Art and Participation

I spoke this week at NCAD in Dublin on ethics and participation/ collaboration, in response to Artur Żmijewski’s ‘Two Monuments’ project for the Firestation. I thought they main sticking point would be the apparently unethical way that Żmijewski treats his participants so I concentrated my argument on what I called ‘the dark side of ethics’ (ethics as the specific force that charges people to stone others, etc). However, as the discussion evolved, it appeared instead that the sticking point is Żmijewski’s participants are not permitted to participate enough.

My initial argument about ‘the dark side of participation’ went like this. The value of participation is hardly ever challenged these days. Participation is a value. When, historically, participation was strictly differentiated, such as when only propertied men were allowed to participate in elections, participation was valued in a limited sense. The participation of non-participants was actively resisted. (We have seen the tail-end of this recently in the UK when the campaign for prisoners to be given the vote was resisted.) With only a few exceptions, today, it would be absurd to suggest that less participation is better than more participation.

Hence, as well as thinking of participation as progressive – as preferable to elitism, exclusion and bureaucracy, for instance – we need to think of the value of participation as completely dependent upon the value of the project to which one participates

However, as the discussion got underway it became clear that questions of power between the artist and their participants have become seemingly insurmountable. We might even say that we have a new version of the concept of ‘the death of the author’ today. Instead of this referring to the emancipation of interpretation, and the reader, from the meanings or intentions of the author, the problem with the author, after the ‘social turn’, is that they are in control, exert power and so on. One of the leading questions asked about The work was whether the participants had any say in how the film was shot and edited. This seems like a symptomatic concern today. It tells us a lot about how art and artists are being routinely interrogated. And it is extremely an flawed interrogation.

People in the artworld seem to have subscribed wholesale to the idea that participation or collaboration is an athletic sport in which artists must compete for their form of participation to be deeper, stronger, faster, longer and purer. The ideal form of participation or collaboration then hangs over every project that even hints at participation. This is not true of the experience of the spectator, who remains outside the work. Nobody seems to walk into a gallery to find a video installation and then immediately walks out in protest at not being invited to make the film. We haven’t yet seen hundreds of visitors leaving galleries because they were not allowed to co-produce the paintings that were on show. Nevertheless, we seem to have lost the ability to value the whole spectrum of forms of address when it comes to socially engaged art. If the participants are not included early enough and have adequate power in relation to the production of the project, then we seem to feel that something has gone wrong.

The artworld seems to be populate by people who don’t know how to be guests. The insistence that participants are accorded a significant role within the project is the equivalent of turning down an invitation to a friend’s wedding because you feel that there shouldn’t be a distinction between those who are getting married and those who are witnessing it – I’ll only come if I get married too, the ethical participant seems to say. Likewise, an invitation to dinner would presumably be unethical unless you refused to cook the meal yourself but asked all who attended to participate in the shopping and cooking. Inequality in such circumstances is not damning; it is built into the relations of care. Let’s call it asymmetry. There is an asymmetrical relationship between host and guest, and there are pleasures in being the host and pleasures in being a guest. Equality cannot be forced onto these intersubjective relations without killing off the care and the pleasures of caring and being cared for.

The author has more power over their work than their participants. If we are troubled by the presence of power here, we might feel tempted to abolish the practices of authorship altogether – emboldened, perhaps, by a misapplication of concept of the ‘death of the author’ – but we would do better, I’d suggest by taking a leaf out of Walter Benjamin’s book and demanding instead that there needs to be more traffic between author and reader. The technology was already in place in the 1930s for everyone to be an author, he said, and the only reason why authorship was restricted to an elite was that the means of printing and publication were in the hands of capitalists. The only problem with the authorship of artists like Żmijewski is that more people do are not authors like this too. In the vibrant public sphere that we crave, we would not hope for fewer authors, but for more. And each author would retain control over their work. The trouble is not that artists control the works that they enter into the public sphere; the problem is that this is not as common enough.

Participation is the solution for the ethically oriented, but for the politically oriented, it is the universalization of authorship that holds more promise.


5 thoughts on “Art and Participation

  1. Hmmm, I completely agree with your finishing thoughts, Dave.

    However, I wonder if the issue here isn’t simply that a certain kind of emancipatory catholic rhetoric is appealing to institutions, who then go on to create false expectations of participatory work through their publicity and the way that they facilitate and follow up on such projects.

    After all, we are all authors, aren’t we? It can’t be helped – maybe because authorship is basically the consequence of failing to find consensus. For that reason, I’d suggest that what gets peoples’ backs up isn’t the question of control of the work (who really has control over their work?) but credit for it.

    I don’t think that the feeling of disappointment and promises broken can materialise from nothing.

    Something I found interesting your article was the reference to host and guest. I agree that there is pleasure in both roles, but surely this form of practice has proliferated in a regeneration and art-education culture in which the artist, on arriving for his or her site-specific project or residency, pretends the role of guest (‘grateful taker’) to some aspect of the locale, only later to receive – at least in terms of press, institution etc – credit (in money-capital and cultural-capital) for being host (‘generous giver’).

    While I can see productive outcomes stemming from a thoughtful investigation of these roles (and I realise that the terms as I’ve described them might be somewhat narrow), I can’t be surprised at a sense of dissatisfaction with this general pattern, and the consequent desire to be ” deeper, stronger, faster, longer and purer”.

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