Our annual Communicating the Museum conference — taking place in the picturesque city of Brussels — is only three months away ! This year’s theme is “participation” and the line-up of speakers could not be more exciting. In anticipation to this whirlwind of inspiring talks, rich encounters and aha moments, we will be introducing a few speakers on our blog. Those experts’ insights and stories will carry on after the conference, so you can continue to be inspired and learn after you have left CTM18.
For our first post, we sat down — over Skype, we admit it — with Jan Boelen, who serves as the artistic director at both the Atelier LUMA in France, and Z33 House for contemporary art in Belgium. Those two dynamic hybrid spaces are at the crossroad of creative research, art production, and education. Here are a few of Jan Boelen’s refreshing thoughts on the meaning of participation, and his unexpected advice to cultural institutions regarding resilience and the use of design in participatory practices.
Participation is not about numbers
“Participation is not about numbers,” says Jan Boelen during our interview. At a time where some museums are doing everything to pump up their attendance numbers, this seems a little counter-intuitive. For him, a project is successful when it grows and sustains itself without the original enablers and facilitators. Participation is about taking full agency over what has been initially offered. “I am not here for numbers,” he pauses, “what I am interested in is the outreach. You could say we are a sort of power plant, we provide the initial energy and people use it as they wish.”
From this perspective of participation as a distributed agency within an ecosystem “in which different players work together, exchange and constantly define their complementary roles,” Jan Boelen argues that the goal of cultural institutions should be to “create environments where people come together to work from their own strengths and their own abilities.”
The problem with participation
As we discuss the roadblocks and challenges of fostering participation within cultural institutions, Jan Boelen makes an unusual point. “The problem with participatory projects,” he explains calmly “is that they are based on good intentions and nobody can be against good intentions; but actually, they really are the road to hell.” How is this possible? He argues that when embarking on participatory or collaborative projects, “you should start with me, myself, and I.” He adds: “‘What do I want?’ That is the only right question.” He explains that, in his view, participatory projects may cause our personal character and abilities to fade away “and then, you don’t have a real dynamic of personalities, you can’t identify the different roles within the room and you can’t achieve the diversity that you wanted initially.” Which brings us to our next point…
Diversity is the key to resilience
Collaborative projects at Atelier Luma and Z33 always involve a diverse range of people, including artists, scientists, politicians, designers and citizens. “Art, architecture and design can play an important role in building a more resilient society,” Jan Boelen explains. To him, the ever-growing focus and pressure on efficiency, “that everything has to be efficient and better and so on” has “atomized us”. He illustrates his thought with a metaphor: a forest with one kind of tree might look satisfying and “efficient” yet turns out much less resilient in the face of a storm than a forest made of many shapes and sizes of trees. Bringing in diverse entities may allow us to create “not just a strong network, but a constellation where exchange of knowledge, thoughts and experiences are the driver and the core of the ecosystem.”
Design is just a tool
“Design is just a tool, it is only a tool,” stresses Jan Boelen throughout the interview. “Design and social design can enable moments of collaboration. They can facilitate, coordinate, direct, the relations and connections that you build in the network.” That being said, he urges us to remain cautious, as design can also make those connections impossible. Resorting to another revealing metaphor he expounds: “If the bridge that you build is not strong enough, if you have to pay to be granted the right to cross over, or if it is only open at certain hours, there is a risk that it will make communication harder or even more unbalanced than it was before.” The social, human and political outcomes of design practices are what constitute, according to Jan Boelen — and he is very clear that this is his definition and not the definition — the field of social design, which he is currently researching.
It’s all about expectation management
So what is the biggest challenge when it comes to building relevant and resilient institutions? Jan Boelen answers immediately: “it’s all about expectation management.” He argues that cultural institutions have to formulate, together with the participants, “the promise and the dream.” This is the only way to “use and distribute energy within the system.” He argues that with every step cultural institutions or cultural managers take forward, they need to ensure that every voice is heard and that everyone who is moving along shares the same dream and holds the same promise. Yet it’s also about being realistic and flexible : “[…] maybe you don’t take everybody along, and that’s fine.” The most important thing is to agree, as a group, on what the scale of the project may be, “and if it’s not working, be ready to invite new people, be ready to redefine who, what and why.”
Jan Boelen will be giving the keynote speech on Monday 29 May . You can pick his brain on social design and participation of course, or start off a conversation about his other interests : new ways of communicating, future education models, chaos theory and television series ! Join him and many more inspiring peers at our annual Communicating the Museum conference next may.
Words by Alexia Jacques-Casanova