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Spectator Participation – Dialogues Between Politics and Aesthetics / Part II

Since the 60s up to present day there has been a set of factors that we can point out as being linked to the dynamics of participation: the audience’s activation, the authorship and the community. The first is linked to the desire to create an active individual, empowered by both physical and symbolic experience. These emancipated individuals would be able to perceive the political and social realities around them with clarity and, ideally, would also act on them.

The second argument, authorship, relates to the idea that the transfer of some authorial power is more democratic and egalitarian than the individual creation of the work of a single artist. Also, collective production will have aesthetic benefits, due to its unpredictability. This type of production emerges from, and also simultaneously generates a more positive, anti-hierarchical society.

As for the third factor, community, there is an awareness that it is in crisis. This concern became even stronger after the fall of the USSR, and it follows the line of Marxist thought, which points out the effects of alienation and isolation that capitalism causes. One of the major objectives of participation in Art would be the restoration of social ties through collective production of meaning (Bishop 12).

It is important here to mention Jacques Rancière, especially concerning the first point: participation has to make sense, and cannot be a forced act, a must be. “Even if the playwright or the director does not know what they want the spectator to do, there is at least one thing that they know: that the spectator must do something, cross over the abyss that separates passivity from activity” (Rancière, O Espectator Emancipado 20-21). Rancière proposes a reversal of the paradigm, questioning why a spectator is considered less emancipated only because of the fact that he/she is sitting down; we face a supremacy of active over passive. Rancière strongly opposes the a priori distribution of abilities and inabilities, advocating that this implies a downgrading of the spectator, who may even be fully aware and actively using his critical thinking, despite sitting down or while contemplating an artwork.

Allan Kaprow writes about the essence of the Happening: “It follows that audiences should be eliminated entirely. All the elements – people, space, the particular materials and character, time – can in this way be integrated. (…) A group of inactive people in the space of a Happening is just dead space. (…) Movements call up movements in response.” (Kaprow, 2006, 103)

However, what Kaprow means is that to gather unprepared people for an event and say that they are “participating”, as if they are tossed apples at, or simply gathered at a location as a flock, could never be considered participation and that, in fact, it would destroy the artwork. For Kaprow, the way to fill in these gaps would be to discuss beforehand with the participants. It is mandatory to have knowledge about the content of the performance in order to be a conscious participant, although it is not necessary for the Happening to have artistic talent or performative skills (Kaprow, 103).

Rancière argues further that the opposition between watching and acting, comes from systems of domination and subjection and, as such, they are questionable. In fact, for example in ancient Greece people who actually made things, craftsmen, and other workers as well, were considered inferior, without any political rights. Those who watched and lived on an income were the full citizens. For the author, emancipation means to unravel the border between those who act and those who watch, between individuals and elements of a collective body (Rancière, O Espectador Emancipado 31). The spectator can watch, select, compare and interpret, composing inside of himself a possible meaning for the artwork (Rancière, O Espectador Emancipado 22-23). Umberto Eco, in the Open Work, allowed a theoretical legitimization for an indefinite artwork, a devaluation of meaning (as a single interpretation meaning), instead valued the phenomena. Also according to this view, the audience is required to be a more active participant in the search and decoding of the meaning. However, even if the work is “finished”, in formal terms, from the level of content, each performance is a performance, they do not exhaust the artwork, and they are simply only one of the possible versions. For the spectator, incompleteness remains, although a satisfactory version has been seen. Since the content of the work is not static, it is a constant challenge for the spectator, who is requested to continuously and individually construct meaning.

Worth mentioning is also Relational Aesthetics, from Nicolas Bourriaud. For the author, relational art takes the field of human interaction and its related social context as well as its theoretical horizon, instead of affirming an independent and private symbolic space (Bourriaud 14). Painting and sculpture narrow the relational space, whereas literature or television require the subject’s isolation. On the other hand, theater and cinema require small groups that observe specific and “unequivocal” images.

So, for the author in the exhibition space, it is possible for an immediate discussion to take place, and thus a certain form of sociability is produced.

We witness, in the contemporaneity, a pronounced decrease of social relationships and sense of community, either by the isolating effects caused by capitalism, or by the alienation arising from technological advances. The mechanization of numerous activities brings along the effects mentioned above: from super and hyper markets – which not only replaced the markets and mini-markets, but are also gradually introducing self-service cashiers without employees – ; to the vending machines; or the logic of fast food, where even if we stand in front of a human employee, he/she has been previously instructed to have a robot-like behaviour, and has no time to act outside of this role, and as such, it is not sure we can even call this an interpersonal interaction.

In a few words, in relational art the artworks feature themselves directly as propositions of social relations, dispensing the mediation between visual art object and a process of transformation of relations with the world.

We can conclude that there is a double bond between art and politics, in which they both permeate each other. There are aesthetic and performative elements in politics, and there are political elements in art, which, as we have seen, can be at the level of content, or form; form being divided into structure of the work itself, or the process of creating it.

In the context of today’s society, we can ask the question: why is the debate on participation and relational art so topical? The isolation caused by technology is unsettling even though it advocates precisely the opposite. Also, the increasingly individualistic society exacerbates this very problem. The constant presence of interaction: video games, TV, smartphones and the never-ending list of applications become all customizable and they are no longer a passive device.

There will be, in my opinion, two answers to the question above: one, this pursuit of social relationships in the field of arts stems from an increasing limitation of real human relationships, derived from the factors listed above, and a generation that is accustomed to interact, and the “simple” contemplation of an artwork “is not enough”. The second hypothesis is that a more active participation reflects a desire to revive the collective dimension, breaking with the unawareness of the process. In fact, as we have seen, it is not because a spectator is being led in a single file to a location where he is participating, but rather participation has to be something conscious and desired. Also, the activities involving the “community” sometimes are dubious. Particularly on a municipal level it can happen that funding is allocated only to projects involving the community, occasionally resulting in forced actions of little avail of emancipation for that community. We should consider whether sometimes we are perhaps creating artificial participatory audiences.

Participation can be a very powerful weapon, and also an extremely enriching experience and instigator of critical thinking, but it must always be conscious and clear. Here it’s closer to the political activity, due to its dynamics of action and awareness (here, in fact, opposed to passivity, since there are no “passive contestations”) but, again, not by giving someone a flag indicating him to scream a few words in a demonstration so that we are making a revolutionary of this person in question.

Finally, participation is something that has been appropriated by the market system, and “experiences” are also a commodity, from paragliding or sky diving to discount coupons, wine tasting in a pastoral scenery, to summer festivals that apart from the music, have become a true “amusement park”. From a society of spectacle, we went on to becoming a society of experience. But we should not overlook meaning, and there is no cause-effect connection in an aesthetic experience. The balance will be on the inside of the aesthetic experience itself, with or without participation, and it may become the bearer of new ways of perceiving, making and communicating.

Artaud, A. (2006). O Teatro e o seu Duplo. São Paulo: Martins Fontes Editora. 
Beuys, J. (2006). I am Searching for Field Character. In C. Bishop, Paticipation (pp. 125‐126). MIT Press.
Bishop, C. (2006). Participation. MIT Press.
Bourriaud, N. (2002). Relational Aesthetics. Les Presses du Réel.
Eco, U. (2006). The Poetics of the Open Work. In C. Bishop, Participation (pp. 20-39). MIT Press. 
da Costa, C. M. (2013, Setembro). Vens ver ou vens viver? Coimbra: Tese.
Gumbrecht, H. U. (2004). Production of Presence. California: Stanford University Press.
Kaprow, A. (2006). Notes on the elimination of the audience. In C. Bishop, Participation (pp. 102-104). MIT Press.
Rancière, J. (2007). As desventuras do pensamento crítico. In Marramao, Agamben, Rancière, & Sloterdijk, Política (pp. 75-98). Porto: Fundação Serralves.
Rancière, J. (2010). Estética e Política – A Partilha do Sensível. Dafne Editora.
Rancière, J. (2010). O Espectador Emancipado. Lisboa: Orfeu Negro.


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