Participation Now

Creating a culture of participation

As part of our series of interviews with practitioners and activists, Participation Now researcher Hilde C. Stephansen spoke to Mikey Weinkove of The People Speak, an artists’ collective that creates ‘tools for the world to take over itself’. Their many projects include Talkaoke, a mobile talk show, and Who Wants To Be?, an ask-the-audience game show.

Hilde C. Stephansen Mikey Weinkove
4 April 2014

Hilde: Tell us about your projects.

Mikey:    Talkaoke and Who Wants To Be? both relate to democracy. We got into these things not so much out of a concern with democracy but more with developing a culture of participation, in the face of a culture of consumption.

Talking, voting and participating creatively all inform democracy and freedom of speech. There’s this legalistic side of democracy, but then there’s also the cultural side which we are more interested in. There’s a necessary aesthetic of seriousness around the political process – just look at town halls or the Houses of Parliament. It has a certain look. It has ingrained in it a certain kind of institutionalism which is rather limiting. But that is part of what helps people believe in it.

We chose to go the other way, we try to play with it and make it a creative practice, not just for us but for the participants. And we’ve discovered how different set-ups can get different results, just playing around with some of these tools rather than using them for anything very serious.

Hilde:    What are your aims with these projects?  What do you want to achieve?

Mikey:  Well, in a small way, a culture of participation, so that we might understand more about how people can work creatively together. Also it’s something that we make money from, so there’s that side of it. And it’s a lot of fun.  There’s also a technological aspect; one of the things we’ve come to realise is that you can use technology in a constructive way, and that will actually influence the result.  There’s a lot of psychology in what we do, and technology plays its part. For example, Who Wants to Be? has got a very fast response in terms of visualising how people are voting or what their preferences are, and that makes a massive difference to how people react.  So we’ve developed this very fast voting technology that can do it quickly but accurately.

Hilde:  Does this mean that the process is as important then as the issues you focus on?

Mikey: The methodology is as important, definitely, as the issues that we bring up.  I have to say from the start that I don’t really think we live in a very democratic society, where people really get a say and are involved in decision making. That’s certainly where I’m coming from politically. But in the work that we do we don’t really try to have a particular stance about any particular issue. Rather we aim to incubate a bit more discussion, a bit more involvement.  And try to put forward this idea that people could possibly be more involved in the way that their space, their community, their country, their world, is run.

Hilde: Are there particular demographic groups that turn up to your events?

Mikey: Especially for Who Wants to Be? there’s a demographic that gets involved in the discussion, people who believe in open democracy, “democracy 2.0”. They’re the sort of people who get excited about it, but it’s not necessarily our target audience. 

We’re just glad for anyone to come along.  We’re not trying to avoid those people and often they’ve got quite a lot to add to the discussion. But everything we do is made to involve everyone, so it doesn’t really matter who they are.  Part of my ethos for Talkaoke is that you can have a discussion about anything and involve everyone. 

Sometimes, it’s a challenge. For example we might be talking about some new scientific development and there might be a whole bunch of people who don’t know anything about science, and it’s a challenge for the people who do know about it to communicate that to everybody else. I wouldn't say that we’ve got a target audience as such.  Essentially we’re an artists’ collective, we’re not a campaign group or anything like that, so it’s much more about playing with the tools and developing the culture than having any strategic mission.


Hilde: Say a bit more about the methods that you use and why you’ve chosen those particular methods.

Mikey:  The starting point for Talkaoke was looking at the creative side of speaking, and then it just became a question of creating a talk show that everyone could feel involved in.

The host is in the middle, and their job is to engage as many people as possible in the space that they’re performing in.  With Talkaoke we say “it’s essential to be tangential”; instead of just focusing on one point we look for the points of interest, and what’s going to engage people more.  The job of the host in the middle is to elicit a more interesting and engaging conversation; their agenda is about not setting an agenda – in that way you discover interesting things and pull more people in. 

We try and put people in the right sort of mood, so that they are being constructive, listening to other people, and thinking about what they say.  It’s different from an adversarial kind of discussion which is about scoring points.  This is much more about reacting constructively to what someone else says.  Because you've got this kind of moving agenda there’s an instability in the conversation. No-one really knows where to dig in and make the point, and they don’t know who their allies and enemies are.  That makes for a much more creative journey than an adversarial discussion: it’s more fun. 

Who Wants to Be? is not really about money, but money represents the political capital that people have to make a decision about. We were playing with this idea of a bigger version of Talkaoke, a discussion forum without any agenda where you had to vote on the rules. It was only when we came up with the idea that everyone pays a tenner and they’ve got to decide how to spend the collective money that it made sense as a performance. 

Even then, the first iterations of Who Wants to Be? were quite chaotic because they didn’t really have any rules at all, and instead there was an onus on the audience to help us develop the rules, which have now gradually evolved over the number of times we’ve done it, to a point where we’ve got a structure that appears to work – by which I mean that  it is possible to generate a decision based on people’s collective ideas.

And Who Wants to Be? is very much about the participants together deciding what they want to do together, not about people coming along with a set idea that they want to defend. It’s much more about people who in that particular hour and a half or two hours are working together to create something new. It gives them the sense that it is possible to work together with other people to make new things. 

And it has kind of worked, although I think one of the interesting things about this kind of democratic process is that the final idea will be quite conservative, just because of how the voting system works.  We’ve talked a lot about modifying the system to bring more interesting ideas to the fore, and the interesting ideas do come, but in a way they just inform the more conservative, central idea. 

So quite often at the end people are not that excited about the final decision because it’s always quite a conservative, inoffensive decision.  I think what this says about a direct democracy process is that it can easily end in a very conservative decision-making process; if you involved more people in the democratic process, I think you would find that change is actually quite hard to elicit because you’ve got to persuade a whole bunch of people to try something new. 

That doesn’t stop me from believing in it. In my opinion this is much more about involving people than the final outcome.  If that’s what people choose, then so be it. The fact that people are involved in it means that they really feel like they own the process. I’m not a particularly conservative person but I would be willing to accept people’s conservative decisions if they got more involved on a wider scale.


Hilde: Are these initiatives underpinned by any particular identifiable values?

Mikey: The notion of universality is rather key, the sense that everyone should take a part in decision-making in a cultural space which is also a political space.  That is the underlying ethos.  I believe that everyone’s got something to bring, that their point of view has merit.

Hilde: How do you see your methods positioned in relation to more mainstream forms of politics or ways of doing things?

Mikey:  Ours are more interesting!  It’s not that I’m not involved in politics but sometimes I get really frustrated. For example, I can’t listen to BBC’s Radio Four because it winds me up too much.  I can’t stand the condescending supposed expertise of this kind of political elite. It just drives me insane.  And things like Question Time as well.  That’s what got me started; I got very angry and frustrated with the media representation of politics, but found it very compelling as well.  So it was more of an emotional thing than a thought-out mission statement or philosophy about it as such. 

In a way I see mine as a creative response.  I do think that they could do things a lot better.  If I’m going to have any sort of political belief it is that people should be more involved in important political decisions and they should actually be listened to.  I think the worst thing that happened to democracy in this country in our era was when the Labour government decided they were going to go to war in Iraq when it was clear to everybody that the majority of people in this country didn’t want it to happen.  People are very disillusioned by the whole political process, and I think things like the riots a couple of years ago are probably to a certain extent an expression of that sort of disillusionment.   

Hilde: Do you see yourself as trying in some way to engage with established institutions or is it more about doing things separately? 

Mikey: I do like to engage – we did a gig for the Cabinet Office recently.  As I said at the beginning, we like to engage with everybody. We do quite a few things with politicians and they see us as ‘a tool for engagement’.  I’m probably as disillusioned as anybody else with the mainstream political process, but that wouldn't stop me from engaging with it. I’m not one of these people who say “don’t vote” or “don’t get involved in politics”.

Hilde: What have been the results or outcomes of these projects?

Mikey: Every time we do it we learn from people, and people discover things as well.  I think it’s an important outcome, along with a belief in people and their ability.  There’s a tendency to be very negative about people in general, there’s a kind of misanthropy about the political process, especially as it’s reported in the media, so in a way our activities are an antidote to this. 

I like it when you get these very diverse people participating in Talkaoke, for example in shopping centres, where you’ve got people who don’t necessarily talk to each other, and they find out a lot about each other. For example, very right wing people would come and sit down at the table and they’d have a conversation which they hadn’t actually had before.  You feel like you’re doing a good job when you’re getting those sorts of people to talk to each other. These are the outcomes really. 

And we’re learning also about how to hone our techniques of facilitation and we’re hopefully getting new insights into structures that help people to have better conversations and to work better with each other.

Hilde: What counts as a successful event for you?

Mikey: We always say when everyone has fun and no-one gets killed.  That’s a successful event! Sometimes it works really, really well, and if new ideas or new understandings come out then that’s a successful event.

Hilde: What are the main challenges you face, and what would be needed to overcome these?

Mikey: We’ve got a lot of ideas that we want to develop, but we don’t actually have funding to do it. Our funding structure is probably the main challenge. It’s often very hard to communicate the point of what we do to people if they haven't been involved; that’s a big challenge.

Going forward I would like to see people adopting our methodology; having the time and space to explain what those methodologies are and helping other people to do it would be a great way forward.  Quite often we get people from other parts of the world who want to do the stuff we’re doing, and there’s quite a bit of stuff online but not really enough for them. Often they don’t have the budget. So our objectives would be to get more people doing the things we’re doing, involving them in more of a discussion about that.  That would really be the best way forward.


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