Can a citywide initiative to plant vegetable gardens be a work of art? Or an assembly of choruses singing to the glories of a salamander? Or a party at which the audience thinks up tasks—from building a Viking ship to disappearing from sight—and then performs them? These are all projects that have been conjured up by contemporary artists in recent years. And what unites them is that they could not have been realized without the participation of the public. Such ventures often take place far from the confines of galleries or museums, but now art institutions are trying to figure out how they can get in on this new movement that has proven itself to be wildly popular. How can they collect and display such works, and how do they even define the movement?
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg had no problem identifying the artistry in Paul Ramírez Jonas’s Key to the City(2010). “I’ve had the honor of bestowing keys to the city on a number of worthy individuals,” said the mayor in his remarks inaugurating this public art project last summer. “For the month of June, I will not be the only one with the power to give out the key to the city. Everyone will have this authority.” In Ramírez Jonas’s highly democratic work, sponsored by the New York public-art organization Creative Time, any two individuals—sometimes lovers and sometimes total strangers—could stand on a plinth situated on a small swatch of grass in the middle of Times Square and sign a book, recite an oath, and exchange specially designed keys. “Participation has to be very conscious,” says Ramírez Jonas. “The most important thing for me is that there is a moment of decision.”
The project distributed 16,000 keys, which, unlike the mostly symbolic official key to the city, could be used at 24 sites around New York—opening a secret garden gate at a Staten Island Buddhist monestary, a locker at Gleason’s boxing gym in Brooklyn, or a bedroom closet at Gracie Mansion. “Key to the City is taking something that usually is top down and making it available to every person in the city,” says Nato Thompson, chief curator at Creative Time. “It is very emblematic of the populist politics that participatory art often has, because anyone can get involved with it, and it is an intimate way of reaching a mass public.”
Not every participatory art project has such reach, but the growing popularity of this movement can nonetheless be seen in the number of graduate-school programs in the field. These include Public Practice at the Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles, chaired by Suzanne Lacy; Art and Social Practice at Portland State University, headed by Harrell Fletcher; and the Public Art Studies Program at the University of Southern California, chaired by Joshua Decter. “We sort of de-emphasized studio practice and de-emphasized making objects, and, after that, things really became wide open,” says Fletcher. “Once we made this option available, there was a really strong minority of students who wanted it.” Lacy, who has been involved with these kinds of projects since the 1970s, concurs, “Whenever you get a lot of young people into the picture, you get a lot of enthusiasm for change. Many of my students are eager to do something in the world.”
Thompson notes that the same sort of youthful fervor for direct involvement that fuels social do-it-yourself experiments—ranging from food exchanges to local alternative economies—also drives participatory art. At Creative Time, he first noticed an upsurge in proposals for such projects in the mid-’90s. Today there are so many in the works that he has organized an annual conference, the Creative Time Summit, to bring together organizers with artists seeking support. The first gathering, held on a single day in October 2009, allowed 40 artists each to present a seven-minute speech. “These works are often not very well communicated by documentation, which is mostly photograph and texts,” says Thompson, “but it makes all the difference when you hear about it from the artists themselves.” At the 2010 event in October, there were 40 other presenters, including collectives from Croatia, Denmark, and Argentina. And Creative Time conferred the $25,000 Leonore Annenberg Prize for Art and Social Change on Rick Lowe, the founder of Project Row Houses, an initiative started in 1993 to reclaim derelict properties in inner-city Houston to be used as exhibition spaces and for other community purposes. It is an example of the kind of participatory, socially engaged work that Thompson sees as increasingly prevalent and influential. The Annenberg Prize is not the only award in this loosely defined field. The Legislative Assembly of the Emilia-Romagna Region, Italy, has just announced the first International Award for Participatory Art, with Jeanne van Heeswijk, Mel Chin, and Pablo Helguera as finalists.
“I think there are two impulses that are driving this engagement with the personal experience,” Thompson says. “Many artists feel that we live in a world of two-dimensional media—Internet, television, movies—that alienates people. So they are interested in these social experiences that have a different texture than the consumer culture we live in.” For other artists, participatory art serves as a critique of traditional art institutions. “To some degree, there is a dissatisfaction with museum exhibitions of static objects,” says the Creative Time curator. “I don’t totally agree, but there is an instinct that this institutional framework only alienates the public further.”
That critique has not stopped museums anduniversities from recognizing and showing participatory art. “Museums have been thinking about community engagement for a long time, but it was isolated in education or visitors’ services departments,” says Queens Museum Director Tom Finkelpearl, who is writing a book about socially engaged art projects. He argues that once this art form was validated by university programs as well as theoretical texts, such as Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics and Claire Bishop’s Participation, “curators began to see how lively the museum could become. Everybody agrees that you want an engaged audience.”
In November 2010, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago opened “Without You I’m Nothing: Art and Its Audience,” with works designed to invite audience engagement, from a floor piece by Richard Serra that must be stepped on to be experienced to a mirrored statue by Michelangelo Pistoletto. “These are all situations created or staged by artists to make a point or offer some kind of observation or a statement,” says curator Michael Darling. “They are all very much artist-created, artist-designed situations, leaving experimental latitude for the viewers’ participation, but they are controlled in almost every single case by artists.” Similarly, the Guggenheim’s 2008 exhibition “theanyspacewhatever” featured works that called for a controlled sort of audience interaction, short of full participation. For example, a limited number of guests were invited to spend the night in the museum on Carsten Híller’s specially designed bed, which during exhibition hours was simply an object on display.
Also in 2008, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art opened “The Art of Participation: 1950 to Now,” bringing a Âhistoric view of this genre, tracing it back to Allan Kaprow’s “Happenings” and Joseph Beuys’s lectures as well as to Brazilian artist Lygia Clark’s sculptural objects, which she encouraged viewers to touch in order to experience their shapes and surface textures. “These artists showed us the way,” says SFMOMA curator Rudolf Frieling. “Today we are quite comfortable with the idea that we can contribute, we can change, and we can play an active role in a work of art.” He also attributes the upsurge in audience participation to new-media innovations such as Facebook and Twitter. At the same time, he sees a need to define what participatory art is. “I would say it does not include just any open invitation to creativity, but rather involves those artists offering a very specific invitation that challenges your behavior and your understanding of a work.”
Even when artists are being hosted by an institution, these partners may have differing goals. The Walker Art Center invited the San Francisco collective Futurefarmers to take over their outdoor green space last summer, and it created a temporary school. The group used “voice” as a theme for a variety of events that encouraged people to explore the idea of self-expression. According to Amy Franceschini, who founded Futurefarmers in 1995, the main issue of working with an institution has to do with the audience. While the museum likely sees such events as a way to reach a broad range of people, artists might have different motivations. “Our main audience is the core group of students we cultivated in Minneapolis who volunteered to help organize the school,” Franceschini says. “The people being most affected are a very small group, but I think that the intense contact has a very large ripple effect. The main question we are asking is whether it is more effective to spend a month with 10 to 20 people or an evening with 300?”
For an activist like Lacy, the goal is to convert the participation of a few selected individuals into broader social change. To commemorate the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women last year, Lacy made The Tattooed Skeleton, a multipart installation that took over a year of working in Madrid, filming in a shelter for battered women and cooperating with the Ministry of Health and Social Policy to create an alternative to the media coverage of domestic-violence cases. “I’ve been working in politics and communities long enough to know the limits of what art can accomplish, given the amount of money and time and energy we have to work with,” she says. Yet she remains hopeful that through audience participation her work can reach beyond the walls of a conventional museum or the traditional expectations for an art object. “I have discovered that this kind of project can galvanize conversation. I am interested in whether it can change public policy.”
Fellow art-school program director Fletcher, whose own art often involves bringing together varied members of geographically defined communities, sees the importance of defining the artist’s and the audience’s roles. “I never say that my work is totally democratic,” says the artist. He basically sees his function as providing the framework in which people operate. “Within my work I make lots and lots of decisions and I am the one making those decisions.” If you attend one of Fletcher’s get-togethers, however, you will notice that the artist is absent—unlike, say in a performance by Marina Abramovic or a dinner cooked by Rirkrit Tiravanija.
That elimination of the artist as authority figure is one of the key aspects of many participatory art projects. For Pablo Helguera’s Combinatory Conference, presented in April 2010 at the Museo Universitario Arte Contemporíneo in Mexico City, 16 volunteers lectured on a variety of subjects—Walter Benjamin, swimming techniques, the history of the toilet—simultaneously. They then reconfigured in duos, then quartets, then two teams, each time blending their talks into a single recombined speech, so that, for example, the breast stroke was used to explain Benjamin’s theory of mechanical reproduction. Finally, the 16 speakers delivered a single talk addressing the underlying theme of all their viewpoints. The performance, a result of a two-day workshop, is now being reproduced by another artist in Lima, Peru, based on Helguera’s instructions.
Oliver Herring has similarly relinquished control of his “TASK” parties, the highly successful events he has staged more than 30 times in the last five years. “It has taken off beyond me,” says the artist. To stage its own “TASK” party, all an institution has to do is provide a space filled with raw materials, such as magic markers and corrugated cardboard, and invite the public. The evening begins when an audience member writes a task on a piece of paper and places it in a box in the center of a room. Other participants then pick up assignments and substitute their own instructions. Soon a room full of people is engaged in art making, often in a collaborative manner. Herring recalls the event in which the task was initially to build a Viking ship, then another instruction required participants to make Viking costumes, followed by another asking for a Viking opera, until the room was filled with songs and Norse paraphernalia. The format has become so popular that many such parties have erupted on university campuses and community centers without Herring’s involvement. “If you have hundreds of people in a room, it is a pretty explosive, exhilarating atmosphere,” says Herring.
Why do people participate? “That’s easy,” says Herring, “a lack of creative outlets.” He gets letters of appreciation each week expressing delight with the program as a change from daily routine. “Participatory art is one way of accessing not just art but, through art, your own creativity, which is very important.”
Barbara Pollack is a contributing editor of ARTnews.