It’s 1965 and you join a crowd of people being shepherded into a stadium in Montevideo as Bach’s “Mass in B Minor” blares from loudspeakers; once inside, you are girdled by motor bikes equipped with deafening sirens, confronted with fat ladies tumbling across the ground and couples strapped together with tape, bombarded with flour, lettuce and live chickens by a low-flying helicopter, and then, after eight minutes, set free. You take a train out of Moscow in 1981, stop at a provincial station, walk into a snow-covered field where nine other people are gathered around a flat wooden board festooned with balls of white thread, take an end and walk toward a distant stand of trees until, after 20 minutes, the thread runs out, at which point you decide to return to the board, where an artist gives you what he claims is a photograph of yourself emerging from the forest; you ponder the meaning of this experience for the rest of the day. You drive to the outskirts of Firminy, France, in 1993 and arrive at a dilapidated, half-empty housing estate designed by Le Corbusier and populated by pensioners and Algerian immigrants—just in time for the opening of an exhibition for which international artists have taken over uninhabited flats and are exhibiting statistical information about the residents and reports on the building’s poor acoustics. You attend a rally at Cooper Union in 2011 where a fashionable collective—made up of anonymous 20-something artists who operate a free, unaccredited art school—is launching a national road trip in a limousine painted as a school bus in order to ask educators, artists and students questions such as: “What are art schools for?” “What is the essence of art?”
You have just taken a brief tour of Claire Bishop’s Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship (Verso, 382 pp., $29.95). Ms. Bishop, a critic and professor of art history at the CUNY Graduate Center, is not writing for the uninitiated—though her book, pellucid and relatively jargon-free, presents as few obstacles as possible—but it’s worth parroting the question that even many regular museum-goers are likely to ask of artworks in which people, rather thanoil paints or bronze or screens or found objects, are the medium: “Is it art?” (This also happens to be the default newspaper headline for stories about everything from artist Jeremy Deller’s countrywide discussions about the Iraq War in 2009 to paintings by orangutans and elephants.)But the more fundamental question—and certainly the more relevant one for Ms. Bishop—is different: Is it good art? Too often we ask the former question because we don’t know how to answer the latter.
Today, anything presented as art to the public by a credible figure or institution—not necessarily the Whitney, but also not necessarily the guy who makes a remote-control airplane out of his dead cat—might as well be accepted as such. Ms. Bishop astutely addresses this dilemma by establishing a long lineage of artists who facilitate experiences rather than produce objects, generally with the aim of denouncing the function of art within a bankrupt society. (The epigraph for Ms. Bishop’s book is a perfect Dan Graham quote, taken from her widely discussed 2006 Artforum essay on the “social turn” in art, which is expanded upon in this book’s first chapter: “All artists are alike. They dream of doing something that’s more social, more collaborative, and more real than art.”)Here, she focuses on three historical moments: 1917, 1968 and 1989, which together form a narrative of the rise and fall of utopian collectivism: From Proletkult to Twittocracy. She revisits Soviet “mass spectacles” and the crowd-baiting antics of Dadaism and Futurism; the Situationist International’s revolution of everyday life (and leftist sloganeering) and the concurrent explosion of happenings; the open-ended, collaborative, process-based “projects” of the 1990s. In doing so, she makes a compelling case for a history of 20th-century art that is based on theater rather than painting or the ready-made. She also makes it clear that we haven’t quite figured out how to evaluate this work or its progeny.
Some of the most ballyhooed art of recent years is participatory in nature: Museums are acquiring what amount to ephemeral, contingent situations, which can’t really be reproduced or represented, by the likes of Tino Sehgal and Rirkrit Tiravanija. Meanwhile, these artists’ acolytes are paying $30,000 per year for MFAs in “social practice” and“contextual practice.”And yet, Ms. Bishop argues, we tend to talk about participatory work—aka, “socially engaged” or “community-based” art—as if it were activism, applauding projects that offer a commendable model for social relations (often a substitute for actual political change) or assistance to the downtrodden (often a substitute for government services).
Many of these projects do seem preoccupied with “repairing the social bond,” as Ms. Bishop writes, and because of the urgency of this task “there can be no failed, unsuccessful, unresolved, or boring works of participatory art.” Thus the proliferation of free schools, reading rooms, community redevelopment projects, and—in the words of New York-based participation clearinghouse Creative Time—“open-ended series of questions and conversations.” (Creative Time might be called Art Time if not for the early Soviet avant-garde, which rejected isstkustva, or art, in favor of the more democratic tvorchestvo, or creativity.) There’s a sense that the “concrete goals” of participatory projects are often judged to be “more substantial, ‘real’ and important than artistic experiences,” Ms. Bishop observes. But they’re not, she continues,judged on whether or not they achieve actual, lasting change, by which measure most would fall very short. Why are they relieved of that burden? Because the point of reference for these projects is, ultimately, contemporary art, “despite the fact that they are perceived to be worthwhile precisely because they are non-artistic.”
Ms. Bishop keeps returning to this basic paradox, not to disparage participation but to distinguish between good art and feel-good charades. There is, of course, a touch of superciliousness to calling for enforceable standards. Invoke “quality” in relation to something like Cuban artist Tania Bruguera’s Arte de Conducta (2002–2009), a kind of training ground and second home for Havana art studentsthat is described by Ms. Bruguera’s website as “the first performance and time based art studies program in Cuba,” and you’re likely to find yourself on an art-world blacklist. Quality means market valuation, the history of art as connoisseurship, the elevation of the individual over the collective—bourgeois values and a lust for economic predation, basically. But “value judgements are necessary,” Ms. Bishop insists, “not as a means to reinforce elite culture and police the boundaries of art and non-art, but as a way to understand and clarify our shared values.”
How, then, do we judge the value of participation versus that of a painting? Everyone who looks at a painting sees more or less the same thing. What the painting actually means to a viewer may depend on an infinite number of variables, from the power structures operating within the representational system to the street-vendor goat curry wending its way through her intestinal track, but the picture doesn’t change.On the other hand, Tino Sehgal’s This Progress (2010)—in which “interpreters” ranging from childhood to old age engage museum-goers in semi-scripted dialogues about the meaning of progress — provides a highly subjective experience, with the form of the work changing dramatically depending on how you respond to the interpreters. And in the case of many exhibitions of participatory work—for example, the archive of Paul Chan’s 2007 outdoor production of Waiting for Godot in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, on view at MoMA last year—what we see is documentation of something experienced elsewhere by other people. As a result, we tend to resort to solipsism (how the work made me feel) or speculation (how the work effects people in theory).
For Ms. Bishop, one way out of this conundrum can be found in art that concentrates on negation rather than providing precious moments of individual fulfillment or models for democracy. The paragon is Santiago Sierra, a Spanish artist who is renowned for stripping away the pieties of participatory art in favor of brutal displays of wage labor. Mr. Sierra is best known for 250cm Line Tattooed on Six Paid People (1999), which features six out-of-work young laborers standing shoulder to shoulder in a gallery, the eponymous line spanning their backs. At first the piece may seem repugnant, ethically and physically. But then you wonder how much the workers were paid, even as you watch them, and sense them monitoring you. Were they paid by Mr. Sierra? As part of his fee? Were they paid much more than their normal wage? Enough to make this exploitation worthwhile, even pleasurable? And is this much more exploitative, or banal, than the work they do otherwise? How does it compare to the work anyone does, the exploitative situations in which people place themselves for money? Is it any different categorically?
Seeing Mr. Sierra’s works can be oddly, perversely thrilling. Ms. Bishop goes as far as to compare the situation to BDSM sex: The way we normally think about exploitation and domination is shelved and the transgression becomes enjoyable. It’s not exactly a democratic socialist paradise, but then again nothing is.