People power: It's the taking part that counts

The jailed Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei is part of a new cultural movement that's using people power to challenge society's vested interests

On 12 May 2008, an earthquake measuring 8.0 on the Richter scale shook the Chinese province of Sichuan. Among the dead were thousands of children whose schools – shoddily built as a result of corruption – collapsed around them. Despite widespread anger and grief, government officials refused to investigate the disaster fully.

That was when the artist Ai Weiwei stepped in to launch his own inquiry, organising 200 volunteers to go door to door, talk to bereaved parents and record details of their deceased children online. "Everybody knew something was wrong, but nobody knew any facts or looked carefully to find the names of the children who died, which school they were in, at what level, how old they were, female or male," said the artist, whose volunteers eventually uncovered the names of over 5,000 pupils. "Whatever we found out, we posted on the blog. That caused a revolution in the minds of the people."

In the outcry surrounding his arrest by the Chinese government last month, it's sometimes hard to make out exactly what kind of artist Ai Weiwei is and why his work is so lauded by supporters and treated with such suspicion by Chinese authorities. We know him as a trenchant critic of the Chinese state. And we have seen the Sunflower Seeds, albeit from behind a barrier. But we're unsure about the connection between the two. Especially because the commonly applied description of him as an artist and activist suggests his artworks and his politics run on parallel tracks.

Yet the key to the kind of artist he is – and what makes him such an incendiary figure to his government – is the fact that, for all practical purposes, there is no distinction between his personal life, his art and his political principles. An exercise like the Sichuan campaign is, for him, as much of an artwork as any of the more formal experiments in photography, sculpture or architecture he has carried out over the years. As, come to that, is his prolific use of Twitter – he has over 80,000 followers and, pre-arrest, would sometimes post comments dozens of times in a day – and the films of his everyday life he uploads to his YouTube channel.

What's common to all these activities is his desire to reach beyond the cloistered environment of a gallery or a museum and connect with ordinary people about real social issues. And a belief that, in doing so, art can trigger political awareness. Referring to the work of Marcel Duchamp, who famously bestowed the status of art on commonplace objects like a bicycle wheel and a urinal, Ai has talked of subjecting the repressive environment in China to the same process of artistic transformation. "I take the political situation in China as a ready-made. I transform it in my own way to show people the possibilities of this reality and a way to change. That, I think, is directly related to my art; it's the same thing to me."

Ai Weiwei is not alone in the conviction that artistic projects carried out in public with the participation of ordinary people can trigger meaningful change in society. Across the course of the past decade a growing number of artists have eschewed the physical business of painting or sculpture in favour of working with the public to create moments and experiences of heightened social or political awareness. They include significant British figures like Jeremy Deller and, with his Fourth Plinth project for Trafalgar Square, Antony Gormley. And respected international names like Francis Alÿs, Thomas Hirschhorn, Carsten Höller, and of course Ai Weiwei himself. The result has been ambitious, strikingly imaginative artworks that have corralled hundreds, even thousands, into action while asking sometimes searching questions about the state of culture and society.

Well-known projects include Deller's The Battle of Orgreave, a restaging of a pitched conflict between miners and police at the height of the miners strike in 1984, played out 17 years later with members of English civil war reenactment societies. For Francis Alÿs's epic When Faith Moves Mountains, the Belgian artist recruited 500 Peruvian volunteers to shovel a gigantic sand dune on the outskirts of Lima, shifting its position an almost imperceptible four inches, in a commentary on the halting progress of Latin American government and civil society. And, invited to take part in the prestigious Documenta festival in Kassel, Germany in 2007, Ai Weiwei arranged for 1001 volunteers from across China, none of whom had ever left the country before, to visit the town and wander freely for eight days. Ostensibly a mass excursion, the trip took on a more pointed resonance when read in the context of questions of migration, globalisation, the use of labour and the role of the individual in China.

In addition, there are a considerable number of socially engaged works by less high-profile artists. Among these are the all-day disco-dance marathon for teenagers in Ramallah staged by Turner Prize nominee Phil Collins; Polish artist Pawel Althamer's relationship with a group of adults with mental and physical disabilities in Warsaw, who have been both the subject of his work as well as his collaborators; and the floating abortion clinic designed by Dutch group Atelier Van Lieshout that is operational in international waters.

Diverse as these projects are, they share a number of common features. They are staged outside a gallery. They are hard to classify: are they performances, durational works, popular spectacle? And they are reliant for their success on the enthusiasm and involvement of the public to bring an artist's ideas to life.

The emergence of this participatory art movement has attracted major attention in the art world. It was the subject of a group show, The Art of Participation, at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2008. Next year's flagship commission in Tate Modern's Turbine Hall will feature the British-German artist Tino Sehgal, who creates what he calls "constructed situations" between performers and ordinary people. And the influential critic Claire Bishop has said of leading lights such as Deller and Höller that "their work arguably forms what avant-garde we have today: artists using social situations to produce dematerialised, anti-market, politically engaged projects that carry on the modernist call to blur art and life."

If this is a new avant-garde then it's operating on a different set of aesthetic rules to previous generations of political art. Typically, artists have wanted us to be as outraged as they are in the face of war or great injustice. Their pictures – angry, provocative, shocking – reflect this. Think of Picasso's Guernica; the shrieking heads and spewing blood in the imagery of feminist artist Nancy Spero; Richard Hamilton's Bobby Sands, naked beneath a blanket in his befouled cell at the height of the dirty protests.

By contrast the likes of Deller and Alÿs prefer dialogue to polemic. Rather than conjuring visceral imagery or bludgeoning slogans they wield art as a form of "soft power": a means to bring people together, to stir emotions and nudge participants towards a new understanding of the social and political order.

The rising prominence of their work also sits in contrast to the glitziness of the pre-financial crash art market, when top sellers like Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons were being snapped up by an international moneyed elite, eager for trophies that affirmed their wealth, not critiqued it.

The irony is that, if ever there was a time for art to challenge and provoke it should have been during the past decade. September 11, the War on Terror, yawning inequalities between rich and poor and North and South, the failure of the Copenhagen climate talks – these have been troubled years. Yet you wouldn't have known it from wandering through most galleries, where the accent was firmly on commerce not conscience.

But in its attempts to more deeply consider the condition of society, participatory art raises questions of its own. Are participatory projects really classifiable as art or are they closer to a form of applied social work? And, if we accept them as the former, is it anyway possible for art to effect the kinds of transformation purported? Is it possible for art to change the world?

Champions of the genre, like the French critic Nicolas Bourriaud, describe the virtues of the movement in utopian terms, as an opportunity to create occasions when people can meet, establish bonds of trust and cooperation and to, as a consequence, begin looking at the world with new eyes. As he puts it, this is art as "a state of encounter".

That rings true with regard to Deller's recent road trip across America towing a bombed-out car from Baghdad. Pitched up in town squares, the car's presence triggered heartfelt conversations among local people about the rights and wrongs of the Iraq war and America's place in the world, post 9/11.

But the outcome of such encounters is perhaps less certain with a figure like the New York-based Rirkrit Tiravanija, who's chiefly known for staging exhibitions that consist of him cooking Thai food for gallery-goers.

Maybe the question to ask then isn't if participatory art can change the world, but whether it succeeds in transforming our perception of the world and our place within it. The current, uncertain fate of Ai Weiwei highlights the heavy personal cost that can result from merging art and politics in this way. The artist's words, speaking about his Sichuan campaign, make clear what the worth of doing so might be. "This investigation will be remembered for generations as the first civil rights activity in China. It directly affects people's feelings and their living conditions, their freedom and how they look at the world. To me, that is art."

Ekow Eshun was the director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts from 2005 to 2010

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished

TV reviewGrace Dent: Jimmy McGovern's new drama sheds light on sex slavery in the colonies

Arts and Entertainment
Australia's Eurovision contestant and former Australian Idol winner Guy Sebastian

Eurovision 2015Australian Idol winner unveiled as representative Down Under

Arts and Entertainment
Larry David and Rosie Perez in ‘Fish in the Dark’
theatreReview: Had Fish in the Dark been penned by a civilian it would have barely got a reading, let alone £10m advance sales
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
    Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

    Lost without a trace

    But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
    Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

    Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

    Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
    International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
    Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

    Confessions of a planespotter

    With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
    Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

    Russia's gulag museum

    Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
    The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

    The big fresh food con

    Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
    Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

    Virginia Ironside was my landlady

    Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
    Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

    Paris Fashion Week 2015

    The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
    8 best workout DVDs

    8 best workout DVDs

    If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
    Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

    Paul Scholes column

    I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
    Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
    Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

    Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

    The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable