I began Claire Bishop’s book Participation in this seminar with the idea that the theories and opinions expressed would focus more on the role or identity of the artist as an insider or outsider of the communities affected/influenced by their art. I found instead that this book focused much more on the artists’ attempts to involve their audience/viewers more in the artistic process and experience, empowering their viewers to take a more active role in their democracy, political as well as artistic.
I would like to highlight ideas I found provocative in the various essays contained in this volume.
Bishop Introduction/Piper Notes on Funk:
Bishop discusses how many of the artists are trying to “collapse the distinction between performer and audience, professional and amateur, production and reception.” The ultimate goal of this new participatory art is to create a community of viewers who are active, empowered, emancipated and self-determined by providing a more “positive and non-hierarchical social model” that helps to restore the social bond through a “collective elaboration of meaning.” I feel that the strongest example of this elaboration of meaning came through with Adrian Piper’s notes on her Funk project. Education was one of the chief tools used in her exercise. As the audience understood the cultural and historical background, meanings, themes and movements utilized in the dance, they began to participate in the movement and in the dialogue. Alienation was replaced by knowledge and discourse. As a teacher I have found that the real weapon against racism, sexism, intolerance, and hatred is to eradicate ignorance, the glue that holds prejudice, fanaticism, extremism and chauvinism together. I also appreciate her embodied approach to the project as people moved their bodies physically and experienced the event.
Ranciere’s Problems and Transformations:
Jacques Ranciere writes that “it is not a misunderstanding of the existing state of affairs that nurtures the submission of the oppressed, but a lack of confidence in their own capacity to transform it.” Relational art “thus intends to create not only objects but situations and encounters.” I believe that art can empower people, making them more communicative and participatory, because it has always formed a base for dialogue. Only through exchanges with others can we find our voices and learn how to express our beliefs and most importantly learn how to defend them.
Students are afraid of things that are ambiguous. They are interested in a defined ending where all the T’s are crossed and all the I’s are dotted. Public education in Virginia reinforces this definitive view of the world and of learning in general by making their very graduation dependent upon passing a standardized multiple choice test where the answers are either right or wrong. I think that we all recognize how the gray areas are sometimes the most important in the living of life, because all important distinctions in life are subtle, not simplistic. Many are wary of “the fraternity of metaphors” and the multiplicity of meanings found in art. Sometimes art requires one to think and I am very afraid that, as a managed society, we prefer to simply be told the answers and the meanings.
Nancy’s The Inoperative Community:
Jean-Luc Nancy writes that “community is what takes place always through others and for others.” I think of Lewis Hyde’s book The Gift when Ranciere writes that “by offering small services, the artist repairs the weaknesses in the social bond.” I consider my art to be my gift and I find that I have formed many relationships whenever I have shared my gifts with others.
DeBord’s Towards a Situationist International:
I have also observed the addiction to spectacle, identified by Guy Debord in his Situationist movement, in the high school where I work each day. Debord identifies the need to “broaden the non-mediocre portion of life, to reduce its empty moments as much as possible.” He calls for a relational art that will heal the social bond that capitalism has fractured. Debord writes how “the working class’s incapacity to become politicized should likely be sought amidst this abundance of televised baseness.” I am afraid that the spectacle of television really has had a negative effect on the students I interact with each day. The real life shows on T.V. encourage an egotistical lifestyle where the viewer is to be amused by the debasement of others. Women are still used as objectified tools for marketing. Comfort is the drug of choice in our culture, and television is its generic form, cheap and readily available. We see injustices committed, wars waged and people dying from hunger or abuse every day, but we deaden our emotions and senses with 500 channels of mind-numbing entertainment to appease our fractured lives.
I did find myself cringing though when I read Debord’s “the idea of eternity is the basest one a man could conceive of regarding his acts.” I recognize postmodernism’s attraction to temporary art and its reflection of an ever changing society. I also can see how Debord wants to shed the “relics of the past” that he considers destructive to his movement and ideas. Yet I must interject how important tradition is and how its perspective carries great knowledge. I believe that a sense of place is important in overcoming alienation so I don’t think we can affirm temporariness as a basis for meaning and value. If Debord’s displeasure with the notion of eternity is its invitation to leave this world to live in another, then it should be opposed. Eternity as an abstraction is a destructive notion if it separates us from our lives as embodied creatures in a particular time and place. Yet it is a constructive metaphor if it reminds us of two essential characteristics of our identity as historical creatures: first, we can transcend our finite time and place through remembering a past in which we did not and cannot live, understanding a present that is always coming into being and thus never complete, and imagining a future that is yet to be. At the same time, infinity reminds us that our history is finite and contingent: we once were not here and soon we will be gone. Holding these two together means recognizing that each of us gets a small chunk of eternity and thus most live in and act of it fully and responsibly. One must think and live like the Shakers: build houses and barns to last a hundred years and more while being ready to leave this world in the blink of an eye. Just so with art.
Eco’s The Poetics of the Open Work:
Eco reminds us that the community based artist will always need to reflect on the relationship between the contemplation and utilization of art. Is it art if it is too useful? Where is the line between social work and art, ecology and art and religion and art? I will spend some time this semester wrestling with these question because I believe that it is important to be able to name things correctly in order to participate in these important dialogues regarding art and society. We must have an understanding of definitions as a basis for dialogue or we will be talking in circles with no real understanding of what the other is saying.
Kaprow’s Notes on the Elimination of the Audience:
Happenings are still a type of art that I think of as “outside my ordinary.” Allan Kaprow believes that “it is a mark of mutual respect that all persons involved in a Happening be willing and committed participants who have a clear idea what they are to do.” I agree, and I am appalled at Graciela Carnevale’s act of locking people inside a gallery so that they can experience how people feel when they are controlled by others and lose the freedom of their personal movement. How can he simply assume the “responsibility for the consequences and implications” and this justifies his actions? How does this empower his audience?
Bourriard’s Relational Aesthetics:
Nivolas Bourriaud, in his Relational Aesthetics, calls for the creation of an interstice—“a space in social relations which, although it fits more or less harmoniously and openly into the overall system, suggests possibilities for exchanges other than those that prevail within the system.” This is what I am hoping to create in my practicum this semester. The class I have created looks good and acceptable in the course description catalogue but this class is very different from the other more traditional courses because work created will be made throughout the school in small groups where students will be in dialogue with other students and teachers.
Bourriard writes the “general mechanization of social functions is gradually reducing our relational space.” A primordial scream of assent escapes me as I read this passage. The “thumb generation” I call them, those kids that carry phones and ipods which isolates them as they incessantly try to communicate with someone not present. Art is a state of encounter. I am surrounded by people who are not fully present as they seem dependent upon a constant contact with disembodied voices and texts. I believe strongly in embodied learning, creating and living. Piper writes that her dancers felt “less alienated from this aesthetic idiom after having participated in it directly.”
I disagree with Bourriard’s idea that “an exhibition is a privileged place where instant communities like this can be established.” An exhibition does not equal a community. Community takes time, energy, care and communication in a particular place. I find his use of the term community shallow and would prefer he use the word encounters or dialogues instead which can anticipate the dynamics of community but cannot equal them.
Fosters’ Chat Rooms:
I very much appreciated how the book includes an article by Hal Foster that expresses his reservations about collaborative and participatory art. Foster warns that the effects of participatory art can be “more chaotic than communicative.” As I work on my practicum that involves a large number of people, materials and locations, I recognize the need for organization and facilitation. Chaos can lead to alienation and confusion which can only further the disconnection, dislocation and helplessness people suffer. “At times, the death of the author has meant not the birth of the reader, so much as the befuddlement of the viewer.” I make an attempt to include education in my projects whether it is historical, cultural or topical to allow as many people to take part in the conversation or the experience.
As an artist who is interested in the art and culture of things local and vernacular, I agree with his belief that “the everyday now turns out to be a much more fertile terrain than pop culture.” I have always said that the real life happenings of my neighbors are much better than any drama on television. There are great stories shared between and among generations and interesting displays of folk art created in various yards. I am attracted to Outsider Art and the way the vernacular and culture of the artists’ surroundings influence their work.
Foster reminds us of Sartre’s words, “Hell is other people.” I feel this deeply at times when I want to shut myself in my home and lock out the misery, oppression and devastation caused by those other people, the people I love, like, dislike or even hate. All those people who I ultimately can’t or don’t want to live without. I am a social being who lives and works in various communities and publics but I recognize my profound need for privacy, time and space to reflect and re-energize.