Participation and the commons (in art)

There is an argument to be made that the projects we are looking at here, those that generate commons-like resources, could fall under the category of “participatory art”.  I think that argument would be mistaken.  The reasons why this would be a mistake really point to the core of what makes these projects so interesting.

Claire Bishop (2006) lists three recurring concerns shared by most participatory art projects since the 1960.

The first concerns the desire to create an active subject, one who will be empowered by the experience of physical or symbolic participation. The hope is that the newly-emancipated subjects of participation will find themselves able to determine their own social and political reality. An aesthetic of participation therefore derives legitimacy from a (desired) causal relationship between the experience of a work of art and individual/collective agency. The second argument concerns authorship. The gesture of ceding some or all authorial control is conventionally regarded as more egalitarian and democratic than the creation of a work by a single artist, while shared production is also seen to entail the aesthetic benefits of greater risk and unpredictability. … The third issue involves a perceived crisis in community and collective responsibility. This concern has become more acute since the fall of Communism, although it takes its lead from a tradition of Marxist thought that indicts the alienating and isolating effects of capitalism. One of the main impetuses behind participatory art has therefore been a restoration of the social bond through a collective elaboration of meaning … These three concerns – activation; authorship; community – are the most frequently cited motivations for almost all artistic attempts to encourage participation in art since the 1960s.” [12]

I think all three concerns are also present, to varying degrees, the art projects that we are focusing on.  So, here one could make the case for inclusion.

However, later (2012:2-3) she defines participatory art, when and if “people constitute  the central artistic medium and material, in the manner of theatre and  performance. … Theatre and performance are crucial to many of these case studies, since  participatory engagement tends to be expressed most forcefully in the live  encounter between embodied actors in particular contexts.”

In some ways, one could argue that also in the commons-related projects we are looking at, people are the main medium (or at least, a central one), as they all, in different ways, are about forging new relations between people, mediated by objects and technology.

Bishop goes on to develop a sustained critique of participation as artistic practice in which she draws heavily on Jacques Rancière and his notion of politics as articulation of dissent and the negotiation of diverging trajectories.  Rancière translated this perspective into a theory of aesthetics in which he focuses on an art work’s capacities to generate diverging experiences (ways of  reading and understanding) on the side of the audience.  Thus, in Rancière’s words art works are then most interesting when they are “capable of speaking twice: from  their readability and from their unreadability” (cited, Bishop 2012: 28). Their readability produces the shared frame of reference necessary of a debate, and their unreadability produces the dissent over its meaning and whatever conclusions one should draw from it. In Bishop’s terms, an this is an art work’s capacity to provoke.

Now, most participatory works, according to Bishop, are oriented towards consensus, community building, to creating, sustaining, transforming some kind of social bond and thus, they exchange politics (dissensus) for ethics (consensus). As such, they can be seen as part of the post-democractic turn that voids politics and introduces all kinds of social control techniques to normalize and make productive people’s behavior, by enticing them to play out more or less prescribed roles that focus on the immediate and experiential, at the expense of the long-term and structural.

This leads to the second main point of her critique, which is the lack of artistic criteria for the valuation of these projects, through a rejection of aesthetics (usually understood as visual aesthetics) in favor of some kind of real life effect.

In this latter point, I think she is correct and it calls for rethinking aesthetics, not so much along the lines of Rancière, who still operates, in my view, with a relatively traditional notion of the public, but along lines suggested, for example, by Olga Gurinova’s notion of organization aesthetics.

The first point of criticism, however, is related to her rather unquestioningly taking the performance as the format for participatory art. None of the projects that interest us here could be called a “performance” in the conventional sense used by Bishop, mainly because they do not are not bound by a clear beginning and end, and they do not prescribe all the roles of the people who participate. Rather the free appropriation of the resources, their use outside to framework of the project, by whomever and for whatever reason, is often one of their main features.  Their frame of reference is less the theater and more the practice of open source. Also, through their practice, many of the projects do generate a fair amount of dissensus and conflict (mainly around copyright and  authors’ moral right) and are thus capable of raising questions beyond the immediate and experiential.

It is there where very significant differences between participatory art and resource generating projects are most visible, and thus, despite some shared concerns, the two groups of works should not be conflated.



Bishop, Claire (ed.) (2006): Participation, Documents of contemporary art, London : Cambridge, Mass: Whitechapel ; MIT Press.
Bishop, Claire (2012): Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, London: Verso.