preferably someone who’s vulnerable to the same aggressions you are). Their suggestions will be much better than mine!

In my next post I will tell you how I answered some of these questions, both beforehand and through adjustments as I went along.

Public / Participatory Art Post #1: Wanna Make Something Of It?

So you have an urgent need to respond to something that’s harming the world, or an urgent desire to enact or enable a different way of living. We’ll take as part of our premise that you’re not content with sitting on the couch and crying, or however despair combines with inaction for you. You’ll want to ask yourself two major questions:

1) What thing do I want to do, and who might be glad I did it?

2) What parameters will make it most likely that I will do the thing?


And some subsidiary questions (I’ll tell you how I answered those for the first phase of this project):

What are you great at? List everything, even things that don’t “count”, and circle potentially useful items.

HOW I ANSWERED IT (useful items only): Writing, drawing, sewing, talking to strangers, keeping conversations going, doing unusual things in public, noticing animals and plants.

(Another stunning and relevant answer to “What are you great at?”: Rachel Schragis’s flowcharts)


What are you not great at, but willing and able to devote some time to learning? How much time? Can you learn concurrently with the things you’re already doing?

HOW I ANSWERED IT: Listening, building things, stopping conversations, keeping my temper (future things to learn: figuring out how the climate action resource library will need to work; asking people for information for it and making sure the information is accurate; designing a performance version of the booth). A few months. Yes.



What do you enjoy? I ask this because if there’s no pleasure, no reward in action for you, it’ll be hard to keep yourself doing whatever it is. Similarly, what can you tolerate and what do you not handle well?

HOW I ANSWERED IT: Enjoy: more or less the same answers as “What are you great at?” (and now you know a little more about me than you did before). Tolerate: People who talk at repetitive length, inclement weather, noise, police presence, hunger up to a point, muscular effort up to a point. Not handle well: People laughing at me, people needing me to express agreement (as distinct from acknowledgment) to what they’re saying, electronics not working perfectly, 


What kind of help can you draw on? Who has skills they can teach you, who can lend you their labor or time, who knows where you can get permission to do the thing … ?

HOW I ANSWERED IT: My husband knows how to build things. My friend was once in charge of programs and events for the spots I wanted to do my project in. (Again, this is going to have different answers for the project’s different next phases.) I work at a university where some of the students had worked to develop Resilient RI legislation, as well as having done activist work; they had some good suggestions for how to set up, and they came down and spoke with me and kept me company.


You may find that something like what I did with the booth, or what Lucia Monge did with Planton Movil, or what Devi Lockwood is doing with One Bike, One Year, is not the best use of your time, gifts, resources, knowledge, connections, and preferences. One person I spoke with at the booth is a visual artist and filmmaker who decided that working for a solar power installation company is more effective than what she can do with her films alone: “My greatest love is making things, but it’s hard to combine that with engendering any kind of change in a really pragmatic way.” Maybe, to quote the Kids in the Hall, you’re more of a scientist than a wiggler. I opted to create the booth because I had, as mentioned above:

*An urgent need to respond to something that is happening in the world

*Some pleasure in making things 

*A habit of, and some pleasure in, talking and listening to people

*The possibility (discussed at length in the first section of this post) of being in public with relative safety


So now is a good time to start figuring out whether you have those things, or what combination of things you do have. That will help you choose the mode you’re going to work in. If you choose a mode similar to mine, the next post may be of help in planning how (and where, and when) to do it.