Sarah Harper is an artist, teacher and academic researcher. As artistic director and lead artist with urban arts company Friches Théâtre Urbain, she creates community performance, site specific and place-making projects and participatory art walks commissioned in response to sensitive social contexts. She recently submitted her PhD at Queen Mary University of London where her research focuses on understanding refusal and non-participation in the Paris banlieue.








JOURNAL ARTICLES (Peer reviewed)









Understanding Refusal. Non-participation in participatory arts projects in the northern Paris banlieue.           

This thesis seeks to understand and reframe non-participation and refusal I have experienced in participatory arts projects which I have led, with urban arts company Friches Théâtre Urbain, in the multi-cultural northern suburbs of Paris. I examine twelve long-term neighbourhood projects inviting participation in performance, art-walks or place-making on urban wastelands, commissioned to reactivate, redefine or animate l’espace public (public space), with community cohesion as a recognised aim. Analysing why people ignore, refuse or violently disrupt the work, I draw on sociological theories of participation, art reception and the value placed on types of participation within socially engaged performance, geography and cultural studies to review common suppositions of what ‘good participation’ looks like. I organise my findings into a Spectrum of Refusal and argue that refusals offer generative narratives of community, culture, or political activism that are valuable and integral to the dialogic, social function of participatory arts.

Historically, in France, public space has been ideologically positioned as a key forum for societal debate through occupation, barricades, dérive, demonstration, or festival. But within the existing dynamics of socio-economic exclusion in the northern Paris suburbs my work, to engage participation in caring and joyful embodiments of citizenship and community, often contributes directly to the gentrification that leaves poorer populations with increasingly less access and legitimacy within the city. Here, refusal by would-be participants becomes a logical response. I challenge the pertinence of encouraging investment in ideal or nostalgic notions of community within fractured, diverse neighbourhoods where being together is rendered transient or unworkable. I argue that attending to moments of refusal, as well as to minimal, invisible or reluctant participation, may be key to understanding not ‘how to get people to participate better’, but how to more accurately perceive their refusal, as eloquent, constructive and valuable acts of citizen participation in something else.