Not(es) on participation
Instead of writing on participation perhaps the thing to do here is participate: set aside academic pretences or defences and contribute as meaningfully as one can manage in a personal sense. By stepping in to the fullest extent of one’s skill, humility, experience, and time, without withholding or construing things behind which to hide. I begin with some notes on the participatory context for the piece you’re reading. I then briefly outline a perspective on participation as an exercise of consensus. This perspective is articulated as a personal one, although it is theorised in social-scientific terms. In the third part I put down some auto-ethnographic notes and a local, micro-historical perspective on the politics of participation as I read these around me, in the arts, in Cyprus, and a little beyond that. And I finish with a reflection.
On the participatory politics of this, here
The initial idea for this piece came from a discussion where Iannis Zannos suggested that I put down something like “Collaborative / Activist / Participatory Art initiatives: a Critical Overview”. To my comment that he would be the more fitting author for such a text, Iannis explained that this isn’t really where his interests lie while going on to explain impressively and rapidly about why this is an important topic at this particular time, and that it would be good for me to take up this task with my own tools. Compelled, I agreed to participate despite the instinct to fly rather than fight with these particular keywords.
I’ve so far been able to stay relatively uninvolved with these terms and their respective discursive spheres. I’ve had the luxury of developing participatory projects without explicitly engaging in such vocabulary through my collaboration with Evanthia Tselika, who’s been bringing into our partnership her own research on social arts practices. Through years of sustained creative synchronisation, Evi and I have maintained and occasionally externalised in project form an intimate analysis of the politics of social arts practice (to use Bishop’s terms) or of interesting / somehow legible social agendas as they come up in the Cypriot arts. Despite, or perhaps because of my participation in communities that experiment with principles of self-organisation (from the hackerspace and unconference movements, to Occupy, and participatory art projects [participation marked by increasing sensitivity to the pretense in this kind of conscious social experimentation: isn’t it more interesting to see the cosmos as a self-organising community?], I’ve been leaving it to others, to handle the close processing of art-theory superstars like Claire Bishop, Boris Groys, and Chantal Mouffe, and blessedly conceded any ambition to participate in participation-related contemporary arts discourse. Instead I went on thinking about more or less the above issues in my own terms: about the way publics are constantly defined, projected or construed, creatively, around us. And thinking of the arts (and my own play in this particular plane) as just one way of investigating this, but also serving as a controlled environment for trying out models of political participation. Models that expand to other spheres of civic life and ultimately reflect on contemporary issues of governance.
On participation as an exercise of consensus
Now – and please feel free to skip to the next section – this piece relies on the premise that investigating participation through art could, in the interesting cases, mean to explore basic social and political technologies. It is also written with Umberto Eco’s The Open Work (1989) next to the keyboard – a work that, among other things, gives grounds for thinking of a kind of openness as a creative principle. At the same time this piece is written from the perspective of a memory scholar. It sees participation politics as inseparable from memory structures or systems of information. It also prioritises a view of participation that has to do with our collective dependence on memory-related rituals or collective memory structures, seeing these as the backbone of social continuity and processes of community-building. And in the background there’s a reflection on policy: the idea that memory structures are parallel to (material and other) commons management in broader terms, which comes from a diagnostic perspective that takes public art (or art that deals with the commons) as a crucial intersection of political effects and ideas. Or of group-construction. Or social / public consensus whatever that may mean. Or (again) the way in which memory-related rituals project or construct “publics”.
With the above I refer to an adulteration of a Lefebvrian idea: that particular public offerings (from structures to rituals) whomever they may be staged by, function as both generators and products of a type of consensus that represents, or constructs, or identifies a social group. Lefebvre (1992) says something similar specifically about monumental space which can be simplified like this, in the case of monuments and other public installations: these claim to represent a point of social consensus, at the same time that they attempt to generate one. A monument, for example, may proffer consensus around the significance of a particular historical event, as a condition of participation in the ethnic, national or other group it claims to represent. In fewer words, this idea strips the monument / the public art piece / the public performance / the participatory art project from its institutional contingencies and brings it back to the totem, a spatially central social magnet (something that literally produces space for community participation), or a physical anchor for an imagined system of values that are, for some, somehow, binding. Other public furniture or kinds of public offerings, or commons, can be considered in similar ways: as demanding that we conduct ourselves appropriately, or civically, in relation to them. That we respond to the way they arrange space and possibilities within it. That we participate in the way they aggregate or direct movement, traffic or human behaviour. What belies these types of behaviour is an act of consensus that both constructs and represents (once more:) a public.
All the above is to say that participation primarily relies on an agreement to be “there” in a certain way. What is presumed is our consensus to being addressed and defined as members of a group, in whatever way, case, or medium. We consent to step into the shoes, or put on the hat, of audience or consumer or receiver, or conductor, or “public” of a particular “text” in some / Eco’s way. Arguably, this is the basic interesting thing about debates around participation or consensus in any social setting, whether it is explored through contemporary art in relation to political systems, or whether it is considered in distance from the arts, to do with civic participation, or in connection with tools like Foucault’s articulation of governmentality: the art of government, the conduct of conduct, or the mentalities by which we make ourselves governable (Foucault, Lectures at the Collège de France, 2009).
And further yet, perhaps in a way closer to the core of our communicative impulses, or closer to design, and to media theory, the same patterns of audience-formation or basic organisation, may be found in the way that the simplest gesture (or the most socially theorised or theorising participatory art project) designs its consumption or reception, or its conduct as information, in some way, eventually. But beyond this reduction to communication, we can also think along the lines of institutional critique. We can investigate how organisations are positioned and how they tend to actively position certain types of always political creative output. Or we can investigate how certain works do this, how certain offerings are set-up for particular encounters. And we can think about whether and how sometimes, something of these encounters is absorbed into the fabric of the work. Or we can try and untangle the consensus-related presumptions and the types of control that underlie our ways of participation, not just with regard to artworks.
On participation politics in the arts, in Cyprus, but also a little beyond that
Very briefly, and in my own effort to participate here fully, let me put down some thoughts on politically interesting ways of construing publics, as these are investigated around me, through art. Not to look for commonalities with an international ‘participatory art’ field in an art-historical sense, but only to point at a series of relational subversions, or types of work that intervene in presumptions about what participation (and meaningful social consensus) is or could be locally. These are examples that come up as meaningful for me “here”, in continuity with very specific local conditions and histories.
Let me begin with picknick a group that in one instance, organised to gently address people in the supermarket (The Ones I Love, performance, 2013), and that took a mobile projector and threw images on discreetly located walls of Nicosia, observing the effect and types of temporal relationships that allowed people to wander and linger (do delay, public intervention series, 2014). They put a series of subtle visual interventions up on a mountain trail (which did a lot of things at the same time, while also communicating to the local art scene that we weren’t their intended or valued audience, in Dandilands, public installation series, 2014-2015). This kind of practice may be seen in terms of another exit from the gallery and as falling within a category of “new genre public art,” but I think the important thing is to look at this kind of work in terms of its very local communicability and embeddedness, regarding the kinds of participation it may (not) ask for from the people who happen to be around. It might also be interesting to think about this kind of work as interventionist, or situationist, and so on, but I would like to focus on it as a series of investigations on how publics are projected. Not only about how publics are to be engaged or involved in the arts, but how they can be born in different terms, under differently defined conditions. In their use of the supermarket as well as the Post (“Symphonic Node” 2016) and the airplane (“a splurge into intervals” 2016) they very lightly, in a way very sensitive to their locality and its particular connectivities, and at the same time very subtle and clear in their projection of an in and out, go about not-projecting audiences in any of the predictable ways: they seem to be actively removing this kind of impulse from the center of their performances, and with the calculated side-effect of making their production extremely difficult for art market consumption – which is again a reflection on their non-projection of an art-audience in any of the usual ways.
Simultaneously, close by but in a different setting, collectors and artists Vasso and Charalambos Sergiou have been inviting people to participate / interact with their work, without being especially interested in that distinction, but rather in exploring very tangibly a give-and-take, and their own personal abilities to open this up by capturing, historicising, and questioning local relationships, market conditions and art-value-systems in their various extensions (change-ex-change, interactive exhibition / durational participatory performance piece, 2014). They’ve opened their exhibitions to renewal through exchange by inviting people to bring in artworks from their home and to freely replace parts of their own exhibited art collection: a collection that documents key – occasionally fictitious or intentionally falsely attributed – moments in the Cypriot arts (change ex change, exhibition/interactive installation, 2013). As part of my own participation in Sergiou’s change-ex-change (a falsely attributed textual piece entitled Chrystalleni Loizidou (1983) by Charalambos and Vaso Sergiou), I wrote about this way of inviting others in, this type of blurring between the roles of artist, participant, audience, and consumer, as something the Sergiou have been intently building up to for a while. They’ve been setting up a series of flippant encounters, designed to be enjoyable, socially conventional on the surface, while benignly confrontational, occasionally scathing, and always intimate (see for example their Life is full of trade-offs, 2001, where they invited people to buy umbilical cords, and their follow-up Venice Biennale proposal The Parasite, 2003, where the body language of participants holding the umbilical cord sculptures became the subject of psychoanalysis). These projects refined a method that lead to change-ex-change, and a participatory frenzy that relied on the Sergiou’s own personal denunciation of authorship or ownership, along with a whole set of conventional artistic values (market value, proprietary or collecting impulses, accompanied by a confounding of the notion of art-historical significance). The project was a deep reflection on our own small-scale, personal, discursive participation towards the construction of these values: an easy constructivist argument that is deeply political, not least in the artists’ exploitation of the gallery to legitimise their instigation of its collapse, but also in their invitation that we reflexively reconsider our positions from collectors or consumers positioned within value systems, as participators in the construction of these value systems. Again, through the subversion of participatory presumptions as part and parcel of our very personal and politically legible relationships with art-ownership, or the art-encounter in a general sense.
The Two Worlds project processes participation differently from the above. It is open to, and compels one’s participation in a different way (not only mine but this is a good example: all I did was turn up and the project and its material were completely open to me from that moment on). The project looks constantly, intensively for ways to open its entire development and material into an ever-broadening paradigm towards open re-appropriation. And it does this by processing a weighty debate around migration. The way I see it, Two Worlds offers a counterpoint to types of contemporary structures of organisation and mediation that problematise migration. This counter-point comes in the form of a participatory mentality that might have a chance at addressing migration not as a problem, but.. soundly. This is not only by open sourcing Yiannis Christides’s collection of field-recordings, but also by investigating their retrievability and sharability through different open platforms. By highlighting the complexities of their potential reconfigurations by a participating audience, and then by opening up the material and the technological and structural contingencies of its representation even further through an algorave: an essentialist making-transparent of retrieval and processing. There is a conceptual leap here but I hope that the point about openness and the making-transparent of retrieval and processing, in relation to migration (in relation to the fluidities of community, or communities of fluidity), is clear enough.
NeMe’s Two Worlds, Sergiou’s change-ex-change, and picknick works, each present themselves in very different ways, not least in the form of documentation, mediated towards some kind of credit or accumulative value. But thinking about these projects together, aside from mapping out a participatory Cypriot ‘state of the art,’ is to also compare different theorisations of participation. These projects use different means to experiment with the way in which they construe their audience(s), how they experiment with how they ask to be consumed, and how they actively reflect on their own projection of a receptive public. In my mind, Two Worlds, specifically, takes debates around collaboration, activism, and participation, and locally induces them to a revelation about consensus technologies in an abstract sense. Taking technology, here as logos about techne, a constructive mode, we can think of technologies of consensus building as technologies of sharing, as technologies of community or group construction (again, with reference to migration as a massive challenge to these things). Returning to the perspective of a memory-historian this is an identity-memory matter. Two Worlds articulates this beautifully: it opens up its database and pulls us into its source code, it offers itself not for consumption, but for contribution and participation through a reflexive, technological approach to access and transparency. And this is a political proposal that reflects on a number of things at once, such as issues around the commodification of images of migration and its pain, as well as particular journalistic narrative trends around contemporary migration as not-so challenging of dominant organisational structures and modes of governance. At the same time it reflects on surveillance capitalism as the wrong kind of transparency, it articulates a call to institutional dissidence and at the same time it applies itself to debates around software freedom and the political urgency of developing new kinds of participatory production.
Again, the above perspectives rely on my own unique participatory encounters with these artworks and so inevitably reflect personal political fantasies. I refer to these works as locally cumulative or progressively working through participation-politics for their own settings and communities. At the same time my use of these projects is circular: I point at their porosities of ‘group construction’, first because I find them meaningful, fascinating, and radical contextually, or locally, but also in order to make a reflexive argument about participation in relation to arts writing. The above works, and this text, point at the significance of deeper, clearer thinking about how we work with / engage / involve / help / step into things / ask for support / mobilise / choose how to participate and invite the participation of others constantly, fundamentally and socially, generating power-structures that must be just as closely examined, no matter where or in what scale they take place. Drawing from the above works, I resolve that the way to understand this investigation or be mindful of its politics, is to keep thinking and improvising along personal but constantly informed theorisations of consensus as a basic organisational principle. Now this contains massive political fictions, and again for someone interested in the workings of memory, it has everything to do with structures of information storage and recall, something the Two Worlds project experiments with actively and with great immediacy.
I conclude with a realisation brought on by Two Worlds. Yes, focusing on examples of participatory work from the contemporary arts, or through a vocabulary specific to contemporary arts writing, seems an unnecessary limitation, a troublesome detour towards a much plainer core. And yes, this is what this piece does, just as it protests it. But at the same time these works manage to defy the trapping of this discussion around participation in a contemporary art institutional set-up. Rather they each seem to state (or stage, or perform, or invite us in) an exit from this set-up as a form of critique. And this is also what is at stake in the debate around participation in the first place: this exit from established structures and formats in a fundamental organisation-theoretical sense. What I think this leads to isn’t so much a reflection on the production of things that allow others to take part in them, but rather something closer to a reflection on presence. A reflection on our own cultivated ability to take part personally and meaningfully, as articulated above: to shed intellectual bluffs or defences, producing to the fullest extent of our skill, experience, and time, without withholding or construing things behind which to hide. And isn’t this reflection on presence (along with a hint of how it might serve as a basis for a radical change in modes of production, or commons management, or governance) a truly wonderful thing to take away from a participatory art project?
Chrystalleni Loizidou writes with the tools of a cultural theorist and usually with more of a sense of humour than this! She has an interest in media-theory and an academic focus in art politics. She’s been thinking and writing about the case of Cyprus for years, finding that this is as good a place as any to start figuring out the bigger things.