A Genealogy of the Participant







The majority of visual artists make their art within a discrete symbolic private space with an unambiguous dividing line between artwork and viewer. What are the terms when an artist embeds, utilizes, or activates viewers in an artwork? Is the decision to abandon the distinct dividing line between viewer & artwork an attempt to defract, diffuse or defer authorial intention and the artwork-as-discrete-territory-to-be-acquired underlying the commodification system?  Once we broach this boundary and we include the viewer (formally) as part of the artwork, it seems we are in need of a more specific ontology of the viewer. Does a “viewer” differ from a “spectator” which differs from a “public” which differs from an “audience” which differs from a “participant”? Are there varying inflections of agency, purpose, engagement or orientation ascribed to these subjecthoods? Is there any hope the viewer/audience/spectator will one day stop being an “object” (token ornament), and evolve into being a subject?  Participatory art is often buttressed by an elaborate ideology, imbued with emancipatory aspirations of militating against an atomized society numbed by individual consumption (à la Guy Debord), rejecting individual authorship in favor of collectivism, championing “active” rather than passive viewers, turning artists into “Embedded Outsiders” within a non-art community. 

However,  in light of the release of Claire Bishop’s Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, some basic assumptions about participatory art have been problematized.  Can models of democracy within art credibly claim to prefigure models of democracy in the society at large?  How is the participant in “participatory art” conceived: does he/ she have agency or co-share of power with the artist? Are claims of “autonomy” within participatory art belied by their framing by institutions?  Do the democratic aspirations of an actívated spectator within participatory art find their fullest realization in activism (or radical pedagogy)? Barthes “death of the author” was supposed to foretell the “birth of the reader,” the birth of the spectator, and now the “birth of the participant.”  However, Barthes’ enduring reknown for the essay “Death of the Author” is a living refutation of his prognosis that authorship would one day be eclipsed by the “reader.” This module attemps to unpack the polemics and ideology surrounding the rhetoric of “activated spectatorship.” 



Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship

Art and Participation

Battle of Orgreave, Jeremy Deller

Participative Monument, Grupa Spomenik