Co-Creation and Participatory Public Art

by William M. Cochran

Imagination is the most powerful force in the universe. The ability to imagine a better world can end wars, dismantle apartheid, level the Berlin wall, create abundance and well-being, feed millions, eliminate nuclear weapons. These things occur when they are co-imagined by enough people together. They are literally co-created. When imaginations become linked, astonishing transformations can occur.

Participatory art is an approach to making art that links imaginations by engaging the audience directly as co-creators of the work. Co-creation simply means "creating together as equals."

This diverges from the traditional model of making art in the West, which has become based on a duality involving an active artist and a passive viewer, with little relationship between the two. Consummate works of art were created in this way, and yet there were also vast, unintended consequences. For instance, as the gap between the professional artist and the average person grew, people's confidence in and use of their own creative abilities diminished. "Unsanctioned" forms of creativity were devalued. Could it be a partial legacy of this split that despite many advances in art by courageous individual artists, the man-made world as a whole has everywhere become uglier and more sterile, rather than culturally richer and more beautiful?

I think, in truth, creativity is one of the great gifts of human nature, as common as hands and feet.

Participatory art is an invitation to the creative, expressive natures of people to explore together ideas too large to be encompassed by a single artist working within the limits of a solitary human perspective, ideas such as the nature of community.

The co-creative art work is as much a process as it is a physical work. It is an experience, almost a performance, that unfolds through time, shaped and reshaped by many people. If an art object results, it has become charged with stories of the people and process through which it was created, and hearing the stories becomes part of the art experience.

A by-product of the participatory process can sometimes be an almost revelatory demonstration of the creative power of "ordinary" people.

Humankind has already begun to make the transition from competition to cooperation as the dominant mode of interaction, despite appearances to the contrary. This transition is accelerating. It is so profound that it will transform every aspect of our lives, beyond anything we can currently imagine. It is metahistoric, larger than history.

As this shift accelerates in the coming years, it is likely that participatory art will be explored at ever more sophisticated levels by many different kinds of artists. Possibly, the division between artist and non-artist will be erased entirely, and the creative nature of the human spirit will become universally accepted once again as a higher human function, fully integrated into daily life, much as the ability to read became common a few hundred years ago.

In the Community Bridge project, we watched our experiment with mass-scale participatory creation take on a life of its own, powered and re-powered by the combined imaginative force of people of all ages and backgrounds, most of them non-artists. Eventually, people from all over the world became involved.

The great insight of Community Bridge for me is the common ground the project illuminates: I became aware at a much deeper level of a vast, living web of interconnection and interdependance. I saw more clearly than before that in some sense each person is connected to the greater whole.

We have lost the ability to fully understand and experience this connection, however. This loss has thrown our civilization out of balance. It has distorted our perceptions of each other with many unkind illusions, damaging our ability to understand and relate to each other, fragmenting our families and our societies. It has all but destroyed the environment that supports us.

Artists are among those who may possess the ability to cut a pathway to reconnection, but they cannot do so if they adopt an elitist stance, splitting themselves and their work away from the common ground they share with not bring to "ordinary" people.

A fitting symbol for these connections is a bridge. Community Bridge is a prototype for a new kind of public art that can spark economic, cultural and social transformation by engaging the spiritual core of people in a shared process of creation. As mass-scale co-creation caused the art work to manifest, the great revelation was not the physical bridge itself, but the pre-existing inner bridge it revealed, the bridge between the self and the whole.

It is often assumed that each person has a unique, subjective inner world, and that we all generally share the same outer world. I submit to you it is the outer world that no two people see alike. Yet within the inner world of each person, beneath many layers of wounds, illusion and denied confusion, there is a sacred core. It is this world, vast beyond measure, rich beyond words, that is shared.

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