Monday, January 09, 2017

Against Participation

At first, I thought it was a joke.

A colleague at UC Santa Cruz asked me to participate in a social practice symposium called Against Participation. Hosted by a sound art collective, Ultra-red, the 2015 event promised "to investigate listening as a political activity and to interrogate the stakes of participation in neoliberalism."

I read this sentence many times without comprehension. Because I really respect the person who invited me--with apprehension--I said yes.

I walked into Against Participation with my hackles up. I assumed the event would fly in the face of my deep value for community participation. I imagined an academic conversation stuffed with arcane, impenetrable vocabulary. I feared I would be laughed at and not understand why.

Instead, I had a powerful learning experience--one I'm still grappling with over a year later.

When should you choose not to participate in an experience? When should you turn down the invitation to share your voice? How should you make these decisions in an imperfect world where every host is using you for something, and every voice is in danger of being manipulated, misunderstood, or subverted?

I'm embarrassed to say I hadn't really thought about these questions before the Against Participation symposium. I thought a lot about where to participate--where I can have the most impact. But I didn't think about whether to participate.

I'd always thought that participating disproportionately benefited the participant. I'd always assumed that more representation is better than less representation, more press is better than less press, more sharing and engaging is better than the alternative. I'd assumed it was my responsibility to represent myself well, and if I failed, it was a matter of my communication, not a system set up to disempower or distort my words.

But Ultra-red reminded me that many environments function as distortion machines. There are many ways for voices to get chopped and twisted. Sometimes, choosing NOT to participate is a powerful statement that protects ownership of your voice and story as your own.

The problem, of course, is when you choose not to participate, most people don't see it as a noble protest. Most people don't notice at all. The absence of your voice doesn't take up as much space as its presence. And so we have to choose: to be distorted or to be overlooked.

I hear about these tensions often from colleagues struggling to participate in hostile workplaces. I've met too many young, talented people of color who want to work in museums but feel belittled, tokenized, or unsupported in their careers. Should they keep fighting to engage and transform the systems that knock them down? Or should they opt out, find friendlier environments, and stop participating in discriminatory spaces?

I grapple with these questions personally when I decide what invitations to take, where to spend my time, where to share my voice. For example, I get frequent media requests, including about museum-related news items that I know little about. Should I comment on whether museums should acquire artifacts related to police violence against African-Americans? In that case I said yes--even as I felt unsure of whether I was the right participant in that space. In other cases--like when I was asked to write a "fun" etiquette guide on how to visit museums--I said no. I knew it wasn't a piece that invited me to participate in a meaningful way.

And yet, someone else will write that breezy etiquette guide. Someone else will say yes to the invitations we reject. Someone else will take that job. Someone else's writing will be on the wall. Were those opportunities missed?

When do you participate, knowing your participation may serve others for reasons different from your own? When do you refuse, knowing your non-participation may be overlooked entirely?

The 2016 US election dredged up these questions for me once again. It reenergized me about focusing my limited time, energy, and creativity on the participatory opportunities that fuel me and my dreams. It pushes me to block out certain participatory forums that distract, exhaust, or limit me. I'm reminded now of how non-participation can be a source of fuel as well as a lack.

Sometimes transformative participation is possible. Sometimes not. How do you choose?

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