You are on page 1of 10

Suzana Milevska

Participatory Art: A Paradigm Shift from Objects to Subjects
The paradigm shift from establishing relations between objects and an audience to
relations between the subject in the public realm and artists that has recently taken place
in the field of art, has been highly influenced by philosophical or sociological theories of
democratization of art and its institutional structures.


To a great extent, the main aim of

participatory art overlaps with a deconstruction of the renowned hierarchies between
“high” and “low” art or culture, already at work in “new genre public art”, a term coined
by Susanne Lacy.
One can distinguish two different types of participatory art projects that inevitably
comprise different relations and issues of participation. The first type, based on the
various waves of artistic and curatorial/institutional critique, is concerned with
participation within the art system and deals with the relation between the a) art
institution – audience, b) artist – art institution (museum, gallery), c) artist – curator, etc.
The other type of participatory art practice deals with the participation within a
democratic society in general. It challenges issues such as social inclusion – with
reference to ethnicity, gender, race, and class – of different communities and individuals
in all societal structures, not only within the art system. However, I want to point to a
certain paradox: that such a “participatory shift” in the arts simultaneously creates new
hierarchies and differentiation, new fears and obstacles.
This is not the same as saying that participatory art is overrated, or as to
criticizing it for overemphasizing social and ethical values over aesthetic and formal
components. The debate that has recently ignited over these issues mostly overlooks one
of the most important impacts of participatory art, which has less to do with any
discussion of the inner art structures or art relations, but is rather focused on the
differentiation of art audiences. 2
Aiming to open the art institutions to a more profound involvement of the
audience in the process of artistic practice and production, the tendency towards
participation produces new distinctions and “elites” by inviting the audience to different


ethnic or racial stereotypes) hunting from some hidden spaces and frightening relations of power of art institutions. simultaneously include a certain doing away with existing hierarchies. While many similar phenomena in the past that dealt with or fought for social and economic well-being of different communities were commissioned in order to strengthen the central power of the commissioner (the state. participatory art deconstructs its own power. art blogs. On the other hand. It is. In the time of YouTube. there is still a specter of some obsolete fixed identities (as in national. can be used as even stronger means for exercising biopower in Foucaultian terms and cultural control. commercial galleries or other art institutions that still perpetuate the system of art exhibitions based on the presentation of a work of art on a pedestal. additional novelty in contemporary participatory-driven art derives from the fact that today. video game patches and other ways of interaction amongst artists.levels of direct involvement. dispersed and relational phenomenon that can not be controlled by a centralized state apparatus. or the funding agency). or through art activism. very important to state that the art processes and projects that include participation of different audiences. However. socially and politically engaged art. although some similar antecedent art discourses and practices anticipated contemporary theory and 2 . it is not surprising that there are still many state-governed museums. Such differentiation of audience can lead to the development of more diversified art and cultural policies among curators and art administrators but also towards a greater awareness among the “elitist” museum and gallery audience of the existence of “other” publics/participants that are not easy to handle and manipulate. Even though ethnic. By deconstructing hierarchies that have always already been established among different social and economic classes and cultures. culture becomes a fluid. such as surveillance cameras. therefore. CCTV. the private benefactor. audience and media. Philosophical or sociological theories today are mainly appropriated through postconceptual. the computerized and (de)centralized systems of control. transformative and mobile phenomena that enter and transform the inherited cultural values from the past. cultural and gender identity and self become destabilized. artists initiate such projects on their own.

The shift also makes visible the marginalized groups of citizens who have been excluded from their own social environment or from participation in public cultural life. 3 .  Observational Arts Participation . Among many different categorizations of various participatory art practices I present these suggested by the art market researcher Alan Brown:  Inventive Arts Participation . Participation is a demanding activation of certain relations that are initiated and directed by the artists and often incited by art institutions. the artists of participatory projects create an interface that is well-prepared in advance and is highly contextualized in a specific social.practice.encompasses arts experiences motivated by some expectation of value.  Interpretive Arts Participation .experiencing art. Theories.  Ambient Arts Participation . This shift happens both as a kind of inevitable response of the art practice towards the redefinition of the concept of community and communitarian. organizing and collecting art according to one’s own artistic sensibility.engages the audience in an act of artistic creation that is unique and idiosyncratic. are not always helpful in locating the gaps between the promise of participation in theory and its shortcomings in concrete art projects in different contexts. While inviting the audience to actively participate. sometimes becoming the only goal of certain art projects. cultural and political environment. and as a kind of a follow-up to the societal demand for inclusion.a creative act of self-expression that reinvigorates and adds value to pre-existing works of art. consciously or unconsciously.  Curatorial Arts Participation – a creative act of selecting. however. I am actually interested in the promises made for establishing certain unique relations with subjects in such projects and in taking into account the reflection of these projects in the real life of the participants and not only within the “laboratory conditions” of art galleries. that is not consciously selected.

marginalized or 4 . structures it. being-in-common and belonging and that we live without relations. 9 In whatever way participation is to be discussed in the context of art. He goes as far as saying that ‘there is no “self” except by virtue of a “with.’ 6 Central to his philosophy is the concept of coessentiality of being-with.” which.” that we have forgotten the importance of being-together. 4 Nancy’s concept of being is always already being with. or even the state (in some public art projects) that supposedly cares for the invisible. neither is that we composed of subjects. 8 Here Nancy reminds us that the aporia of the “we” is actually the main aporia of intersubjectivity. According to him. These include the philosophical concept of ‘being singular plural’ as it is formulated by Jean-Luc Nancy or the ‘coming community’ described by Giorgio Agamben.” Even when the conditions of participation of the audience or a selected group or community of people are clearly marked. Politically driven participatory projects that include selected audiences 3 Let me here go back to certain theoretical concepts that I find relevant for art participatory projects in order to be able to locate the reasons for the profound critique directed at some participatory projects. being always entails with as an inevitable conjunction that links different singularities. homeless people. in fact. he refers to the problem that. In order to attain this knowledge and the praxis of “we”. it is always the “we” that needs to be created in order for a project to start functioning as a participatory one. professional groups.” and to a specific identification with a particular community wherein different members of selected communities (members of audience. according to Nancy. we cannot truly say “we. the curator. the art institution. The other part of this “we” is the artist. 5 Nancy does not believe in any philosophical solipsism and in any ‘philosophy of the subject in the sense of the final [infinite] closure in itself of a for-itself. at this moment.’ 7 When Nancy claims that the sharing of the world is co-implication of existence. it is important to understand that we is not a subject in terms of selfidentification. or children) are to become co-existing parts of a certain “we. it always necessarily refers to a certain “we. and he points out the impossibility of pinning down some universal “we” that always consists of the same components.

the clearly distinct inoperative communities that refuse to be state “accomplices” can always be more easily seduced through art methods and practices because they are less invested in high-level politics. however. Often the lack of the feeling of belonging to a common group. Agamben’s warning that what the State cannot tolerate in any way. 11 For Nancy. in this regard. the fear of communitarian work is related to the fear of totalitarianism. However. with rare examples where the artists create self-sustainable projects that continue even when they leave with the circus. 10 Interestingly enough. in fact. Therefore. Consider. cultural or political commonalities. 12 For Nancy.neglected “other” as the counter-part of the very same “we. 14 5 . happens exactly when the conditions of participation are not based on strict commonality and predictable decisions for participation. he suggests that we should re-think the question of community. fragmentation and suspension: ‘Community is made of interruption of singularities…community is not the work of singular beings. is that the singularities form a community without affirming an identity. but it is never stated what has happened to the previous parts/participants. community occurs in situations of interruption. or on a clear identification with the artist or the concept in terms of social. especially when they are controlled by institutions. a real participatory effect. In addition. has been attached to any communist idea. nor can it claim them as its works…’ 13 This interpretation of community as being intrinsically inoperative and fragmentary helps us to understand the way in which participatory art projects function or fail to function in practice. the failure to share a common identity with the artist/initiator prevents a thorough participatory effect. which ever since Stalin. the always newly created “we” each time contains different parts and counter-parts. that humans co-belong without any representable condition of belonging (even in the form of a simple presupposition.” The usual problem with this imaginary “we” is that it mostly exists only during the period of the particular art event.

and is related to Debord’s claim that our society is ‘a society where human relations are no longer “directly experienced”. 15 The elaborated ethical research principles already at work in the social sciences and humanities may be much more helpful to artists to appreciate the communities and subjects to whom they address their projects and to create projects with the social relevance that they aimed for in the first place. she will not even call it “participation” but rather “involvement. Nevertheless. the most frightening community for the State.Similarly to Nancy. there are many contradictions at work in participatory art practices. it is often confused with relational art. is the one that rejects all identity and every condition of belonging and which is based on those singularities which want not to belong but to appropriate belonging itself. which was dense and “trouble-free”.’19 Furthermore by referring to Althusser’s notion of ‘state of encounter imposed on people’. Churchman defines participation as decision-making by unelected. Without that decision-making element in participation. In fact.’17 In line with Debord’s critique of representation and its mediation of the world. according to him. The main question for Nicolas Bourriaud in his Relational Aesthetics stemmed from Guy Debord’s »Society of Spectacle«. with the city as a ‘tangible symbol and historical setting of the state of society.” 16 However. or the incorporation of community members in planning and design. Bourriaud asks: ‘Is it still possible to generate relationships with the world. In addition. in a practical field of art-history traditionally earmarked for their “representation”?’18 Nicolas Bourriaud contrasted Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “natural state”. Bourriaud interpreted this system of intensive encounters as a direct 6 . non-appointed citizens. preexisting and socially defined community. or if decisions are made by elected or appointed representatives. Agamben thinks of being-in-common as distinct from community. participatory art projects are distinct from sociologically highly evaluated communitarian projects and they differ exactly in their ability to circumvent the conditions of belonging to a particular.

as ‘an art form where the substrate is formed by intersubjectivity. the answer to this question lies precisely in the direct relations that artists can establish through their art activities as “social interstices”. however. To go back to contemporary participatory art and to its structural issues. is an effect of urbanisation. my argument is not only related to the large numbers of the virtual participants. effectively explain the participation of these relational projects within overall societal functions. it needs to be emphasized here that the question “what is the real participation?” sounds inadequate in a situation when the concept of real. here. 21 One of the main critiques of the “relative” impact of relational theory is the question to what extent this theory is applicable to art influenced by postcolonial critique and in the conditions of globalization of art and global markets. bloggers and other internet prosumers. when art is understood as a call for revolution and its success or failure is measured according to its 7 . has undergone so many different interpretations and opened up a new territory for exploration. It does not.’ to explain the basis for his relational aesthetics’. and which takes “being-together” as a central theme. There is another problem with participatory art in activist circles. Therefore. The original text of Relational Aesthetics does not contain any reflections or examples of projects based on relations from the previous periods in history neither it reflects on similar art projects produced and presented anywhere in the world but in the Western centers and in their renown art institutions. it is obvious that participatory art projects on the one hand can easily be captured in the vicious circle of criticism without taking into account their positive perspective.source for linked artistic practices. On the other hand. according to him. which.’ 20 For him. 22 And. He uses the Marxian term social interstice as a space in human relations that suggests alternative ‘trading possibilities than those in effect within this system. This kind of projects can more easily be welcomed by the society as a preferred mild social critique instead of a more direct political critique of social inequality and injustice. they often end without giving any proposition for “real” participation and this is still the main starting point of the critique of participatory art today. How can one define the difference between the real participation of citizens in one art project and the virtual participation of internet communities of chatters in chat rooms. and not only in art.

Furthermore through such a subtle transfer of their programming and societal responsibilities to the artists they instrumentalise participatory art as a kind of “liability reserve” in relation to their societal role. They may also facilitate among the common public an overcoming of its fear of elitist art institutions and contemporary art in general. This calls for further distinctions to be made between participatory art projects depending on the different concrete historical. cultural policy decision makers) and the wider socio-political and economical context in which art is produced and practiced. To conclude. In summary. however. NOTES 8 . it became obvious that by organizing participatory art projects art institutions often compensate for the lack of establishing and developing a profound and long-term relation with their audiences. audiences. only the ways in which they are entangled differ. On the one side one could not agree more that participatory art projects establish a new and more productive context for such entanglements and open up new potentialities for a bigger societal impact of contemporary art practices in general. The question about the relation between reality and art cannot be resolved by taking a stand and establishing a steady hierarchy between the two of them.revolutionary prerogatives. the paradigm shift from objects to subjects in participatory art cannot be discussed apart of institutional and societal roles of all involved parties (artists. The interpretation of art as agency that should circumvent the main societal and ideological obstacles that artists face outside of democratic systems. institutions. Reality and art have always worked together. On the other side. prescripts and imposes overly great expectations from a safe position of the impact of art activists’ projects on society. cultural and socio-political contexts where they have been produced. I want to argue that art has yet to find a position that can reconcile the contradictions between these two radical ends: between ‘critique for critique's sake’ and art turned into a revolutionary means.

The Inoperative Community 31. 75.1 For different views and debates on participatory art practices and theories see: Maria Lind.: MIT Press. 2000).” 12 Nancy.” 10 Sep. Being Singular Plural. <http://www.Critical Modalities. “Not-Art: Every garden a munition plant”. Giorgio Agamben.xtraonline. Suzana Milevska.htm#5>. 1 Sept. The Inoperative Community. trans. Claire as a part of the conference Field Work: Reports from the Fields of Visual Culture. <http://www.” 10. Robert D.html#114533198048342091>. <http://leisurearts. 5 Ibid. MA. 3 Alan Brown.springerin. 15 Agamben. Maria Lind .. 1991) 80-81. Participation Documents of Contemporary Art. “Actualisation of Space: The Case of Oda Projesi. 6.htm>. pp. 2006. “Participatory Art: A Paradigm Shift from Objects to Subjects. 8 Ibid. 11 Jean-Luc Nancy. . edited by Peter Connor (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press. The Coming Community (Minneapolis. 29. The Coming Community 86. edited by Claire Bishop 94.php?textid=1761&lang=en>. 178-183.blogspot. Cambridge. Aug. 15. 75. 2006. 9 6 7 Ibid.artsjournal. The Coming Community 87. <www. 4 Jean-Luc Nancy. <http://www. 13 Nancy.Tactical/Agnostic Artist . no. 1993).Aesthetic/Ethical . 10 Thomas Hirschhorn’s project Bataille’s Monument during Documenta 11 is a typical example of a participatory project that provokes many hopes among the targeted local community that later can not be fulfilled (a criticism addressed to Hirschhorn during the public debate after his lecture held in Victoria Miro Gallery in London. Richardson and Anne O’Byrne (Stanford. ‘The Five Modes of Arts Participation. 2006).at/dyn/heft_text. “The Social Turn: Collaboration and its Discontents. 2 “Claire Bishop .2004. 2003). vol. 2/2006.php>. The Inoperative Community 2. Shana Lutker.’ January 31.” Artforum. 25 April 2006.Ted Purves. Nancy writes about the inscription of “infinite resistance. February 2006.” springerin. XLVI. 2006. MN: Minnesota University Press. 2006. organised by Goldsmiths College’s Visual Culture Department. London. CA: Stanford University Press. 14 Agamben.

17 Nicolas Bourriaud. 22 prosumers is a word combination of producers/consumers used mostly in electronic art theory. 31 Jan. 9. . Relational Aesthetic 15. “Yes in My Front Yard: Participation and the Public Art Process”. 2002.Marie Gee.communityarts. 16 18 Bourriaud. <http://www. Relational Aesthetic 15.php>. High Performance #69/70. Relational Aesthetic 9. 2006. 21 Bourriaud. 20 Bourriaud. 19 Bourriaud. Spring/Summer 1995. Relational Aesthetic 16. Relational Aesthetics.