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).