Artist and filmmaker Roger Coward, whose work features in Art Turning Left, shares his thoughts on the potential of participatory art work to deliver equality

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  • Installation view of Art Tuning Left, with David Medalla's A Stitch in Time 1968-1972/2013
    Installation view of David Medalla's A Stitch in Time 1968-1972/2013 on display in Art Tuning Left
  • Installation view of Roger Coward's You and Me Here We Are - What Can be Said to be Going On? 1977 (left) on display in Art Tuni
    Installation view of Roger Coward's You and Me Here We Are - What Can be Said to be Going On? 1977 on display in Art Tuning Left

Participatory works of art may open many opportunities. They may trigger original thoughts and actions in the participant, who could then become an even greater artist than the originator of the work they participated in.

However, the very word ‘participation’ implies something envisioned by someone else. The nature of that vision is therefore critical and will inevitably depend on the artist: David Medalla’s lovely and profoundly symbolic participatory tapestry invokes the undervalued gold standard of the work of the hands and body; the end result of which will depend on the participants and how they felt about their role.

Will it be exhibited? If so under whose name?

As a member of The Artists Placement Group founded by John Latham and Barbara Stevini on principles such as ‘Context is half the work’, my own approach was, for me the artist, to do the participating. In this case in the political process of a deprived city area, by providing local residents with video equipment and training them to use it to make documentary films, to interview each other and their local councillors. In this way the residents progressed their cause, became organised as groups and in their ideas.

They also created images, some of which I faithfully and responsibly borrowed for my own film and exhibitions; so they also participated in my artwork, intended as feedback to the inevitably more centralised art world and government. The participation was truly two-way.

Installation view of Art Tuning Left and Roger Coward's You and Me Here We Are - What Can be Said to be Going On? 1977
Installation view of Art Tuning Left: David Medalla’s A Stitch in Time 1968-1972/2013 in the foreground and Roger Coward's You and Me Here We Are - What Can be Said to be Going On? 1977 in the background

I believe we must recognise that all organisations, artistic or political, tend to orientate themselves around a centre with a periphery at the circumference. This makes what is central very important but not more important despite the seeming gravitational pull in that direction (leaders, art world, chairmen, government). We should ignore that periphery at our peril, for there potentially exists increased freedom and creative innovation. However, the periphery of society is often forgotten by the centre and neglected or ignored as a deprived area – it nevertheless remains part of the whole.

Politically, for the past three decades, there has been a growing dividing of the line between centre and periphery so that we are now arguably back to the most regressive pre-World Wars and pre-Russian Revolution levels of inequality and exploitation of the hand and body worker.

The third world model of central rich and peripheral poor is established in America, as can often be deduced from TV reports of natural disasters there, and is now returning  to the UK. Few lands of opportunity remain. Art turning left since the French Revolution has been completely ineffective despite having the right ideas. Why no power?

The expectation of equality reminds us of our common humanity (‘Equal in the sight of God’) and seems to have an underlying strain of important moral concerns implicit in it. Equality is a complex matter (take a look at the online Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy for a sense of the implications of the word).

My own view is that we all, equally, have an opportunity to be our own true selves – whatever life deals us is part of that. If we closely examine our own inner selves, intuitively we will know whether we are achieving that.

The trouble is other different people: competition in jobs, exhibitions, friends? (‘if I get promotion or make money I will be alright!’). However, the unacademic student relegated to the school art department may actually save the world: the folk story of the dumbling brother, for example – apparently the most stupid, but in the end the one who saves the situation. Is that equality?

Installation view of Roger Coward's You and Me Here We Are - What Can be Said to be Going On? 1977 (left) on display in Art Tuni
Installation view of Roger Coward's You and Me Here We Are - What Can be Said to be Going On? 1977 (left) on display in Art Tuning Left

Race, gender and accent are some of the differences but I had looked slightly deeper at personality type before my placement. (‘Mandage’ 1974 – Tate Archive). Today it’s easy to take the Myers Briggs Type Indicator Test on the web, based on Jung’s concept of the Four Functions of Consciousness, which can be traced back to profound ancient beliefs involving Earth, Fire, Air and Water. My Tate Liverpool exhibit You And Me Here We Are: What can be said to be going on? embodies this, as does the feedback film The Most Smallest Heath in the Spaghetti Junction (Tate Archive).

However, if art can be as broad as to reflect everyone then it can affect everyone. Shakespeare is often praised for the inclusiveness of his dramatis personae – what would be the fine art equivalent? It will take more than a urinal or something else rather odd. Thank goodness Turner Prize winner Grayson Perry announced the end of ‘anything can be art’ in his recent Reith Lectures. The urinal is dead. Thank goodness also for Tate Liverpool’s exhibition Art Turning Left to remind us that art has very fundamental personal and collective significance – and potential power. 

Like Grayson Perry we all may be tempted to be famous and wealthy and have a little pornography on our pots. However he did say some very important things in his fourth Reith Lecture about the deep challenge of being an artist. Not all artists are equal! The greater the beautiful vision and social inclusiveness of the work, the greater the artist.

Roger Coward was the first artist placed in a Government Department on an open brief – their report on his work is entitled ‘You And Me Here We Are’, is available from Tate Archive