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Arts & Architecture


by Richard Martin

Do you participate? If not, why not? You should get involved, make a contribution, let them know what you think. Be part of something! It’ll be collaborative and democratic. And fun, too!

The demand to participate is now an everyday experience. Television and radio shows endlessly plead, tell us your views, while online articles are trailed by a snaking list of readers’ comments. Politicians affirm their commitment to ‘public consultation’ and test each idea within specially-designed focus groups. Cultural institutions must offer interactive displays, issue evaluation forms and carefully monitor attendance figures. Academic projects are praised for the number of partners involved, the voices heard, the collaborations undertaken. Group work and class discussion have become the foundations of teaching practice. Underpinning these diverse trends is the sense that participation, in and of itself, is a positive thing – regardless of the end result. Taking part is what counts. Participation is both the aim and the justification; passivity must be renounced; to be a spectator is no longer enough.

That a society governed by the imperative to participate, and constantly buzzing with opportunities to socialize, should lead to boredom and isolation was of great concern to David Foster Wallace. In The Pale King, posthumously published in 2011, he wrote: “This terror of silence with nothing diverting to do. I can’t think anyone really believes that today’s so-called ‘information society’ is just about information. Everyone knows it’s about something else, way down.”[1] Characteristically, Wallace offers no straightforward answers as to what this “something else” might be. Yet, in the midst of relentless calls to participate, his emphasis on dullness, on the ways we try to distract ourselves and on the terrors we might be escaping feels radical. Wallace’s suspicion about the ‘information society’ also offers a useful framework when considering the broader desire for participation today: no one really believes that all these activities are about encouraging people to work together, about hearing diverse voices or strengthening social bonds. Why, then, do so many people want to take part? Why do they want so many others to join them? Something else, perhaps way down, is going on here.

Installation by Gerwald Rockenschaub, Documenta 12, Kassel 2007 (Photo: David Gomez Fontanilles, Source: Wikimedia Commons CC Attribn Share Alike 3.0 Unported License)

Despite Wallace’s own status in contemporary culture, which continues to rise five years after his death, literature is perhaps the wrong place to look for insights into the participation imperative. After all, Simon Critchley is not the only theorist to claim that the novel is now an “utterly marginal phenomenon.”[2] Art, Critchley argues, is where it’s at: “It is simply a fact that contemporary art has become the central placeholder for the articulation of cultural meanings – good, bad, or indifferent.” Sure enough, the notion of participation is at the heart of contemporary artistic practice and theory. Take, for instance, Francis Alÿs’s When Faith Moves Mountains (2002), in which the Belgian artist recruited 500 Peruvians to shift a 1,600-foot sand dune by four inches; or Tino Sehgal’s work, structured around conversations and encounters to which visitors themselves must contribute. For The Battle of Orgreave (2001), Jeremy Deller brought together ex-miners, local residents and historical re-enactment societies to re-stage a confrontation between miners and the police that first took place in 1984; while, in 2008, visitors to the Turbine Hall at London’s Tate Modern were subject to an unannounced demonstration of police control techniques orchestrated by Tania Bruguera, in a piece entitled Tatlin’s Whisper #5. In all these cases, as well as in countless other works produced around the globe in the last three decades, the creation of a physical art object has been superseded by a process or performance emphasising participation. The collaborative models these works entail suggest broader social and political possibilities, but they are often coated in the uncritical and hyperbolic language of the art world – a discourse that again asserts an unthinking affirmation of participation. What does it mean, though, to participate in an artwork? Who is the author of these works? Are they innately superior to those created by a single person alone or do they ignore the multiplicities involved in any act of authorship? If authentic participation, involving real agency, is desired, then how scripted can the performance be? And how, ultimately, should these works be judged, especially given the problems of documentation and exhibition they entail?

Sceptical voices have increasingly emerged in the light of such questions. Hal Foster has complained that “contemporary exhibitions often feel like remedial work in socialization: come and play, talk, learn with me.”[3] Moreover, Foster claims, the collective endeavour involved in such artworks no longer has any political meaning: “today simply getting together sometimes seems to be enough.” The architect and writer Markus Miessen has also questioned the associations frequently drawn between participation and empathy, consensus and democracy. For Miessen, “Any form of participation is already a form of conflict.”[4]

A similar desire for conflict – for art that provokes and disrupts, is abrasive and perverse rather than soothing and consensual – is the driving force behind Claire Bishop’s Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship (2012). Bishop’s book is exactly the kind of historically aware and politically sophisticated study that participatory art so badly requires. She assesses the current vogue for collaboration and participation in the context of the many attempts made during the twentieth century to rethink the role of the spectator, the artist and the artwork. Despite her initial caveats about the study’s scope, which is mainly limited to Europe, but which also includes work from Argentina, Cuba and North America, she includes a fascinating array of examples, each thoughtfully considered and skilfully summarised (no easy feat given that so many participatory projects involve a lengthy back-story). She is especially generous, but by no means uncritical, towards artistic intentions and the range of meanings provoked by individual works. This is part of a broader commitment to aesthetics. Bishop laments “the paucity of our ability to defend the intrinsic value of artistic experiences today,” which means that participatory art is often justified, rather lamely, for its apparent social benefits. To counter the deadening forms of evaluation now frequently employed in the public funding of art – such as statistical data based on audience demographics – Bishop’s book emphasises a position of critical spectatorship. She calls for art that challenges and confronts social problems, but she also demands “more bold, affective and troubling” forms of criticism.

Three crucial turning points in the historical development of participatory art structure Bishop’s book. The first set of examples – the Italian Futurists, Russian artists working in the immediate aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution and the Dada movement in Paris – cluster around 1917. For this historic avant-garde, participation was inextricably linked with political commitment, though in the case of the Futurists, whose assemblies were chaotic events with a proto-Fascist charge, Bishop makes the astute if uncomfortable conclusion that “destructive modes of participation might be more inclusive than those that purport to be democratically open.” Contemporary participatory art, by contrast, often involves little risk and few dangers. The “situations of negation, disruption and antagonism” found earlier in the twentieth century have given way to a “softly-softly approach.”

Jeremy Deller, Reenactment of the Battle of Orgreave (2001), Photo by Independent Curators International via Flickr for non-commercial use under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 License

The second turning-point she emphasises is 1968, the last blast of Western leftism. “To be free in 1968 means to participate,” declared the graffiti of the time, but such positivist messages accompanied a growing awareness that participation by the many might simply mean profit for the few. Indeed, the commercial logic driving the participation imperative has become increasingly visible in the decades since. As Bishop notes, “Northern Europe has experienced a transformation of the 1960s discourse of participation, creativity and community; these terms no longer occupy a subversive, anti-authoritarian force, but have become a cornerstone of post-industrial economic policy.” As such, political resistance to neo-liberalism often adopts forms of negation, such as boycotts and strikes. Yet, the ability of contemporary art to critique neo-liberalism seems hindered by its own status within the current economic climate. Today, the artist, in Simon Critchley’s words, “has become the aspirational paradigm of the new worker: creative, unconventional, flexible, nomadic, creating value, and endlessly travelling.”[5] The cycle of auctions and exhibitions, launches and biennales, publications and panel discussions, funding proposals and collaborative projects that make up the art world tend to sustain, rather than contest, the notions of participation and collaboration promoted by neo-liberalism. This is a decisive shift from the experiments in art and theatre, such as the Situationist International, which emerged in the years leading up to 1968 – movements which Bishop argues should be regarded “as variations on a common theme of opposing imperialist capitalism in favour of generating a collectively produced cultural alternative.”

1989 marks Bishop’s third turning-point in the history of performative art: the end of a leftist dream, of course, but also a catalyst for collective desires to be pushed into artistic practice. Here, the key term is ‘project’, which has come to hold such a prominent place in contemporary culture. Everyone now works on ‘projects’, a term which implies research, collaboration and interdisciplinarity, but which also maintains corporate overtones. Bishop outlines the differing attitudes towards the artistic project that developed in the post-Cold War era. Her conclusions partly stem from the ‘Interpol’ exhibition which took place in Stockholm in 1996, bringing together artists from Western and Eastern Europe to collaborate within an apparently open structure. The project’s failure – conflicts between the participating artists led to violence, the destruction of work and bitter exchanges in the press – certainly refutes any notion that collaboration inevitably leads to consensus. For Bishop, though, the exhibition revealed vital geo-political distinctions concerning the role of the artist: “The Europeans embraced indeterminacy and participation in so far as it contributes to individual careers (the next project, another exhibition), while the Russians viewed art as an existential act, of sabotage if need be.”

Perhaps the most ethically complex aspect of contemporary performative art concerns situations in which artists and curators find themselves in the position of “a human resources manager” – hiring participants to perform within a project. An early example of this trend can be found in the work of Maurizio Cattelan, who in 1991 assembled a football team of North African immigrants to play in an Italian league, their shirts emblazoned with the slogan: “RAUSS.” The Spanish artist Santiago Sierra has gone even further, creating self-explanatory pieces with titles such as 12 Workers Paid To Remain Inside Cardboard Boxes (2000) and, most controversially, 250cm Line Tattooed on 6 Paid People (1999). This use of non-professional, outsourced labour is part of what Bishop calls “delegated performance.” Assessment of the recruitment procedures involved in such works often focuses, quite understandably, on questions of class, authenticity and exploitation. As Bishop notes, a surge of “moral queasiness” follows when artists make use of (and thus make visible) the patterns of exploitation that take place in other working environments on a daily basis. As ever, though, her reading of the situation feels sharp and fresh. Rather than repeating the standard Marxist line condemning these works as exploitative, she suggests they “offer an alternative form of knowledge about capitalism’s commodification of the individual.” In the tradition of Sade and Klossowski, these works are about the perverse pleasures of self-exploitation – a form of participation far more disturbing than most contemporary practitioners care to acknowledge.

Still from video documentation of 'When Faith Moves Mountains', by Francis Alys (Source: Creative Commons public domain video on the artist's website)

The final chapter of the book focuses on recent artworks with explicitly pedagogical roots and ambitions. At a time when universities are being increasingly stifled by bureaucratic demands and restrictive forms of evaluation (including the so-called ‘impact agenda’), when lecturers are expected, as Bishop says, “to train subjects for life under global capitalism,” a raft of works have emerged emphasising a more creative approach to education. Bishop’s contextualisation of these works, which references Paulo Freire, Joseph Beuys and Jacques Rancière, among others, is excellent. However, in discussing the programme of lectures, workshops and performances arranged by Thomas Hirschhorn as part of his Bijlmer-Spinoza Festival (2009) or Tania Bruguera’s experimental art school in Havana, Bishop’s analysis is tinged with self-consciousness: as she admits, such works trespass on her own professional field – she teaches and researches at the City University of New York – and, we might surmise, provide a painful glimpse of what higher education might look like if governed by alternative priorities. The differing durations of art and education are an issue here, as well as the spectatorial conflict that overshadows these projects. As Bishop explains, “art is given to be seen by others, while education has no image.” What does it mean, then, for an educational environment to become an artistic spectacle? Can these works have meaning for spectators not involved in the formal pedagogical process? How can a long-term educational project be communicated to a wider audience? The aesthetic potential of reading lists, explanatory texts and photographs of class discussions is naturally limited.

This conflict reinforces one of the common themes running throughout Bishop’s book: the problem of documenting and exhibiting participatory artworks. For example, Jeremy Deller’s aforementioned The Battle of Orgreave now exists in multiple formats – a CD of oral testimonies, a book of essays and personal accounts, an archive of materials relating to the original confrontation, and a film of the re-enactment directed by Mike Figgis – all of which complicate the status of the main ‘event’ itself. By contrast, Tino Sehgal is famed for his refusal to create any official documentation of his work, which is to be considered a temporary, intangible experience (a stance which creates complications regarding ownership and intellectual property rights). However, institutions and foundations now frequently demand visible evidence of funded projects, galleries require material to be exhibited and art historians need images to illustrate their analysis. Artificial Hells itself contains dozens of images, yet inevitably photographs of participatory projects – children having their faces painted, group conversations, galleries displaying performance archives – often lack visual flair. In one sense, then, participatory art seems to resist mass commodification and glitzy spectacle. At the same time, its temporary nature can merely create another exclusive ‘experience’ for a savvy urban crowd – one more way to drown out the “terror of silence with nothing diverting to do.”

Contemporary art, therefore, maintains a peculiar position in debates around participation. As Bishop’s book makes clear, art is particularly susceptible to superficial forms of participation, yet equally it has the potential to produce new and challenging models. Indeed, perhaps art’s elevated status in contemporary culture, if we accept Critchley’s earlier claim, can be attributed to its close association with participation during an era when that concept seems so vital. In this sense, it is no surprise that art has outstripped the novel as a marker of cultural meaning: forms of participatory literature seem much harder to imagine, though the recent surge in literary festivals and creative writing workshops might be seen as nods in this direction.

There is, however, another question to be asked when faced with the participation imperative: what happens if we don’t get involved? Artificial Hells might be profitably read with ideas of solitude, apathy, dullness or withdrawal in mind. Such notions take on additional political potential in a society where calls to participate predominate. Here, a stance promoted by Slavoj Žižek is especially intriguing:

The threat today is not passivity, but pseudo-activity, the urge to ‘be active’, to ‘participate’, to mask the nothingness of what goes on. People intervene all the time, ‘do something’; academics participate in meaningless debates, and so on. The truly difficult thing is to step back, to withdraw. Those in power often prefer even a ‘critical’ participation, a dialogue, to silence – just to engage us in ‘dialogue’, to make sure our ominous passivity is broken.[6]

Silence, then, is not just terrifying for us: it feels foreboding for authority, too. Of course, such a claim seems ironic coming from Žižek, himself a relentless production-line of books, articles and speeches. Yet, his analysis here is not only pertinent to the practitioners and theorists of participatory art; it is a challenge to anyone who finds the current demand for participation to be strange and stifling. Get involved! Participate! Tell us your views! Perhaps, to be free in 2013 means detachment. 

Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship
Verso, London 2012.
ISBN: 978-1-84467-690-3
Paperback, 383pages, US$29.95/GBP19.99

Richard Martin completed his PhD at the London Consortium. He has taught literature, film and critical theory at Birkbeck (University of London), Middlesex University and Tate Modern. His first book, The Architecture of David Lynch, is forthcoming from Berg.


[1] David Foster Wallace, The Pale King: An Unfinished Novel (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2011).
[2] Simon Critchley, ‘Absolutely-Too-Much’, The Brooklyn Rail, July/August 2012.
[3] Hal Foster, ‘Arty Party’, London Review of Books, Vol. 25, No. 23 (4 December 2003).
[4] Markus Miessen, The Nightmare of Participation (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2010).
[5] Critchley, ‘Absolutely-Too-Much’.
[6] Slavoj Žižek, Violence: Six Sideways Reflections (London: Profile, 2008).

(c) 2013 by The Berlin Review of Books.


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