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From Representation to Collaboration (and Vice Versa): Antagonisms in Sonia Boyce’s Participatory Projects

Cayo Honorato explores how questions of language, authorship, artistic autonomy and the performative are implicated in Sonia Boyce’s turn towards participatory art.

From Representation to Collaboration (and Vice Versa): Antagonisms in Sonia Boyce’s Participatory Projects01

From Representation to Collaboration

Different sources acknowledge a similar – conceptual and material – shift in the work of Sonia Boyce (b.1962) that has been taking place since the 1990s. Boyce’s early figurative and semi-autobiographical works address issues of race and gender in the media and day-to-day life, notably through large pastel drawings and photographic collages. These critically intertwine the experience of black British women with the legacies of the British Empire. More recently, Boyce has focussed on collaborative and/or participatory inter-media projects. In these she brings people together to engage performatively through improvisation and exploratory gestures.02In this regard, her work has become less straightforwardly about identity politics and more (sometimes controversially) about notions of difference, intersectionality, appropriation and masquerading.

That shift, however, did not follow a linear path from determined position to open-ended practice, but instead involves two interwoven threads. The first concerns Boyce’s move from conveying an explicitly political message – connected to civil rights struggles, particularly to do with black feminism – to experimenting with language. In For You, Only You (2007) and Exquisite Cacophony (2015), for example, she draws on the historical avant-garde, specifically Dada, and practices like scat singing. The second thread involves collaborative processes in which authorship and authority are negotiated through dialogue and interaction, a step away from earlier works in which Boyce confronted the viewer with predefined narratives. As an artist, she has become an ‘anti-director’, as is clear in Paper Tiger Whisky Soap Theatre (Dada Nice) (2016) and We Move in Her Way (2017).

Sonia Boyce, For You, Only You, 2007, multi-channel video, colour, sound, 17min. Installation view, The Model Gallery, Sligo, Ireland, 2008. © Sonia Boyce. Courtesy DACS/Artimage

Different politics are woven along these two threads. What the first loses in social engagement, it gains in assertion of artistic autonomy. What the second loses in ‘authenticity’, it gains in collective creativity among unrelated collaborators. Throughout this transition, however, Boyce’s work has maintained a degree of continuity. For instance, as Boyce herself puts it, ‘the performative element has always been there’,03seen both in the early drawings, in which she staged herself as a central figure addressing the audience, and in the later works. The collaborative works maintain representational elements (wallpaper, film, installations – sometimes artworks themselves), which serve to further mediate the documentation of live performances, or the ‘recouping [of] the remains of the situation’, as Boyce has called it.04This element of continuity also applies to the role that ‘collage’ plays in the artist’s work, from the flattened space of the early drawings to the editing and cutting of the recent films. ‘I have always been collapsing a number of things together’, says Boyce.05


Throughout Boyce’s career, the question of ‘blackness’ has never disappeared. In relation to For You, Only You, a collaborative piece that probed the boundaries between sound art and classical music, Boyce comments that the composer and sound artist Mikhail Karikis, whom she invited to collaborate, ‘was basically asking Alamire’, the consort of singers under the direction of David Skinner, also invited, ‘to be in the space of double consciousness’. The term ‘double consciousness’, coined by W.E.B. Du Bois, in this usage evokes Paul Gilroy’s reference to individuals whose identity is divided, who can only see themselves ‘through the eyes of others’, as they strive to be ‘both European and Black’, ‘inside and outside the West’.06Indeed, in a compelling text about some of the tropes in this work, Jean Fisher argued:

As ‘meeting and conversation’ between one (linguistically) incomplete self and others, antiphony in For You, Only You speaks both to these hospitable forms of sociality and to the pathos of the diasporic subject, needing to negotiate a sense of belonging between displacement from the place of departure and cultural estrangement from the place of arrival, in which he or she must bear the mark of difference.

Fisher further contends that the main trope of the work is ‘chiasmus’, which she defines as ‘repetition and revision effected through the crossing of difference […] a trope familiar to African and African diasporic hermeneutics and narrative convention […] central to the practice of “signifying”, which doesn’t signify some thing, […] but a manner of doing’.07In this sense the recent Six Acts (2018) is perhaps an eloquent summary of Boyce’s entire trajectory hitherto. For instance, as performance artist Lasana Shabazz responds to a portrait of the renowned black Shakespearean actor Ira Aldridge, the piece juxtaposes collaborative de-individualisation (through the ‘cross-dressing’ of bodies and histories) with questions of representation and identity politics (particularly those of gender, race and sexuality).

Sonia Boyce, Devotional, 1999–ongoing. Installation view, Manchester Art Gallery. Photograph: Mike Pollard. © Sonia Boyce. Courtesy Manchester Art Gallery and DACS/Artimage
Sonia Boyce, We move in her way, 2017, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London. Photograph: George Torode. © Sonia Boyce. Courtesy DACS/Artimage

There have, of course, been other shifts in Boyce’s work, giving way to further, different interpretations. Artist and art historian Eddie Chambers, for instance, recognises the ‘shift’ towards performance and installation as ‘largely reflective of contemporary art practices of the 1990s’. 08

 However, he mostly refers to Boyce as part and parcel of the ‘Black Art’ generation in the 1980s who, for the first time in Britain, decided to (positively) name their practices as ‘Black’. 09Art historian Sophie Orlando writes on the ‘deep-seated changes’ in Boyce’s strategies post-1989 in favour of photography, installation and video. The author notes that these changes initially contested dominant artistic models in contemporary art, then governed by post-painterly Abstraction and Conceptual art, 10 followed by a ‘change in’ (or a questioning of) Boyce’s own place of utterance and ‘the constriction of her representations’. 11 This change took place just as identity politics was being deconstructed by postcolonial thinking and black cultural studies. Boyce begins to favour a collective body and memory, as well as a more intercultural and transnational subject.12 To quote Orlando once again, the artist moved, ‘From a criticism of representations within the canonical modernist history of art and of the postures of conceptual white feminists […] to the constitution of critical tools capable of presenting and undoing the stereotype, from the place of utterance of the international mass culture of blackness’.13


Boyce appears to look for a combination between the aesthetic value of representation and the political value of collaboration.

This kind of change was elaborated by Stuart Hall in the late 1980s, in relation to a shift in black cultural politics: from ‘black’ as comprising a unifying identity to a ‘new’ phase in which the term refers to a non-essentialist ‘ethnic’ position. The latter, he writes, ‘locates itself inside a continuous struggle and politics around black representation, but which then is able to open up a continuous critical discourse about themes, about the forms of representation, the subjects of representation, above all, the regimes of representation’.14This in turn effects a shift in the positionality of the spectator. In her discussion of Three Legs Stuffed with Hair (1995) – a triptych of photographs showing curly black hair emerging from stuffed tights – and its differences to Sarah Lucas’ series Bunny (1997), Orlando reckons the ‘Viewers are given the context in which identity-based racial and sexual representations are elaborated as well as the formal tools for deconstructing those representations’.15More specifically, the desire to constitute a collective place of utterance – from the handing over to the viewer in the Clapping Wallpaper (1994), through the openness to participation in The Audition (1997), to the constitution of a collective archive in the Devotional Series (1999–2004) – led Boyce to assume a non-essentialist ‘black’ manner of doing by which she progressively embraces collaborative projects. Additionally, considering the increasingly ‘dynamic relation’ that Boyce ‘ushers in with the spectator’, Orlando finally associates this change with relational aesthetics in the 2000s.16

From Collaboration to Representation

With relation to works that mobilise people, I would like to briefly recall a broader debate, which includes and surpasses relational aesthetics, about ‘dialogical aesthetics’, socially engaged art and the ‘educational turn’.17Grant Kester’s self-described ‘dialogical aesthetics’ works depend on conversation in so far as they can only be developed in consultation with participants.18This idea is arguably antithetical to dominant beliefs in art criticism that typically praise individual authorship and traditionally respond to finished objects. These works claim a paradigm shift; a definition of aesthetic experience that is intersubjective and durational rather than self-determined and immediate. Kester contends that, in these works, the locus of judgment should reside in the condition and character of dialogical exchanges themselves, whose effects he tends to view positively. For him, the very act of participating in these exchanges makes us ‘better able to engage in discursive encounters and decision-making processes in the future’.19This shift from physical objects to an intersubjective space has notably been objected to by Claire Bishop, for whom its correlative authorial renunciation would explain, to some degree, why socially engaged art has been largely exempt from art criticism, as far as throughout this process, ‘disruptive specificity’ gives way to ‘a generalized set of moral precepts’. 20

In any case, Boyce’s work – which is neither disruptive nor ameliorative – explores a third way that stands outside of these controversies. While Bishop identifies a divide between the nonbelievers (aesthetes who reject social artworks as shallow and misguided) and the believers (activists who reject aesthetic questions as synonymous with the market and neoliberalism), Boyce appears to look for a combination between the aesthetic value of representation and the political value of collaboration. The artist says that she ‘work[s] with people’ and that she is ‘fascinated by what people do when they come together’.21Yet, this cannot be taken as her final say.

Art historian and curator Allison Thompson comments on the artist’s identification as voyeurwho ‘becomes excited by the prospect of observing how participants negotiate terrains, architecture, obstacles, relationships in the act of asserting their own agency and voice’.22In less appreciative terms, the catalogue for the 56th Venice Biennale asserts that ‘Sonia Boyce’s approach to making art is appropriative, […] because she uses other people. She disguises herself through other people’s efforts in what she likes to call “unrehearsed”, “improvised”, and “spontaneous” collaborations’. 23 Adopting a more balanced view, curator Marie-Anne McQuay argues: ‘There is a pragmatic and also deeply respective dynamic of give and take operating within Boyce’s practice that also allows her to maintain a crucial sense of autonomy.’24The ambivalences of collaboration – in some Schillerian terms, between making people the end of an artwork, and using people as its material – are here made apparent.

Sonia Boyce, Paper Tiger Whisky Soap Theatre (Dada Nice), 2016, multi-channel, video, colour, sound, wallpaper. Installation view, Villa Arson, Nice, 2016. Photograph: Jean Brasille. Courtesy the artist

At this point, one could ask how much of the artist’s power (in deciding what is seen, under which regime of representation) is unquestioned in these collaborations. ‘It’s not an easy thing to do so [producing work with other people], because contrary to the discussions by critics like [Nicolas] Bourriaud, conviviality is not automatic when working in this way. […] Antagonisms sit underneath most of my interactions in these participatory encounters’,25notes Boyce. Indeed, in some of her works she appears to deliberately play power games with participants; in We Move in Her Way (2017) either ‘she’ dictates our movements, or we obstruct ‘hers’.26On a project called The Future is Social (2011) developed with students at University of the Arts London, where Boyce has been a professor since 2014, she writes: ‘we had constant battles amongst the contributors about a mistrust of being documented. Documenting the process was treated like it was an act of theft, as if participants’ sense of agency and distinct identity would get lost.’ 27 The artist doesn’t seem committed to undertaking the ‘burden of representation’, 28in the sense of standing up for their contributors. Referring to the production of Like Love(2009–10), curator Zoë Shearman pointed out that ‘Boyce didn’t attempt to speak for the others, but rather to interpret them’,29 While loosely defined, ‘interpretation’ could here refer to a sense of autonomy – as the license to watch, use and take from others.

Similarly, Boyce doesn’t seem committed to producing dematerialised projects that ‘carry on the modernist call to blur art and life’. 30 It is curious that the antagonism mentioned above revolves around the ownership of representation, in the sense of representation (Darstellung), which Boyce dismisses as ‘a room full of competing egos’.31As I said before, representational elements will always remediate the material generated through collaborative performances, in a process she calls (perhaps euphemistically) ‘recouping the remains of the situation’. Boyce certainly spends a lot of time beforehand, ‘locating the participants and then setting out a basic framework that everyone can work towards’.32In relation to Like Love, Shearman understands that it is through this process ‘that she construct[s] the framework of an intermediary visual language to which she, and they [her collaborators], could contribute’.33According to Boyce: ‘The drawings [as that intermediary language in Like Love] are a mixture of the participants’ marks, my marks, and the interviewees’ statements.’ 34 Such a framework can also be achieved through collaboration. In For You, Only You, scores by Josquin Desprez – introduced by Skinner and then rewritten by Karikis to include the thirteen beats per bar – became the ‘structure’ through which Alamire and Karikis were able to find a ‘tune’ in common – ‘something they were familiar with, but in an unfamiliar way’.35In this regard, Boyce thinks her role is ‘to translate and shape the documentation into a discernible art work’.36According to McQuay, the material generated by participants is subsequently ‘absorbed into her visual vocabulary and distanced from context through various aestheticizing effects’. In other words, ‘[…] there is still very much a “Sonia Boyce aesthetic”, a singular voice that can also comfortably accommodate many positions’. 37

Sonia Boyce, Six Acts, 2018, wallpaper, six-screen video, colour, sound, 15min. Installation view, Manchester Art Gallery, 2018. Photograph: Michael Pollard. Courtesy the artist and Manchester Art Gallery

While making use of representation, i.e., while re-actualising documentation into another artwork, the artist regains control (and final authorship) over the open-endedness of collaboration, guiding what shape collaboration will take, even when other artists are involved. While the value of representation is vulnerable to questions – of whether it is in fact possible to re-present, portray or depict shared experience in collective work – representation of collaborative performance nevertheless challenges the importance of immediacy and addresses the work to a wider audience than those present at the live event. The gap between the original performance (collaboration) and the final installation (representation) is sometimes seen as a gap between initial participants and future viewers. In We Move in Her Way, for instance, journalist Katie McCabe complains that, ‘Essentially, it’s a film of a performance that’s already happened. […] We cannot feel the electricity and raw discomfort of audience participation. […] the remains feel a little bare boned’. 38Similarly, for writer and editor Liese Van der Watt, ‘The audience [of the exhibition] remains mostly unmoved, passive, and excluded from the original context and what may have been an energizing and boundary-pushing experience. […] The remnants of the performance used in the final solo art work feel inaccessible, just too distant to be recouped in a meaningful way’. 39

These quotes contrast with those of critics who consider representation in Boyce’s work as resulting from collaboration or renegotiation, and consisting of inter-subjective exchanges. They raise the question of whether ‘re-couping the remains’ – reflecting on collaboration, translating documentation – is a collaborative, dialogical or relational process. They clearly state that three very different moments – collaboration, representation and reception – are often conflated. Indeed, it seems either that representation does not satisfy their demands for immediacy (in the sense of completeness or proximity), or that it fails to be of interest to those outside the immediate collaborative experience. Either way, it is seen as a poor surrogate.

The demand for immediacy, however, and the expectation that the final artwork should make the performance ‘present’ again are in fact mistaken. The gap McCabe and Van der Watt identify between performance and representation can prevent us from overlooking the fact that Boyce is the editor of the collaborative practice, not just its ‘anti-director’, as well as the fact that control over the shape of collaboration implies a control over the third, important moment: reception. If on the one hand, representation allows collaboration to be differently addressed to future viewers, on the other, it postulates the artist as a special viewer and, arguably, that reception can by extension be integrated into the artwork.

Take, for instance, the media storm around the temporary removal of J.W. Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs (1896) – one of the Six Acts – from the walls of Manchester Art Gallery. As the exhibition leaflet has it: ‘All the conversations, actions and responses which have come about could be described as part of the work’.40The viewer’s position, then, can be seen as sublated by the artist’s. Certainly Boyce’s work, and the controversies around it, set out a kind of institutional self-learning process within the gallery, in conversation with its audiences.41It is also true, however, that the prevailing media response to this work involved misrepresentation.42This situation demonstrates not only that a representation is not a finished object, but also that (counter)publics can exert on an artwork unexpected sense of agency in ways that cannot be controlled – neither by the artwork itself nor by the museum that houses it.

I would like to thank Natasha Howes, Senior Curator at Manchester Art Gallery and Susan Skingle, Assistant Librarian at the Institute of International Visual Arts for their kindness in providing time and institutional resources. I also have to acknowledge the support I received from Brazil’s Coordination for the Improvement of Higher Education Personnel (CAPES) during my stay in London through the Visiting Professors programme.


  • I would like to thank Natasha Howes, Senior Curator at Manchester Art Gallery and Susan Skingle, Assistant Librarian at the Institute of International Visual Arts for their kindness in providing time and institutional resources. I also have to acknowledge the support I received from Brazil’s Coordination for the Improvement of Higher Education Personnel (CAPES) during my stay in London through the Visiting Professors programme.
  • See, for example, Anna Coatman, ‘Sonia Boyce: “If We Can Go to Mars, We Can Send More Kids to Art School”, RA Magazine, 28 July 2017, available at see-it-sonia-boyce (last accessed on 11 September 2019); Clare Gannaway, ‘Interview: Sonia Boyce at Manchester Art Gallery, her first retrospective’, Artimage, 5 March 2018, available at (last accessed on 11 September 2019); ‘Sonia Boyce: We move in her way’, press release, Institute for Contemporary Arts, London, 1 February–16 April 2017, available at (last accessed on 11 September 2019); Jennifer Higgie, ‘Sonia Boyce: 30 Years of Art and Activism’, Frieze, 29 May 2018, available at (last accessed on 11 September 2019); Natasha Stallard, ‘The Female Artist Who Helped Define the British Black Arts Movement’, AnOther, 6 April 2018, available at british-black-arts-movement(last accessed on 11 September 2019).
  • Sonia Boyce quoted in A. Coatman, ‘Sonia Boyce’, op cit.
  • See Zoë Shearman, ‘Desiring-Machines’, in S. Boyce (ed.), Like Love, Berlin: The Green Box, 2010, p.70.
  • S. Boyce in conversation with Tim Marlow, ‘Sonia Boyce RA: Objects of Obsession’, Manchester Art Gallery, 8 March 2018, available at (last accessed on 11 September 2019).
  • Ibid. See W.E.B. Du Bois in his book The Souls of Black Folk (1903) and Paul Gilroy in his book The Black Atlantic (1993).
  • Jean Fisher, ‘For You, Only You: The Return of the Troubadour’, in Sonia Boyce, For You, Only You: AProject by Sonia Boyce, Oxford: University of Oxford, Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, 2007, pp.42–51. Emphasis original.
  • Eddie Chambers, Black Artists in British Art: A History since the 1950s, London and New York: I.B. Tauris & Co, 2014, p.142.
  • Ibid., pp.1 and 105.
  • S. Orlando, ‘Sonia Boyce: Post-1989 Art Strategies’, Critique d’art, no.43, Autumn 2014, available at (last accessed on 11 September 2019). S. Orlando, British Black Art: Debates on Western Art History, Paris: Dis Voir, 2016, pp.76–88.
  • S. Orlando, ‘Sonia Boyce’, op. cit.
  • See Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, London and New York: Verso, 1993; Stuart Hall, ‘New Ethnicities’, in David Morley and Kuan-Hsing Chen (ed.), Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies, London and New York: Routledge, 1996, pp.441–49; Kobena Mercer, ‘Ethnicity and Internationally’, Third Text, vol.13, no.49, 1999, pp.51–62, available at (last accessed on 11 September 2019).
  • S. Orlando, ‘Sonia Boyce’, op. cit.
  • S. Hall, ‘New Ethnicities’, op. cit., p.448. Emphasis original.
  • S. Orlando, British Black Art, op. cit., p.87.
  • S. Orlando, ‘Sonia Boyce’, op. cit.
  • See an overview of these issues in David M. Bell, ‘The Politics of Participatory Art’, Political StudiesReview, May 2015, available at (last accessed on 11 September 2019). In this paper, the author reviews later works of G. Kester and Claire Bishop: The One and the Many: Contemporary Collaborative Art in a Global Context, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011 and Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, London: Verso, 2012, respectively.
  • G. Kester, ‘Conversation Pieces: The Role of Dialogue in Socially-Engaged Art (2003)’, in Zoya Kocur and Simon Leung (ed.), Theory in Contemporary Art Since 1985, Chichester, WS: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012, pp.153–65.
  • Ibid., p.158.
  • C. Bishop, ‘The Social Turn: Collaboration and Its Discontents’, Artforum, vol.44, no.6, February 2006, p.181. Emphasis original.
  • S. Boyce quoted in Natasha Stallard, ‘The Female Artist Who Helped Define the British Black Arts Movement’, AnOther, April 2018, available at (last accessed on 11 September 2019).
  • Allison Thompson, ‘Matter Out of Place: Collaborative Performance in the Work of Sonia Boyce’, in S. Orlando (ed.), Sonia Boyce: Thoughtful Disobedience, Dijon: Les Presses du Réel, 2017, p.83.
  • Okwui Enwezor (ed.), All the World’s Futures (exh. cat.), Venice: Marsilio Editori, 2015, pp.560–61.
  • Marie-Anne McQuay, ‘Like Love, the First Four Chapters’, in S. Boyce (ed.), Like Love, op. cit., p.61.
  • S. Boyce quoted in S. Orlando, ‘Encounters: Sonia Boyce & Sophie Orlando’, in S. Orlando (ed.), Sonia Boyce: Thoughtful Disobedience, op. cit., p.126.
  • ICA, ‘Sonia Boyce: We move in her way’, available at (last accessed on 11 September 2019).
  • S. Boyce quoted in S. Orlando, ‘Encounters: Sonia Boyce & Sophie Orlando’, in S. Orlando (ed.), Sonia Boyce: Thoughtful Disobedience, op. cit., p.126.
  • See K. Mercer, ‘Black Art and the Burden of Representation’, in Welcome to the Jungle: New Positions in Black Cultural Studies, New York and London: Routledge, 1994, pp.233–58.
  • Z. Shearman, ‘Desiring-Machines’, op. cit., p.69.
  • C. Bishop, ‘The Social Turn’, op. cit.
  • S. Boyce quoted in S. Orlando, ‘Encounters: Sonia Boyce & Sophie Orlando’, op. cit.
  • S. Boyce, ‘The Uncertainty of Signs’, in S. Boyce (ed.), Like Love, op. cit., p.35.
  • Z. Shearman, ‘Desiring-Machines’, op. cit., p.69.
  • S. Boyce, ‘The Uncertainty of Signs’, in S. Boyce (ed.), Like Love, op. cit., p.35. (missing references)
  • S. Boyce quoted in ‘Sonia Boyce and Mikhail Karikis with Tessa Jackson Discussing For You, Only You’, Scat: Sound and Collaboration (exhibition leaflet), London, Rivington Place, 2013, p.17.
  • S. Boyce quoted in S. Orlando, ‘Encounters: Sonia Boyce & Sophie Orlando’, op. cit., p.128.
  • M. McQuay, op. cit., p.59.
  • Katie McCabe, ‘Sonia Boyce: We Move in Her Way’, TimeOut, February 2017, available at (last accessed on 11 September 2019).
  • Liese Van der Watt, ‘Recouping the remains’, C&, May 2017, available at (last accessed on 11 September 2019).
  • Liese Van der Watt, ‘Recouping the remains’, C&, May 2017, available at (last accessed on 11 September 2019).
  • Under the title ‘Whose Power on Display?’, Manchester Art Gallery carried out a series of public discussions and consultations, as it planned to start changing in 2020 some of its displays.
  • In January 2018, as part of a newly commissioned artwork for her mid-career retrospective at the Manchester Art Gallery, Boyce decided with participants and gallery staff to temporarily remove Waterhouse’s painting off the gallery walls to generate discussion about gender representation in the permanent collection displays. Many critics and members of the public accused the artist of censorship and engaging in a publicity stunt, mostly assuming the removal was definitive. See, for instance, Charlotte Higgins, ‘“The vitriol was really unhealthy”: artist Sonia Boyce on the row over taking down Hylas and the Nymphs’, The Guardian, 19 March 2018, available at (last accessed on 19 November 2019).