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What Is_?Participatory and Relational Art

The What Is_? Programme provides an introduction to some of the key concepts and themes in modern and contemporary art for all audiences.

Participatory and Relational Art

This introductory text provides a brief overview of Participatory and Relational Art. Art terms are indicated with an underline and their definition can be viewed by hovering the cursor over the term. They can also be found in the glossary. 

Participatory Arts refers to a range of arts practice, including Relational Aesthetics, where emphasis is placed on the role of the viewer or spectator in the physical or conceptual realisation and reception of the artwork. The central component of Participatory Arts is the active participation of the viewer or spectator. Many forms of Participatory Arts practice foreground the role of collaboration in the realisation of an artwork, deemphasising the role of the professional artist as sole creator or author of the artwork, while building social bonds through communal meaning and activity. The term Participatory Arts encompasses a range of arts practices informed by social, political, geographic, economic and cultural imperatives, such as Community ArtsActivist ArtNew Genre Public ArtSocially-Engaged Art and Dialogical Art.

Participatory Arts can be artform specific, such as visual arts, music or drama, or they can be Interdisciplinary involving Collaboration across a range of artforms. They can also involve collaboration with non-art agencies, such as social inclusion organisations, local authorities and community development groups. The artwork produced can take many forms and, due to the collaborative nature of Participatory Arts, this may comprise an event, a situation or a Performance, rather than the production of an object. The interactions that emerge from these encounters are often translated into Documentary mediums, such as PhotographyVideo or Text.

The emergence of Participatory Arts is informed by earlier Avant-Garde movements such as DadaConstructivism and Surrealism, which raised questions with regard to notions of originality and authorship and challenged conventional assumptions about the passive role of the viewer or spectator. In doing so they adopted an anti-bourgeois position on the role and function of art.


The social, political and cultural upheavals of the 1960s and the perceived elitism, social disengagement and Commodification of art associated with Modernism contributed to new forms of politicised, reactionary and socially engaged practice, such as Conceptual ArtFluxus and Situationism. The development of new technologies and improved mechanisms of communication and distribution, combined with the break down of medium-specific artforms, provided greater possibilities for artists to physically interact with the viewer. New forms of practice were developed by artists, who proactively sought out new artistic mediums to shape mutual exchange through open and inclusive practices. These new forms of practice appropriated non-hierarchical social forms and were informed by a range of theoretical and practical disciplines, such as FeminismPostcolonial TheoryPsychoanalysisCritical Theory and Literary Theory. While questions of authorship raised concerns about who participates in the definition and production of art, the relationship of the artwork to its audience became a central axis for these emerging forms of arts practice.

The presumed authorial control of the artist was challenged in particular by Conceptual artists who placed an emphasis on the idea or concept rather than a tangible art object. They created artworks which could be realised by others without the direct intervention of the artist. Artworks could take the form of a set of instructions, where participants were directly involved in the co-creation of the artwork. Instructions were communicated through a variety of media, such as photography, video, drawing, text, performance, SoundSculpture and Installation.

Similarly, Fluxus artists rejected traditional principles of craftsmanship, permanency of the art object and the notion of the artist as specialist. Fluxus artists viewed art not as a finite object but as a time-based experience, employing performance and theatrical experiments. Fluxus artists were interested in the transformative potential of art through collaboration. Spectators were encouraged to interact with the performer, while plotless staged events left artworks open to artistic chance and interpretation. Artworks were realised in a range of media, including musical scores, performances, events, publications, Multiples and assembled environments constructed to envelop the observer. These initiatives were often conceived with workshop characteristics, whereby the artist operated as facilitator, engaging the audience in philosophical discussions about the meaning of art. Artworks often took the form of meetings and public demonstrations, Happenings or Social Sculpture, whereby the meaning of the work was derived from the collective engagement of the participants. A common goal of Fluxus, Happenings and Situationist events was to develop a new synthesis between politics and art, where political activism was mirrored in streetbased arts practice as a radical means to eliminate distinctions between art and life.


The development of Participatory Arts practice has also been informed and shaped by the development of Public Art programmes, many of which evolved in the context of large-scale urban renewal and regeneration initiatives. Participatory Arts programmes with their emphasis on public engagement and participation can be an important element in both the consensus-building process and critique of such regeneration initiatives. The economic downturn and social political turmoil of the 1980s combined with the alienating effects of capitalism and its impact on community structures, resulted in an increasing awareness of the potential of the arts as a vehicle to address social issues, in particular issues of social inclusion. Influenced by earlier forms of socially-engaged and activist art, many Community Arts organisations and initiatives emerged during this period. Community Arts emphasised the role of art in bringing about social aspects of the art initiative were imperative. Dialogical Aesthetics is a term used to describe the active role of dialogue in such socially-engaged art. During this period, state bodies funding the arts began to impose contingencies on their client organisations, such as MuseumsGalleries, theatres and arts organisations, with regard to encouraging public participation in the arts, especially on the part of marginalised or socially excluded constituencies. The utilisation of the arts to address non-arts agendas contributed to an ongoing debate about the role of art and its relationship to its audience, which continues to inform consideration of Participatory Arts today.

In the late 1990s participatory concepts have been expanded upon by a new generation of artists identified under the heading of Relational Art or Relational Aesthetics. This is a term coined by the French curator Nicolas Bourriaud to describe a range of open-ended art practices, concerned with the network of human relations and the social context in which such relations arise. Relational Art also stresses the notion of artworks as gifts, taking multiple forms, such as meals, meetings, parties, posters, casting sessions, games, discussion platforms and other types of social events and cooperations. In this context, emphasis is placed on the use of the artwork. Art is regarded as information exchanged between the artist and the viewer which relies on the responses of others to make it relational.

In response to the rapid acceleration of real time communications in the twenty first century a new term, Altermodern, also devised by Bourriaud, proposes an alternative to the conceptual lineage of Postmodernism. According to Bourriaud, the opening of new market economies and the mobility of artist and audience has stimulated new models for political and cultural exchange and participation. Through global distribution systems, artists can cut across geographic and political boundaries. A new cultural framework consisting of diaspora, migration and exodus offers alternative modes of interpretation and understanding of the artwork. The decentralisation of global culture presents new formats for exchange between artist and audience, which are continually susceptible and adaptable to readily-available technologies. Digital Technologyand the Internet’s global social networks can promote a sense of participation without the physical gathering of people in any one location. This represents a fundamental shift in traditional notions of community and our experience of artworks.

Participatory and Relational Art raise important questions about the meaning and purpose of art in society, about the role of the artist and the experience of the audience as participant. Many arts organisations and museums and galleries, such as the Irish Museum of Modern Art, integrate the inclusive principles of Participatory Arts in their policy and practice, informing strategies for programming and audience development to provide opportunities for meaningful engagement with Contemporary Art.


Reading List

Robert Atkins, Politics, Participation, and Meaning in the Age of Mass Media, Thames and Hudson, 2008.
Deborah Barndt (ed.), Wild Fire: Art as Activism, Toronto: Sumach Press, 2006.
Ciaran Benson (ed.), Art and the Ordinary – The ACE Report, Dublin: ACE Committee, 1989.
Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture, London: Routledge, 1994.
Johanna Billing, Maria Lind, and Lars Nilsson (eds.), Taking the Matter into Common Hands: Contemporary Art and Collaborative Practices, London: Black Dog Publishing, 2007.
Claire Bishop (ed.), Participation, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2006.
Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, Dijon: Les Presse du Reél, 1998.
Nicolas Bourriaud, Altermodern, London: Tate Publishing, 2009.
William Cleveland, Art and Upheaval: Artists on the World’s Frontlines, Oakland, CA: New Village Press, 2008.
Claire Doherty (ed.), Contemporary Art: From Studio to Situation, London: Black Dog Publishing, 2004.
Charles Esche, Art and Social Change: A Critical Reader, London: Tate Publishing, 2008.
Nina Felshin (ed.), But Is It Art?: The Spirit of Art as Activism, Seattle, WA: Bay Press, 1995.
Tom Finkelpearl, Dialogues in Public Art, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000.
Sandy Fitzgerald (ed.), An Outburst of Frankness: Community Arts in Ireland – A Reader, Dublin: tasc at New Island, 2006.
Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2000.
Linda Frye Burnham and Steven Durland (eds.), The Citizen Artist: 20 Years of Art in the Public Arena, An Anthology from High Performance Magazine 1978-1998, Critical Press, 1998.
Rudolf Frieling (ed.), The Art of Participation: 1950 to Now, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in association with Thames & Hudson, 2008.
Alfred Gell, Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998.
Charlie Gere and Michael Corris, Non-relational Aesthetics, (Transmission: the Rule of Engagement), London: Artwords Press, 2008.
Jürgen Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action, Volumes 1&2, Trans. Thomas McCarthy, Boston: The Beacon Press, 1984.
Maurice Halbwachs, On Collective Memory, Trans. Lewis A. Coser, University of Chicago Press, 1992.
Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.
Geoffrey Hendricks (ed.), Critical Mass: Happenings, Fluxus, Performance, Intermedia, and Rutgers University,1958-1972, Rutgers University Press, 2003.
Grant Kester, Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art, University of California Press, 2004.
Miwon Kwon, One Place After Another: Site-specific Art and Locational Identity, Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2004.
Markus Miessen and Shumon Basar (eds.), Did Someone Say Participate? – An Atlas of Spatial Practice, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006.
Chantal Mouffe (ed.), Dimensions of Radical Democracy: Pluralism, Citizenship, Community, London: Verso, 1992.
Ailbhe Murphy et al (eds.), Unspoken Truths, Irish Museum of Modern Art, 1996.
Frank Popper, Art, Action and Participation, London: Studio Vista, 1975.
Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator, Verso, 2009.
Blake Stimson and Gregory Sholette (eds.), Collectivism after Modernism: The Art of Social Imagination after 1945, University of Minnesota Press, 2007.
Michael Warner, Publics and Counterpublics, New York: Zone Books, 2002.




We invited Brian Hand, artist, writer and lecturer, to respond to this subject. In his essay, A struggle at the roots of the mind: service and solidarity in dialogical, relational and collaborative perspectives in art, Hand focuses on three aspects of Participatory Arts: Dialogical Art, Relational Aesthetics and Collaborative/ Collective Art Projects, as a means of exploring some of the key issues which inform and shape contemporary Participatory Arts practice. We hope these texts will contribute to the ongoing debate about Participatory Arts. We also hope to highlight the potential of IMMA and its programmes as a growing resource for further exploration and consideration of this subject.




Important Notice


We would like to advise our visitors that our Main Reception area is closed for renovation from 22 April until mid-June.  A temporary reception is open on the ground floor next to the original main entrance. While we prepare to open our next exhibition Hilary Heron: A Retrospective on 24 May, there are two exhibitions to see Derry Film & Video Workshop and Self: Determination: Artists Commissions. IMMA’s gardens and café are open to the public.