Morgan Quaintance, Art Monthly No. 354 | March 2012
The development of participation as a key element in contemporary art of the 20th century – accelerating rapidly from the 1960s onwards – has ultimately led to three approaches to engagement in the 21st. These approaches can be categorised as: interactivity, in which the manipulable art object becomes activated through contact; installation, in which a subject physically enters a space designed to be viewed as a total work; and socially engaged art, in which the dematerialised art object is replaced by dialogue, speech, and other forms of social exchange. Though the desired outcomes of contact with work from each of these areas may differ by degrees they all require the presence of a physically engaged subject for the completion of the work.
This physical bias has risen from a phenomenological reading of the idea of presence and the necessity to transform a presupposed spectator from passive to active, disembodied to embodied and from apolitical to political. These binary positions are all switch points on the spectator’s journey from an alienated victim of late capitalism to a liberated, socially engaged critic of that ideology and their position within its political, economic and sociocultural framework. It is a mode of address that, to quote Stephen Willats, positions ‘the artist as an instigator of changes in social cognition and behaviour’.
There have been critics of this idea that participatory art encounters are catalytic moments, in which the apolitical sleeper awakes; most notably – for Liam Gillick anyway – Claire Bishop’s Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics, and in The Emancipated Spectator Jacques Rancière, who maintains ‘being a spectator is not some passive condition that we should transform into activity’, has gone some way towards dislodging the obstinacy of activation. But despite discourses of art-induced radicalisation all but disappearing from considerations of interactive work, in installation and socially engaged practices the conception of activation via physical participation remains central to its discussion and interpretation in, for instance, the work of Santiago Sierra, Hélio Oiticica, Frances Alÿs and others. The theoretical narrative strengthening the persistence of this model usually begins with a disdain for the transcendental art encounter, moves through rejections of modernist individualism, consumerism and the capitalist spectacle, and gains philosophical heft via Ludwig Wittgenstein’s decimation of private worlds and Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological holism. The purpose here is not to analyse this theoretical framework and trajectory or the reasons why it persists; it is to look at work that requires a particular form of intellectual engagement, which has been overlooked by readings of participatory art concerned with the discourse of activation and the necessity of physical activity.
It is a truism that all art requires intellectual engagement of some kind – just as all art requires a spectator or participant – but the particular form to be looked at here is distinct from notions of detached contemplation, delectation, or the thesis-driven position of getting what an artist is on about. This form of intellectual engagement requires a spectator to use her imaginative capacity to complete, or fill in, the work and it is congruent with the condition on which the enjoyment of literature is necessarily founded.
At a basic level imagination is a term used to describe an individual’s ability to creatively visualise, and emotionally engage with, events in the mind. To abbreviate a huge variety of applications, we use it to visualise things that could not exist in physical reality, or things we are yet to see or experience. The essential component of imagination is memory, and so therefore – rather paradoxically – the act of imagining could also be described as the novel reconfiguration of things we have already seen and experienced. In order to provoke the use of this capacity in the viewer an artwork has to remove or conceal part of itself so that the absent feature can be constructed. It is entirely similar to the capacity required to transform literature’s fleshless textural descriptions of action into embodied visualisations and memories unique to each individual. The idea, familiar to us all, is of leaving something to the imagination, and a good example of its use can be found in the films of Alfred Hitchcock. The director, who once remarked ‘the more room [suspense] leaves to the imagination, the greater the emotion and the expectation’, always left key visual stimuli out of scenes so that we could inhabit them with our own imaginary constructions. In literature the actual physical events are absent, and in Hitchcock’s films – for example the shower scene in Psycho, where the knife never actually penetrates flesh – the violent act often takes place outside of the frame.
This technique of removal, of leaving space for imaginative engagement, is occasionaly invoked to explain artworks in artists’ statements and gallery interpretations, but as is often the case the objects themselves rarely operate in the ways asserted. On the ‘studio visit’ area of the MoMA PS1 website, Dutch artist Hans van Meeuwen writes: ‘I wish to appeal to the memories of the viewer. I seek to show just enough information to inspire the viewer’s own imagination. Memory is the key. I want the viewer to fill in the artwork with her own memory, her own history.’ In seeking to explain the desired operative mode for his art (comically surreal, figurative sculptures that don’t quite fulfil the above promise), van Meeuwen unwittingly provides an insightful evaluation of a work by Dutch artist Marjolijn Dijkman. Surviving New Land, 2009, a 20-minute looping video piece by Dijkman, commissioned by the Rotterdam Port of Authority & SKOR, Amsterdam, takes all of the techniques of removal mentioned above and weaves them into an absorbing construction that demands audience participation, irresistably drawing the viewer in.
The visual content of Dijkman’s video is one continuous panoramic shot of a barren, sandy island shore; it is Maasvlakte 2, a man-made island positioned between Rotterdam harbour and the North Sea, scheduled for completion in 2013. Constructed from 290m cubic metres of sand, sucked up from the seabed by large dredgers, there are no inhabitants – save for the birds – and no vegetation. The idea behind the island’s construction is to manoeuvre an enlarged Rotterdam harbour into a leading global trading position. For Dijkman – an artist interested in the enlightenment project to map, categorise and discover the world – this attempt to re-enter the world trading stage, via the sea, conjured thoughts of the East India Trading Company, Dutch colonial history and the idea that Maasvlakte 2 represented the actualisation of a desire to return to former colonial glories. Focusing on the notion of discovery inherent in colonisation, Dijkman edited together sound extracts from seafaring films recording the moment of discovery using the stitched-together audio material as the soundtrack for Surviving New Land. Over the rolling footage of Maasvlakte’s outer shores, the edited monologues describe various islands and the attendant psychological states of fear, desire, dread and elation against the background sounds of lapping waves and cawing gulls. To borrow from van Meeuwan’s statement, the artist has allowed – aurally speaking – just enough information to inspire the viewer’s own imagination to fill in what is missing or suggested by the narration, peopling the barren island with images pulled from the resources of their own memories.
In contrast to the position of viewer passivity that Christian Metz unravels in his prolix text The Imaginary Signifier, the viewer of Surviving New Land is entirely complicit in its completion. According to Metz the viewer takes ‘no part in the perceived’, but in Dijkman’s work that is not the case. The viewers’ imaginative capacity is teased into action, so that they colonise the empty island, with their own imaginative constructions. So, inasmuch as selfhood is the sum total of experience accessible through long- and short-term memory, the viewer, in pulling from that resource, is not only constructing, taking part and participating in the perceived, the viewer is the perceived. In other words she is watching herself.
Another fellow Netherlander similarly interested in mining the possibilities of memory and the imagination is the artist Manon de Boer. Her first UK solo exhibition, which took place at the South London Gallery across the last month of 2010 and the start of 2011 (AM343), was a sustained and focused attempt to encourage viewers’ to participate imaginatively in the making of multiple artworks. More than just providing object-based entry points into this participative relationship, de Boer set about priming the audience to use this capacity and to recognise when an artwork called for it to be used. Dissonant, 2010, the filmwork that was debuted at SLG, performed this double function of demonstration and stimulation with consummate elegance. The film begins with a female contemporary dancer, listening to and internalising the cadences of a violin solo; the music is cut off and she immediately begins to improvise movement according to the absent composition, which now plays on in her mind. What we are seeing is the first level of transference: the music, instead of playing independently of the dancer, has now become internalised, replayed and reconstructed by her. Shortly after, a second level of transference takes place: the screen goes black, and with the remaining sounds of the dancer’s shifting feet and gasping breaths we construct the continuation of the dance using our memories of it. The viewer is pulled into the artwork’s orbit of activity by repeating the act of transference and continuation that its temporary subject – the dancer – already performed. In so doing the viewer becomes the work’s second subject; the person inducted into, and participating in, the game of remembrance and imagination.
Throughout de Boer’s SLG exhibition this participatory device was inflected in different ways, taxing and foregrounding the viewers’ intellectual capacities and ultimately leading them to a consideration of their own individuality and interiority. It was surprising, then, to see interpretations of these works default to formal analysis, focusing on affinities with structuralist film while failing to identify the act of filling that de Boer’s works require as participatory. TJ Demos’s feature in Artforum in November 2010 drew attention to the unhurried pace of de Boer’s films, worrying that they courted ‘nonrecognition, at least from the perspective of our hypercharged media environment’; and Kathy Noble’s review for Frieze focused on a perceived ‘undercurrent of repressed emotion’; both seemed to either disregard, or else fail to register, the active inclusivity de Boer’s works called for. Even a text by Lumi Tan, published in the pick section of Artforum’s website, failed to state the connection between de Boer’s work and participation, despite writing ‘the artist places both the audience and the performer in the same imaginary space, where viewers are made to continue Leomij’s dance with their memory, just as Leomij must re-create the music with hers’. So where does this inability to align imaginative engagement with any discourse about participation, old or new, come from?
Reasons for the lack of non-physical engagement in considerations of participatory art can be found in a pervasive disregard, in this sphere, for private, non-communicable – and crucially these days non-quantifiable or assessable – experience. In the introduction to Participation, part of the Whitechapel Gallery’s ‘Documents’ book series, Bishop frames the scope of the publication’s concern by stating that her selection of compendium texts privileged those focused on ‘the social dimension of participation – rather than activation of the individual viewer in so-called “interactive” art and installation’. Within that statement’s exclusion of what is not to be considered, Bishop highlights the officially sanctioned triumvirate of participatory art, while simultaneously revealing the widely accepted limits of the field.
Another part of the problem lies with the sullied reputation of individualism. Today it is a concept carrying a number of undesirable connotations for the contemporary thinker, all pointing toward outmoded patterns of thought and celebrations of capitalist endeavour – Thatcher and Reagan’s new individualism, and Ayn Rand’s objectivism to name but two. The position that art exists to problematise and critique manifestations, effects and affects of the dominant ideological system – capitalism for the west – thus orients artists and theoreticians who invest and propagate this position towards the antithetical stance of a type of communal obligation, pursuing change in society at large (or those invested in the narrative of contemporary art), as opposed to what might be construed as transcendental experience in the individual. As a result, since the 1960s a real devaluation of the individual subject has seen the position of the communal and societal group as the rightful addressee of participatory art ossify, even though a kind of trickle down effect – reaching individuals through collective experience – could be said to have formed part of the goal of community focused, new genre public art of the 1990s.
Although the idea of imaginative engagement as participation remains unidentified as a tendency, doctrine or methodology that artists can point to, identify with and use, they are nevertheless continuing to draw on its creative possibilities. The moving image spoken word formats like the radio play and audio guides rely on, and provoke, the viewer’s capacity to embody imaginatively what is described via the channels of memory, as in, for instance, Janice Kerbal’s Nick Silver Can’t Sleep, 2006, and Rirkrit Tiravanija’s 2004 retrospective ‘tomorrow is another fine day’. Spoken Exhibitions, a recent venture blurring the boundaries between curatorial endeavour, artwork and musical composition also drew on these possibilities. Devised by a group of Polish arts professionals consisting of Sebastian Cichoki (curator at the Museum of Modern Art Warsaw), Golden Lion winning architects Grzegorz Piątek and Jarosław Trybuś, and curator, critic and music theorist Michał Libera – the project offered the tantalising prospect of inducing audiences to imaginatively construct an entire exhibition from its description alone. The group describes its project as a series of ‘live audio dramas, devoted to forgotten, overlooked or mythologised chapters in Polish history’, which can be experienced as ‘a curator-led tour of a non-existent exhibition’. On the London leg of the group’s tour of six European capitals, they presented a live read-through of their exhibition-as-audio drama at the Royal College of Art on 28 November 2011. Unfortunately this incarnation of their project – the group were set to alter its delivery for each city – offered no openings for inclusivity. Instead the group’s chosen readers sat around a table in the RCA’s lecture theatre, reading lines from a standard art farce-cum-absurdist satire on the follies of architectural hubris. Disappointment in the audience was palpable, prompting one viewer to ask why the read-through hadn’t been done in the dark? Implicit in the question was the knowledge that in order for a radio play to work as a radio play, the delivery of it has to be disembodied so that we may imaginatively embody it, and the events it describes.
Spoken Exhibition was not a bad project per se; it was just confused. The group’s inability to create a participatory art experience through the channels of imaginative engagement stemmed from a lack of awareness, resulting in a somewhat jumbled methodology. Not knowing that their project aspired to the condition of imaginative engagement is what stopped Spoken Exhibitions from utilising the tools of stimulus removal and suggestion the work required, which led to an inability to evoke the ‘myths, fictions, [and] phantom works’ hinted at in the group’s press release.
On reflection, there is something about the term ‘phantom works’ that strikes at the heart of what has been talked about so far: for what else are memories but the phantom constituents of our consciousness, conjured into existence via the mechanism of imagination? In a conversation about video compression between the artist Jon Thomson and myself, I wondered if the loss of frames in highly compressed poltergeist videos on YouTube was what made them so affecting. Could it be that we subconsciously filled in missing visual information – the absent frames – and so were actively engaged in the construction of what we viewed second-by-second? There is not enough space to investigate that theory here, but the purpose in mentioning it is to highlight the possible multi-applicability that stimulus removal has, as a method for intellectual participation – from the conscious filling-in of missing content in films, radio plays, and the spoken and written word, to the subconscious substitution of missing frames in degraded video.
In sum, what has been written here shouldn’t be construed as an attack on the practice of participatory art. It has instead been an attempt to strengthen its position as a vital strand of contemporary art practice by pointing towards a set of creative possibilities that have so far been excluded. In other words, the public body has been, and continues to be served well by the tripartite grouping of interactive, installation, and socially engaged art practices, but the remit of participatory art needs to be widened beyond the purely physical. Intellectual participation via the channels of imagination not only opens up new possibilities for the creation of art – and artwork-viewer inclusivity – it also orients attention towards a realm of consideration that is rapidly disappearing in the 21st century: that of private experience.
Morgan Quaintance is a writer, musician and curator.