On the one hand there
is a widespread feeling of political impotence. The
possibilities that unions, citizens' groups, workers'
councils and other subordinated levels have for influencing
the political process appear to be constantly dwindling.
Even national politics argue more and more frequently
that their decisions depend on higher instances, like
the EU, for example. Finally, the powerlessness of politics
in comparison with the economy is cited. Regardless
of whether one believes in the omnipotence of globalization
or regards it as an economistic excuse, the chances
for the success of political engagement from below have
dropped in the minds of many. Actual and looming unemployment
additionally seem to suggest concentrating on economic
On the other hand there are ideas
of merging both, namely unused potentials of engagement
as well labor power that is no longer employed, into
a meaningful third. Under the provocative title "The
Soul of Democracy" Ulrich Beck recently argued
for his concept of "citizens' labor".
Instead of "financing the idleness of several million
people at the cost of millions", these people should
be integrated (voluntarily) in concepts of organized
social engagement under the leadership of "public
good enterprises", ranging from palliative care
and care of the homeless to "art and culture".
"Citizens' labor is not remunerated, but rewarded.
And specifically in an immaterial manner, for example
... with distinctions." According to this notion
of work at the price of social assistance, this would
mean "building up an engaged civil society that
takes care of public concerns and animates the public
good with its initiatives." The reduced possibilities
of political participation are thus to be compensated
with work. The state saves money and the citizens are
meaningfully occupied. They are even "rewarded"
for this, so they have no reason to be restless.
When several models
of participatory art practice are discussed in the following,
this is the background against which they should be
seen. In other words, they should also be seen against
the background of the question, to what extent is "social
action" political, to what extent does a social
interest take the place of the political. The following
examples are taken from very different contexts. However,
I will leave out an entire complex from the spectrum
of artistic approaches that make use of participatory
methods. This is the fashionable approach of "working
with others" that is so popular among the young,
dynamic curators of mainstream exhibition operations,
because it allows for the incorporation of "the
social" in small bites that are aesthetically easily
digestible, but do not require any further reflection.
At least in terms
of its tendency, the concept of a participatory practice
is to be distinguished from two others: from interactivity
and collective action. Interactivity goes beyond a mere
perceptional offer to the extent that it allows for
one or more reactions, which influence the work - usually
in a momentary, reversible and repeatable manner - in
the way it is manifested, but without fundamentally
changing or co-determining its structure. Collective
practice means the conception, production and implementation
of works or actions by multiple people with no principle
differentiation among them in terms of status. Participation,
on the other hand, is initially based on a differentiation
between producers and recipients, is interested in the
participation of the latter, and turns over a substantial
portion of the work to them either at the point of conception
or in the further course of the work. Whereas interactive
situations are usually addressed to an individual, participatory
approaches are usually realized in group situations.
There are combinations of all three, the boundaries
are permeable, and rigid categorizations have little
as a practice or postulate (almost) always plays a role
in the art of the 20th century where it is a matter
of the self-critique of art, of calling the author into
question, of the distance between art and "life"
and society. The activation and participation of the
audience is intended to transform the relationship between
producers and recipients in its traditional variation
of the work-viewer relationship. This one-dimensional,
hierarchical "communication structure" produces
a consumist, distanced observer, representing a "school
of asocial behavior", as Stepanova wrote in 1921.
The intention of dissolving this situation into a dynamic
of reciprocity develops parallel to a criticism of purely
visual experience and is frequently targeted to an activation
of the body as a precondition for participation. This
physical involvement can have a phenomenological foundation,
as described by El Lissitzky for his "Demonstration
Spaces" (1926): "Our arrangement is intended
to make the man active. This should be the purpose of
the space. ... The effect of the walls changes with
every movement of the viewer in the space. … He is physically
forced to come to terms with the exhibited objects."
However, participation can also be initiated, as with
the Dadaists, through acts of provocation. In both "proto-participatory"
movements of Dadaism and Russian Constructivism and
Productivism, the beginnings of a "history of participation"
are probably to be found as a sub-history of the avant-garde.
In the Soviet press, according to Tretyakov, "the
difference between the author and the audience begins
... to disappear."
Depending on the ideological foundation, as a program
of different demands for change participation can be
conjoined with: revolutionary ("dissolution of
art in the praxis of life"), reformative ("democratization
of art") or - with less political content - playful
and/or didactic, perception and "consciousness
After the war, much that made
use of participatory methods initially came from the
Cage school: Fluxus, Happening, Rauschenberg. In music
Cage realized a demand that Benjamin had already ascribed
to Hanns Eisler, namely "eliminating the opposition
between performers and listeners ...".
"4'33"" (1952) consists of nothing other
than the noises in the concert hall. Although the audience
essentially produces these noises, it is not yet really
active. This is also similarly true for Rauschenberg's
"White Paintings" created at the same time,
which reflect nothing other than the movements of the
viewers. Rauschenberg's "Black Market" (1961)
then actually calls for the audience to take action.
The boundary between art and life is to be bridged by
turning the recipients into co-performers.
The neo-avant-gardes of the 50's
were obsessed with "reality". Following the
integration of surrounding noises in music and objects
in images, Happenings and Events involved "real-time"
procedures. The "blurring of art and life"
strove for a "concrete art" located in or
even dissolving into "real life". Kaprov,
influenced by Dewey's Art as Experience, defined
aesthetic experience as participation. Taking action
becomes a condition for experience, because otherwise
no Happening can result. The kind of action is taken
from everyday routines that are imbued with a new, aesthetic
quality in collective, usually playful practice. The
final consequence involves returning the newly valued
actions into everyday life: "Doing life, consciously." For Maciunas, who refers
to both Dada and the Russian Productivists, the artist
assumes an elitist, parasitic status in society. It
is therefore up to the "anti-professional"
Fluxus artist to demonstrate the substitutability of
the artist by showing "that everything can be art
and everyone can practice it." What begins as participation
within the framework of art should thus be fulfilled
in a general aesthetic (life) praxis. This is a program
of democratization, whose failure is prefigured in the
authorization of the layperson by the artist. In the
Beuysian variation, though, this is then linked with
real politics, but this still changes nothing in the
fact that everything else is called into question except
the status of the artist.
Alongside the open, chance-oriented,
anarcho-poetic and partially even destructive (e.g.
Vostell) conceptions, in the sixties there was also
another direction with a stronger didactic orientation
and more closely linked with objects. Here it was attempted
to replace the concept of the artwork with "communication
objects" or "action objects", which suggested
a more or less clearly defined use. Based on culture-critical
ideas on the conditioning of everyday perception through
the consumer industry and social constraints, these
kinds of objects, which were not subject to any previously
ritualized mode of use, were to enable immediate, elementary
experiences in the course of processes of approach and
experimental use. A position of this kind, embodied
by Franz Erhard Walther, for example, replaces observation
with action, in part also collective action, yet by
opposing "alienated" experience with "genuine"
experience, it remains indebted to an autonomy aesthetic
that invokes a counter-world without opening up potentials
Heal the World
- The Rhetoric of the NGPA
The context in which
participatory art has been most prominently discussed
in recent years is that of the conglomerate of inhomogeneous
practices, for which the label "New Genre Public
Art" has prevailed. The terms "community-based
art" and "art in the public interest"
are also in use for the same phenomenon. As even its
proponents note, this does not at all involve really
"new" practices, but rather the kinds of practices
that have been pursued since the seventies, but which
were purportedly marginalized by an elitist and object-fixated
art world. Their time is said to have come now, because
the different practices are negotiated in the category
of "Public Art", in the framework of which
they first become a kind of movement and in which they
characterize a change of paradigm. The latter proposes,
briefly summarized, the following history of "Public
Art": after public places were initially rather
randomly beautified with autonomous art works, the next
step led to site-specific artistic interventions oriented
to the architectonic, spatial conditions. Following
the work and the place, now in a further step the social
aspect, a local population (group), minority or "community"
is shifted to the center.
The NGPA is first
of all and primarily interested in a definition of its
audience. For this there are - alongside individual
concerns - at least two objective reasons. For one,
many of the (older) socially and politically engaged
artists were long so marginalized by the dominant art
system that they were forced to open up other fields
of work outside the institutions. The other reason is
that local resistance to "art in public space"
and the ensuing discussions (see Serra's "Titled
Arc") showed that the question of the audience
had not been taken seriously enough by the conventional
public art programs. A practice that starts from locally
defined, relatively manageable publics and usually has
a time limit as well, seemed to offer the official programs
for public art a welcome solution.
Every criticism of the NGPA finds
itself confronted with the problem that it can either
address single artistic projects or the strategic discourse,
the identity established through the label. All too
often the practices subsumed under the term differ from
one another, and thus the practice also diverges from
its theorization. The "Compendium" of over
eighty artists and groups that Suzanne Lacy appends
to her discourse-defining book Mapping the Terrain:
New Genre Public Art ranges from Vito Acconci and
the Border Art Workshop, Group Material and Jenny Holzer,
all the way to Paper Tiger TV and Fred Wilson, from
the politics of identity to media activism to institutional
criticism. A lowest common denominator can hardly be
found. In contrast to this, there is a strong tendency
to discursive homogenization, which can probably only
be explained from motives of asserting a "movement",
a "change of paradigm". The reason for nevertheless
discussing the rhetoric of the NGPA in the following
is that I place a higher value on its role within the
current re-definition of the concept of art than on
the practice itself. If we presume that one of the central
points of this artistic self-understanding is the switch
from the symbolic level to the level of the "real",
in other words positing social practice in the place
of the interpretation and criticism of the social aspect,
then it is primarily the rhetoric of this pragmatic
attitude that can provide insights into the world view
it is based on.
Mary Jane Jacob, alongside Suzanne
Lacy one of the most important mentors of "New
Public Art" as a curator of community-oriented
projects, outlines their historical location in this
way: "If, in the 1970s, we were extending the definition
of who the artist is along lines of nationality or ethnicity,
gender and sexual orientation; and in the 1980s the
place of exhibitions expanded to include any imaginable
venue ...; then in the 1990s we are grappling with broadening
the definition of who is the audience for contemporary
Broadening the audience primarily means here differentiating
the audience. From one anonymous art audience, specified
publics emerge, so to speak, which are constituted as
such through direct contact with the artist, which differ
from one project to the next and are frequently included
in the realization of works: "This work activates
the viewer - creating a participant, even a collaborator."
The work is to derive its relevance for a specific community
through the "dialogical structure" of its
integration in this community.
What is noticeable about the
programmatic writings by Lacy and Jacob, but also by
Lucy Lippard, Suzi Gablik and Arlene Raven, is that
political analysis is largely missing, even though there
is much talk of social change at the same time. This
political deficit is compensated by a terminological
inventory that clearly evinces pastoral features: "To
search for the good and make it matter: this is the
real challenge for the artist," is printed in big
letters on the cover of Lacy's book. Starting from the
diagnosis of an elitist, self-absorbed art business
on the one hand and a whole series of "social ills"
on the other, "connective aesthetics" (Suzi
Gablik) are intended to be a bridge between art and
"real people". In order to build this bridge
by means of a "dialogical structure", first
the two sides to be linked are separated: here the engagement
of the creatives that is based on a certain desire,
namely the "longing for the Other"
or "desire for connection";
there the "real people" in "real neighborhoods",
meaning (preferably non-white) workers and poorer quarters.
The rhetoric of the NGPA hardly obscures the process
of "othering", the construction of an "other"
as a condition for further projections. The "others"
are not only poor and disadvantaged, they are also representatives
of what is genuine and real, so that they are at once
both needy and a source of inspiration.
The image of art is similarly ambivalent. Considered
aloof and bourgeoisly decadent in its institutionalized
form, it represents a reservoir of creativity at the
same time, without the qualities of which the life of
the "others" cannot be enriched: "The
community-based art (...) can not only expose the energy
and depth of ordinary people but also help these people
develop their human potential in individual and communal
For Gablik, for instance, "care and compassion"
are the central values of "connective aesthetics",
which are defined as "feminine"; Lacy and
Lippard emphasize "empathy". Without ever
referring to the fact, with their gender-specific attributions
of moral attitudes the authors share the same direction
of thinking represented by Nancy Chodorow and Carol
Gilligan, according to which the social behavior of
women differs fundamentally, due specifically to the
capacity for care and empathy, from the male orientation
to law and justice.
This difference-logical schematism corresponds to the
rigid dichotomy of individualistic "museum art"
and collaborative NGPA, which the latter, by denying
the smooth transition even among its own members, likes
to assert. The fact that women are comparatively well
represented in this "genre", however, is less
a proof of its gender-specific social character than
of the familiar power relations in the institutional
Yet in order for art to actually
fulfill its "healing function" in the process
of social interaction, which all the authors refer to,
it additionally requires an educational dimension. In
order to be able to "heal a society that has been
alienated from its life forces" - Jacob brings the figure
of the shaman into play again - "the unique perceptions
and creative mechanisms of artists"
must be passed on to the non-artist participants. The
pastoral mixture of care and education explains the
partly pseudo-religious features of the NGPA, the spiritual
qualities of the invocation of community, and certain
tendencies to bind communities to traditionalist rituals
such as "parades", for example. The criticism
of individualism and the striving for a communal foundation
for aesthetic action, for a "reconciliation"
of social spheres, for civil participation in the processes
of the production of meaning - all this testifies to
a close proximity between connective aesthetics and
the social theory of communitarism.
It should be called to mind again,
though, that a homogenizing discourse overlays extremely
divergent practices here. Its traditionalist, essentialist,
moralizing and mystifying (Gablik's "re-enchantment
of art") elements should therefore not be taken
as a basis for evaluating individual artistic procedures.
However, it is necessary to recognize the conservative
tendencies of the NGPA, because they threaten to co-opt
a spectrum of approaches that are in part indeed productive
GET DOWN AND PARTY.
Adrian Piper's "Funk
Lessons" (1982-84 in various places) follow an
understanding of participation that strongly contrasts
the pastoral type. The collective dance performances
conjoin political subject matter with pleasurable experiences.
Unlike the ideal type step model of the NGPA, diagnosis
of illness - therapy plan - healing, the "Funk
Lessons" have an explicitly experimental character
("A Collaborative Experiment in Cross-Cultural
Transfusion"). The unpredictability already begins
with the way the participants must arrive
in response to an offer, rather than something being
defined beforehand according to certain categories like
"community" or "the others" (workers,
old people, homeless, etc.). Community emerges, if at
all, in the course of the event; nor does it make any
claim to permanence; there is nothing essential about
Starting from the widespread
racist rejection by the white middle class of the funk
idiom as "black working-class culture", Piper
didactically employs funk as a "collective medium
of self-transgression" to "overcome cultural
and racist barriers". She explains the musical,
dance-type basic elements, the cultural backgrounds
and relationships to other, "white" musics.
What starts as a kind of learning-by-doing develops
according to how the deep-seated rejections, fears,
insecurities or enthusiasm and curiosity are expressed
in reactions and how counter-reactions set off a polyvocal
dialogue, which transforms the original "learning
situation" into an open discussion that can become
quite vehement. Participation in this kind of process
does not mean taking part in a vague feeling of community
as much as entering into a confrontation that touches
the boundaries of politics and personality. Integrating
the participants in an ambivalent situation of offers
(aesthetic experience, information) and requirements
(articulating resistance, co-responsibility for the
collective process) means drafting a precarious scenario
with an open end for the standpoint of the artist.
What is most remarkable about
Piper's "Funk Lessons" in comparison with
the many well-meant intentions especially of the "pastoral"
direction is perhaps the openly articulated self-interest:
"My motivation in doing the 'Funk Lesson' performances
also has a very large self-interested component (of
course). The ignorance and xenophobia that surround
the aesthetic idiom of black working-class culture have
affected the audience's comprehension of my performance
work since 1972." To be able to continue to
use this idiom as part of her personal identity, it
seemed necessary to undertake an attempt to share it
in some form with the predominantly white middle-class
audience. Emphasizing this aspect of the work, which
is certainly not the most important aspect, seems appropriate,
because it is diametrally distinct from the reverse
side of the rhetoric for improving the world, such as
is manifest in one of Suzanne Lacy's "acknowledgments":
"Most important to me are the many invisible communities
... who have inspired my work over the years, those
who suffer various forms of discrimination, violence,
Since the late eighties
Michael Clegg and Martin Guttmann have been working
on artistic projects in public spaces, for which the
active participation of the local population is a precondition
and crucial criteria in the way that they function.
A first attempt of this kind, "A Model for an Open
Public Library", 1987, consisted in the placement
of a bookshelf furnished with books from the artists
in various places in New Jersey. The disconcerting appearance
of a bookshelf in the open, especially in places not
heavily frequented, had more poetic, almost surreal
features and probably worked better in the documentary
context of a later gallery exhibition. In a short text,
"Proposal for an 'Open-Air' Library", published
in 1990 in Durch,
Clegg and Guttmann already formulated the basic ideas
of their "Open Public Library" that was later
realized in Graz and Hamburg: "A library without
librarians and without surveillance, the stock of which
is determined by the users themselves through a system
of exchange, according to which every borrowed book
is to be replaced by another chosen at will by the user.
As an institution, a library of this kind could contribute
to the self-definition of a community ... and would
thus be a kind of portrait of the community."
On the one hand this involves
the idea of the "social sculpture", which
is based on interaction with the audience, through the
intensity and concrete course of which the work is first
constituted as such or is given its specific function.
The second moment, the conception of the "portrait"
of a community, is derived from the artists' earlier
photographic works based on an expanded concept of the
portrait. Although the idea of the social portrait is
not to be separated from the conception of the "Open
Public Library" and should not remained undiscussed,
also in its problematic aspects, this seems to be of
more secondary importance to our interest here. What
is more relevant here to the question of the backgrounds
and potentials of participatory procedures is the way
a cultural institution that largely dispenses with hierarchies,
control mechanisms and bureaucratic regulations is played
through and tested in a model-like manner.
Following a first version of
the "Open Public Library" in 1991 in Graz
and a model for a freely accessible tool repository
(Toronto 1991), which was to work on the same principle,
the Hamburg version of the "Open Public Library",
implemented in Autumn 1993, represented the first fully
mature variation. In three demographically different
districts the circuit boxes of the electrical company
were equipped with shelves and glass doors and thus
turned into public, freely accessible libraries. Prior
to the project, local residents were informed about
the concept and asked for donations of books. Only one
minimal rule for using the library was given in writing
on location: "Please take the books of your choice
and bring them back within an appropriate period of
time. Additions to the stock of books are welcome."
The lack of further regulations and instances of surveillance
transfers the responsibility for how the installation
works and its fate to the users. In this Clegg &
Guttmann see "an experiment with a radically democratic
The political dimension of this
kind of "experimental arrangement" is found
in the challenge of self-determined collective action,
where the wide-scale absence of rules has no place within
the normality of an institutionally administered repressive
society. Questions arising from this were formulated
by Clegg & Guttmann in conjunction with their Graz
project: "What happens when you leave books unprotected
by guards or librarians? How will people react to such
an utopian proposition? People are very opinionated
about questions like that. But they have no data to
rely on. We wanted to find out what the real situation
The sociological studies that accompanied the project
indicated a high degree of participation, which was
manifested in the almost complete renewal of the library
stock in the course of the project, among other things,
as well as a fundamentally positive reaction to the
"utopian proposition": "Reasons given
for the attractiveness of the project referred primarily
to the display of trust, the possibilities for communication
that it opened up, and the increase in solidarity on
the basis of exchange relationships."
Even though the participation in the project varied
from one district to another and ultimately had a broad
span "ranging from vandalism to support from grassroots
the entirety of the resultant communicative situations
and social relationships indicates a structure of needs
that imbues the "utopian" dimension of a radically
democratic institution with a real foundation. This
is ultimately what also makes it possible to overlook
the somewhat exaggerated rhetoric with which Clegg &
Guttmann position their practice in the history of ambitions
of the historical avant-garde with the grand words "breaking
down the boundaries to life". Although Clegg &
Guttmann's work has long been firmly anchored in the
art world and they also have no hesitations about making
use of this background for "art-external projects",
its theoretical foundation is derived from a special
reading of Peter Bürger's Theorie
der Avantgarde. It takes up the intention of the
historical avant-gardes described there of transferring
art to life praxis, but ignores Bürger's historicization
of this claim, according to which the transfer of art
to life praxis did not take place and "probably
cannot take place within bourgeois society."
According to Bürger, "the means with which the
avant-gardists hoped to effect the suspension of art
have meanwhile achieved artwork status", for which
reason "the claim to a renewal of life praxis can
no longer legitimately be linked with their application."
For Bürger the neo-avant-garde institutionalizes the
art, thus negating the "genuinely avant-gardist
In reference to Bürger, it seems in fact to be a "very
particular interpretation" to maintain the avant-gardist
rhetoric and also to link it with a "position of
Nevertheless, this interpretation of avant-garde history
as "an inspiration for a process of democratizing
indicates a way of taking leave of the grand narrative
of a revolutionary "avant-garde" without relinquishing
its social-critical potentials. Indeed, works like the
"Open Public Library" promise to redeem partial
claims of the historical avant-garde, as they are related
by Bürger, such as "suspending the opposition between
producers and recipients",
the collective form of reception or the notion that
"art and life praxis form a unit if the praxis
is aesthetic and the art is practical".
How effective these kinds of practices can be in relation
to the democratization of the institution of art is
an open question. The more interesting question would
be, however, what it means for the emancipatory symbolic
power of an undoubtedly astonishingly well functioning
radical democratic experimental arrangement, if it turns
out - as it did in Hamburg - that an installation like
this is most successful among the population with the
greatest economic and educational capital, specifically
the population group that participates most in the democratic
process (e.g. elections) under normal circumstances
The problematic aspect of the "portrait of a community"
should then also be discussed in this context, if it
threatens to portray nothing other than the somewhat
stereotype notion of a capability for democracy that
corresponds with the social standard.
... and Counter-Consciousness
A high degree of
conceptional reflectedness and precision in the practical
implementation is undoubtedly to be attributed to the
projects by Clegg & Guttmann, especially the "Open
Public Library". In this way they differ from a
number of other projects that do not go beyond a rhetorically
playful level. However, the construction of a singular
position, as it is undertaken in the discussion of this
work again and again, still seems somewhat questionable.
The abstract, generalizing reference to participatory
approaches in the art of the sixties and seventies,
which are largely regarded as "failed", ultimately
only serves here to mark the historical special position
of Clegg & Guttmann. The artists themselves stress
that they "regard the project not as a revival
of the (somewhat naive) works of the sixties."
And Michael Lingner, who deals specifically with the
art-historical dimension of the "Open Public Library",
radically distinguishes the way it works from all earlier
attempts to transfer the competence to act to the audience.
As he states: "The sixties saw artists conceive
activities - and the latter's objectified manifestations
- that were keyed to a 'self-determining' audience.
To date, however, the majority of these projects have
not been put into practice; they were merely presented
and received as ideas." It is only Lingner's main
point of reference, the "Handlungsobjekten"
("Performance Objects") by Franz E. Walther,
that can explain his view that Clegg & Guttmann
"devoted so much effort under today's conditions
toward rendering self-determined involvement on the
part of the public truly practicable (...) instead of
confining their realization to the restricted context
of art [that defines] their clear and fundamentally
distinct position within art history."
There can be no question of such
"fundamental" differences, though, as soon
as one turns to the historical models that are in fact
close to that of the "Open Public Library".
As one of the most elaborate concepts of participatory
art practice, which can also be followed consistently
over a long period of time, I would like to bring up
the projects that Stephan Willats has carried out since
the sixties. Willats' work exemplifies that the generalizing
references to "naivety" or the merely ideal
nature of older models of participatory practice are
not tenable in this way.
Since the early sixties Willats
has been producing kinetic objects and plastic constructions
that are partly oriented to interactivity with the audience.
Critical reflections on the elitist character of the
museum and the consequent structure of the art system,
however, soon led Willats to develop new working methods,
which build on the "communicative" properties
of the early objects, but which shift the emphasis from
the relationship between people and objects to intersubjective,
in other words social relationships. If art is imagined
as a form of communication, then it is not necessarily
exhausted in the communicative relationship between
artist and audience, but can be invested in existing
social spaces and their relationships. The term that
is central for Willats in this respect is "self-organization",
which means establishing or intensifying the social
relationships within a group of participants in an aesthetic
creative process: "I consider that the audience
of the work of art is as important as the artist, and
that the active involvement of people in the origination
of art work is an essential part of the process of generating
interventions in the social process of culture."
For this understanding of participation,
there are two points that must be especially noted:
the "audience" (now, in fact, co-producer)
is already integrated in the origination of the
art work, not just in the actuation of a given score
as in other models, such as those of the Fluxus artists,
or in the implementation of one of several given possibilities.
And the second point is the aspect of "interventions
in the social process", in other words the scope
of action beyond the art context itself. Willats' projects
are thus less concerned with the abstract idea of "participation"
as some kind of logical successor to the "death
of the author", but are instead oriented from the
start primarily to the concrete life context of the
people that take part in them, and they always aim to
change these circumstances of life: "From the outset
it became obvious that a model of practice would be
required that would bind it to the context in which
the artwork was to be presented, and which could embody
the priorities, languages and behaviours of the audience."
The redefinition of the relation
between art and audience that is the issue here does
not merely numerically expand the circle of recipients
familiar with the conventions and criteria of art by
an indeterminate dimension of the ordinary citizen,
who would thus actively partake of the values of the
creative and the aesthetic. What is characteristic of
Willats' model is instead the concentration on a different,
yet very specific audience, which is initially more
or less identical with the magnitude of the circle of
participants in the respective project. The reason for
this is the aim of not only cancelling out the separation
between producers and audience, but that these group(s)
also represent the theme, the subject matter of the
work at the same time.
The social-critical position
from which Willats cooperates with each specific audience
is based on an insight into the institutional constraints
of modern living conditions, the social norms and culturally
predominant codes that dominate everyday life, the behaviors
and perceptions of human beings. Willats finds an exemplary
embodiment of these repressive structures in the characteristic
apartment buildings of post-war modernism, which essentially
influence the mental and social life of their inhabitants
- a contradictory "community of the isolated".
The projects that Willats develops with the residents
are intended to set processes of perception in motion,
which should lead to an analysis and possible change
of both the individual relationships to the environment
and social relationships with one another. In this respect,
Willats presumes a latently present "counter-consciousness"
that is expressed with regard to social compulsions
in the subversive re-coding of signs and a spectrum
of actions ranging from graffiti to vandalism to the
"improper" use of public spaces. Part of the
work consists in articulating different forms of counter-consciousness
and raising it from the individual to the communal level
through confrontations with others.
Willats' model of a participatory
practice can be illustrated with a project like "Vertical
Living" (1978). The choice of a typical council
housing block of flats, Skeffington Court in West London,
is followed by initial contacts with the caretaker and
a friend's mother who lives there to talk freely about
the idea of a cooperation with the residents and consider
potential participants. Following the constitution of
a group of participants, Willats conducts individual
conversations over the course of three months, which
relate to the relationship between the building and
daily living habits, leisure time and social contacts.
The recordings of the collected conversations reveal
a problem horizon, on the basis of which certain problems
can be specifically discussed again. Finally, picture
panels are prepared, each by one resident in cooperation
with the artist, which address certain circumstances,
a problem, a deficit or an expectation with photos and
texts. The panels are set up in the hall next to the
elevator, whereby the architectonic structure is taken
into account in that new panels are placed two floors
higher at regular intervals. Response pages are distributed
in addition, on which other tenants can articulate suggestions
for solutions, which are collected again and publicly
presented in turn. Aside from necessitating physical
mobility within the building, the course of the project
especially generates a communicative dynamic resulting
in a network of social relationships. These can be found
so productive that the tenants continue similar structures
themselves after the end of the project. Even though
Willats starts from a concept of art as a socially relevant
practice, his purpose is not an immediate "improvement"
of social situations. The respective interventions simply
open up a new framework of action that enables long-lasting
changes if it is accepted or continued.
The individual tendencies
of participatory art - the playful and/or didactic,
the "pastoral" and the "sociological"
- have at least one thing in common: the background
of institutional criticism, the criticism of the socially
exclusionary character of the institution of art, which
they counter with "inclusionary" practices.
For all of them, "participation" means more
than just expanding the circle of recipients. The form
of participation and the participants themselves become
constitutive factors of content, method and aesthetic
aspects. The separate tendencies differ significantly,
however, in their ideas of "community" and
their criteria for social relevance. Some understand
the community as pre-existent and therefore tend to
attribute a (fixed) identity to it. For others community
is a temporary phenomenon with a potential for development
that emerges in the course of the project.
In the end, it seems that it
is not possible to assess the value or success of participatory
practices by the extent of the scope of action that
they offer the participants, nor by the measure of "concrete
change". Particularly with regard to the often
raised postulate of usefulness, skepticism seems advisable.
Where it once appeared necessary, in light of the extent
of the social inconsequence of art, to insist on the
possibility of "real" impact, the situation
is different, when it is more and more often the superordinated
political instances that call for engagement, solidarity
and civil participation. In some circumstances, the
usefulness of social (artistic) action suits the calculations
of a state that can no longer afford its citizens and
there exhorts them to self-help. The concept of "citizen's
work" cited at the beginning is only one example
for replacing possibilities of political involvement
with "social practice". Under these conditions,
it seems justified to ask whether changes that "only"
take place at the symbolic level rather than the "concrete",
as intended by certain models of participatory practice,
should not be revalued again. In many cases, these are
the practices that retain at least the idea of the political
ability to act. The reason for this is, not least of
all, because they first adhere to political consciousness
and the foundations of co-determination without immediately
devoting themselves to the pragmatism of solving the
Ulrich Beck, "Die Seele der Demokratie", Die
Zeit, Nr. 49, 28. Nov. 1997, p. 7-8.
For instance Rirkrit Tiravanija, Christine &
Irene Hohenbichler or Jens Haaning might be named as
representatives of this kind of socio-chic. In their
criticism of these kinds of methods, to which they
ascribe a "marked exploitation character",
Alice Creischer and Andreas Siekmann use the term
"sub-enterprise". This outsources
production, but profits from the added value. See:
A. Creischer/A. Siekmann, "Reformmodelle",
springer, III, 2, 1997, p. 17-23. For the
variation that remains limited to the
social-communicative relationships between artists
and exhibition visitors, Nicolas Bourriaud coined
the term "relational aesthetics" for the
exhibition "Traffic" that he curated.
Quoted from: Benjamin Buchloh, "Von der Faktur
zur Faktografie", Durch,
6/7, 1990, p. 9.
Quoted from Walter Benjamin, "Der Autor als
Produzent", in: ibid., Gesammelte
Schriften, Bd. II, 2, Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp,
1991, p. 688.
Allan Kaprow, Essays
on The Blurring of Art and Life, edited by Jeff
Kelley, Berkeley/London: Univ. of California Press,
1993, p. 195.
Manifesto by George Maciunas (1965), quoted from
Estera Milman, "Historical Precedents,
Trans-historical Strategies, and the Myth of
Democratization", in: FLUXUS: A Conceptual
Country (= Visible Language, Vol. 26, 1/2),
Winter/Spring 1992, p. 31.
Mary Jane Jacob, "Outside the Loop", in: Culture
in Action, Seattle: Bay Press, 1995, p. 52.
Suzanne Lacy, "Cultural Pilgrimages and
Metaphoric Journeys", in: ibid. (ed.), Mapping
the Terrain: New Genre Public Art,
Seattle/Washington: Bay Press, 1995, p. 37.
Michael Brenson, "Healing in Time", in:
op. cit., Culture
in Action, p. 21.
In her text "Won't Play Other to Your
Same" in Texte zur Kunst 3, 1991, Renée Green
noted that the construction of the "other"
can involve the attribution of a state that can also
serve to affirm "sameness" as the norm.
Brenson, op.cit., p. 27.
Cf. Seyla Benhabib, "Ein Blick zurück auf die
Debatte über 'Frauen und Moraltheorie'", in:
im Kontext, Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 1995, p.
Lucy Lippard, "Looking Around: Where We are,
Where We could be", in op. cit., Lacy, p. 126.
op.cit. Jacob, p. 56.
For a criticism that deals more with the problematic
"effects" than the ideological
backgrounds, see Christian Holler, "Störungsdienste",
springer, I, I, 1995, p. 20-26, and Miwon Kwon,
"Im Interesse der Öffentlichkeit...",
springer, II, 4, 1996/97, p. 30-35. Ulf Wuggenig
conversely criticizes the "elitist and
individualistically oriented" art world's
repulsion of the "populist community
orientation" of the NGPA. U.W., "Kunst im
öffentlichen Raum und ästhetischer
Kommunitarismus", in: Christian Philipp Müller,
Kunst auf Schritt und Tritt, Hamburg: Kellner, 1997,
Adrian Piper, "Notes on Funk I-IV", in:
ibid., Out of
Order, Out of Sight, Vol. I: Selected Writings in
Meta-Art 1968-1992, Cambridge, Mass./London: MIT
Press, 1996, p. 201.
op. cit., Lacy, p. 16.
Clegg & Guttmann, "Entwurf für eine 'Open
Air' Bibliothek", Durch
6/7, 1990, p. 136.
Claus Friede, "Interview mit Clegg &
Guttmann", in: Clegg & Guttmann, Die
Offene Bibliothek, ed. by Achim Könneke,
Hamburg/Ostfildern: Cantz, 1994, p. 18.
Clegg & Guttmann, Breaking
Down the Boundaries to Life: Avantgarde Practice and
Democratic Theory, Nr. 1 der Schriftenreihe des
AKKU, Vienna, 1995, p. 57.
Ulf Wuggenig, Vera Kockot und Kathrin Symens,
"Die Plurifunktionalität der Offenen
Bibliothek. Beobachtungen aus soziologischer
Perspektive", in op. cit., Clegg &
Guttmann, Die Offene Bibliothek, p. 88
in the interview cited with Friede, p. 20
Peter Bürger, Theorie
der Avantgarde, Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 1981,
Clegg & Guttmann, op. cit., Breaking
Down the Boundaries., p. 43.
op.cit., Bürger, p. 72.
See the results of the sociological study in op.
cit., Wuggenig et al, "Zur Plurifunktionalität
der Offenen Bibliothek", p. 84.
op. cit., Clegg & Guttmann, "Entwurf für
eine 'Open Air' Bibliothek", p. 136.
Stephen Willats, Between
Buildings and People, London: Academy Editions,
1996, p. 7