Resolution in Non-Resolution: Process over Outcome in Collaborative Art-Making


Catherine Cartwright

As a participatory artist, my PhD research is exploring how a trauma-sensitive arts practice can protect against compounding trauma when working with vulnerable communities. My research partner for my PhD is Devon Rape Crisis and Sexual Abuse Service (DRCSAS), an organization that supports women and men over the age of 13 with specialist services. 


It’s in the nature of a PhD to change as we read, think and reflect on our proposed research project. The pandemic and the imposed restrictions compounded those changes as my fieldwork was delayed for 18 months, but also allowed for rethinking to happen alongside the logistical reorientation. The following outlines how my research project changed as I questioned the power dynamic of my original, more artist-led research project, ultimately altering its design to a more democratic, participatory approach.

The short film shows the example of an artist book portrait I made, with the plan that I would explore co-creating a similar form with service users at DRCSAS. I aimed to support the creative agency of service users by working one-to-one in a reflexive and dynamic way and I chose this artist book form to reflect what I understood about the chaotic effects of trauma, with healing indicated by the coming-together of the scattered pages. The inclusion of a series of self-portraits holding words was my attempt to conceptualize self-reflection and agency. A concept, however, that became at odds with the process of co-creation when I trialled it with a participant (see later).


Participatory artist and author François Matarasso states, ‘Good intentions [in participatory art] can mask but not justify actions that effectively subordinate people to the wishes of those with power’ (2019: 107). These words began to disquiet my thoughts and unsettle my proposed research. Although the artist-book portrait plan was conceived with such ‘good intentions’ as Matarasso refers to, the idea remained my idea. I had planned various points within the co-creation where the service user could make their choices. I became uncomfortable with my research methodology, however, and concerned that it may be mired in innate power imbalance and ethically challenging.


With this in mind, but with no clear plan ahead and still constrained by COVID restrictions on fieldwork, I trialled the co-creation of the artist book portrait with a service user, remotely using the zoom platform. When I started working with this participant, having read and reflected on ethical participatory arts practice,[1]  I was now more open and responsive to her creative dynamic and acutely aware of my own. I was determined that this co-creation should happen at her pace, bearing in mind that central to participatory art is a dialogue which often develops over extended periods of time (Downey 2009). An open-ended timescale was possible; because of the pandemic there was little idea of when normal fieldwork options would resume. 


As a result of this renewed thinking, when I felt her resistance to my proposed idea of a series of portraits holding words (as in the film), I actively made space for her to run with her ideas for the artist book portrait. Of our first meeting, my research diary records: ‘I could sense a lack of enthusiasm for the artist book portrait itself. So I offered suggestions. There is an eagerness in her to own the process’ (24 March 2021). She proposed a visual narrative of recovery, a clear sequence of a metaphorical journey situated in nature, retaining the artist book form. I wrote in my research diary, ‘she wants to have a lot more control, and I am feeling excited about that’ (8 April 2021). By early Autumn, however, impeded by malfunctioning technology and a breakdown of meetings in August, the artist book project had stalled and just half of the pages had been co-designed and illustrated. I was unsure how to proceed or whether to persist. Central to any research with people is informed consent. Maintaining informed consent (for this is not just a formative exercise) is essential to ensure that participants know they can withdraw at any time. As our collaboration wavered, I trod the difficult line between encouragement and letting go. I wanted her to know that I was happy to continue, but I didn’t want her to feel obliged to continue if she didn’t want to.


At DRCSAS the philosophy is to be ‘service user led’. This means choice and agency is always directed towards the service-user themselves. Similarly, as a participatory artist and ethical researcher, this same approach meant that when my participant no longer responded to my gentle emails about continuing the artist book, I let go of our collaboration and understood that there would be no completed artist book. I was disappointed that her beautiful ideas wouldn’t see their fruition but it was more important that the continuing motivation had to come from her. Although the completion of creative work brings celebration and pride, in participatory arts practice it is most important to attend to the process over the outcome. On reflection I felt that had I structured our time together and created a certain pace I could have helped propel the project forward. 


As the pandemic shortened the time available for fieldwork removing the possibility for working long-term with individual participants, I redesigned the research project to happen over 3 months, and I removed all remnants of my idea propelling the engagement. Instead, I ran two six-week collage-art projects, one in-person and the other on zoom with small groups of service users who were offered this opportunity by their counsellors and had chosen to participate. By switching from the printmaking of the original research project to collage, I was enabling the participants to participate more readily because it is an accessible and democratic medium that needs no special equipment or skills.


For both the in-person and zoom projects, the first three weeks were structured with a prompt for each session, such as using collage in zine-making, creating 'pinterest' boards and making activist posters. The last three weeks were less planned and I hoped that the service users would, by then, take the lead on their own collage projects, to be 'service user led'. This was successful to limited degree; when I proposed self-led activity to the in-person project group this was met with some bewilderment and, in the end, I suggested a project for their last three weeks (a collaborative zine).


The zoom space offered many benefits for the service users, in particular enhanced privacy and greater control over what they chose to share of their collage-making. The zoom participants were posted parcels of found papers, as well as glue, scissors and colouring pencils, to work with in their home when we met together on zoom. Partway through the 6 week project I posted further collage papers, which aligned to their interests and encouraged the development of their own visual language, for example, one participant requested images of bees and nature-inspired imagery.


Working closely with DRCSAS, we implemented multiple levels of emotional support through the project, including being accompanied by a qualified volunteer who could offer one to one emotional support if needed. The volunteer joined in with the collage-making, their friendliness helping to create a non-judgmental and gentle atmosphere.


At the end of the projects the participants allowed me to interview them, and as I conduct the initial analysis and listen to their words, I feel very grateful to them for participating. At this early stage, the participants’ reflections on their experience appears to support my methodological shift to a more ethically situated inquiry.



[1] See Bibliography for further reading on participatory art and ethics. ↩︎