thing theory (2008)

anth g6085

the notion of participatory art:

blurring the lines between person and the creation of things

audrey boguchwal (columbia university)

Discussing participatory art first requires defining art. I would argue that art is anything deliberately created by humans that invokes something of the creative process and has some sort of message, meaning or function that it communicates to an audience. I like that definition because it is broad, encompassing anything from fine art – paintings in the Met – to cooking.

I would like to challenge the distinction between the artist and the audience by exploring the notion of participatory art (and culture) through the lens of Thing Theory. This semester, we have discussed the complex distinctions (and lack thereof) between people and objects and the way in which they work together to make the world world, as Heidegger would say. By making reference to Alfred Gell’s theory of the art indexing the artist, and other texts, I would like to begin a conversation about how participatory art fits into the larger conversation about people and objects.

Participatory art is an approach to making art in which the audience is engaged directly in the creative process, allowing them to become co-creators of the work. Its intent is to challenge the dominant form of making art in the West, in which a small class of professional artists make the art while the public takes on the role of consumers, i.e., buying the work of the professionals in the marketplace.

There is a 1989 by Greg Evans called Art Alienated on the decline of participatory art, in which he argues that we are alienated from art because we are taught by our society and popular culture only to appreciate it, but rarely how to create it ourselves. This alienation from art, he continues, is a relatively recent phenomenon that coincides with the rise of capitalism, the commodification of everything and eventually the fetishization of art. I believe that the main character in High Fidelity (played by John Cusak in the movie) epitomizes this sort of consumer – he is avid record collector and 'audiophile', someone who may well own thousands of records and play them on the finest equipment available, and yet be unable to play an instrument or sing a simple tune. Such a person has truly been reduced to Marx's concept of the Commodity Man (or Woman), someone whose identity is tied up, not in what he or she does, but in what he or she buys.

Once again, I turn to Alfred Gell to understand how art indexes the artist. I am referring Nicholas Thomas’ explanation of Gell’s work here. Gell suggests that art is not about observing, but that it is instead about doing. It is about agency, a process involving indexes and effects. Prototypes are the things that the art, as a representation of reality, may stand for, recipients are those whom indexes are taken to effect, or who may be effective themselves via the index. Artists are those whom are considered to be immediately causally responsible for the existence and characteristics of an index – the work of art – but the agency of the artist is rarely self sufficient and the index is not merely a product, but a distributed extension of the artist.  In participatory art, I would like to argue that both the artist and the “Audience” – or participant – is indexed by the work and distributed into it.

I wonder if Mitchell would disagree with my theory. In his essay What Do Pictures Really Want, he creates the picture as an entity all its own, not one that speaks of the artists motives. And are pictures ever participatory? The argument can be made that even “normal” observation of art is participatory as it always has to be subjectively interpreted by the viewer and thus, they must bring their own opinions and ideas to it.

There are many examples of participatory art, although they do not all go by that name. I’d like to discuss a few of my favorites. First, here are three videos. One is of a BMW commercial in which nature acts as a participant in the creation of the art. The second is a collaborative participatory work from the Burning Man Art Event, in which dozens of participants are needed to make the sculpture move and light up in order to create the full effect. There is also a collaborative process of discovery, as there are no instructions or directions on the piece.

A third example - This summer, the Brooklyn Museum will be opening a crowd curated exhibit called Click! Click! takes its inspiration from the critically acclaimed book The Wisdom of Crowds, in which New Yorker business and financial columnist James Surowiecki asserts that a diverse crowd is often wiser at making decisions than expert individuals. The museum put out a call on its website to artists to submit photos fitting with the exhibition theme “The Changing Face of Brooklyn.” Now, the public is invited to log onto the museum’s website and decide which photos should be included in the exhibition. Who is the artist? Who is the curator? What role does the museum play in the creation of the exhibition? What role does the individual artists camera play? My laptop? My wireless network connection? What is the true origin of the exhibit, which is a form of publication and therefore, a work of art in itself?

But where do we draw the line? If the artist and the audience are both participants in the creation of a certain work of art, are the materials also participants? I thought of Tim Ingold’s piece, Materials Against Materiality, when he addresses the problem of material composition in the definition of all these things floating around. If an artist executes the same work with different materials, it’s considered a different piece. Thus, the materials must also participate. But what about nature? Can it be a participant in the creation of art that is meant to be ignited by the wind? How does such a work then index the artist, the “audience” and the world?

Thus, if we allow humans, nature and materials to be components of participatory art, then is the entire world art? As humans, do we act upon the world, or does the world act upon us? Or does the world just world, as Heidegger says?

While I think the Heidegerrian position is compelling, I maintain that it is an extremist stance. However, I do think the idea that we are all artists and that all of our output is art is a beneficial way in which to view the world. Art implies thought, reference to our fellow humans, care, and inspiration. If you believe that my “everything is art” stance is too radical I invite you to look at the discourse created by events like the TED conference and prize (Technology, Entertainment, Design), in which creativity and the sharing of ideas is harnessed to devise viable solutions to world problems. I realize that really famous people like Bill Clinton, Dave Eggers and Bono (who is almost a cliché when it comes to this sort of thing) win the TED prizes, but my point is that art and creativity can lead to meaningful, constructive global improvements.



Alfred Gell Art and Agency

Bill Brown The Thing (consulted)

Nicholas Thomas, Introduction

WJT Mitchell, What Do Pictures Really Want?

Tim Ingold, Materials Against Materiality