„Infelicitous“ Participatory Acts on the Neoliberal Stage

Participatory art’s promises and hopes for democratization of society

Among the many different categories for characterizing participatory art practices, those suggested by the art market researcher Alan Brown based on different media and professional designations remain especially relevant: inventive, interpretive, curatorial, observational, ambient arts participation, and politically driven participatory projects (Brown 2006).star (*6) Another interpretation of participatory art’s call for dismantling social hierarchies can be linked to Niklas Luhmann’s theory of social systems, which focuses on questions of communication, the relationship between power and trust, and the construction of truth within “art as a social system.”*4 *(4)

However, the crucial distinction is between two different types of participatory art projects: the first type, based on the various waves of artistic and curatorial/institutional critique, (see Möntmann 2009: 155-161;star (*7) Alberro/Stimson 2009;star (*8) Steyerl 2006star (*9)), is concerned with participation within the art system and deals with the relationship between the a) art institution–audience, b) artist–art institution (museum, gallery), c) artist–curator, etc. I see this first branch of participatory art as closely linked to and instrumental for institutional-critique.

Although still relevant, the limits of such art practices have already been pointed out by the common criticism that the outcome of institutional critique is reviving the art institutions, but does not lead to fundamental institutional change.*5 *(5) Unfortunately, even though the main aims of participatory art stemmed from the need to deconstruct existing hierarchies between “high” and “low” art and culture and were therefore linked from the outset to institutional critique and other critical practices and discourses, it rarely manages to go beyond an individual-centered artistic practice and does not overstep an aesthetic-centered authority although it strives to become a means for expanding the art field’s projections, promises, and expectations.*6 *(6)

The second type of participatory art practice deals with participation as a means for establishing a more democratic society in general—its main prerogative is therefore to foster more profound social and political changes that are not limited solely to changes within the art system. This more ambitious kind of participatory art induces the need to reflect on participation in the more general socio-political context of contradictions in contemporary democratic societies. My main claim in the earlier text from 2006 was that rather than looking at participatory art merely in the context of art history and curatorial practices, a perspective dominating art circles and literature on art at the time, a wider social analysis that includes philosophical, cultural, and socio-political theories of democratization of art and its institutional structures would facilitate a better understanding of participatory art and its discourse. The critical responses to some of the more recent art projects that have claimed to use relational and participatory strategies, voiced by their participants, other artists, and activist initiatives confirm the need to challenge elitist and hierarchical structures in the context of conceptually and politically defined critical art practices.*7 *(7)

This is not to say that all participatory art discourse is misconstrued, nor is it an attempt to criticize its emphasis on social and ethical values over aesthetic and formal components. Art theories are not always capable of locating the gaps between participation’s promise in theory and its shortcomings in concrete art projects in different contexts. I am actually interested in the promises and hopes raised by establishing certain unique relations with subjects in such projects, but it is not enough to locate them within the “laboratory conditions” of art galleries; instead, it is also vital to reflect on these projects in relation to both the real life of their participants and the general social context. Philosophical, political, and sociological theories are currently appropriated mainly through post-conceptual, socially and politically engaged art, or through art activism. However, similar art discourses and practices, such as community-based art projects, were produced by artists in the 1960s and 1970s, for example by Stephen Willats, and anticipated contemporary theory and practice.*8 *(8)

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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 , https://www.p-art-icipate.net/infelicitous-participatory-acts-on-the-neoliberal-stage/