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Suzana Milevska

Suzana Milevska is an independent curator and theorist of art and culture based in Skopje, Macedonia.Her projects focus on postcolonial critique of identity politics and the hegemonic power regimes of representation at the intersection of gender, ethnicity, race and sexuality. She was a Fulbright Senior Research Scholar and has a Ph.D. in Visual Cultures from Goldsmiths College London. In 2010 she published the book Gender Difference in the Balkans and edited the book The Renaming Machine: The Book. She was the Endowed Professor for History of Central and South Eastern European Art Histories at the Academy of Fine Art in Vienna and a visiting professor at the Visual Culture Unit – Technical University Vienna (2013-15).

“Infelicitous” Participatory Acts on the Neoliberal Stage

Participatory art’s promises and hopes for democratization of society

In an earlier text, “Participatory Art: A Paradigm Shift from Objects to Subjects” published in 2006, I addressed the paradigm shift from establishing relations between art objects and audiences to establishing relations between subjects (Milevska 2006), *1 *(1) a shift that was also discussed under the notion of “relational aesthetics” (Bourriaud 2002: 9). star (*1) It should be noted that although similar shifts towards interaction between artists and audiences already took place in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, the term “participatory” focuses more directly on the subjects involved (Fontaine 2012).star (*2) In this text, apart from looking at different types of participatory art and what they promise, I address different social limitations that hinder contemporary participatory art projects from fulfilling their potential.

Revisiting the fulfillment of participatory art’s promises

Artists who initiate interactions with voluntary (and in some cases paid) participants in a variety of events and actions in the art context or in the public realm have developed different strategies. My aim in this text is to discuss the potentials and limitations of such strategies for social change and democratization. While the emphasis in relational aesthetics still rested predominantly on the evaluation of the active relationship between the audience and an artistic object (in contrast to the traditionally conceived passive reception of art), more recent participatory practices have shifted the focus of art discourse in yet another direction and called for other evaluation criteria. With the exception of artists who, although still listed as “relational,” use objects, such as ready-mades, for mediation of different concepts of participation,*2 *(2) the newly proposed criteria do not necessarily link art production to aesthetic enjoyment and art objects.*3 *(3)

Although I still find the shift towards participation relevant, in the ten years since I published my earlier text, the field of participatory art and the discourse on it has developed rapidly, and the overall influence of neoliberal politics on the cultural field has also changed. Therefore, I argue that today it is necessary to revisit participatory art and to reevaluate the extent to which it can and has fulfilled its main promises (Colouring in culture 2015).

Two types of participatory art practices

Many of the initial promises of participatory art and the high expectations connected to it seem overrated today, for example, its aim to erase the clear-cut and hierarchical division between artists (interpreted as experts and essential for the creation of the work) and audience members (interpreted as passive observers). Particularly relevant, but also difficult to evaluate is the aim of striving for democratic changes in society. This claim is saturated with authoritarian governance practices perpetuating inequality and hierarchies. Democratic changes were meant to be brought about through inclusion of diverse audiences previously not interested in art (the issue of “outreach”). However, such audiences’ lack of interest stems precisely from art’s elitist and intimidating social construction, which can’t be overcome by individual projects. Also difficult to evaluate is participatory projects’ aim of revealing social injustice within cultural, social, and political structures.

In this respect, the question posed by Giorgio Agamben with regard to World War II concentration camps of what type of “juridical structure [is present] that such events could take place there?” (Agamben 1998: 166)star (*5) is among the key questions asked by artistic practices with reference to injustices present in contemporary society. Albeit the question is merely rhetorical as artists hope to raise awareness of specific social injustices rather than bring about substantial changes. However, the question of whether art truly possesses such potential is currently more relevant than ever before and begs clearer articulation, as “participatory art” has become too general a term.

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Bourriaud Nicolas (2002): Relational Aesthetics. Paris: Les Presse Du Reel.  9.

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Fontaine, Claire (2012): “Giving shape to painful things” (Interview). In:  Fontaine, Claire/Culp, Andrew / Crano, Ricky: Radical Philosophy, 175 (Sep/Oct 2012). /https://www.radicalphilosophy.com/interview/claire-fontaine. (September 15, 2015)

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Milevska, Suzana (2006): Participatory Art: A Paradigm Shift from Objects to Subjects. In: springerin, volume 12/2, 2006: 18-23. http://www.springerin.at/dyn/heft_text.php?textid=1761&lang=en (April 25, 2006).

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O. V.: Socially engaged art—an ‘arts’ perspective. In: Colouring in culture, https://colouringinculture.wordpress.com/tag/kester/?blogsub=confirming#subscribe-blog. (April 2, 2015)

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Agamben, Giorgio (1998): Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 166.

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Brown, Alan (2006): The Five Modes of Arts Participation. http://www.artsjournal.com/artfulmanager/main/005967.php. January 31, 2006.

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Möntmann, Nina: The Rise and Fall of New Institutionalism: Perspectives on a Possible Future. In: Raunig, Gerald/ Ray, Gene (Eds.): Art and Contemporary Critical Practice: Reinventing Institutional Critique.  London: Mayfly, 155–161.

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Alberro, Alexander and Stimson, Blake (Eds.) (2009): Institutional Critique: An Anthology of Artists’ Writings. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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Steyerl, Hito (2006): The Institution of Critique. In: eipcp, european institute for progressive cultural policies: transversal, do you remember institutional critique?, 01.2006, http://eipcp.net/transversal/0106/steyerl/en/base_edit.

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Milevska, Suzana (2014): Participatory Budgeting.Presentation at Critical Management in Curating, December 9–10, 2014, , Vienna, schnittpunkt ausstellungstheorie & praxis www.schnitt.org in co-operation with the Österreichisches Museum für Volkskunde http://www.schnitt.org/critical-management/criticalmanagementincurating/

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Agamben, Giorgio (1993): The Coming Community. Minneapolis, MN: Minnesota University Press.

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Nancy, Jean-Luc (1991): The Inoperative Community, ed. by Peter Connor. Minneapolis, MN: Minnesota University Press, 80-81.

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Dewey, John (2001): Education and Social Change. In: Schultz, Fred (ed.): SOURCES, Notable Selections in Education (3rd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill Dushkin, 333–341.

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Brigstocke, Julian: Review Three: Aesthetics, Authority and the Performance of Community. In: Authority Research Network, School of Geography, Politics & Sociology, Newcastle University. October 1, 2011 http://www.authorityresearch.net/uploads/8/9/4/1/8941936/review_3_-_aesthetics_authority_and_the_performance_of_community.dot. (April 2, 2015)

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Noorani, Tehseen/Blencowe, Claire/Brigstocke, Julian (2013): Problems of Participation: Reflections on Authority, Democracy, and the Struggle for Common Life, eds., Lewes, UK: ARN Press.

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Billington Josie/Fyfe, Hamish/Milling, Jane/Schaefer, Kerrie: Connected Communities: Participatory Arts and Well-being Past and Present Practices. http://www.ahrc.ac.uk/documents/project-reports-and-reviews/connected-communities/participatory-arts-and-well-being/. (December 25, 2015)

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Williams, Raymond (1989): Culture is Ordinary. In: Williams, Raymond: Resources of Hope: Culture, democracy, socialism, ed. by R Gable., London: Verso, 3–18.

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Dean, Jodi (2009): Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies: Communicative Capitalism and Left Politics. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

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Dutent, Nicolas: The eternal marriage between capitalism and democracy has ended, Interview with Slavoj Žižek, trans. by Harry Cross. In: L’Humanité (English edition), September 2, 2013. http://www.humaniteinenglish.com/spip.php?article2332. (April 2, 2015)

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Clements, Paul (2011): The Recuperation of Participatory Art Practices In: International Journal of Art and Design Education, 30.1, 18-30.

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Penny, Laurie (2011): Protest by consensus: Laurie Penny on Madrid’s Occupy. In: New Statesman, October 16, 2011. http://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/laurie-penny/2011/10/spain-movement-square-world. (December 25, 2015)

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Milevska, Suzana (2015): Auf der neoliberalen Bühne: Die uneingelösten Versprechen und Hoffnungen partizipatorischer Kunst für die Demokratisierung der Gesellschaft. In: BILDPUNKT Herbst 2015. http://www.igbildendekunst.at/de/bildpunkt/bildpunkt-2015/demokratie-im-praesens/auf-der-neoliberalen-buehne.htm.

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Lind, Maria (2004): Actualisation of Space: The Case of Oda Projesi. www.republicart.net/disc/aap/lind01_en.htm. (August 15, 2006)

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Bishop, Claire (2006): The Social Turn: Collaboration and its Discontents. In: Artforum, February 2006, vol. XLVI, no. 6, pp. 178–183.

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Bishop, Claire (ed.) (2006): Participation Documents of Contemporary Art, ed. London: Whitechapel/Cambridge: MIT Press.

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Goldenberg, David (2012): A short history of Post Autonomy. In: The Scenarios of Post Autonomy. The Studio: Glenda Cinquegrana, September 19 – October 8, 2012, https://www.academia.edu/12205149/A_short_history_of_Post_Autonomy. (December 26, 2015)

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Goldenberg, David / Reed, Patricia (2008): What is participatory practice? In: Fillip 8, Fall 2008. http://fillip.ca/content/what-is-a-participatory-practice. (December 23, 2015)

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Sholette, Gregory (2016): Merciless Aesthetic: Activist Art as the Return of Institutional Critique. A Response to Boris Groys. In: FIELD A Journal of Socially Engaged Criticism. Issue 4/Spring, 2016. http://field-journal.com/issue-4/merciless-aesthetic-activist-art-as-the-return-of-institutional-critique-a-response-to-boris-groys.

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Kimball, Whitney (2013): Should Art Volunteers Be Paid? Some Suzanne Lacy Volunteers Say Yes,. In: art f city October 18, 2013. http://artfcity.com/2013/10/18/should-volunteers-be-paid-all-the-time-suzanne-lacy-volunteers-think-yes/

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Bocar, Leina et.al. (2013): Open Letter to Suzanne Lacy, Nato Thompson, Catherine J. Morris, Brooklyn Museum, Creative Time in: http://bureaux.petitemort.org/2013/10/open-letter-to-suzanne-lacy-nato-thompson-catherine-j-morris-brooklyn-museum-creative-time/

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Graham Janna/Vass Nicolas (2014): Intervention / Art. In: p/art/icipate—Kultur aktiv gestalten # 05. http://www.p-art-icipate.net/cms/intervention-art/

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Nagel, Thomas (1979): The policy of preference. In The Mortal Questions, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 91–105.

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Austin, John A. (1975): How to Do Things with Words, eds. J. O. Urmson and Marina Sbisa, 2nd edition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 100.

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Felman, Shoshana (2002): The Scandal of the Speaking Body Don Juan with J. L. Austin, or Seduction in Two Languages, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

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Nancy, Jean-Luc (2000): Being Singular Plural. Stanford, CA, Stanford University Press, , p. 13.

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Vidokle, Anton: Notes for an Art School-Exhibition as School in a Divided City, http://byanalogy.org/texts/02%20-%20Anton%20Vidokle%20-%20Exhibition%20as%20School%20in%20a%20Divided%20City.pdf

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Ögüt, Ahmet (2012): Silent University. http://thesilentuniversity.org.

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Helguera, Pablo (2011): Education for Socially Engaged Art: A Materials and Techniques Handbook, Jorge Pinto Books Inc.

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Zinggl, Wolfgang / (2001): WochenKlausur: Sociopolitical Activism in Art. Wien: Springer.

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Raunig, Gerald (2015): DIVIDIUM. Vienna: transversal texts, p. 17.

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UNESCO—MOST Clearing House Best Practices Database (n.d.): The Experience of the Participative Budget in Porto Alegre Brazil, in http://www.unesco.org/most/southa13.htm.

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Voon, Claire: Report Advises Museums on How to Be More Inclusive and Maximize Happiness. In: hyperallergic, March 10, 2016, http://hyperallergic.com/281215/report-advises-museums-on-how-to-be-more-inclusive-and-maximize-happiness/?ref=featured. (April 10, 2016)

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MAPSI—Managing Art Projects with Societal Impact: http://www.mapsi.eu/

This text is actually a longer version of the more recent article: Milevska (2015).

For example, the use of food in Rirkrit Tiravanija’s projects presented in art institutions could be interpreted as both relational and participatory, making a clear cut distinction between these terms difficult, although his project The Earth (1998) with Kamin Letchaiprasert, imagined as a self-sustainable environment in Thailand (near Sanpathong) links Tiravanija’s work more obviously to participatory art.

The older discussions dealing with the terms as “new genre public art” (coined by Susanne Lacy) or “community based art” resonate with participatory art. For more recent debates on participatory art practices and theories, see: Lind 2004; Bishop 2006; Bishop (ed.) 2006.

Here I want to acknowledge my gratitude to the artist David Goldenberg for his generous revision suggestions, comments, and text recommendations including: Goldenberg 2012, Goldenberg/Reed 2008.

In his recently published article, Gregory Sholette had argued that activist art returns as a new and politically more effective institutional critique, an argument that could also be linked with several more recent participatory practices striving towards institutional critique. See Sholette 2016.

For example, most projects that dealt with issues related to the condition of Roma in Europe during the Decade of Roma Inclusion (an official instrument of EU that focused from 2005 to 2015 on supporting art and cultural projects centered around Roma issues) did not have a long-term impact: although there were many art projects financed with the EU funds, and even two Roma Pavilions curated at the Venice Biennial, Roma artists have yet to be included in any major international art Exhibition.

For example, some artists, activist initiatives, and collectives (such as WAGE, Precarious Workers Brigade, ArtLeaks) have scrutinized and critically evaluated participatory art projects for their inconsistent labor policies. The case of the feminist artist Susan Lacy is one of the most contradictory since she was one of the pioneers of such practices: her project Between the Door and the Street at the Brooklyn Museum co-organized by Creative Time was targeted in an open letter from the participants (Bocar et.al. 2013) and in a text (Kimball 2013).

Another example of similar critique was when Yvonne Rainer criticized Marina Abramović for her performance at a MOCA gala fundraiser in an open letter sent to the director of the institution and the artist; see Graham/Vass 2014.

However, exactly his practice recently turned appealing and easily recuperated by institutions although his historic significance cannot be undermined.

Particularly relevant for this discussion is Thomas Nagel’s commentary on the negative effects of affirmative action and preferential policies favoring students from underprivileged backgrounds in the U.S. educational system. See Nagel 1979: 91–105.

See Austin 1975: 100. For a more precise analysis of the failure behind all speech acts, e.g., a promise uttered from a performing stage, see Shoshana Felmann’s text on Molière’s Don Juan and his character’s double speech: Felman 2002.

Nancy’s concept of being is always already being with. According to him, being always entails with as an inevitable conjunction that links different singularities. See: Nancy 2000: 13.

He refers to the problem that, at this moment, we cannot truly say “we,” that we have forgotten the importance of being-together, being-in-common, and belonging and that we live without relations (Nancy 2000: 75).

Future Academy (2002–2007), Clementine Deliss, Edinburgh College of Art (eca), Academy (2006), Charles Esche/Irit Rogoff, Vanabbe Museum, Radical Education (2006–2014), Bojana Piškur, Moderna Galerija, Ljubljana, Deschooling Classroom (2011–2013), TkH/Kontrapunkt.

In the last decade we’ve seen the rise of such education-focused participatory art projects, e.g., Tanja Ostojić, Office for Integration-Language Lessons (2002), The School of Engaged Art, Bertolt Brecht’s “Lehrstücke” inspired Russian collective Chto Delat, Anton Vidokle’s Unitednationplaza, Berlin (after the cancelation of the European Biennial Manifesta 6, 2006, Nicosia/Cyprus), see: Vidokle (n.d.); most of the long-term projects by Tania Bruguera (e.g., Immigrant Movement International, conceptualized in 2006, implemented between 2010–2015); Ahmet Ögüt’s Silent University, (2012–); and the instruction works and books by Pablo Helguera, e.g. Helguera 2011.

The continuous efforts and work strategies of artists, groups, and collectives that dedicated their practice to participatory art are not easy to follow, analyze, or evaluate, since they are often of small scale, locally produced and presented in a low-key way (e.g., the Berlin based NGBK, or the Vienna based collective WOCHENKLAUSUR, see Zinggl/Barber 2001).

Or “Imperative der Involvierung” as coined by Raunig 2015: 17.

For more information on the structure of the participative budget as an example of urban creative self-governance in Porto Alegre, Brazil, see: UNESCO – MOST Clearing House Best Practices Database (n.d.), and how this example even became a topic of an academic course at the Hague Academy for Local Governance, see: The Hague Academy for Local Governance 2014.

For example, the exhibition Disobedient Objects that was held at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (July 26, 2014–February 1, 2015) addressed different forms of collaboration between artists and grass-root activist movements, but nevertheless, the “disobedient” art objects turned souvenirs, such as Suffragettes’ teapots, were available for purchase in the museum’s shop, as usual, thus emphasizing the major contradictions between the spaces of museums and barricades. See: V&A Shop (http://www.vandashop.com/Disobedient-Objects-Exhibition/b/4930353031).

In the 2016 issue of Trends Watch, the website publishing the annual reports of The Center for the Future of Museums (CFM), part of the American Alliance of Museums, proposed are different global trends that museums should consider in order to move forward to better respond to society’s needs. See also Voon 2016.

For conceiving this argument, I am grateful to Mick Wilson and the students of his course “Art, the market and the question of values” at the Valand Academy during my guest lecture that preceded and was closely linked to this paper. Gothenburg, March 18, 2016.

For example, one of the EU funded Life Learning Projects MAPSI claimed to provide specialization in the management of artistic projects with societal impact. Such a very ambitious aim seems problematic from the outset, precisely because the project’s aims of “create[ing] an international network focusing on educating cultural managers and facilitators to manage and mediate artistic and cultural projects with societal impact” exceed any realistically achievable impact, when taking into account the complexity of each local context and the project’s limited duration and sustainability.

Suzana Milevska  (2016): “Infelicitous” Participatory Acts on the Neoliberal Stage.

Participatory art’s promises and hopes for democratization of society

In: p/art/icipate – Kultur aktiv gestalten # 07 , http://www.p-art-icipate.net/cms/infelicitous-participatory-acts-on-the-neoliberal-stage/