My PhD Thesis: Community engagement in public art: An examination of public art policies in East London

  • Tom Whittaker
In 2017 I completed a PhD thesis examining community engagement and public art policies within East London Borough Councils with an emphasis on how public or community participatory art projects introduce or reinforce particular social discourses. I used the example of participatory art practices that take place within East London to examine how public or community participatory art projects introduce or reinforce particular social discourses. As such, my research was concerned with considering the absence of neutrality behind such practices, particularly the frequently held argument that participatory art practices give the participants a legitimate and independent 'voice' of their own.
The unique character of the work was arrived at through the application of particular theoretical positions to the practice of participatory art in order to illustrate this argument. Most notably, it sought to examine such practices within East London through the context of 'city habitus', an adaption of Bourdieu's habitus which seeks to recognise location and locality as a dynamic, rather than an incidental or secondary, social component.
Further, the thesis was concerned with discerning parallels between participatory art practices and the number of texts concerned with the interconnection and relevance of Foucault's conception of governmentality to the art gallery or museum - namely, the position that galleries can be considered governmental instruments that seek to engineer self-steering mechanisms in order to ally individuals to socio-political objectives without governing individuals within the private sphere.
Finally, I moved from questions of institutional control to the control of the artist him or herself - questioning the autonomy of the participant and thus challenging the commonly held assumption that participatory art acts as a 'bottom-up' structure that encourages creativity and the free-expression of individual perspective as celebrated in Wagner's 'The Artwork of the Future' through the "passing over of Egoism into Communism" and the "surrender of authorship by the artist."