„Infelicitous“ Participatory Acts on the Neoliberal Stage

Participatory art’s promises and hopes for democratization of society

Participation is a demanding activation of multiple relations that are initiated and directed by artists and often prompted by art institutions. These relations, however, often become objectified as they are limited to short-term projects and are subjected to the pressures of producing outcomes and reaching out to audiences, as reflected in numbers, etc. This is also linked to the tensions stemming from collaborative art practices, in particular regarding authorship and remuneration, which often create new invisible hierarchies between initiators and participants based on professional or other differences. While inviting the audience to actively participate, artists offering participatory projects create an interface that needs to be well-prepared in advance, and one that is highly contextualized within a specific social, cultural, and political environment.

The shift of focus from the reception of art objects to the more demanding and complex relations among subjects (e.g., artists, collaborators, invited or accidental participants, organizers, etc.) that are structured through the artistic procedures and strategies is tied to neoliberal policies. It happens as a kind of enforced response of art practice to a redefinition of the concept of community and the communitarian in the frame of neoliberal, multicultural policies and as a kind of follow-up to the social demands for inclusion. The shift focuses on marginalized groups of citizens who have been excluded mainly from their own social environment or from participation in public cultural life rather than from aesthetic objects.

Paradoxes and the production of new distinctions

I would like to point out a paradox: such a “participatory shift” in the arts simultaneously creates new hierarchies and differentiations, new fears and obstacles, and the political correctness principle governing such practices is often demotivating for artists who are not members of underprivileged or minority groups.*9 *(9)

Some of the artists who have been engaged with participatory art practices and have involved underprivileged communities in their projects turn towards commercial and profit-driven artistic practices and continue to produce objects and cultural artifacts produced based on the previous collaborations. One of the reasons for this is that commercial galleries tend to ignore participatory art and art-for-social-change practices, as such works are generally expensive to produce and difficult to present and tend to sell at art fairs and on the art market what is easier to sell: art objects—with the exception of those artists who work in these fields and have already become international stars and therefore possible “assets”. Paradoxically, by turning towards underprivileged groups, artists profiled as “participatory” actually also play into the hands of the market.  Ironically, this creates a vicious cycle, which, at the same time recuperates the art market and perpetuates both the elitist non-for-profit and the commercial art system. In the case of participatory art these mechanisms of appropriation, recuperation and rejuvenation are, however, not easily recognizable because they are dictated by the rules and institutions of the political and economic systems rather than by the art system and its institutions.

The aims of having more open art institutions and involving the audience more profoundly in the process of artistic practice and production and fostering their participation produces new distinctions and “elites” by inviting the audience to become directly involved at different levels, because at the same time,  the participants are not given equal credit in the various stages of the process, such as the presentation of results at future exhibitions, their participation in traveling exhibitions, or share in income from possible sales. The participation of audiences can lead to the development of more diversified art and cultural policies among curators and art administrators, and it can foster a greater awareness among the “elitist” museums and gallery audiences of the existence of “other” publics/participants. However, such “other” audiences often turn out to be difficult to control and manipulate, and are frequently excluded from any possible recognition (e.g., in the end, they are merely recorded on a documentary video).

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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/