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Cultures of Participation

Cultures of Participation – Arts, Digital Media and Politics

Over the last decade cultural participation and cultures of participation have received increased (and renewed) attention within different academic disciplines, cultural institutions and societal sectors – and over time also more critical reflection. On policy levels, citizen participation and engagement are emphasized as key components of democratic societies and these policies are currently being practiced and put to work at cultural institutions and cultural houses, in artistic production, in architectural and urban ‘smart city’ designs and various digital media spaces. But what are the characteristics of cultural participation and how do these manifest themselves in cultures of participation?

Confirmed keynote speakers

  • Shannon Jackson, Professor of Rhetoric and of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies, University of California, Berkeley
  • Zizi Papacharissi, Professor and Head of the Communication Department, Professor of Political Science at the University of Illinois-Chicago
  • Lisanne Gibson, Associate Professor, School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester

Conference Themes

In order to provide a multifaceted take on the subject, the conference is organized around three themes, which each addresses the topic from different standpoints: 1) Participatory art & aesthetics, 2) Digital media & technology, 3) Cultural policy & participation. The conference aims to discuss the potentials and problems of cultural participation by bringing these important, but often disconnected research fields into dialogue with each other. The conference will include theoretical and methodological interventions, as well as case studies that develop processes from theory and policy to concrete implementations.

Theme 1: Participatory art and aesthetics

A 200-year long tradition in aesthetics understands the relation between art and intersubjectivity as a matter of participating in an abstract and imagined community. In the last 50 years this tradition has, however, been criticized for its focus on a reflective judgement, elevated above the body and the social/material contexts of the aesthetic experience. In contemporary aesthetics and cultural studies, the relation between art and community is often understood in more concrete terms involving body, affect, power, materiality, and time- and site-specific context.

This orientation towards more concrete and tangible communities has been reinforced since the ‘social turn’ in art and aesthetics in the 1990’s. In contemporary art, there is strong interest in participatory art practices that both transform the role of the ‘recipient’ and engage art more directly in society. Still, we need to investigate the link between modes of discursive and/or embodied participation in art practices, in temporary publics and more stable communities, and in social, material and political life. In aesthetic theory, two ways of conceptualizing this link has been dominant. One has focused on art’s ability to create micro-utopian communities, another on the ability to question already given identities and communities. But in between these two, a wide variety of participatory art practices unfold in more complex registers. We therefore welcome papers that explore the challenges and potentials of participatory and socially engaged art practices.

This might include:

  • Case studies of art’s engagement in the challenges of concrete communities and debates about how this (not) relates to more abstract communities
  • Critical analysis of how participatory artistic practices generate new bodily or discursive blockages and openings
  • Critical analysis of how participatory art challenge or interact with material or institutional framings
  • Theoretical debates about the role of participatory art in promoting intersubjectivity, community and democratization
  • Studies in digitized participatory cultures’ implications for artistic practices
  • Exploration of participatory art’s political and prefigurative potential

Theme 2: Digital media and technology

Historically the arrival of new media technologies has often stimulated cultural fantasies of more intense forms of engagement or inclusion of (previously excluded) voices and producers. In the 1930’s Walter Benjamin as an example argued that technological reproducibility would facilitate a shift towards citizen participation by allowing ‘the people’ to write and be published in newspapers or appear on photos or in films. With the rise of the internet – and especially social media platforms based on user generated content – the fantasy of the participatory citizen, supported by the affordances of rising media technologies, was once again activated and linked to high hopes of creating more diverse, democratic and engaged public spheres. Early internet scholars thus discussed this medium on the premises of citizen engagement and empowerment, frequently using hybrid terms such as prosumers, produsers, interactive audience, creative audience and productive enthusiasts.

But more recent work in the field has acknowledged that digitized participatory cultures cannot be separated from their technological infrastructures and platforms, which always facilitate certain – and block other – forms of participation. It has also stressed the fact that social media create invisible forms of ‘participation by default’ where users are forced to contribute to the accumulation of data used to shape future communication with strategic or economic goals. Instead of celebrating participative read/write cultures and making-and-doing cultures, these voices emphasize elements such as data mining, surveillance, privacy breaches, digital labour and excessive communication without communicability.

This strand will acknowledge the tensions between different notions of (digital) media participation and invite contributions to discuss these from different perspectives.

These include:

  • Critical analysis on how media technologies facilitate, and at the same time condition, citizens’ participation and how this relates to cultural institutions’ use of established media technologies, such as social media.
  • Contributions on the emancipatory/empowering use of media technologies and/or critical aspects concerning citizens’ use of media technologies
  • Theoretical explorations on changes in power dynamics between users of digital technologies and professional workers in cultural institutions
  • Case based studies that focus on how technologies condition the participative potentials of users and how users’ participation is shaped by platforms’ algorithmic logics
  • Studies on the global/local challenges when facilitating participation on commercial social media as well as studies on the institutional challenges when encouraging participation on established social media platforms.

Theme 3: Cultural policy and participation

The participatory agenda has held a significant place in cultural theory, policy and practice since the millennium. One can understand this as driven by a growing “participatory culture” that enables new forms of user involvement and introduces a potential for cultural institutions to become more relevant, social, democratic, accessible and to reach out to more diverse audiences. Or one can understand it as driven by failings in the cultural sector to reach these diverse audiences and challenge the correlation between participation in arts and socio-economic position.

In any case, the agenda has changed the framework that cultural institutions work within. Cultural policy makers have introduced new funding structures, research opportunities, institutional contracts and quality parameters for recipients of public money to address what is seen as a participation potential and/or deficit. Cultural institutions answer to this ambivalent agenda by developing participatory strategies and projects, documenting visitor numbers and demographics, and measuring effect. In doing this they often relate to the participation agenda from a range of other perspectives, e.g. in contemporary art, democratic theory, learning theories and digital media.

There is, however a long list of cultural policy issues in relation to institutional practice and cultural participation, which needs to be addressed, discussed and analyzed. We therefore welcome papers that address the participation agenda in cultural policy and cultural institutions.

This might include:

  • Critical analysis of the relationship between cultural policy and practice
  • Case studies of participatory initiatives that examine the challenges practitioners face
  • Theoretical debates about the role of cultural policy and/or institutions in promoting democratization of culture or cultural democracy
  • Exploration of digitized participatory cultures and their implications for creative copyright and/or cultural institutions
  • The politics of data capture on participation in the cultural sector and new forms of measurement

Conference information


  • 18-20 April 2018


Important dates

Deadline for abstracts

  • 5 January 2018

Notification of acceptance

  • 21 January 2018

Registration deadline

  • 18 February 2018

Contact Information

Conference organizers

  • Birgit Eriksson, Associate Professor and director of Take Part, Aarhus University, Denmark,
  • Bjarki Valtysson, Associate Professor, University of Copenhagen, Denmark
  • Carsten Stage, Associate Professor, Aarhus University, Denmark
  • Mette Houlberg Rung, art educator, PhD, National Gallery of Denmark
  • Nina Gram, researcher at A Suitcase of Methods, PhD, The Royal Danish Theatre
  • Leila Jancovich, Lecturer in cultural policy and participation, University of Leeds, UK