Sept/Oct/Nov 2012

Social Works

Two surveys of participation-based art seek to define its possibilities

Sara Marcus


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Francis Al˙s, When Faith Moves Mountains, 2002.

It goes by several names and takes a range of forms, but as with so many protean phenomena, we know it when we see it. Participation-based art, social engagement, social practice: Art that takes relations between people as its medium is currently ascendant, with specialized MFA programs, new social-practice art prizes, and biennials all attesting to its rise. This past spring’s Berlin Biennale, which gave the city’s Occupy activists free rein over an exhibition hall in the Kunst-Werke, is only the latest prominent example. Works like Jeremy Deller’s Battle of Orgreave, 2001, a weekend-long event during which historical reenactors and Yorkshire locals rehashed a 1984 clash between police and striking miners; Phil Collins’s They Shoot Horses, 2004, in which a handful of Palestinian teenagers in Ramallah danced to Western pop hits for eight hours; and any number of arranged social interactions by Tino Sehgal have for some years been staples of museum exhibitions and art-magazine exegeses.

Yet if we’re now several decades and theoretical upheavals too late to still be asking whether or why these projects are art—embedded as they are in the networks, conversations, and institutions that make up the art universe—discussions about how they are art, and what this means, are arriving not a moment too soon. They have surfaced most recently in a pair of divergent yet overlapping books, a quasi exhibition catalogue and a scholarly volume, that illustrate some of the tensions and problems that this kind of work brings up.

The former book, Creative Time’s Living as Form, is a kitchen-sink survey of art and activism, profiling over a hundred social projects, from canonical artworks (Francis Al˙s’s When Faith Moves Mountains, 2002; Suzanne Lacy’s The Roof Is on Fire, 1994) to those whose status is more contested (Women on Waves, a group that sails a mobile abortion clinic around Europe) to, most provocative of all, projects that seem to have never made any bid to be included in such a context: WikiLeaks, Pirate Bay, the Tahrir Square demonstrations. The idea here is not so much to expand what can be considered art as it is to think beyond that category altogether: “If this work is not art,” Nato Thompson, who edited the volume and curated the fall 2011 exhibition of the same name, writes in the title essay, “then what are the methods we can use to understand its effects, affects, and impact?” He has described this project’s approach as a “cattle call” and quotes Donald Rumsfeld: “If you have a problem, make it bigger.” In other words, if artworks that look a lot like activism continue to give some people pause, then, Thompson proposes, we should bring projects that look even less like art into the mix, and see what happens.

The Living as Form project seems tailor-made, at first glance, to get art critic and scholar Claire Bishop’s eyes rolling. She is an integral participant in the conversations this book seeks to register and advance—in fact, she spoke in the program’s lecture series last year and contributed an essay to the present volume—but her approach differs dramatically from Thompson’s. For while Living as Form is largely celebratory and expansive, preferring to pose enormous questions rather than suggesting how to answer them, Bishop’s new book, Artificial Hells, takes the field to task for a certain critical and aesthetic sloppiness she sees arising from a reluctance to draw aesthetic distinctions, articulate a critical framework, or venture to discuss matters of quality. For the better part of a decade, Bishop has been arguing that a great deal of the art that travels under the label “social practice” (or other related designations) is neither politically efficacious nor aesthetically compelling, yet is given a sort of pass—exempted from critical rigor because its heart is in the right place. “It is . . . crucial,” she wrote in a much-debated Artforum article in 2006, “to discuss, analyze, and compare such work critically as art.” This is a 180-degree turn from Thompson’s gleeful aside in a Living as Form–connected talk he gave last year: “We’ll call them ‘artworks’ for now; we will destroy that as we go.”

An expanded version of Bishop’s Artforum piece serves as the first chapter of Artificial Hells, her bid to introduce precision and skepticism into a conversation that frequently tends toward the impressionistic and the utopian. It’s a capacious book, organized around a general argument that will be familiar to anybody who has read her major critical writings: Discussions about social practice tend to reject individual authorship too reflexively, while overvaluing collectivity and consensus; art that is antagonistic, that provokes difficult feelings (“unease, discomfort or frustration”), often yields a richer experience for viewer-participants than works that solicit cooperation; the failure of much social practice to attend seriously to the aesthetic experience of secondary audiences, who are not present as the work initially unfolds, is a grave liability.

Although Bishop’s and Thompson’s books are plainly in conversation, they also talk past each other, the authors attempting to cast the discussion in their own preferred terms. Living as Form is interested in social and political intent, while Bishop focuses on “participation”—a term that overlaps significantly, but not entirely, with the purview of Living. Bishop wants to talk about durable artistic “results” over ephemeral “process,” while Thompson is invested in how to change the world—the less said about art qua art, the better.

In Artificial Hells—the title comes from Andre Breton and refers to the difficult works Bishop favors—she develops her argument against an “ethical turn” in art criticism, in which artworks are judged based on how much they involve and empower non-artist “participants.” Empowering participants sounds far less stirring than changing the world, and her choice of the former wording highlights what she identifies as a constrained, NGO-ish cast to discussions about social practice. Such discussions, she argues, too often reflect the positivism of impact statements and grant proposals, social sciences and community development—angles that are not necessarily compatible with memorable art or radical social change. Bishop’s approach draws on the work of philosopher Jacques Rancičre, particularly The Politics of Aesthetics, in arguing that since the realm of the aesthetic is inherently political, it’s misguided to think art must be directly topical or model inclusive democratic activity in order to be engaged in politics. Throughout Artificial Hells, she offers a welcome dose of theoretical seriousness to the field. But her rhetoric occasionally distracts from her argument. At times, she frames issues in a way that nobody could agree with without sounding naive—she suggests, for instance, that certain (unnamed) politically minded artists are “upholding an unproblematised equation between artistic and political inclusion.”

Would the guilty artists please stand up? Those readers who already find social practice wishy-washy or tedious will likely nod in assent, but anybody who needs convincing—which will no doubt include much of this book’s audience—may be as skeptical as Grant Kester was of Bishop’s 2006 article on social practice, to which he retorted, “One would be hard pressed to find many contemporary artists or critics involved with politically engaged practice who would espouse such a simplistic position.” Yet in the best-case scenario, this approach will goad people who believe in social practice and its transformative possibilities into clarifying their own views, if only to free themselves from the positions Bishop sets out for them.

In Artificial Hells, she pieces together a history of twentieth-century artworks that have employed participation for a variety of purposes: support of state socialism in the public pageants of the Soviet Union, proto-Fascist bellicosity in Italian Futurism, the promotion of individual experiences of privatized consumption in later Communist bloc settings, dramatizations of autocracy in Argentina under military dictatorship. She aims to show that participation and democracy are not eternally linked, and furthermore that feel-good social art is not the only option. But to claim that participation is a valuable way to make progressive art, as many advocates do, is hardly to deny that it could find a place in other projects across the political spectrum. Still, such a prying apart and opening up of concepts and conventions is undeniably helpful, and the history Hells traces is an interesting, if only seldom galvanizing, patchwork of projects. Proposing that participation-based art has periodic heydays at times of political crisis and transformation, Bishop focuses on three such moments: 1917, the lead-up to 1968, and the aftermath of 1989. Her examples range from the well known (Dada, Happenings) to the more specialized (confrontational art events in Argentina, whimsical street art in Paris) and extend to recent formations such as the Artist Placement Group and the community arts movement in the UK.

Bishop’s overall schema opposes “a realm of useful, ameliorative and ultimately modest gestures,” preferring “singular acts that leave behind them a troubling wake.” (Who, after all, would opt for art that could be described the same way as flossing one’s teeth?) Confrontational art, Bishop argues—such as Christoph Schlingensief’s 2000 Please Love Austria, in which detained asylum seekers were boxed up in a shipping container, broadcast via webcam, and voted out of the country in pairs—does valuable work by making abstract oppressive social and political forces immediate. Moreover, she asserts convincingly, the tooth-flossing stuff is easily folded into the Western status quo, since art that aspires toward social problem-solving risks simply “mopping up the shortfalls of a dwindling welfare infrastructure”; and the network-based, volunteer-dependent character of this art reflects, rather than challenges, contemporary capitalism, which feeds us precarity dressed up as freedom.

Self-styled progressive art is an inadvertent running dog of the neoliberal state? These are fighting words, and one might have hoped Living as Form would come out swinging. But that’s not what the Creative Time book is up to. Primarily it’s a sourcebook, a starting point for further research, and a snapshot of critical conversation about the field. Its optimism can be infectious—look at how many different ways there are to do this stuff!—yet it’s a compromised vehicle. Many of the project descriptions that constitute the bulk of the book speak in vague grant-proposal language about mission (“doual’art invites contemporary artists to engage with the city of Douala in order to mold its identity and to bridge the gap between the community and contemporary art production”); often we must read between the lines to get a sense of what relations, or forms of living, come out of this work.

Meanwhile, the book’s images—which occupy nearly half the real estate in the “Projects” section—run the gamut. Some canonical works, such as Deller’s Battle of Orgreave and Al˙s’s When Faith Moves Mountains, are represented with expertly shot photographs of striking acts; at the other extreme, photos of Tania Bruguera’s Immigrant Movement International, 2011–, merely show a sign hanging by some elevated subway tracks, dim placards on an indoor clothesline, a clutch of people standing near a table. Allora and Calzadilla’s Tiza (Lima), 1998–2006, falls somewhere in the middle: In the photographs of the massive sticks of chalk placed by the artist duo outside the Peruvian Municipal Palace of Lima, of the political messages people marked on the plaza, and of the impromptu protest that arose, we can see something of the openness and expressivity of the action. Yet the photos carry little aesthetic charge.

They’re not meant to, of course. Much social practice is geared toward resisting a hypertrophied art market that commodifies everything it touches, and these artists rarely seem to prioritize the visual impact of the documentary traces their activities leave behind. Still, when Bishop laments that the open-endedness of innovative participatory exhibitions “is frequently experienced by the viewing public as a loss, since the process that forms the central meaning of this work is rarely made visible and explicit,” one can’t help but see her point. Living as Form supports her proposition that as social practice enters the world of exhibitions, books, and documentary websites, the question of how to communicate its essence to secondary audiences needs to be more seriously considered.

Commenting on this year’s politically minded Berlin Biennale, its curator, Artur Żmijewski, wrote of his hope “for a situation in which artists’ actions would become not only art, but could also reveal a political truth—something with the potential to change selected aspects of our shared reality, so that art would possess the power of politics but not its fear, opportunism, and cynicism.” This characterization of politics as a besmirched domain recalls Bishop’s astute observation in Artificial Hells that the rise of political art bespeaks “a lack of faith both in the intrinsic value of art as a de-alienating human endeavour (since art today is so intertwined with market systems globally) and in democratic political processes (in whose name so many injustices and barbarities are conducted).” Politics and art are two realms that largely need their constituents to believe in them, and Bishop rightly allows for the importance of continuing to revise these categories in light of such crises of faith. Her call for reconstituting the boundary between them may raise eyebrows among certain radical stakeholders, such as Thompson, who aims to eliminate that boundary entirely. Bishop argues that such an obliteration would leave us barren of evaluative standards, but it could also be argued that her approach limits the possibilities of what the relation between politics and art can be. What we need is a conversation about art and politics that is both rigorous and expansive. Bishop and Thompson each take us only part of the way.

Sara Marcus is the author of Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution (Harper Perennial, 2010).

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