Thoughts on Participatory Art

A response to Renate Ferro and Timothy Murray’s invitation for empyre.

Bouncing off the discussion from this May on “Critical Spatial Movement,” we were struck by how the digital traces of 0s and 1s allow for traces of movement, interaction, and networking to exist or live on through various vehicles such as the web or other virtual spaces such as Second Life. We were also thinking about current trends in the international art world that extend practice into the areas of social networks by engaging the participation of the viewer. Participatory Art converges with such areas as the social sciences, activism, politics, ecology and sustainability, genetics and science, and even food. How might digital traces of artistic corporeal and cyber configurations of embodiment empower participatory artistic practice and collaboration? And how might we understand the “after image” or “after life” of live participatory interventions when they live on morph into digital, spectral traces?

Renate Ferro and Timothy Murray

The internet with all its manifestations is transforming participatory culture, shifting its orientation from the object to the subject and more recently from subject to data. Ideas are no longer collated in sections or categories but tags. The archive has transformed into a ‘cloud’. Participatory dependent internet art is expanding exponentially. Server-side programming enables a cross-cultural, cross-language, cross-border collaboration where the ‘location’ of the artwork is accessible on demand. The reproducible copy of internet based work is one and the same as the original, albeit perhaps, as only a fragment of the dynamic whole.

Machine reproduction is no longer an optional process, but a necessary element for the existence of the virtual artwork which can now be void of any material(istic) limitations. Artworks can now exist in the cache of web browsers distributed in their thousands. They can be seen as code, as 0s and 1s, as on/off switches. Social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, sharing sites such as Youtube and Vimeo and hybrid ones (social and sharing) such as Flicker, dominate because of their participatory architecture. Wikipedia’s participatory ethos connects its documents though user contributions which are treated as data linking its various pages/documents as well as other sites on the net. Data, in this sense, is the latest unit of measurement, which by combining it in its various permutations convinces us that we form a consummate understanding. APIs which make the data available from such sites aided the proliferation of database visualizations/infosthetics and in many instances, rendering users as possible – if unaware – participants in interfaces created.

As such, a work may be extended using participatory building blocks contributed by individuals oblivious to this. This is a common practice in the participatory arts from John Cage’s 4’33” to Dave Troy’s twittervision who both – can be said – investigate noise1Although not substantiated when written a recent survey measured about 50% of all posts in twitter to be non conversations or news as an aesthetic quantity. For this type of experimental work, data has no fixed content. But to what degree is any of the above true or really applicable toward defining a new approach and understanding of participatory culture?

In an age where individual practice and achievement still reigns, are the intentions of the participatory-art creator truly altruistic in regards to participatory contributions? The ‘participant’ still remains just a participant, a necessary ‘element’ in the work’s creative process and realization, whose author still remains the ‘author’. In the case of digital artworks the issue of system updates poses additional concerns. What functions perfectly today might not even be visible tomorrow. The code base of the artwork needs to be constantly updated to ensure the continuation of its existence deeming the presence of the author/administrator more necessary than ever before. Is the transience of the work an essential feature embedded within the “author’s” concept? And, if so, is the immediacy of the contributions by others the definitive element making the work a time based collective action which also embodies a visual as a shared narrative reference point?

Documented history praises the merits of individual achievement. Although an ambiguous reference, it is interesting to note here that the word ‘idiot’ etymologically derives from the Greek word ἴδιος (idios) meaning “private”, “one’s own”. For the purpose of supporting collective action – and consciously stretching our argument- any participatory work initiated by an individual insistent upon assuming the hierarchy of ‘author’ over the total work can etymologically be described as ‘idiotic’. In most cases, we are yet to acknowledge the participants as co-authors whose traces have given extended dimension to the body of work. These collective traces are not individual outcomes although their generative framework might have been.

In our view – for genuine participatory art to exist, the instigation of the initial idea as a valid claim to ‘author’ needs to be reassessed and possibly deleted, the subject to be freed from the object and the autonomy of the resulting outcome to be freed from all its authors. We can now rethink the constraints of the object which is no longer bound by physical laws but only by our cognitive abilities. A cyclical activity where the resultant work is both the subject and the process. E pluribus unum: a creative superorganism whose diverse ‘gene pool’ guarantees its constant transformation and survival. Perhaps when this happens, the classification of the work as art will be guided by shared ethics ensuring a new understanding of a more encompassing concept of creative collaboration. Perhaps we will not even be able to identify it as “art”.


  1. Although not substantiated when written a recent survey measured about 50% of all posts in twitter to be non conversations or news


Yiannis Colakides & Helene Black are founding members of NeMe.