Participatory art seemed to be everywhere in 2017, with artists asking viewers to become chess pieces, stick stickers on walls, and rip hunks of clay out of sculpture. Why the omnipresence of the form? Perhaps it is that, in this screen-filled world, artists and institutions are aiming to return to tactile, physical experiences to put us back in our bodies. A less generous read might be that they are engineering encounters that beg to be documented and shared on social media, filtering out onto all those screens. Whatever the reason, there was a lot to do in 2017. Below, a list of ten memorable moments from the year in participatory art.
1. Urs Fischer x Katy Perry, Bliss, at 39 Spring Street in New York
All who entered had a chance to take a chunk out of Katy Perry’s head as embodied by an Urs Fischer sculpture that, in its conception, recalls his Rodin replica, The Kiss, seen at Art Basel this past summer. The difference here? Once whittled away, the first layer of white oil-based modeling clay that covered Bliss revealed a rainbow of colors. It seemed that people were just as excited about defacing Perry’s face as they were ready to decorate the walls. Names, abstract shapes, animals, and no small amount of phallic imagery was flung upon any surface within reach. The most blissful part of Bliss, however, was not the giant clay sculpture of the pop star—it was the soft light that emanated from the ceiling, casting a serene glow on the artists who took up residence for just a few moments.
2. Yayoi Kusama, The Obliteration Room, at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.
You may have seen this polka-dotted room as a part of the artist’s 2015 Give Me Love show at David Zwirner in New York. Upon entry to the Hirshhorn iteration, guests were given a sheet of colorful circle-shaped stickers to affix to anything in the space, including themselves. “The Obliteration Room” was both the opportunity to fantasize about a whimsically chaotic apartment—a scattered interior designer’s dream—and a way to bring visitors into conversation with one another as they dotted surfaces together. Characteristic of many of Kusama’s polka-dotted pieces, the room demonstrated the power of dots as a connecting force where collective participation yielded a frenzied, multicolored abyss.
3. Barbara Kruger, Untitled (The Drop) at the Performa Biennial
Here is what happened when I attended Barbara Kruger’s Performa 17 piece Untitled (The Drop). First, I purchased a $5 ticket to wait in a line that led to a showroom with hoodies, hats, T-shirts, and skateboards. Each item had a Kruger statement styled in her recognizable red/white Futura Bold text. Several SoHo hypebeasts passed by the line and asked what everyone was waiting to buy. Some who lined up seemed to think that Barbara Kruger was Supreme. Countless participants exited the shop carrying skateboard decks. How many, one wondered, knew how to skate? Once I reached the front of the line, I was informed that I would have five minutes to shop. The grand finale: experiencing the joys of capitalism while buying a $45 beanie with the text “Want it Buy it Forget it.” The experience was too perfectly full-circle to complain. I like to imagine Kruger was in disguise across the street, smirking at the whole thing.
4. Darren Bader, chess: relatives, on the High Line in New York
On view until April, chess: relatives sits on a stretch of the elevated green space of the High Line near the Standard Hotel. To experience it, assemble with 31 of your family members or closest friends to create two teams of 16; you’ll serve as the chess pieces, while two additional people will be required to make the moves. Bader structured the game so that familial relationships dictate which piece each person plays. Once the game begins, players are also not supposed to converse. So, before the start, communication is key—if it gets too complicated or restrictive, however, the instructions allow you the loophole of improvisation. The chess board is made up of tiles that are about two feet square, imbuing the playing space with a sense of intimacy (and possibly awkwardness) as the group navigates an age-old game that is all about strategy and patience.
5. Carsten Höller, “REASON,” at Gagosian New York
Carsten Höller’s kid-friendly exhibition featured a host of moving parts, from giant mushrooms to a maze of mirrored revolving doors. Standing at nearly 8 feet tall, Dice provided a playground (for young ones and adults alike) where you could slide in through one of the pips on the replica of the numbered cube and peek out the other side. Revolving Doors was the ultimate 360-degree experience, transporting gallery goers into an infinite world of reflection. Giant Triple Mushroom, arranged in a way that evoked a children’s mobile, had seven moving parts that orbited around one another when the lowest arm was pushed, echoing the movement of Revolving Doors.
6. Studio PSK, Polyphonic Playground, part of “Sonic Arcade: Shaping Space with Sound” at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York
Polyphonic Playground was a place where participants could pull away from the confrontational heaps of visual information that have infiltrated everyday life. Swing sets and monkey bars were employed as musical instruments when used, and though the project may sound infantilizing, it gamely made the argument that sensory experiences—not just visual ones—are able to reorient the body and encourage new interpersonal and spatial relationships.
7. Ai Weiwei, “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors,” in Washington Square Park, Doris Freedman Plaza-Central Park, Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, and throughout New York
Across the five boroughs, Ai Weiwei’s large-scale sculptures make up a portion of the multimedia public exhibition “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors.” In Washington Square Park, a 37-foot-tall steel cage obstructs the space under the arch, with a mirrored passthrough cut out in the center. Central Park’s Doris Freedman Plaza boasts a gilded birdcage, evoking a sense of upscale luxury that is juxtaposed with the constraints of power dynamics and privatization. The 1964 World’s Fair Unisphere in Flushing Meadows is encircled by a 1,000-foot-long webbed fence that creates a border around the replica of the globe. Each of the pieces is immersive for passerby, but also a sobering reminder of the boundaries that are created and perpetuated throughout the landscape of the global migration crisis.
8. Occupy Museums, Debtfair, at the 2017 Whitney Biennial
Not afraid of tough questions, Occupy Museums organized a survey categorizing artists by their debts and financial situations as a show within a show. Visitors could fill out a survey adjacent to the main attraction—a wall embedded with the works of 30 indebted artists—where they were asked about the effect of debt on their own personal art-making. Occupy Museums offered an acknowledgement of the reality of how art institutions and particular board members benefit from the debtor economy, but participants could begin to educate themselves and understand the destabilizing effects of such a debtor economy.
9. Asad Raza, Untitled (Plot for Dialogue), at Chiesa San Paolo Converso, Milan
If you’re more sporty than spiritual, Raza’s Untitled (Plot for Dialogue) is a fully functioning tennis court in Chiesa San Paolo Converso in the heart of Milan. The deconsecrated church now serves as the home for a bright orange interactive art piece, complete with rackets, tennis balls, coaches, and refreshing iced tea to quench postgame thirst. Formerly, the building was a warehouse for Napoleon, later a concert venue, and, at present, an exhibition space. In contrast to the hierarchical communication between congregants and a higher power that once filled the church, Raza’s space allows for two-way participation between equals—a level playing field, if you will.
10. Lee Mingwei, The Mending Project, and David Medalla, A Stitch in Time, at the 2017 Venice Biennale
In the Venice Biennale’s Arsenale section, visitors encountered two interactive exhibitions that shared a common thread: connection. Mingwei’s The Mending Project sought to repair damaged textiles, as people brought in their old goods and watched the artist work restorative magic on them. But instead of trying to hide the mend like a tailor would, Mingwei focused on commemorating the repair with colorful thread, stitching together a new relationship between himself and a stranger. With Madella’s A Stitch in Time, embroidery enthusiasts and amateurs alike convened under spools of thread that hung above a long stretch of fabric. In stitching whatever their hearts desired, participants morphed a lifeless bolt of fabric into one that radiated with bright memories, like an archive of the lives of all who touched it.