A Premonition of Artificial Hells

“In a world where everyone can air their views to everyone, we are faced, I think, not with mass empowerment but with an endless stream of banal egos.” – Claire Bishop

Claire Bishop is on a mission to re-scribe readings of participatory/collaborative/socially engaged/relational/dialogic art beyond moral interpretations. Her agenda hasn’t changed since her 2004 October article where she challenged Nicolas Bourriaud’s aggrandizing claims for relational aesthetics. From this polarizing start she has been unrelenting in her push for a more sober take on the participatory art forms currently trending. So, you can imagine my interest in the launch of her new book Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship. Supposedly released in spring this year, I can’t find a copy anywhere, and there is no mention of it yet on the publisher’s (Verso) website. Nevertheless, no book is an island, therefore, a lot of Bishop’s material is already floating around. What follows is a cursory guess at the types of things I think—and hope—she will address in her book. I will be glancing over the wealth of historical research that Bishop draws upon to contextualize and evidence her argument. Suffice to say, she has brought an overlooked history of participation in twentieth century art into the light. More than simply proving her thesis is no knee-jerk reaction this history serves as ample reason to read her book(s) for yourself. In the end, all this may become a preamble, in need of revisiting once I get my hands on a copy of her new book.

The title Bishop has chosen, Artificial Hells, doesn’t shy away from giving us a sense of where she stands on the subject. She sides with Sartre: hell is other people. Or, more specifically, hell is working as an unpaid performer in a participatory art project with other people, while enacting a predictable exchange that comes nowhere close to inducing the promised new and emancipatory forms of social collaboration and relation. Her title also situates her argument within historical linage of socially engaged art—artificial hells is the term coined by André Breton to describe Dada events of the 1920s. Bishop sees these events as an example of one of two trends evident in the history of twentieth century participatory art. Many Dada events were oblique, chaotic situations—artificial hells—intended to shake up participants and critique societal alienation; in what Bishop terms a ‘negation of negation’. The storming of the Winter Palace in 1920 is an example of a parallel trend that attempts to provoke collective creativity, oppose injustices and propose alternatives, in a type of ‘utopian realization’.

At the root of both of these, still prevalent, strategies is the belief in the automatic political efficacy of physical participation; something that Bishop and her philosophical inspiration Jacques Rancière refute. They argue that there is no direct correlation between an artistic form and political meaning. Artistic forms, participation among them, can be equally co-opted by competing ideologies. Bishop has spent a great deal of time and effort opposing the narrative behind participatory art that claims audiences are activated, awakened and empowered when artists give over control to participants. But she also goes further, asking: what criteria should we use, then, to evaluate participatory works critically and develop a frame of reference for discussing them?

Mel Chin, Fundred Dollar Bill Project (2010-present) Image: Jeffrey Bussmann via Flicker

If we evaluate these works by their ability to bring about social change, they fall short. Most artists do not wield the power, resources and time to bring about substantial long term change to the issues they highlight. As an example, Bishop cites Mel Chin’s Fundred Dollar Bill Project which aims to leverage $300 million from the U.S. Congress for lead pollution cleanup, by exchanging the same amount in ‘Fundred’ one hundred dollar bills, drawn by participants (mostly school children). Who, she asks, will be responsible for guaranteeing lead removal once the hand-drawn notes are presented to government? At some point responsibility needs to be handed over to social and political organizations. But exactly when and how this will occur is often beyond the scope of artistic projects.

Furthermore, artists who create socially engaged, participatory projects reject questions of aesthetics and often disregard the life of their projects beyond communication with their primary audience. Instead, they position their practices as working outside or beyond artistic concerns, in new interstitial zones. Such claims, Bishop argues, are disingenuous, as most of these projects are endorsed, funded, hosted and invested with meaning by art institutions, and engage art audiences. These projects are also seen as peripheral by socio-political organizations. By eschewing artistic interpretation or ultimate social responsibility, Bishop argues “a great swath of participatory art ends up floating in a comfortable non-zone where neither social or artistic criteria are being achieved/can be used as a basis for judgement.”

Bishop is often asked questions like “but surely it’s better for one art project to improve one person’s life, or draw attention to an issue, than for it not to happen at all?” But such questions are still founded on valuing a project’s role as a social agent, where it is good simply because it is intention is good, not because it produces anything good. We could, for instance, see Chin’s Fundred Dollar Bill Project as a petition. But if we value it only because it draws attention to an important issue, we are effectively saying that art is valuable only as propaganda. Art becomes reduced to a feel-good gesture aimed to relieve feelings of responsibility or guilt. A bandage over the cracks in society. It also places undue investment in the power of revelation. Believing that simply exposing an issue will bring about change. Bishop is adamant that her criticism is not aimed at convincing artists to become more politically active or responsible, but about articulating and appreciating art’s value beyond propaganda, beyond serving as a petition or publicity strategy. Art’s value, she contests, lies not in it’s ability to tote the ethical slogans of the day, but precisely because it exists outside of this. Because it can present contentions that cannot be read as morally exemplary.

Ultimately, this is a clash of value systems. A clash that Bishop has demonstrated as nothing new. At its bare bones lies a series of binary oppositions: active participation vs passive spectatorship, open text vs closed work, equality of access vs quality of result, real life vs spectacle, political morality vs artistic freedom, collective vs individual, process vs product, collaborator vs author, etc. My guess is that a fair chunk of Bishop’s book will lay out an artistic history that shows how these dichotomies have flared up and taken many different shapes over the course of the twentieth century.

Drawing on the work of sociologists Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, Bishop has shown that these values have a deeper root in reactions to contemporary capitalism. Boltanski and Chiapello have noted that throughout history four critiques of capitalism continuously reappear: (i) a demand for liberation from oppression; (ii) a rejection of inauthenticity and disenchantment; (iii) a refusal of egoism and private interests; (iv) a response to suffering and poverty. Of these, the first pair are often expressed as an ‘artistic critique’ that deplores the loss of meaning and loss of a sense of what is beautiful and valuable within a society that standardizes and commodifies things, people and art. The second pair form a ‘social critique’ that rejects moral neutrality and individualism of artists and a separation of art from life.

These critiques Bishop equates with the two separate narratives that have arisen, in opposition, around socially engaged art work. For those who place value on the social and ethical side of the divide, a work is significant and successful when it models better behaviors or offers solutions, however short-term, to social problems. Alternatively, those who read these projects as art first and foremost base their judgements upon sensory responses to the material presented. Bishop explains “In this schema ethics are nugatory because art is understood to continually throw established systems of value into question, including questions of morality. It is more important to devise new languages with which to represent and question social contradiction.”

In etching out a critical framework for understanding the value systems behind evaluations of participatory work Bishop has been criticized for policing the boundaries of artistic practice and polarizing discussions into camps pitching “aesthetes” against “activists”. (Kester, 2006) But to those resistant to assessing and theorizing the value of art, Bishop describes the history of the post 1968 community arts movement as a warning.

Emphasizing process rather than end results and basing their judgements on ethical criteria about how and with whom they work, rather than the character of their artistic outcomes, they found themselves subject to manipulation and eventually instrumentalization by right wing governments. From being an agitational force in the 1970s campaigning for social justice, it became, by the 1980s, a harmless branch of the welfare state. The kindly folk who could be relied upon to mop-up whenever the government wished to absolve itself of responsibility.

For practitioners who operate within artistic spheres, receiving funding and institutional support for their work, it is important to be able to articulate the value of the arts to avoid being put to use in the service of neo-liberal agendas as community builders, perception adjusters, social minders etc.

Bishop has noticed that many artists have internalized the pressure to find solutions to social problems. But, she argues, this is a task that artists are often not best equipped to undertake and the job is much larger than they can tackle on their own. Bishop sees this pressure to make art politically ‘relevant’ to the real world as having welled up from a lack of faith in the value of art as a de-alienating human endeavor, a lack of faith in democratic political processes and the absence of a viable, global, left alternative. Bishop argues “We need to recognize art as an experimental activity overlapping with the world, [that] may lend support towards a political project, without bearing the sole responsibility for devising and implementing this.”

So, if the value in art is not imagining and instigating solutions to social problems, where does its value lie? Now, we get to the interesting part. Bishop has spent a lot of effort in cutting down interpretations of art based solely on political and ethical judgments. I hope she spends a greater chunk of her book fleshing out an alternative critical schema. From what she has demonstrated in the past, I think this schema will target a position that rests between the social and artistic narratives and will revolve around the concept of sustaining tension between the various binaries listed above.

The tension Bishop highlights is often palpable as uneasiness. Works that demonstrate this quality don’t fit easily into any moral code. They also deal with participation as a form that comes with baggage: celebrated by museums and curators, demanded by state funders, utilized by schools and businesses and pervasive in mass media (think user generated content and reality TV). The ideals of dialogue and collaboration are often not lost, they are just complicated by discomfort, frustration or absurdity, eccentricity, doubt, even sheer pleasure. This blend, Bishop argues, gives the work aesthetic impact and opens the space for new perspectives on our condition. For the artists Bishop champions participation is not an end in itself, instead it delivers a messy knot of concerns including asking questions about who can be involved, in what ways, under which circumstances, and at who’s expense. Bishop has enacted numerous readings of works that blur, not collapse, some of the binaries of participatory discourse; embracing paradox, contradiction and ambiguity.

Thomas Hirschhorn, Bataille Monument (2002) Image: Emile Estelli via Flicker

With comments like I am “an artist and not an animator, teacher or social worker” Thomas Hirschhorn is one such artist who calls for the type of reading Bishop can bring. Bishop has written at length about his work Bataille Monument (2002), which was presented in a remote Turkish suburb of Kassel as a part of Documenta XI. In the middle of this working class, immigrant community Hirschhorn set up makeshift structures to house a library, TV studio and bar in hommage to the surrealist writer Georges Bataille. Documenta audience members were ferried out to the site by scarce Turkish taxis.

The only thing visitors were required to do at the site was to think about the material offered.  Hirschhorn doesn’t give control to the audience, or recruit them to fulfill a role in completing the work. Rather, Bishop suggests, there is a mutual power play in operation, where the artist relies on the “participants creative exploitation of the situation he or she offers, just as participants require the artist’s cue and direction.” Rather than trying to enable complete audience control, what results, Bishop argues, is a tension “of recognition and dependency more akin to the collectively negotiated dynamics of stand up comedy or BDSM sex than to a ladder of progressively more virtuous political forms.”

By bringing two different communities together Hirschhorn was not trying to model social cohesion through shared collaborative experience. Actually, in complete contrast to Rirkrit Tiravanija’s curry lunches, there was an uneasy clash. This riled ethically versed critics like Maria Lind who criticized Hirschhorn for “exhibiting and making exotic marginalized groups and thereby contributing to a form of social pornography.” But Bishop points out that the “zoo effect went both ways” and that it was important that these two communities were not pedantically reconciled; that the gap between them in society was reflected in the work. Even more so, Hirschhorn exposed contemporary art’s self-delusion as an all-embracive domain.

Bishop explains that while there is no audience empowerment or simulated utopia in works such as Hirschhorn’s, these works do enact a crucial principle of democracy: antagonism. Sustained conflict, not resolution, between between ideals and practicalities (while resisting totalitarianism) is a symptom of a functioning democracy. Without antagonism there is only imposed consensus and suppression of debate. Acknowledging that conflict is not only unavoidable, but crucial, is not to give in to political deadlock, but to suggest that antagonism allows for new political frontiers to be continuously imagined and debated.

Bishop’s argument is that evaluation of art should be based upon the way artists and artworks reflect the irreducible tension between aesthetic autonomy and social intervention. The alternative she sees to palliative, prototype art is work that stirs unease, inviting affective responses and the possibility “to confront darker, more painfully complicated considerations of our predicament.” With this comes the need to value art’s ability to ignite imagination to and stir emotions, while also acknowledging the limitations of what is possible as art. Ultimately, it is art’s ability to embody contradiction that holds the most promise for Bishop. What she values the most is work, and criticism, that does not sacrifice the aesthetic in favor of social change, but to see the contradictions in art as inherently productive.

This is where I hope Bishop focuses for her book, because I think there are still a lot of unpacking to do and questions that need addressing. Questions such as: can participatory art open up new ways of thinking whilst relying on the historical language of art and only speaking to those who understand this language? Can participatory art cross the boundary between the social and aesthetic, whilst still claiming a distinct critical space for itself in the aesthetic realm? Isn’t Bishop, in her criticism of ‘banal’ participatory art, herself making a ethical argument about not wasting the disruptive potential of the aesthetic?

I don’t see Artificial Hells bringing an end to the conversation; I see a new wave of dispute on the horizon. Critics, such as Grant Kester, will surely continue to protest Bishop’s limiting of art to an indirect engagement with politics. They will continue to point out her apparent acceptance of the economic privilege and social prestige of art and their belief that Bishop calls for obtuse artworks specifically to legitimize her role as interpreter. But, no matter where you stand on the issue, a rowdy battle is better than quiet acquiescence.

Source texts/Further reading:

Bishop, Claire ‘Participation and Spectacle: Where Are We Now’ presented at Creative Time’s Living as Form lecture series http://www.creativetime.org/programs/archive/2011/livingasform/talks.htm

Bishop, Claire Participation 2006, London: Whitechapel and MIT Press http://www.anti-thesis.net/contents/texts/references/bishop-participation.pdf

Bishop, Claire ‘The Social Turn: Collaboration and Its Discontents’, Artforum, February 2006 http://artforum.com/inprint/issue=200602&id=10274

Bishop, Claire ‘Rate of Return: Claire Bishop on the Artist Placement Group’ Artforum,  October 2010 http://artforum.com/inprint/issue=201008&id=26419&pagenum=0

Bishop, Claire ‘Something for Everyone: The Art of Pawel Althamer’, Artforum, February 2011, p.175-181

Bishop, Claire ‘Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics’, October, no. 110, Autumn 2004 p. 51-79 http://www.marginalutility.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/07/Claire-Bishop_Antagonism-and-Relational-Aesthetics.pdf

Charnley, Kim ‘Dissensus and the politics of collaborative practice’ Art & the Public Sphere
Volume 1, Number 1, 2011 p. 37–53 http://www.intellectbooks.co.uk/File:download,aid=10623/aps.1.1.37.pdf

Kester, Grant ‘Another Turn: A Response to Claire Bishop’ Artforum, May 2006 http://www.couldyoubemorespecific.com/research/grant-kester-response-to-claire-bishop-‘another-turn’/

Rancière, Jacques The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible, 2004, Translation and introduction Gabriel Rockhill, London and New York: Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd http://books.google.com/books?id=hzdyW_an6gUC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false

Rancière, Jacques ‘The Emancipated Spectator’ ArtForum, March 2007 http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0268/is_7_45/ai_n24354915/

Rancière, Jacques Aesthetics and Its Discontents, 2009 Translation Steven Corcoran, Polity http://www.aaronvandyke.net/summer_readings/Ranciere-Problems%20and%20Transformations%20of%20Critical%20Art.pdf

Roche, Jennifer ‘Socially Engaged Art, Critics and Discontents: An Interview with Claire Bishop’ Community Arts Network http://www.scribd.com/doc/45545670/an-Interview-With-Claire-Bishop

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4 Responses to “A Premonition of Artificial Hells”

  1. Jaenine Parkinson says:

    Tirdad Zolghadr contines the debate on the frieze blog: “When, for example, do activist aims even benefit from the visualization economy of the art world? For some causes and struggles, the Midas touch of professional curiosity waters down the potential more violently than any big bad mullah ever could.” http://blog.frieze.com/the-creative-time-summit-living-as-form/

  2. Petra Halkes says:

    Jaenine, I am glad I met you in person, or I would never have found this article. Why doesn’t Artengine announce your entries on the artlist?
    Anyway, thank you so much for this overview of Claire Bishop’s thinking. You have given us a great shortcut to a very important topic, addressed so intelligently by Bishop and by you. I think we should use your text for a RIA Reads Out Loud session in the new year. Also, if ever you want to start a reading group on Jacques Ranciere, count me in!

  3. Jaenine Parkinson says:

    The Irvine Foundation publishes a report on audience participation in the arts where they illustrate the myth in action http://bit.ly/tgCYlp

  4. Jaenine Parkinson says:

    Lars Bang Larson on the social turn as the defining character of the nineties: http://www.frieze.com/issue/article/the-long-nineties/

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