Promises and the failure of promises
“Free education” provided by participatory projects is one of the justifications for expanding the program of educational museums and other art institutions. Apart from this positive aspect of participatory practices, they have also been the key model for perpetuating the use of free labor in the art industry, which led me elsewhere to propose a mandatory budgetary item in such projects that could be called a “participatory budget” (Milevska 2014). (*10) All this shows that the second type of participatory art is not necessarily more successful in terms of fulfillment of its promise, dubbed “felicitous acts” by J. A. Austin in the context of his Speech Act Theory.
According to Austin, the difference between what one says and what one does depends on the context and circumstances and hence the context can substantially affect fulfillment of a promise.*10 *(10) The second kind of participatory art is thus even more reliant on the socio-political context than the first. Such projects’ “success” is also ever more resistant to a simple evaluation of their impact exactly due to the contradictions between the artistic and social positions, when the stage is not a theater stage in Austin’s terms, but instead, the general political arena determines the art projects’ influences. Therefore, I consider it more challenging to focus on the promises and the reasons for the failure of such promises in the second type of participatory art practices.
It is important to state that participatory art practices’ problems in fulfilling the promises of democracy and emancipation (in terms of calling for equality in terms of ethnicity, gender, class, race, sexuality, and disability) are directly linked to the context of the contemporary neoliberal society in which they operate. The artists’ initial expectations may be leveled by caution and a self-critical approach, whereby the impact of the projects is presented more realistically, but the rhetoric of many participatory projects resonates with neoliberal political rhetoric. I would therefore like to locate the main reason for the failure of such a systemic “mission impossible” within the inner contradictions of contemporary democratic societies rather than in the organization or structure of such art projects. In whatever way participation is to be discussed in the context of art, it always necessarily refers to a certain “we” and to a specific identification with a particular community wherein members of different sub-groups (audience members, professional groups, homeless people, or children) become co-existing parts.
One part of this “we” is the artist, curator, art institution, or even the state (in some public art projects) that supposedly cares for the invisible, marginalized, or neglected “other” as the counter-part of the very same “we.” The problem with this imaginary “we” is that it almost always exists for the period of the particular art event, with rare examples where the artists create self-sustainable projects that continue even when they leave. Long term participatory projects that do not function only for the duration of the exhibitions, but are planned well in advance in terms of structure, organization, projected aims, and also secure funding for all project participants have much better chances of achieving their expected goals or declared promises.