These principles are written with professional artists in mind, because it is they who most often begin the process of co-creation, but the ideas suggested here apply to the practice itself and everyone involved.
It should also be noted that the term ‘artist’ includes a range of roles in co-creation, such as producing and mediation.
Our experience suggests that successful co-creation projects are:
Awareness is the foundation of co-creation, starting with an informed understanding of the practice itself. Co-creation is fluid and open to interpretation, but it is not just a fashionable label that can be applied to any form of artistic work involving public participation. It is a demanding and rigorous way of making art because its freedoms place responsibility on those who choose to practice it.
But that is only the beginning, you also need to know the people with whom you want to work—their culture, needs, interests, ways of living and so on. There is no better way of learning some of these things than listening to people. It also involves listening to what you say, and how that might be interpreted: errors and misunderstandings will always arise in co-creation, along with dilemmas and ethical tensions. They are unavoidable when people work together, and especially when some have more resources, authority or power than others. But it is not the disagreements or missteps that matter: it is how they are managed and resolved.
The Charter of the United Nations affirms ‘faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women’. That principle of equality underpins the concept of human rights, including our right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community. Co-creation, which sets out to make that right a reality, therefore depends on equality between everyone involved.
Equality is the foundation of our autonomy, and it protects co-creation from falling into paternalism or manipulation. Each participant must have the same rights in the process, including the right to be heard, to be answered and to withdraw if the answer is not acceptable. Artistic co-creation depends on everyone understanding and being involved in decision-making. Only then does the work truly become the expression of the group.
The principle of equality is not simplistic. It does not mean that everyone has the same role in the co-creation process, or that everyone’s opinion has the same value. Expertise matters, but non-professional artists choose to be there, if they do not understand or believe in what they are asked to do, they can also choose to leave. Their voice has authority. Their knowledge might not be named or accredited but it might be critical to the success of the work. Professional or non-professional artist, each person’s agency must be respected in a co-creation process. That means ensuring that they know that their views are legitimate and welcome, whatever choices are finally made.
Co-creation with non-professionals is not a second-rank artistic endeavour. Unless you go into it with the aim of achieving the best art of which you are capable, and through the best process, you are cheating yourself and everyone else. People who are invited to take part in a professional artistic creation, perhaps for the first and only time in their lives, are entitled to expect that they are being offered the best possible opportunity. People know when they have participated in good work, though their criteria for judgement are not always those used by professional artists.
Any uncertainty a non-professional artist might have about the quality of their work will be quickly settled by the audience’s reaction. Everyone is sensitive to condescension. No one wants to hear that they were really good, ‘for an amateur’ or ‘considering you’ve never performed on stage before’. Such words from a relative or friend can be enough to undo all the hope and confidence a person has gained during the process, making them feel foolish to have trusted the professional who told them their work was better than it truly was. The only thing they are likely to take away from such a disappointment is the conviction that they should never have got involved. Far from being empowered by the co-creation process, they are strengthened in their belief that culture is not for them and change is not possible.
But ambition does not mean working towards the same skills or standards professional artists aim for. Clearly, an untrained singer cannot perform like a trained one. Co-creation involves finding new ways to make art, and new ways of understanding its value too. It means focusing on what a non-professional artists can do, rather than what they can’t, and what they might not yet know they can do.
Non-professional artists who join a co-creation project make a leap of faith into a world of which they probably know little. So they look for guidance from the professional artists who have encouraged them to come on this journey. A guide can advise, warn and encourage, but they cannot walk the ground for them. People trust their guide: it’s in the nature of the role. But trust is easily lost if the guide is not honest—if they say that something is easier than it is, or better, then people will lose confidence in them. And trust, once lost, is almost impossible to regain.
Professional artists need to be scrupulously honest in co-creation, not because their opinion is infallible, but because it is a fixed point on which others rely. It may be tempting to encourage by giving too-generous feedback, but such well-meant deceptions are always a mistake. The professional’s word must be reliable and founded in equality and mutual respect, as critical to the quality of the work as any artistic decision.
Do what you say, keep your promises, and be cautious about what commitments you make: this is how trust is won and kept.
Conventional opera productions take a good deal of trouble to avoid anything that might interfere with the creative process. As far as possible, they attempt to create a serene environment in which artists can focus on their creative work. Co-creation is not like that because it is open to the world. It begins by inviting strangers into the studio, workshop or rehearsal room, or perhaps inviting itself into other people’s spaces and lives. How other people live, their needs and habits, their way of seeing—all these enrich co-creation, but they also make the process unstable.
Co-creation demands responsiveness to the specifics of situations. Planning and preparation is vital, but so is a willingness to adapt plans to meet other people’s needs or when situations change. An opera house is like a liner, following a course under its own steam. Co-creation is a sailing ship, keeping its heading by making continual adjustments for the winds and tides. The required skills are very different.
We have compared co-creation with a journey. It is a useful metaphor because it underlines the importance of travel as well as that of the destination. The journey, the process, is worth undertaking in its own right. It is not something to be got through: it gives meaning to its end. Slow travel requires patience, but its rewards are many. Co-creation is not usually a quick process, and certainly not if it centres on something as ambitious as opera. Professional artists, who might be able to create a new production in months, must change gear when they co-create with non-professionals. Simply gaining people’s interest and trust might involve months of talking and familiarisation. That is only a problem if you have set unrealistic timescales for the work. Co-creation takes the time it takes: if it is rushed, it will be hollow and weak.
Long timescales present their own problems though. People’s lives change, not everyone will be able to stay the course. The destination can seem distant, out of reach. The answer is to plan staging posts; smaller, closer objectives that can be reached in a few weeks or even days. This incremental approach brings smaller goals within reach, and each achievement builds skills, confidence and hope for the next stage. Even when things do not go quite to plan, the effect can be positive as people see what needs to be done and are motivated to correct the problems. Such staging posts are an effective way to work towards a destination that cannot be reached in a single leap.
Rebecca Solnit sees hope as a response to uncertainty. Optimists and pessimists, she writes, are equally sure they know what will happen. Hope accepts that the future is unknown and therefore that it is open to us to create it. We work in hope towards the art, the community, the world we want to see. Co-creation is the most uncertain of art practices, if only because its endless variables make it impossible to control. And yet, it works, time after time, consistently producing experiences that are artistically and socially transformative.
Hope is not naïve, but nor does it accept easy excuses. Inexperience is not a good reason to avoid starting a co-creation project: it is a good reason to learn how to do it. With hope, people gain confidence—not in the outcome, which remains uncertain, but in their ability to find answers, overcome problems and reach a satisfying conclusion.
There was a place for everyone who wanted to sing in La Gata Perduda.
“Hope in this sense is not a prize or a gift, but something you earn through study, through resisting the ease of despair, and through digging tunnels, cutting windows, opening doors, or finding the people who do these things.”
For a fuller explanation of the guiding principles and Traction’s work on co-creation, please download the book Co-creating Opera - Guidance from the Traction project.