Straight to Hells

Thomas Hirschhorn, "Too Much- Too Much."

On an expansive stage at the CUNY Graduate Center in July, art history professor Claire Bishop fielded questions about her new book, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, from the floor, navigating queries from students about Kant, community arts, and “the law.” By this point in the evening, Bishop and her invited speaker, Harvard professor Carrie Lambert-Beatty, had managed to knock over two glasses of water, joking that the talk was in fact a performance piece. The room was tense. The audience consisted of editors from the art journal October, curators, and students, with Bishop responding cagily to their queries. The atmosphere seemed to grow more and more uneasy, and when Bishop made the rather academic declaration, “I am an anti-humanist,” it resembled an exclamatory courtroom confession.

Maybe this defensiveness was pre-emptive. Bishop, known mostly for her work as a curator and critic at Artforum, walked in with a reputation for opposition. Art criticism doesn’t tend to have flashy, public squabbles (the fallout over Marina Abramovi?’s 2011 gala at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, attacked for its art-world insider indulgence and labor exploitation, might be the most recent notable example), but with her articles “The Social Turn: Collaboration and Its Discontents” (Artforum, 2006) and “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics” (October, 2004), Bishop opened a storm of debate on what she terms “participatory art." A loose term for art that focuses chiefly on interactions between people, participatory art represented for Bishop the most prevalent form of the avant-garde in contemporary art, and yet despite its high-profile, much of it, Bishop seemed to suggest, was terrible.

On the most basic level, participatory art takes social relations as its primary subject and medium, often functioning more as theater and performance more than conventional media-based art, and in guises both mundane (cookouts, seminars, walks, dancing) and remarkable (reality TV, imprisonment, anal sex). It was the latter, startling type of participatory art (also known as “social art”, “social practice”, “collaborative art”, “community-based art,” “dialogic art”) that Bishop promoted in “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics,” focusing on French critic and curator Nicolas Bourriaud’s 1998 book L’esthétique relationelle. The former, mundane variety earned her disdain.

The most famous advocate for “relational aesthetics” — arguably the premier form of participatory art in the 1990s — Bourriaud was taken to task for his claims that participation was good unto itself and art revolving around it would function as a sort of non-conventional utopian space. In opposition, Bishop extolled a model of “antagonism” in art that explored social relations between people in ways contradictory and uncomfortable. She dismissed Gillick and leading relational artist Rirkrit Tiravanija in favor of the work of Hirschhorn and Serra.

Serra's recent video Los Penetrados perhaps shows participatory art at its bleakest.

Two years later, Bishop expanded her critique beyond Bourriaud’s work to take shots at the art world’s idolization of participatory art. According to Bishop, participatory art had promoted a moral rubric: art could be seen as "good" simply for adhering to a standard value system: authorial renunciation (where the artist removes themselves as primary creator of the work), activist attempts at material social change, a privileging of the collective over the individual, reliance on an experience rather than a created product and its susceptibility to the market, and the politically emancipatory qualities of participation itself. Bishop seemed to find herself swinging at major art-world figures (such as Liam Gillick) and at small community-arts based collectives, earning political and, it seems, personal ire. This was not lessened when at the launch, for example, when she labeled such work “banal, mundane, deadly.”

Gillick responded to Bishop in October: “[Artists Thomas Hirschorn and Santiago Serra] have clearly titillated the writer and activated her journalistic taste for art that supposedly upsets or disturbs the dominant system, playing on a petit-bourgeois hunger for art that either humiliates or taunts its human material.” This followed a footnote comment pointing to Bishop’s writing at the British tabloid the London Evening Standard, “which has also tended to discuss artists who lend themselves to easy and spectacular passage of easily understood ideas.” In a response to the “Social Turn” article, art historian Grant Kester wrote in Artforum, “What Bishop seeks is an art practice that will continually reaffirm and flatter her self-perception as an acute critic, ‘decoding’ or unraveling a given video installation, performance, or film, playing at hermeneutic self-discovery like Freud’s infant grandson in a game of ‘fort’ and ‘da’.” Bishop wrote back herself: “His righteous aversion to authorship can only lead to the end of provocative art and thinking.”

It's a testament to Bishop's abilities that Artificial Hells updates and reworks the themes of her earlier articles while expanding the definition of “participation.” Billed as the first substantial study about participatory art throughout the 20th century, Artificial Hells is a pressing counterhistory to developments in modern and contemporary art. By the book’s conclusion, the key anxiety emerges of deciding art’s function within a political world on the verge of ideological and material collapse.

Bishop divides the book into the three sections: The first is a modification of the 2004 Artforum article and springboard for an aesthetic philosophy with which she premises debates in the middle section, a series of chronological historical case studies. Beginning with the “historical avant-garde” of Italian Futurism, Soviet public theater, and Paris Dada, Bishop strategically locates debates on the nature of politics and participatory art through Paris in the '60s, Argentina under dictorial rule starting with Onganía, Prague, Bratislava, and Moscow during the Cold War, and eventually community and corporate arts movements in England. The last and most pointed section turns to recent practices after 1989: “projects” and social art, performance work done by participants instead of the artist themselves, and pedagogic art endeavors.

In her selective account, Bishop examines work often marginalized from art history and Western art practice, a move both politically productive and analytically vibrant: the variety of contexts let Bishop trace participation within differing ideologies, from totalitarian dictatorship to liberal democracy, and the role art might play within them.

To this end, her first chapter opens with a discussion of the Futurist serate (“evening”) performances-cum-exhibitions of Futurist plays, visual art, poetry and political speeches that invited and inevitably resulted in brawls and shouting matches. Bishop uses the serate as a particularly persuasive example of participatory art’s political flexibility: Theatrical provocation here was not designed to scandalize a complacent bourgeoisie but instrumentalized in order “to convert the widest possible range of Italians to a nationalist, militaristic, techno-futurist cause that aimed to motivate colonial expansion and rouse enthusiasm for war.” Bishop’s comparison of Allan Kaprow’s Happenings of the 1960s and European equivalents, such as 1965’s Bataillean 120 Minutes Dedicated to the Divine Marquis by Jean-Jacques Lebel, wisely exposes the fairly normative quality of Kaprow’s work. Lebel’s extreme, subversive work in Paris aimed for an improvisational, chaotic and taboo experience that toyed with traditional boundaries between spectator and performer, in contrast to Kaprow’s more standard theatrical work. Her inclusion of Lebel, whose performances were "participatory" but not in any direct interactive sense, critically toys at line between simply being a spectator or actively participating in the work itself.

The Argentinean section is particularly strong, sketched out in opposition to North American and European practices:  In 1966 El Grupo de los Artes de los Medios Masivos created an “anti-Happening,” where the group staged photographs for press releases advertising an upcoming performance and wrote reports of the event, without any such event actually ‘happening.’ In another case, Oscar Bony in his 1968 work The Worker’s Family paid a working-class man twice his usual wage for his family to sit on a gallery pedestal for eight hours a day, suggesting an inherent class discrepancy in terms of “participation” in participatory art.

Critical motifs quickly emerge throughout this second section: Bishop historicizes the problem of evaluating participatory art and outlines instrumentalizations of participation in art: an activist “awakening” to social oppression and power relations, citizen preparation for state-ideology, or an immediately and individually beneficial aesthetic experience.

Yet Bishop strives to analyze these works on aesthetic grounds, not political ones.  She attempts to remain faithful to the status of such works as art, and not, for example, as alternatives to state social programs. The results are both thoughtful explications of work such as Graciela Carnevale’s 1968 enclosing of a gallery in glass walls, and at times a needless separation of political context and artistic status, as Kester pointed out in Artforum.  The result sometimes reads as an overdetermined attachment to maintaining boundaries between the aesthetic, the political, and the ethical, almost always settling at a safe position of “contradiction” or "blurred boundaries." As a result, an ambivalent attitude toward any defined political agenda arises in Artificial Hells that at best lets Bishop critique a myopic liberalism in the established art world and at worst mirrors its perpetual self-distancing from anti-oppressive efforts and positions.

In the chapter on participatory art in the USSR, Bishop seeks to switch the political terms of participation, writing that

this chapter turns to what is perhaps the most complicated episode in the history of participatory art, namely the impulses motivating collaborative practice when collectivism is an ideological requirement and state-imposed norm … Given the saturation of everyday life with ideology, artists did not regard their work as political but rather as existential and apolitical, committed to ideas of freedom and the imagination.

Yet Bishop’s invested (and effective) descriptions of Czech artists Milan Knížák’s collective, idiosyncratic happenings of the '60s and Ji?í Kovanda’s self-explanatory Untitled (I arranged to meet a few friends … we were standing in a small group on the square, talking... suddenly I started running; I raced across the square and disappeared into Melantrich Street …), 23 January 1978  draw their affective impact from a specific political context that Bishop herself identifies, where private life and individuality is seemingly foreclosed. She continues, “Kovanda … even today refuses to frame his work as political, since communist society was so heavily politicised that he did not want his art to participate in anything approximating the same mechanisms. By contrast, he has always insisted on a personal reading of the work, putting himself through experiences that test his notorious shyness,” a separation of the political and personal to which Bishop’s post-Marxist motivations are susceptible.

This (over-)attention to aesthetic intention and result is a product of Bishop’s shift toward her evaluative framework, one that privileges participatory art that can “elicit perverse, disturbing, and pleasurable experiences that enlarge our capacity to imagine the world and our relations anew,” as she writes in the book’s conclusion. This attention to a value system may ring suspicious to an art-historical establishment that has trained itself to ignore questions of “good” or “bad” for fear of the oppressive judgments and exclusions such valuations hold, and Bishop distances herself throughout the text from the leftist propensity to seek out politically emancipatory or grievance-based politics in art (“over-solicitous leftists” reads one particular jab). As she rightly states, aesthetics has “been rendered untouchable through the academy’s embrace of social history and identity politics,” leading Bishop to enforce a consideration of participatory art precisely as art.

She shapes this autonomy of art from Jacques Rancière’s aesthetic philosophy, where art is both removed from politics but inherently political in that it a carries the promise of a new way of thinking about the world, a “metapolitics” that allows one to move beyond consensus-based ethics. The section is difficult, and Bishop is content to cite Rancière’s theory and discuss specific works of art to explore precisely what kind of “world” participatory art may be creating. The philosopher and psychoanalyst Félix Guattari provides another model for Bishop by advocating an art that pushes itself into the social, to be used, appropriated, and modified, but that simultaneously asserts the autonomy of art itself, a domain always on the verge of oblivion.

It’s this contradictory position Bishop seeks out in her historical analyses and evokes when analyzing the artworks she's chosen for the contemporary chapters. The works include such pieces as Artur ?mijewski’s 2007 video work Them, where the artist asked four different social groups in Warsaw to paint work using symbols demonstrative of their political or religious beliefs, and then allowed each group to alter the work of the other, ending in destruction and physical violence. Whereas the work’s ethics allow us to dismiss the work as immoral or exploitive, Bishop suggests that an aesthetic consideration of ?mijewski’s piece allows us to think more critically about “social antagonisms and the facility with which ideological differences become hardened into irresolvably blocked patterns of communication.”

In its discursive effect, Bishop’s turn to the aesthetic suggests a formalism that can complicate a blankly political evaluation. Bishop is not new in this: Art historians (mostly contemporary) have relied primarily on Deleuzian strands of thought since the 1990s to advocate a neo-formalism, and for Bishop an application of this sensibility relies concretely on a “secondary audience,” a modification of the participatory work that manifests itself in mediated ways: publications, videos, even live lectures. Inherent in this is a disparaging of community-based activist efforts, whose disregard for an institutional shelf-life beyond their interventions has ironically for Bishop “ensured that the stakes were kept low, rendering community art harmless and unthreatening to social and cultural stability,” as she writes when critiquing the efforts of community arts in Great Britain.

This preference for the antagonistic in participatory art, consistently at play in Bishop’s work, forms a through line in Artificial Hells, from the serate to the “social sadism” participatory art in Argentina, and in Bishop’s discussion of “delegated performance”: “the act of hiring non-professionals or specialists in other fields to undertake the job of being present and performing at a particular time and a particular place on behalf of the artist, and following [their] instructions.” Examining Serra, ?mijewski, Phil Collins, and “La Monnaie Vivante,” a performance curated by Pierre Bal-Blanc, Bishop discloses the moral center of her antagonism, the pleasure of being exploited and watching exploitation in a capitalist system, here inspired by the work of French critic Pierre Klossowski. In doing so, Bishop argues, these types of delegated performance “testify to a shared reality between viewers and performers,” and thus rework ways of thinking about “pleasure, labor, and ethics.”

This exploration is the missing link in the “banal, mundane, deadly” participatory art to which Bishop has built her recent work in opposition. In her analysis, such antagonism is crucial to resisting a neoliberal co-opting of participation, and the art that facilitates it. Responding directly to British New Labour cultural policy and austerity, Bishop notes “the dehierarchising rhetoric of artists whose projects seek to facilitate creativity ends up sounding identical to government cultural policy geared toward the twin mantras of social inclusion and creative cities,” where “creativity” is valorized as the anecdote to countering social marginalization, an Age of Relational Aesthetics pulling-up-by-the-boot-straps. The individual is left to negotiate social issues caused by the state itself, but now morphed into a “project,” as Bishop notes in her critique of experimental curation of the 1990s. One of Bishop’s most salient points is to compare the institutionalization and multiplication of participatory art practices after 1989 to the rise of social media and reality television, and one needs only to think of the faux-inclusive corporate practices of “liking,” “voting,” and “commenting” online and the vanishing line between self-advertisement and self-expression on platforms such as Twitter, all free to the employer.

Bishops’ call for disruption in these art practices and social climate is well-heeded, and her discussion of Paul Chan’s 2007 endeavor Waiting for Godot in New Orleans in Artificial Hells’’s last chapter establishes a sobering detail. She notes Chan’s division between activist strategies to raise funding and provide concrete support in New Orleans following Katrina (such as teaching for free in the city’s art schools), and his artistic goals in producing Beckett’s work against the backdrop of a half-vanquished city thrown to the curb by the state. Art, she eventually concludes, reaches an impasse: “At a certain point, art has to hand over to other institutions if social change is to be achieved: it is not enough to keep producing activist art.”  This separation strikes to the core of Artificial Hells, an uneasy (and not completely unproblematic) separation between the aesthetic and the political, the activist and the artistic. When participatory art increasingly resembles corporate brainstorming sessions, where precisely does art fit?

Bishop calls for a participatory art of resistance in Artificial Hells, but a resistance that avoids considerations of the ethical in favor of aesthetically probing power relations as they stand. Such a situation, such as artist Tania Bruguera’s hiring of police officers to enforce crowd control tactics at the Tate Modern, carry an antagonistic urgency that escapes work like Tiravanija, the poster child of participatory art, famously in one piece serving curry to gallery-goers. Bishop argues that this kind of evaluation is precisely the critical labor necessary to redeem “participation” as a tool and goal in the face of neoliberal ideology.