Include me out!

Dave Beech on participation in art

Participation first became a buzzword as part of the new left’s critique of ‘actually existing’ democracy in the 50s and 60s. It was then taken up by CB MacPherson in his theory of participatory democracy in the 70s but went missing during the monetarist 80s only to return in the 90s as a description of relational art. When you consider that participation in the new art includes having dinner, drinking beer, designing a new candy bar and running a travel agency, there seems to be justification in talking about a declining ambition for the politics of participation.

This is not to say that participation in contemporary art has been entirely removed from the political legacy of participation. Participation in contemporary art resonates with political promise. In her anthology Participation, Claire Bishop correctly distinguishes between participation and interactivity, explaining that the latter, especially in connection with developments in digital technology, merely incorporates the viewer ‘physically’ (pressing buttons, jumping on sensitive pads and so on). Participation, Bishop points out, is not so much ‘physical’ as ‘social’. This is a political distinction. In fact, it is precisely this sort of distinction that fuels the theory of participatory democracy.

Needless to say, most if not all participatory art falls well short of the political promise of participation. Bishop signals this when she criticises Bourriaud for putting sociability – what he calls conviviality – where dissent and critique ought to be. Her agonistic theory of participation raises the stakes but in doing so, I would argue, she inadvertently highlights the limitations of the whole enterprise. Simply put, participation cannot deliver what participation promises. In both art and politics, participation is an image of a much longed for social reconciliation but it is not a mechanism for bringing about the required transformation. In politics, participation vainly hopes to provide the ends of revolution without the revolution itself. And in art, participation seems to offer to heal the rift between art and social life without the need for any messy and painful confrontations between cultural rivals.

Consider, for instance, Gillian Wearing’s ‘Signs that say what you want them to say and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say’, 1992-93. When someone complains that such work is ultimately controlled by the artist, or that the work addresses those internal to contemporary art rather than those represented by the images, what is tapped into is the underlying tension between art and the rest of culture. The point behind the complaint is that the participation of civilians in artworks does not fundamentally challenge the cultural distinctions that separate them from the artist and the minority community of art. In fact, participation simply re-enacts that relationship in an ethnographic fashion. It would be unfair to expect a single artwork to overcome such systemic ills, but this is precisely the problem with the concept of participation: it is based on the misconception that properties of the artwork could offer a technical solution to art’s social marginalisation.

Miwon Kwon, in her book One Place After Another, interprets the rhetoric of participation within ‘new genre public art’ as precisely that of democratising art with ‘pluralist inclusivity, multicultural representation and consensus-building’ that shifts the focus ‘from the artist to the audience, from object to process, from production to reception, and emphasises the importance of a direct, apparently unmediated engagement with particular audience groups (ideally through shared authorship in collaborations)’. Kwon remains sceptical about such claims, rightly so. Stewart Martin has recently argued in Third Text that the critique of the commodified art object in Bourriaud’s theory of relational aesthetics paves the way for the extension of the commodification of art by incorporating social events and exchanges into the field of art’s commodities. A parallel argument can be made about the politics of participation. Kwon goes some way towards this by suggesting that the utopian narrative of the challenge to Modernism’s fetishisation of the art object that leads to site-specificity and then community-specificity can be re-read as a transplantation of art’s investment in its objects, first through the reification of site and then the reification of the public.

Participation, within this historical trajectory, although disguised as a generous shrinking of cultural division, is an extension of art’s hegemony and, as Grant Kester argues in his book Conversation Pieces, an opportunity for the artist to profit from their social privilege. So, when Bishop explains that participation ‘strives to collapse the distinction between performer and audience, professional and amateur, production and reception’, it would be naïve to accept this without also seeing these aspirations as ideological currency.

Bishop’s reference to performers and audiences (rather than artists and publics) indicates Bishop’s debt, here, to Allan Kaprow’s militant elimination of the audience in his development of the Happening. ‘A group of inactive people in the space of a Happening is just dead space,’ he said. Kaprow’s persistent dissatisfaction with the division between performer and audience – and the unlikely experiments that this brought about – testifies to a genuine and radical critique. He took participation too seriously to be content with anything short of its full realisation. To ‘assemble people unprepared for an event and say that they are “participating” if apples are thrown at them or they are herded about is to ask very little of the whole notion of participation’, he argued. His performances to mirrors point away from the false reconciliation of a cheaply won participatory art. Following him, we might be more inclined to echo Louis B Mayer’s acerbic motto ‘include me out’. Or Bob & Roberta Smith’s slogan, ‘make your own damn art’.

There is a temptation, within this earnest tradition of participation, to treat it as a solution to the problems endemic to the whole range of established forms of cultural engagement, from the elitism of the aesthete to the passivity of the spectator, and from the compliance of the observer to the distance of the onlooker. Acknowledging the problematic social histories of these forms of engagement, which are still in the process of being written up, the rhetoric of participation proposes a break that deserves to be called revolutionary. In fact, it comes very close to Marx’s theory of the proletariat as a revolutionary class by virtue of being that class whose historical destiny is to abolish all classes. Participation is thought of as a form of cultural engagement that does away with all previous problematic forms of cultural engagement by eradicating the distinction between all of the previous cultural types and all cultural relations between them.

It is vital to the critique of participation, therefore, that we locate it within – rather than beyond – the differential field of culture’s social relations, as a particular form or style of cultural engagement with its own constraints, problems and subjectivities. We can begin by noting that the participant typically is not cast as an agent of critique or subversion but rather as one who is invited to accept the parameters of the art project. To participate in an art event, whether it is organised by Rirkrit Tiravanija, Jeremy Deller, Santiago Sierra or Johanna Billing, is to enter into a pre-established social environment that casts the participant in a very specific role.

The point is not to single out individual artists who fail to meet the potential of participation’s promise. The point, rather, is that participation always involves a specific invitation and a specific formation of the participant’s subjectivity, even when the artist asks them simply to be themselves. The critique of participation must release us from the grip of the simple binary logic which opposes participation to exclusion and passivity. If participation entails its own forms of limitations on the participant, then the simple binary needs to be replaced with a constellation of overlapping economies of agency, control, self-determination and power. Within such a constellation participants take their place alongside the viewer, observer, spectator, consumer and the whole panoply of culture’s modes of subjectivity and their social relations.

One way of getting a handle on the limitations and constraints imposed on the participant is to contrast participation with collaboration. It is the shortfall between participation and collaboration that leads to perennial questions about the degree of choice, control and agency of the participant. Is participation always voluntary? Are all participants equal and are they equal with the artist? How can participation involve co-authorship rather than some attenuated and localised content? The rhetoric of participation often conflates participation with collaboration to head off such questions. Collaborators, however, are distinct from participants insofar as they share authorial rights over the artwork that permit them, among other things, to make fundamental decisions about the key structural features of the work. That is, collaborators have rights that are withheld from participants. Participants relate to artists in many ways, including the anthropological, managerial, philanthropic, journalistic, convivial and other modes. The distinction between them remains.

Jacques Rancière highlights another pernicious distinction that participation cannot shake off: that between those who participate and those who don’t. Even if we view participation in its rosiest light, Rancière argues that its effects are socially divisive. The critique of participation is, here, immanent to the development of participation as an inclusive practice that does not and cannot include all. Seen in this way, participation must be excluding because it sets up a new economy which separates society into participants and non-participants, or those who are participation-rich and those who are participation-poor.

Another strand to the critique of participation can be derived from Jacques Derrida’s critical analysis of the politics of inclusion in his book The Politics of Friendship. Despite all its humanistic and democratic promises, inclusion, for Derrida, is a brand of neutralisation. Look at how the European Union is including former Cold War enemies from Eastern Europe. Is there a more effective way of neutralising them? Incorporating the other into the body of power while repressing anything that escapes this incorporation is, according to Derrida, inclusion as neutralisation. Participation does a similar job for art and its institutions. It confronts the case against art and the gallery by bringing the culturally excluded into the orbit of art, providing much needed statistics of new audiences and proactive relations with the public, too. Participation often neutralises the individuals it brings into art, but it also neutralises cultural conflict more generally by presenting itself as a viable alternative. As such, even though a very small number of people actually participate in these works of art, the rhetoric of participation neutralises everyone nonetheless.

Judith Butler, on the other side of fence, so to speak, makes the case in Gender Trouble against being included. By examining the effects of what she calls ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ on the thematisation of gender and sexuality, she articulates a theory of resistance to incorporation. It is not just that being included within the dominant framework blocks off vital forms of subversion, which it does, but also that inclusion is never merely a technical question. The naïve advocates of inclusion, incorporation and participation believe that the problem is how to include more people, not whether to do so. However, what if, as Butler shows, that inclusion is a form of subjection or violation? What if you are being invited generously to be incorporated into a foreign body? If Butler’s objections are valid then incorporation – or participation – has to be completely reconsidered in terms of that which precedes it: what pre-existing state is on offer for participation? In other words, technical questions about how to participate must always be preceded by questions about what sort of activity, and subjectivity, people are being invited to participate in.

There is great potential in the proposal of participating in a promising situation – and this is presumably the only scenario envisaged by the supporters of participation. Participation sounds promising only until you imagine unpromising circumstances in which you might be asked to participate. However, there is potential horror within the threat of participating in an unpromising situation. Participation presupposes its own promise, therefore, by assuming the existing promise of the situation to which the participant is invited. The critique of participation that can be teased out of Derrida, Butler and Rancière asks fundamental questions of participation as such. In their different ways they each call attention to a political fissure that runs right through the centre of any and every participatory event. The social and cultural distinctions that prompt participation in the first place, which participation seeks to shrink or abolish, are reproduced within participation itself through an economy of the participants’ relative proximity to the invitation. Outsiders have to pay a higher price for their participation, namely, the neutralisation of their difference and the dampening of their powers of subversion. Participation papers over the cracks. The changes we need are structural.

Dave Beech is an artist.

First published in Art Monthly 315: April 2008.

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