– Autumn/Winter 2011

Post-Participatory Participation

Ricardo Basbaum

‘Who, me?’

‘Yes, we were already expecting you.’

‘When I invite people to take part in some of my propositions, what am I offering them and what is expected from them, from me, for me, for them?’ This should be a basic question addressed to participatory processes, which would help to indicate more precisely how this or that project is building the image of the artist and its other, the so-called ‘participant’. There was a time when artists did not conceive of their practice as a gesture towards someone else: it was enough that the art piece had been completed and had its internal aspects resolved. There wasn’t even space for interpretation: before modernism, the ‘reading’ of the piece pointed to a non-ambiguous narrative. During modernism, however, the structure itself of artistic language guaranteed that the artwork would function correctly by pointing to the future, bringing forward advanced critical topics. But somehow in the mid-1950s a shift occurred — towards a sort of ‘participatory condition’ of contemporary society — that was meant to de-centre the artistic gesture and add a new role into the art system or circuit: that of the active participator, a figure of otherness who would not only become more and more relevant for art processes but would also decisively influence the shift from critical to curatorial practices at the end of the twentieth century.

Yes, Marcel Duchamp considered that the reception of his work would influence its meaning, but he was more concerned about the impact that an anonymous and general mass of people (that is, an ‘audience’) would have on his place in history. He did not write specifically on the production

  1. This is how Allan Kaprow refers to Marcel Duchamp in one of his texts. See A. Kaprow, ‘Doctor MD’, in Jeff Kelley (ed.), Allan Kaprow: Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993, pp.127—29.

  2. For N. Katherine Hayles, the Macy Conferences on Cybernetics were ‘radically interdisciplinary’, putting together ‘researchers from a wide variety of fields — neurophysiology, electrical engineering, philosophy, semantics, literature and psychology, among others’. Some of its main topics involved ‘how to convince that humans and machines were brothers under the skin’ and to act ‘as crossroads for the traffic in cybernetic models and artefacts’. Hayles organised the Conferences’ arguments along ‘three fronts’: ‘the construction of information as a theoretical entity’; ‘the construction of [human] neural structures […] as flows of information’; and ‘the construction of artefacts that translated information flows into observable operations’. See N.K. Hayles, How We Became Posthuman, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1999. 

  3. 3 The organic line is a line that has not been drafted or carved by anyone, but which results from the contact of two different surfaces (planes, things, objects, bodies or even concepts). According to Guy Brett, Lygia Clark liked to exemplify the organic line as the one we can see ‘between the window and the window frame or between tiles on the floor’. She stated that it first appeared in 1954, when she was observing the line that formed where a framed collage touched the passe-partout paper. She wrote: ‘I set aside this research for two years because I did not know how to deal with this space set free.’ Quoted in G. Brett, ‘Lygia Clark: The Borderline Between Art and Life’, in Third Text, no.1, Autumn 1987, p.67. See also Ricardo Basbaum, ‘Within the Organic Line and After’, published in English in Alexander Alberro and Sabeth Buchmann (ed.), Art after Conceptual Art, Vienna and Cambridge, MA and London: Generali Foundation and The MIT Press, 2006, pp.87—99. 

  4. 4 However, Klein was more concerned with the ‘immaterial’ mediation layers than with the direct touch of the artwork on the body. The work’s full title is La Spécialisation de la sensibilité à l’état matière première en sensibilité picturale stabilisée, Le Vide (The Specialisation of Sensibility in the Raw Material State into Stabilised Pictorial Sensibility, The Void). 

  5. 5 Suely Rolnik states this point precisely: ‘The notion of “anthropophagy” […] proposed by the [Brazilian] modernists harks back to a practice of the indigenous Tupinambás […], a complex ritual, which could go on for months, years even, in which enemies made captive in battles would be killed and devoured; cannibalism is only one of its stages’. Another stage involved the executor changing his name and scarring his body with the name of the enemy: ‘The existence of the other […] was thus inscribed in the memory of the body, producing unpredictable becomings of subjectivity.’ Thus, in ‘advancing the idea of anthropophagy, the avant-garde of Brazilian modernism extrapolates from the literality of the indigenous ceremony, in order to extract from it the ethical formula of an unavoidable existence of an otherness in oneself that presides over the ritual and to make it migrate into the terrain of culture. With this gesture, the active presence of this formula in a mode of cultural creation practised in Brazil since its foundation is given visibility and affirmed as a value: the critical and irreverent devouring of an otherness always multiple and variable.’ Rolnik also proposes an important update: ‘We would define the anthropophagic cultural micropolitic as a continuous process of singularisation, resulting from the composition of particles of numberless devoured others and the diagram of their respective marks in the body’s memory. A poetic response — with sarcastic humour — to the need to confront the impositive presence of the colonising cultures […]; an answer […] to [the] need to come to grips with and render positive the process of hybridisation brought by successive waves of immigration, which has always configured the country’s lived experience.’ See S. Rolnik, ‘Politics of the Fluid, Hybrid and Flexible: Avoiding False Problems’, SUM magazine for contemporary art, Copenhagen: The Royal Academy of Fine Arts, no.2, Summer 2008. 

  6. See R. Basbaum, ‘What Is NBP?’, manifesto, 1990, available at http://www.nbp.pro.br/nbp.php (last accessed on 12 December 2010).

  7. The first presidential elections after the end of the dictatorship were held in Brazil in 1989. 

  8. See Brian Holmes, ‘The Flexible Personality: For a New Cultural Critique’, available at

    http://transform.eipcp.net/transversal/1106/holmes/en; and S. Rolnik, ‘The Geopolitics of Pimping’, available at http://transform.eipcp.net/transversal/1106/rolnik/en (both last accessed on 18 October 2010). 

  9. The art critic Glória Ferreira organised the first survey of the work of Clark and Oiticica in 1986, at Paço Imperial, Rio de Janeiro. The exhibition ‘Lygia Clark e Hélio Oiticica’ had ‘a very particular field of approach, […] the “participation of the spectator” […] as the unfolding of the questions common to them during the Neoconcrete period.’ See G. Ferreira, ‘Terreiro do Paço: cena para Lygia Clark e Hélio Oiticica’, in Lygia Clark e Hélio Oiticica, Sala Especial do 9º Salão Nacional de Artes Plásticas, Rio de Janeiro: Funarte/INAP, 1986. Clark was still alive and attended the exhibition several times.

    The arguments she had with collectors regarding the originals of her Bichos, a series of 1960s sculptures included in the exhibition, were remarkable: although she invited the public to use them, the collectors who owned the pieces prevented any manipulation.

  10. It is not a coincidence that the estates of the three main Neoconcrete artists (Clark, Oiticica and Pape) are managed by their families, as private cultural associations. This gesture is justified by the lack of support by Brazilian museums and governmental institutions towards contemporary art in general (with very few exceptions). The private associations have to search for funds on the corporate and art markets, sometimes assuming positions that directly contradict certain gestures that the artists themselves defended in their lifetimes. It is not necessary to say that such conflicts and contradictions speak vehemently about the current economy of culture. See Projeto Hélio Oiticica, founded in 1981 (http://www.heliooiticica.org.br); Associação Cultural O Mundo de Lygia Clark, founded in 2001 (http://www.lygiaclark.org.br); and Associação Cultural Projeto Lygia Pape, founded in 2004 (http://www.lygiapape.org.br) (all last accessed on 11 July 2011). 

  11. For ‘transformational strategies’ I refer to the different programmes and projects that aim to actively engage the other (viewer or participant) in an intensive process vis-à-vis the artwork, facing a ‘problematic field’ and triggering a subjectivation process. See Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition (trans. Paul Patton), New York: Columbia University Press, 1994, p.246. 

  12. R. Basbaum, ‘What Is NBP?’, op. cit. 

  13. This aspect of contemporary artworks is developed in my text ‘Who Sees Our Work?’, Roland, no.1, London: Institute of Contemporary Arts, May 2009. Also available at http://ica.org.uk/download. php?id=696 (last accessed on 12 December 2010).

  14. Daniel Buren, ‘Beware’, in 5 Texts, London and New York: John Weber Gallery and Jack Wendler Gallery, 1973, p.17. 

  15. If I refer to a viral strategy for the NBP project, it has to do with the particular relation it establishes to the issues of replication, contact and contagion: the work (relational situations, objects and installations) seeks for a continuous re-staging of the initial specific-shape drawing, always with differences, investing in a sort of tactile/haptic condition in which the body is always physically involved.

    The proposed effects can be organised around Jacques Derrida's ‘virology’: the French philosopher ‘begins a philosophical enterprise that attempts to introduce the Other into the I: a redefinition of the subject. Eventually, this “introduction” becomes “infection”, and the Other is radically recast as the virus.’ Quoted in Thierry Bardini, ‘Hypervirus: A Clinical Report’, CTheory, vol.29, no.1—2, http://www.ctheory.net/articles.aspx?id=504 (last accessed on 8 April 2011). Emphasis Bardini’s.

  16. For an account of the ‘me-you’ actions, see my text ‘Differences between us and them', available at http://rbtxt.files.wordpress.com (last accessed on 11 July 2011). Originally published in Becky Shaw and Gareth Woollam (ed.), Us and Them — Static Pamphlet Anthology 2003—04, Liverpool: Static Gallery, 2005.

  17. The development of the work of Allan Kaprow (1927—2006) is usually considered under three sequential and complementary series: ‘environments', ‘happenings' and ‘activities'. The latter series, made after the 1970s, consisted in sets of daily actions and gestures, to be performed by small groups of volunteers under the artist's written instructions or scores. The activities were never documented for public notice as they were actions that should be performed — and later discussed — only within the group of participants. Towards the end of his life, Kaprow encouraged others to create new versions of his works ‘under three principles formulated by the artist: site-specificity, impermanence and doubt in art'. See the gallery guide published to accompany ‘Allan Kaprow: Art as Life’, Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, 23 March — 30 June 2008, available at www.moca.org/kaprow/GalleryGuide_ Kaprow.pdf (last accessed on 1 August 2011).

  18. See José Gil, A imagem nua e as pequenas percepções: estética e metafenomenologia, Lisbon: Relógio D’Água, 1996.