I have always been an admirer of Emma Smith's art practice - the way she weaves ethical, thoughtful participation with interactive, immersive installation in public realm and gallery contexts through critical and rigorously researched multi-faceted projects. It is a unique approach to art-making and defiantly moves through art education and 'typically' participatory settings into contemporary art spaces, elevating the work to gain a new respect and share participant's contributions on a different level. For this reason I asked if she would mentor me as part of my DYCP funding, and thankfully she agreed. 

On a crisp January morning I drove through the flattened Cambridgeshire countryside to Wysing Arts Centre where Emma is based - a rural art complex of studios surrounded by mossy fields and woodland dotted with sculptures at various stages of succumbing to the elements. 

Emma and I had the morning to chat through a loose set of questions I had prepared, and our conversation branched and re-connected like the sprawling brain diagrams she prepares for each project. I wanted to talk to Emma about working with curators and galleries on participatory projects. Advice and questions to ponder included the following:

  • Expectation management is key
  • Work out what you want from the project first
  • Identify the project's parameters - practicalities, engagement outlines etc
  • Work with groups relevant to the project concept
  • Where possible work with groups the commissioner hasn't reached before - what is your offer?
  • Present and share what you do and think about how it could work in a gallery space
  • Does it have to be in a gallery space? Shops, markets, community spaces, council chambers etc could still be ways of presenting the work in an interesting way
  • Could there be versions of existing projects which could be seen in a gallery?
  • What is the benefit of being in a gallery? Is the project at a point where it could be tested en mass?
  • How can you keep the project active in a gallery space?
  • What does it mean to be in a gallery?

This set of questions has given me so much to consider reflecting on existing work and developing new ideas. It feels like an expanse of new space is opening up around my practice for it to inflate into - this is just the start. 

Image: Ellie Shipman
Photo shows a sculpture by Folke Köbberling and Martin Kaltwasser called Amphis, 2008
'Amphis is a structure that embraces the ideas of many people in one big patchwork ‘house’. Every element was built using materials donated to the project and by a community of 40 volunteers.'
Wysing Arts Centre