In the last three decades, the art world has witnessed a surge in collaborative practices. Often referred to as ‘the social turn’, this new field of inquiry is rooted in a renewed interest both in the historical avant-garde of the early 20th century and in the social movements of the 1960s and ’70s, drawing on references such as the work of Allan Kaprow and feminist art in the US, and the Fluxus happenings and Situationism in Europe. First published in 1998, Nicholas Bourriaud’s L’Esthétique relationnelle (Relational Aesthetics, English translation 2002) provided a timely account of this expanding field and propelled what had thus far been a marginal art form – open-ended, participatory projects – into the institutional mainstream.
In the wake of the economic crisis of 2008, the political regained a sense of urgency in art, entailing greater impatience with the exhibition format and the institutional framework – which, given Bourriaud’s emphasis on the obsolescence of the art object, had still seemed quite central to his interpretation. Three recent publications – Education for Socially Engaged Art by Pablo Helguera (Jorge Pinto Books, 2011); Living as Form, the catalogue for the eponymous 2011 exhibition, edited by Nato Thompson (co-published by Creative Time and MIT Press, 2012); and Claire Bishop’s Artificial Hells (Verso, 2012) – whilst presenting three distinct approaches to participatory practices, all firmly place themselves outside the frame of reference of ‘relational aesthetics’.
The first difficulty these authors encounter when addressing the subject is how to refer to it. Helguera advocates the ‘socially engaged art’ moniker, which he promptly turns into its acronym ‘sea’. In his words, ‘sea’ concerns a specific set of works that ‘feature the experience of their own creation as a central element’. Intended as an introductory text, Education for Socially Engaged Art fully embraces the bullet-point style. Though Helguera raises interesting issues, he tends to sacrifice critical engagement for didactical expediency.
Thompson, the Chief Curator at Creative Time in New York, accepts the designation ‘sea’, albeit with some reservations, although by virtue of their unsettling nature, the practices concerned necessarily imply a re-evaluation of exactly what might be identified as ‘art’, the ‘social’ or even ‘engagement’. Accordingly, Thompson also doesn’t discriminate between ‘art’ and ‘non-art’. Living as Form – which is the culmination of a series of international projects and an eponymous exhibition held at the historic Essex Street Market in New York last October – lists around 100 projects and interventions which were not originally thought of as ‘art’ by their initiators or participants, most notably WikiLeaks, but also NGOs such as the United Indian Health Services or the US Social Forum, and even Cairo’s Tahrir Square protesters. Furthermore, in the spirit of this all-inclusive attitude, Thompson doesn’t attempt to discriminate between sincerely engaged projects and exploitative manoeuvres. Alongside Ultra-red’s War on the Poor (2007) – a compilation of soundfiles collected from fellow artists in response to the question: ‘What is the sound of the war on the poor?’ – there are projects such as Vik Muniz’s Pictures of Garbage (2008), a series of photographs based on illusionist compositions of rubbish arranged by a troop of Brazilian catadores, or waste pickers, following directions given by Muniz using a laser pointer from a mezzanine. Thompson sums up his analysis by quoting Tania Bruguera’s quip that it is ‘time to put the urinal back in the restroom’. Yet he omits from the survey one of the most interesting examples of how performance and politics make for strange bedfellows: Antanas Mockus, former mayor of Bogotá, Colombia who, during his reign employed performative actions as a way to raise public awareness for issues ranging from traffic violations to women’s rights (and who participated in the recent, politics-themed Berlin Biennale 7).
Faced with Thompson’s non-judgmental approach, it is easy to side with Bishop’s claim, advanced in Artificial Hells, that the field of socially engaged art is plagued by an uncritical charitableness, which contravenes rather than advances the pursuit of social justice. Bishop also points out that, insofar as all art ‘responds to its environment’, all art can subsequently be said to be socially engaged. On the other hand, to claim that all art is political is not the same as saying that all art is politically progressive. Thus, contrary to Thompson and Helguera, Bishop opts for the term ‘participatory art’ over ‘sea’, maintaining that the former ‘connotes the involvement of many people’ but avoids ‘the ambiguities of social engagement’.
Participation, Bishop argues, is the determining feature of community-focused projects because the rhetoric of the whole field is often based on the Marxist belief that certain types of labour induce alienation while others retain a sense of wholesomeness. From that perspective, art that fails to ‘activate’ its audience – to turn passive spectators into active agents – is often said to dovetail with a compliant mode of reception, which reinforces the logic of consumerism. Yet, as Bishop accurately points out, neoliberalism voids this distinction, turning every worker into a self-styled entrepreneur. Bishop herself, however, stretches the term ‘participation’ to include all forms of remunerated work, as well as involuntary or even unwitting attendance, whilst she replaces the attempt to challenge alienation with a plea for perversion, and the call for empowerment with an apologia of agonism.
Hence, Bishop goes on to propose a reassessment of Modernism through the lens of theatre rather than of painting (Clement Greenberg, Michael Fried) or of the readymade (Rosalind Krauss, Hal Foster, Benjamin Buchloh). What Bishop means by theatre, however, is a type of practice ‘in which people constitute the central artistic medium and material’ rather than a critical enquiry into a mode of presentation rooted also in time instead of solely in space. By failing to address that point, Artificial Hells still implicitly adheres to the idea of art as an image-based (rather than narration-based) form; the only difference being that it now deals with another medium: people. In keeping with this approach, Bishop traces a genealogy of formats that use people as their material back to Futurism and Dadaism; Bolshevik historical re-enactments; the Artist Placement Group’s ‘incidental persons’; the Situationist International and the Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel; as well as the Argentinean project Tucumán Arde. Additionally, Bishop focuses on projects that manifest what she terms ‘social Sadism’, such as Oscar Masotta’s To Induce the Spirit of the Image (1966), in which the artist lined up elderly working-class people under piercing artificial light, or Oscar Bony’s The Worker’s Family (1968), a real working-class family put on display on a pedestal.
While I agree with the notion that aesthetic experience is fundamental in effecting – to use the same Rancièrian terminology as the author – a ‘redistribution of the sensible’, the type of proposals Bishop elects as ‘critically complex’ all seem to share the same antagonistic approach to their audience: they are either shocking or salacious or both. Whereas it is easy to see in Masotta’s work the blueprint for contemporary artists like Santiago Sierra, the author’s claim that ‘painful pleasure’ has transgressive potential seems rather old-fashioned, since, whilst the Marquis de Sade still needed to painstakingly stage his ethical nihilism, nowadays there is, as Gilles Deleuze has put it, an ‘acquired Sade’ – Sadism has become a part of mainstream culture.
Furthermore – and as Helguera rightly points out – confrontation has been the currency of the art world ever since the inception of Modernism, and if artists such as Sierra, Christoph Schlingensief and Artur Żmijewski seem to make ‘significant conceptual statements’ (Helguera) that’s because their audiences are trained to recognize these gestures as art, partaking in a long lineage of artistic practices that couple Futurism’s belligerence with Pop’s cynical reification. Bishop calls such strategies the ‘negation of the negation’. Yet – with the notable exception of Jeremy Deller’s re-enactment of a 1984 clash between miners and policemen (Battle of Orgreave, 2001) – all of the author’s examples demonstrate a perfect closure between what is and what could be. What they fail to do is to open up a dialectical dimension that would help make more apparent a dissonance or flaw in the ideological compact, rendering it possible for change to occur.
Ana Teixeira Pinto is a writer from Lisbon who lives in Berlin. She is currently finishing her PhD at Humboldt University, and is a regular contributor to frieze d/e, Art Agenda and Mousse, among other publications.
First published in Issue 149