What Is a Participatory Practice?
Conversation between David Goldenberg and Patricia Reed
The following conversation probes into models and the development of participatory practices. Fragments of the discussion have been culled and elaborated from issues raised during a series of online debates between practitioners experimenting in participatory practices in the Post-Autonomy chat room, November 2007 to February 2008. The question “What is a participatory practice?” is a continuous thread linking the start of Goldenberg’s Post-Autonomy project with the following set of concerns.
Patricia Reed: Can you introduce your Post-Autonomy project a little more, so I can get a sense of how we are discussing notions of participatory practice?
David Goldenberg: Sure, the Post-Autonomy project takes a systems theory perspective on art as a conceptual basis to address the production and reception of art within a globalized context. The mental image offered up by Post-Autonomy traces that moment of exiting “Autonomy” and entry into the unknown space of Post-Autonomy, where Autonomy signals a Eurocentric tradition of art. Post-Autonomy questions the very concept of Autonomy that is currently used in both culture and in politics, along with Eurocentric models of art. Critical to Post-Autonomy is participation as a methodology, which operates as a communicative glue within the art system, breaking down orthodox categories and hierarchies of artist, curator, institution, and audience. I’m interested in speculating about new tools that can travel beyond Eurocentric borders and reflect the global condition of art today, and I feel those dynamics are rooted in participatory methodology.
Reed: I think we both have different reasons for our mutual interest in this kind of “participatory” art production. I haven’t endeavoured to frame such interests and projects under any sort of theoretical umbrella. I suppose I approach participation in a very practical way—with the notion that projects can be better realized when they critically develop through several authors and actors. At present, I’m quite interested in experimenting with non-consensual modes of collaborative production, in order to see how forces of disagreement can be mobilized towards uncommon results.
Goldenberg: Throughout my research into Post-Autonomy, a constant point of entry and what turns up regularly is, “What is a participatory practice?” How do we evaluate a participatory practice? Is a practice participatory in name only, or does it constitute an actual participatory practice? How is it possible for a participatory practice to function within a “specific” Post-Autonomous practice, particularly within the virtual space of the Post-Autonomy chat room, where the blind space of a chat room, populated by participants and pure communication, is recognized as a point that can begin to rebuild this new zone.
What concerns me, in regards to participation, is the often diluted or weak understanding of participatory practice (i.e., types of practice which are participatory practices in name only). I’m referring to the deliberate application of participation throughout the UK art industry, where participation simply means encouraging an audience to engage with art in a hands-on fashion. However, participatory practice, as it is currently circulated, is actually difficult to pin down. It assumes a flexible and adaptable role that refers to both public space with the reinvention of community, public art, and museum space through the conscious strategy of museums to adopt art practices that bring in the widest possible audiences to consume and enjoy art. In other words, the art industry, including art practitioners who simply use the audience in their work, adopts a form of participation, that is, according to the Swedish group Interacting Arts (who have just carried out a two-year research into participatory and interactive practices), used by advertising companies to sell products. This form of participatory practice is simply a strategy for an audience to consume art without a qualitative or meaningful engagement with it, or, put another way, offers a form that does not actually change any aspect of the art system.
Reed: Yes, this is the problem within a consensus based, or, as you said, “diluted” notion of participatory practices to begin with—the association with populism and the gentrification of aesthetic forms for easy reception. This leads me to a most basic question that needs to be asked, namely; what constitutes an act, a gesture, of participation in the first place? We run into the “watered down,” consensus problem when we adhere to a limited view of what participation can be. This follows that participation, speaking in the context of contemporary art, should be understood as comprising not only a “hands-on,” “active” interaction, but also includes exit, indifference, non-participation, and forms of spectatorship.
Goldenberg: Claire Bishop refers to this “dilution problem” in her text “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics” (followed by her book on participatory practices, The Autonomy Between Us), where she differentiates types of participatory practices primarily within institutional spaces (i.e., art outside the institution does not exist). Via a critique of relational aesthetics, Bishop discusses the politicization of art in the UK, with the conscious adoption of contemporary art by the British government as a principal tool to knit together the different mixture of cultures and classes that constitute the UK population, particularly encouraging popular and mass audience forms of art practices, resulting, in my opinion, in the “normalization” of art, and the idea that art should be quickly intelligible and easily digested by everyone.
From my perspective, participatory practice is not just about shaping consensus, acquiring free labour, or seducing an audience into a practice or way of thinking, but recognizing the parameters that have been mapped out for participatory engagement.
Reed: Right, since what you described sounds a lot like lobbying to some degree, not to mention the problems of “dogmatic” or rigid participation, where the possibilities for manoeuverability are so limited due to firm rules of interaction put in place by an artist, a curator, or an institution. I think it would be key, then, to render the ideology of a project transparent, I mean vulnerable, susceptible for intervention at its very foundation. The other problematic within this way of working is how to escape the documentary “trap” of such practices—its modes of aestheticization and presentation to the public.
I’m also interested in the ways in which such participatory modes of working subvert the branding strategies of institutions by way of clearly identifiable authors and names. We talked about this obfuscated authorship with Ricardo Basbaum a few months ago in an online chat, and it ties into the breaking down of role distinctions you were describing earlier. In participatory practice, it is perhaps the artist who initiates something in the form of an object, idea, interaction, etc., but unleashes it to the influence of the many for further manipulation, engagement, etc. So the artist is the one who “proposes” or instigates certain processes but the authorship is ultimately obscured—it occupies this important space of the “co-,” where a work is partially made with and not by.
Goldenberg: Can you expand on what is happening here? The idea of the artist as initiator of a project appears to be the least offensive position, although it doesn’t address all the issues either that I’ve been dealing with in my own practice. I’m referring here to several projects that test out both the limits and problems of what is understood by a participatory practice: How to be a perfect guest? (Sharjah Biennial, 2003), Back to back (Fordham at Netwerk, Aalst, Belgium, 2005), and The time for Post Autonomy (Istanbul Biennial, 2007)—where I “handed over” or “gave away” the art work in the form of an installation to an audience who could do anything they wanted with the work so that the existing form became the trigger for further activities—or more accurately revealed the multiplicity of uses of a work for an unrestricted multiplicity of audiences—whether staging concerts, engaging in readings, living in the work, or altering, or effacing it, etc. The issues of authorship and ownership I was directly confronting in the work did just that—confronted/framed those issues—but the works did not displace authorial positions within the global context of the exhibition.
Reed: Perhaps it’s useful to look at the distinctions in the notion of authorship involved in participatory practice that expands this “artist-as-proposer” we’re discussing. To propose or initiate something is vastly different than to author something. It’s the first step in a process—obviously an important step, but one in a potentially long road. It’s the launching of an idea—and a “hosting” of that idea throughout a process. Crucial, however, to this notion of “hosting” is equally the capacity to “un-host”—for a conventional host assumes situational authority. What I mean by “un-hosting” is not to relinquish authority completely within a group dynamic, but to view the process as a partiality—that is, both being and not being a “host” simultaneously. Throughout the process of un-hosting a certain degree of control (not all) is dispersed and it is precisely that dispersion of “control” that blurs conventional notions of authorship.
Goldenberg: Is it about initiating a micro-political situation and setting off an open-ended process that looks at “gathering together a material form” where there isn’t a clear material form from the outset?
Reed: I agree about the micro-political situation, but I don’t see the processes as “completely open,” but more like rules in a conversation, where they are not overt, but rather situationally co-determined. It depends on the group and its specific dynamics. Furthermore, the project is initiated, which means there is a condition of response inherent to it—you “play” within, around, against that initiation, so in that sense it’s not infinitely open, there is a gravitational force in place. Referring to the conversation model, there is a wonderful term called “partial unpredictability” that has been used to describe the maintenance of “joint attention” in a conversation—the perpetuation of partial novelty. Basically there are enough unwritten rules in a conversation that we know how to perform it, but there is enough uncertainty as to the performance of another that we must be involved in order to play the game.
Goldenberg: It is very rare to find situations that provide an opportunity for an audience as participants to cross over from being a mere consumer of ideas to engaging with the material setup.
Reed: Can you clarify what you mean by engaging with the setup?
Goldenberg: By “setup” I mean whatever location, site, or context where a participatory practice takes shape—without acknowledging the restricted notion of place where art occurs, whether in a gallery, museum, or public space. I suppose I’m referring to the making transparent of the setup, so the possibility exists for participants to actively take over the running of a project.
Reed: I’m troubled by the statement “merely consuming.” I think consuming can be a way of participating!
Goldenberg: I have never been convinced by Duchamp’s proposition that “participation equates with consuming”—that is too convenient. But on the other hand, to really think about and engage at a serious level with a work is entirely different…so we are looking at degrees of involvement. Therefore, if we recognize the object of art instead as a “thought object” then the viewer only stops being passive if and when the work functions as a tool that assists thinking.
Reed: Yes, I’ll admit, it’s not that simple—I suppose one distinguishes between active and passive consumption, although I’m always apprehensive about this use of “passivity” as a form of non-engagement, for it’s still a degree of engagement. The gesture of consuming, however, implies a reciprocal sort of “digestion,” a using up of materials, which is often overlooked in our conventional use of the term “consumption.” The using up of materials further implies a by-product (often what we call waste), which can lead to other modes of re-use and re-consumption—like the “object” as a communicative link you mentioned earlier.
Goldenberg: Jumping off to another point, what do you think about Claire Bishop’s suggestion that participation simply replicates a Christian mode of self-sacrifice?
Reed: Bishop was paraphrasing Slavoj ŽiŽek, so now we have a tertiary reading, and so goes the game of broken telephone! What was interesting is her idea of the “ethical” turn of “relational” criticism—that it’s no longer an aesthetic judgment, but a moral one. You’ve raised this issue as well in your research as to how to evaluate participatory practice, i.e., what are the tools of critique?
Goldenberg: There is a sense if you are involved in a participatory practice experiment that a level of success is achieved if the participants take control of the project on an equal footing.
Reed: I don’t know if that’s entirely true….I mean it’s like the captain of a ship instigating mutiny—now that would be true Christian self-sacrifice! We were speaking earlier about “partiality” in relation to the author, so I think the issue of control you raise is not simply about losing control but about distribution of positions that foster a space of co-control, so to speak. I don’t think it’s so clear. It’s too simple to suggest that when one hands over control, it is a successful project. For me I suppose it’s much more ambiguous, but it would entail that at the end of the day we couldn’t really say any more who thought of what, but that over the course of the shifts in the group, this “thing” co-emerged. That “thing” should have the capacity for further building.
Goldenberg: Maybe replace sacrifice, which I have heard levelled at participatory practice before, with a desire to open up thinking and beliefs to criticism/criticality.
Reed: You mean critique while in the process, rather than simply at the end, of reception?
Reed: That’s what I’m really interested in—this productive mobilization of the conflict of critique as a dynamic creative process.
Goldenberg: There is a form of participatory practice where ideas and decisions develop organically from a process, which is interesting but still built on a consensus, of course, of establishing a certain atmosphere rather than challenging and questioning inherent beliefs and thinking.
Reed: This is where the dilemmas of “common ground” come in.
Goldenberg: …which is a form of consensus management.
Reed: Yes, of an “aesthetic diplomacy,” in which we do not challenge the hegemonies of interaction.
Goldenberg: Can non-consensual forms of participatory practice differentiate a space defined by micro-politics and a space defined by whatever we understand as art? I just wonder what this space is, where you can address the conflict of critique and opposition. The idea that we can locate a space or practice where this conflict is visibly taking place. Is participatory practice about consensus or providing the space to encourage conflict?
Reed: It’s not so polar in the end. Perhaps it is better to say it is a space of access—which can turn conflictual or consensual, or be both for that matter, but access in the sense that it can be negotiated, entered.
Goldenberg: I just don’t recognize the existence of such spaces now.
Reed: Maybe we should shift the focus off common ground, since it’s often suggestive of the consensual. Maybe it’s better to go by way of the “attractor.” Since several positions can build up around an attractor, signalling a common interest, but inclusive of “un-common” positions. Even though we may agree to an interest in an “object,” our positions vary and there isn’t the production of a homogenized voice, but rather atonal voices. Important to this metaphor is that the “atonal collaboration” would not generate white noise (a complete loss of signal), but would manage to organize itself into an orchestral assemblage, able to confer its heterogeneous harmonies.