Participatory Art by Diana Bell
Like many artists I work with many different media including painting, sculpture, public art and installation, but the most inspiring for the last twenty or more years has been my work with public participation art.
It began with an installation called ‘Make your Mark’ in the Westgate Centre in Oxford. I asked people to press their hands into clay which I then cast in plaster on the spot. The hands were placed in a circle and formed a continual growing installation. People were coming back & recognising their hands, even though there were more than 500 over the course of a week. It emphasised that although we seem the same, each of us is unique.
I did a similar project on Tours Railway station in France, as part of an ‘Art-in-Situ’ exhibition. Here I asked people to print their hand by dipping it in mud, so that their hand touched the earth.
This installation invited people to be photographed and then I put their image on a piece of wood which was placed in the ‘Bed’ – a visual pun on the fleeting nature of our lives.
A similar project was ‘Children of the Millennium’ in 2000 when I visited schools in Oxford and Abingdon and asked children aged between five and eleven to write their birthday and make a thumb print. The philosophy here was that one person could indeed change the world. I invited six people, who had made significant contributions, to send me their thumb prints which were then enlarged. Thirty-six schools took part during the year. The installation was shown in Christchurch Cathedral, Dorchester Abbey, Southampton and Bonn.
In 2004, I did a residency at the John Radcliffe Children’s Hospital. As well as working with the children, I created a participatory installation in the entrance called ‘Make a Bed Day’. People were invited to make a small paper bed symbolising the fragility of life, but also celebrating each individual. Because I was with the installation all the time it was being shown, I was able to talk to people who were passing through the hospital either as patients or visitors. This was when I realised the power of this form of participatory art. People are able to make something symbolic about their experiences, but remain anonymous.
In 2004 I was invited to be part of ‘The Oxford Show’ at Modern Art Oxford and made an installation called ‘Remembering’ where I asked people to write the name of someone special who they remembered. This was the beginning of a different kind of participation when I was asking for written contributions.
So began the story of the Big Book in 2010 which continued for five years to fourteen venues including France, Germany, The Netherlands and Russia involving over 7,000 people. The book which was 2.2 metres high and made out of wood bound with leather was titled ‘Imagine’. It was important that the Big Book was always sited in a very public place in a city where people were just passing by. It is also important that my projects are free and not linked to any organisation and I don’t ask for donations.
It started in the courtyard of the Bodleian Library where I asked people to write something they imagined in their preferred language. This is what inspired me. In just one week 54 languages were written and I had conversations with people from around the world. It was the same wherever I went. People told me about their lives, their hopes and their tragedies. Many tears were shed together and many jokes shared. If you would like to know more about this project you can find a link on my web site www.dianabell.co.uk on the Projects tab.
This is a short video or you can watch a longer documentary video on my Youtube channel. You don’t need to watch it all in one go, as you can visit each venue separately. The importance about asking people to write is that other people can read and everyone can share their thoughts while still remaining anonymous.
After driving a two-metre high book around in a Luton truck for five years, I decided that my next project would fit in my van!
The Big Question Mark is one of my current projects. It has so far visited Edinburgh, Bath, Liverpool, Thessaloniki, Birmingham, Bonn, Cologne and Grenoble. I ask people, ‘Where do you come from?’’ Where were you born?’ ‘Where do you feel is home?’ ‘Where do you feel you belong?’ and they write their answers on a small house.
I then ask them to interact with the question mark by walking, dancing running along it as symbolic of their life’s journey and finally writing on a small square of cardboard what they have learned. Again I was asking people to write in their preferred language and not making a judgement as to which language that might be. So far I have 48 languages. In Leiden a man said that this was a difficult decision as he spoke eight languages! You can see a short video made in Edinburgh by visiting the web site www.thebigquestionmarkartproject.com
What have I learned? Many things, but particularly never judge anyone by what they look like and always listen, because the story will not be what you expect.
In Edinburgh, only ten people in a whole week could say they were Scottish for more than two generations. In Liverpool I asked a five-year old girl what she thought of when I said ‘Home’. She answered ‘My sister’. Her mother quietly explained that her sister was an angel and had died three years ago.
In Birmingham, a young woman said that she’d had a difficult time over the last four years, but that now she was happy and she danced a ‘happy dance’ on the Question Mark. A Big Issue man helped me and said that he was homeless because his wife had left him and the house was in her name.
In Bonn, the first person to take part was a small boy from Syria who danced down the Question Mark. A man said he came from Hong Kong and had been in Germany for 48 years working as a chef since he was thirteen. In Cologne a woman from Eritrea told me the story of her life. A group from Iraq wrote in Arabic, but also spoke in English and German.
In Grenoble, two groups of school children took part with lots of discussion about what they wanted to do in life. A woman from the Gold Coast wrote that she comes out of Africa, but is a woman of the world. A group of young refugees danced down the Question Mark.
There are so many examples in every city that show that as human beings we have the same kinds of needs and emotions. I should like to end with this quotation: ‘Oxford is home. It’s where I belong. I’m half Polish, half Indian, half Jewish, half Muslim. My Indian father met my refugee mother in Oxford. I feel equally at home with Christian, Jewish and Muslim traditions, but you have to get used to fuzziness and a lack of clear identity. You get exposed to prejudices from all parts of your mixed cultures, but my mixed heritage has made me all the more certain that we have more in common than that which divides us.’
The Big Question Mark has yet to be exhibited in Oxford, so watch this space!