Participatory Practices

Jenna Ashton

Jenna Ashton is Founder and Creative Director of arts and heritage organisation Digital Women’s Archive North CIC (DWAN). Her work specifically concerns global feminisms and women’s movements in relation to creative resistance through arts, heritage and participatory practices. Her research specialisms include digital feminisms, alongside digital futures in arts, archives, museums and galleries. Additionally she works on feminist curatorial and archival practices. She is editor of two-volume international publication “Feminism and Museums: Intervention, Disruption and Change” (September 2017, MuseumsEtc). DWAN is co-creating a digital space that will function as an archive, educational resource and alternative media outlet, supporting the connectivity, campaigns and creative cultural resistance of feminist practitioners and organisations. Jenna’s current positions also include Impact and Engagement Manager in Research and Knowledge Exchange at Manchester Metropolitan University and Honorary Research Fellow of Sociology in the School of Social Sciences, The University of Manchester. She sits on the Trustee Boards of Victoria Baths and Delia Derbyshire Day.

doi: 10.18278/aia.2.2.17

I am a feminist scholar and curator working in the areas of heritage, archives, visual culture, and the arts. Voice is central to my work.

Voice is closely connected to identity politics of marginalized people. The “global right” plays identity politics very well, espousing nationalism and identity privilege, a defined mantra of “them and us” to incite fear and hatred of the “other”. The Left must re-politicize our creative engagement with voice. We must ensure that at the heart of our artistic endeavours, of our interventions, we attempt to disrupt and make change. I argue that to fully reclaim voice from the Right we must embrace intersectional participatory politics and artistic practices. Participatory practices embrace identity through an inclusive and collective framework of tolerance, freedom, solidarity, and justice. These practices query the voices of privilege and work towards transforming systems of oppression.

Creative spaces for participation concern multiplicity, not the promotion of a dominant superior. Festivals, marches, protests, walks, and pop-ups can offer effective participatory models and disruption to the everyday. Central to these forms is the presence and presentation of the body within public spaces, where identity and voice can be highly visible and audible. Methods include costume, chants, songs, satire, placards, posters, puppetry, street performance, space takeovers, and also digital and media arts—all forms of non-violent creative disruption that galvanize different groups against misogyny, homophobia, and racism.

For example, the Global Women’s March (January 21, 2017) offered such a participatory space and creative expression against the Trump administration. People paraded and reclaimed streets across cities globally to challenge this new threat to women’s human rights. Much has been written on the March in comparison to earlier civil rights movements and their creative methods of resistance. Consequently, the Society of American Archivists, Women Archivists Section (WArS) has begun work on “Women’s March on Washington Archives Project”, a global participatory project led by archivists to evidence and capture the events of January 21, 2017. The aim is to build a digital resource that enables the sharing of documentation towards a wider programme in feminist education (a method of “teaching to transgress”, to quote bell hooks, 1994, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. London; NY: Routledge). A key distinctiveness in our assertion of voice is the potential of digital feminisms for connectivity. The archive will be a huge achievement in terms of global feminist archiving—likely the largest ever undertaken.

Criticisms were directed at the March for its seeming lack of specific action. Yet, like all performative spaces and moments, immediate policy change was an unrealistic objective. The March was a moment of temporary disruption that brought together many voices all directed at a primary threat to freedom and rights. These voices found a collective space of belonging during the Global March.

Participatory practices are not without their challenges. Such practice comes with a promise of empowerment and emancipation; this must be worked through with one eye on Utopia and the other on restrictive institutional structures culpable of silencing. Creative participatory resistance has the best chance of ensuring voices are heard, and action is taken.