July: Participation

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July: Participation

In her public installations, Es Devlin often transforms audiences from viewers to participants, inviting us to become protagonists in a work. To achieve this, she might present audiences with a short film projected onto a screen that splits apart. Upon passing through the screen, we enter an unfolding narrative as a participant. Devlin might also invite audiences to navigate a mirrored maze, or she might harness the power of collective poetry, asking us to donate words to artificial intelligence algorithms that generate poems in public spaces. For Devlin, participation becomes a transformative act that deepens our encounter with an idea. 

We engage with participation by asking our audiences to actively take part in a work. By directly engaging with a concept, we strengthen its connection with other lived experiences in our minds. Participation might also materialize in our creative practices as we become more mindful of our encounters and actions in the world around us, transforming our connections to one another and our planet. The materials on this page invite you to explore participation in your creative practice. You will find examples of what participation looks like in the work of others, as well as prompts and exercises that encourage your own participation by consciously connecting with your daily life and community.    


Compilation, PoemPortraits. 2017–ongoing; Courtesy of Es Devlin

In June 2017, Es Devlin premiered PoemPortraits at the Serpentine Galleries in London. Participants donate a word to an algorithm that composes a collective poem, constantly retraining itself on newly donated words. In return, participants are issued a portrait suffused with the text of the collective poem.  

To create the work, Devlin collaborated with creative technologist Ross Goodwin at Google Arts & Culture, who developed a machine-learning algorithm trained on millions of lines of British poetry. The collective poem continues to be co-authored online by the algorithm and the public. 

Click here to participate in PoemPortraits by donating a word. 


In response to An Atlas of Es Devlin, writer and dancer Jerron Herman created Temporary Body, an original performance presented at Cooper Hewitt in Spring 2024. In the performance, Herman explores themes of the body, language, writing and sketching, and participation. He reverently passed through several museum galleries in the historic Carnegie Mansion, Cooper Hewitt’s home, encouraging attendees to write on and adorn his garments. The piece culminated in a dance performance in the museum’s Conservatory. Fashion designer Sugandha Gupta created Herman’s garment, composer and vocalist Molly Joyce designed the soundscape, and INTERIM Corporation co-produced the piece. 

Table of Contents

  • Prompts: Quick writing or visual activities
  • Exercises: Activities that might ask you to spend a little more time
  • Related Reading: Highlights from Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Library 
  • Programs: Exhibition tours, lectures, and hands-on workshops for visitors at all age and experience levels


The poetry prompts below are designed to bring focus to the world around you, center yourself in mindfulness, and orient you as a participant in your community. They are geared towards ages 15 and up, but all are welcome to try them out! The only materials you need are a pencil, a piece of paper, and a camera, but feel free to play with other supplies you may have on hand. 

Poetry and participation 

Try to approach one of these poetry prompts with a friend and make a collaborative poem. Brainstorm together around the prompt, and then take turns each writing one line of the poem. Or, talk through the prompt together, write your poem individually, and then share with your friend to explore how your poems are similar and different. Discuss how you approached writing your poem. 

Let your creativity flow and enjoy the process of writing! 

1. The Everyday Extraordinary 
Look around you and find something that seems ordinary or mundane. This could be a school hallway, a park bench, or a cup of coffee. Write about the hidden beauty or interesting details of this everyday object or scene. Describe it in a way that makes the reader see it with fresh eyes. 

2. Voice of the Crowd
Think about a time when you were part of a group activity or event. This could be a concert, a protest, a sports game, or even a classroom discussion. Write a poem from the perspective of being a part of that collective experience. How did it feel to be one voice among many? What sights, sounds, and emotions stood out to you?   

3. Natures Details
Find a spot outside where you can observe nature closely. This could be a garden, a tree, a body of water, or even a small patch of grass. Spend a few minutes observing the details and bring them to life through words. How do the leaves move? How would you describe the sounds of insects or birds? 

4. The Journey Inward
Take a few moments to reflect on your inner thoughts and feelings. Close your eyes and take deep breaths, paying attention to your mental and emotional state. What thoughts are swirling in your mind? What emotions are you experiencing? What big feelings might you want to put words to? Use this prompt to connect deeply with yourself and express those feelings in words. 

5. Community Connection
Think about a place where you feel a strong sense of community. This could be your neighborhood, a club or team you belong to, or even a favorite local hangout. Write about the sense of connection and belonging you feel in this community. Highlight the interactions, the shared experiences, and the feeling of being part of something larger than yourself. 


Exercises are activities that might ask you to spend a little more time or to gather and play with some additional materials.

Consciously connecting  

Inspired by Stefanie Posavec and National Design Award winner Giorgia Lupi’s data drawing project, Dear Data, this exercise seeks to help us consciously connect to small acts in our daily lives. In it, you will collect personal data, use the data to make a drawing, and reflect on what you created. By being more mindful, we might be able to participate more actively and deeply in our embodied world. 

1. Choose a focus of attention
There are many small things that we do in our everyday lives that we don’t often noticehow many times we say “hello,” or laugh, or check our phone, or walk through a doorway, or become distracted. Choose one small action to focus on for a week.

Some examples:  

  • A phrase such as: “hello,” “goodbye,” or “thank you”  
  • Laughter 
  • Time alone 
  • Boredom 
  • Smile  
  • Self-criticism  
  • Distraction  
  • Checking your phone or the time 
  • Compliments  

2. Record your focus for a week 
For a week, record every time your choice of action or focus occurs. It can be tricky to stay continuously aware of your space or actions—it’s helpful to use a small notebook and pen for quick recording.  

As you record, consider also writing down other details about the action or anything that happened during that moment such as: 

  • How were you feeling? Did your feeling change after that specific action? 
  • What time of day was it? Did it have any impact on that action? 
  • What space or social setting were you in? 
  • If it’s an action that’s based on interaction with someone else, who was it? What is your relationship with them?  

When you go back to review the data, this additional information may help you draw more insights and learn more about your personality and behavior. Note that some of the data you record may make you feel uncomfortable or imperfect. Instead of backing away, embrace the imperfections, dive deeper and question why you feel that way.  

3. Visualize the data you have collected
Highlighting data through creative visual formats can make information more interesting and better convey the story and humanity behind the data. Using colorful pencils or markers, draw and design a symbol to represent the data you have collected. Consider how you can represent and create distinction between various data points you have collected through color, different shapes, or marks. Look through the Dear Data project for visual inspiration.  

4. Create a legend
Next to your visualized data, create a legend to instruct someone on how to read your data.

5. Reflect
Throughout the week and at the end of collecting data, take a moment to slow down and reflect: 

  • Was it difficult to remember to pay attention and record a specific action? Did that ever get in the way of enjoying an experience? If so, how? 
  • How did recording this data make you feel?  
  • Did recording make you more conscious of your actions? If yes or no, in what way? 
  • What did you learn in the process? What did you learn about yourself? 
  • After reflecting on the data recorded, is there anything that you want to change or do differently in the future?    

Consider sharing your personal data visualization with a friend, or perhaps think about doing the exercise with someone else so you not only learn about yourself, but each other.  



FROM Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Library

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum’s Library contains more than 100,000 volumes, including books, periodicals, catalogues, and trade literature dating from the fifteenth through the twentieth centuries.    

Fracktured Lives by editor and art director, Andrew Castrucci, with design by Igor Langshteyn, Andrew Castrucci, Daniel Velle, and Daniel Giovanniello.  

Fracktured Lives is a book that contains essays and a series of over 50 bound posters against fracking. Editor and artist Andrew Castrucci conceived of the book as a form of resistance to hydro-fracturing—the practice of forcibly extracting natural gas from deep underground wells—and to promote clean water and alternative energy. The posters, designed by a coalition of artists, designers, students, and activists, are exemplary of guerilla graphics in which participants advocate for shared values. Castrucci describes such participation and its visual culture as part of the movement that led to the 2012 banning of fracking in New York state. Bound in stainlesssteelcovered boards secured by industrial bolts, Fracktured Lives can be unbound to allow for the posters to be hung. A PDF version of the essays is located here 


Cooper Hewitt hosts a range of programsincluding exhibition tours, lectures, hands-on workshops, and othersfor visitors at all age and experience levels.

Learn more about upcoming programs at Cooper Hewitt.  

Thu. August 1, 2024
2:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. ET
Experience the Cooper Hewitt collection objects and exhibitions through drawing! An Atlas of Es Devlin is the first monographic exhibition of British artist and stage designer Es Devlin. The exhibition traces the throughline from Devlin’s early artwork, to sketches and stage plans, to models and videos of her stage designs activated. This exhibition is full of visual imagery to spark the imagination for sketching!  .
Event Address:
Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
2 E 91st Street New York, NY 10028
Free with museum admission