par­tic­i­pa­tory art at work

I recently co-organised an exhi­bi­tion work : place explor­ing the expe­ri­ence of work at the Uni­ver­sity of Essex. We pro­duced a col­lec­tive artis­tic inter­ven­tion to describes the Uni­ver­sity on ‘What a Day’, the 18th March 2009. We received almost sev­enty entries into a com­pe­ti­tion that asked for an artis­tic rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the work­ing day. Peo­ple sub­mit­ted pho­tographs, poems, videos and sculp­tures pro­duced alone or with their col­leagues. They are funny, reveal­ing and surprising.

image by Idlan Zakaria

image by Idlan Zakaria

So many occu­pa­tions are rep­re­sented at a Uni­ver­sity; its staff have skills as mechan­ics, researchers, nego­tia­tors, man­agers, chefs, librar­i­ans, admin­is­tra­tors. work : place explored how these occu­pa­tions inter­sect and co-depend. It made vis­i­ble the com­plex­ity of work in a vast organ­i­sa­tion by mak­ing vis­i­ble the employ­ees and how they communicate.

crit­i­cis­ing com­pul­sory creativity

One rea­son for this project was to con­sider scope for cre­ativ­ity in the con­tem­po­rary work­place. Whilst uni­ver­si­ties might well be described as part of the ‘cre­ative indus­tries’, by and large the dom­i­nance of a roman­ti­cised con­cept of ‘cre­ativ­ity’ as the act of a free indi­vid­ual (see Toyn­bee, 2000, ch 2 for a cri­tique), ren­ders cre­ativ­ity as some­thing out­side of mar­ket or employ­ment relations.

Yet man­age­ment dis­courses cel­e­brate and push towards cre­ativ­ity as the hall­mark of the suc­cess­ful employee, the value added by the reflex­ive, self-monitoring worker of the 21st Cen­tury: see Bil­ton (2007) or

This sort of thing leads Thomas Osborne to describe cre­ativ­ity as a moral imper­a­tive: ‘for who could imag­in­ably be against cre­ativ­ity?’ (2003: 508). He describes a doc­tri­nal ‘com­pul­sory cre­ativ­ity’ as some­thing to stand against, for its pro­mo­tion of com­pul­sory indi­vid­u­al­ism, inno­va­tion, self-performativity and the quest for the new.

Orvar Löf­gren offers an alter­na­tive cri­tique of the unthink­ing use of cre­ativ­ity as a new means of pro­duc­tion as ‘the strik­ing para­dox of try­ing to domes­ti­cate the imag­i­na­tion while at the same time try­ing to pre­serve its magic aura of unbri­dled energy’ (Löf­gren, 2003: 246). Here the sug­ges­tion is that the insti­tu­tion­al­i­sa­tion of cre­ativ­ity risks mak­ing it dis­ap­pear. So, here are Toyn­bee, Osborne and Löf­gren crit­i­cis­ing sim­plis­tic accounts of the cre­ative soul; they almost con­vince me that cre­ativ­ity is over­rated; just a step away from exploitation.

'Leaf Cells', by Mike Fryer

Leaf Cells’, by Mike Fryer

But on the other hand, I’m a hippy and I think peo­ple have great capac­ity to be cre­ative if they feel like this is within the pos­si­ble for them. And this was borne out by some of my expe­ri­ence on the work : place project. What sur­prised me was pre­cisely what Toynbee’s cri­tique of cre­ativ­ity as hyper-individualised might have lead me to expect, had I thought it through: that some peo­ple felt they could not par­tic­i­pate alone. It was not for them, they didn’t have an artis­tic bone in their bod­ies. But let them be in a group, let the group not the indi­vid­ual be described as cre­ative, then all sorts of things became possible.


We did not sug­gest that respon­dents might sub­mit col­lec­tively, but 17 were col­lab­o­ra­tions from those already work­ing together. Some of the pro­duc­tions were a result of the com­pe­ti­tion being used as an excuse for man­age­ment to work on ‘team build­ing’, but there are two I’d like to talk about which came from the work groups them­selves, as a form of play inter­rupt­ing the work­ing day.

The first, To Boldly Go came from a team of clean­ing staff in one of the uni­ver­sity res­i­dences. Here, the youngest of the work­ers is dressed with the accou­trements of her job, and the poem sits along­side, reflect­ing the engage­ment of this group of staff with stu­dents and the mess that student’s produce.

ready for work

ready for work

I’m stand­ing here out­side the door and offer­ing up a prayer,
That when I walk inside the flat its not messy every­where.
Have they had a party with food and lots of drink?
Will the wash­ing up be sky high and block­ing up the sinks?
Or could there be a bud­ding cook who made a spag bowl for all,
Then dished it out for all his mates and left mine up the wall.
So now I’ll open up the door, I’ll tell you what I find.
Oh the lit­tle dar­lings have been very, very kind…

The sec­ond A Crys­tal Ball Moment is a pho­to­graph of a sculp­ture made by the course records team. Each worker made a model of them­selves out of found office sup­plies, plas­tic water cups were chairs and the fig­ures were made from blue-tack. Faces and clothes dif­fer, and one of them is glued to the phone. The piece refers to a (cre­ative) problem-solving dis­cus­sion about procedure.

A Crystal Ball Moment, by Course Records Team

A Crys­tal Ball Moment, by Course Records Team

What both of these, and many oth­ers, sug­gested to me is how the pos­si­bil­ity for cre­ativ­ity exists because of the exis­tence of the group; it is not embod­ied in the indi­vid­ual. Toyn­bee would prob­a­bly agree with this, but Löf­gren would not approve of the project, pre­cisely because it is the work group who in this instance pro­vides the group iden­tity. Osborne, though some­what cur­mud­geonly, might see that cre­ativ­ity is far more appeal­ing — “post heroic” and non-romanticised – when it is not seen as an attribute of the individual.

More on work : place in the future. Thanks to the rest of the project team: Karen Bush, Veerle van den Eyn­den, Gavin Sander­cock, Matt Softly, Richard Stock and Dave Suggett.


  1. Bil­ton, C. (2007) Man­age­ment and cre­ativ­ity: from cre­ative indus­tries to cre­ative man­age­ment. Oxford, Black­well Pub.
  2. Löf­gren, O. (2003) ‘The New Econ­omy: A Cul­tural His­tory’. Global Net­works. A Jour­nal of Transna­tional Affairs, 3: 239–254.
  3. Osborne, T. (2003) ‘Against Cre­ativ­ity: a philis­tine rant’, Econ­omy and Soci­ety 32(4): 507–525 .
  4. Toyn­bee, J. (2000) Mak­ing pop­u­lar music: musi­cians, cre­ativ­ity and insti­tu­tions. Lon­don: Arnold.