Shotgun Review Archive

The Art of Participation: 1950 to Now

By January 18, 2009 In 1971, Ant Farm hit the road in The Media Van - a Chevy turned nomadic Television studio. The art collective made several cross-country trips, documenting their voyages with brand new Sony Portapaks. They lectured at colleges, staged happenings, and dragged the public into their performances. Conceptually minded and thoroughly wired, Ant Farm's project embraced a utopian ideal of distributed media power and offered up an alternative concept of a television "network." The artists (1) updated the van for The Art of Participation: 1950 to Now at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. A lot has changed in 38 years. Ant Farm Media Van v.08 (Time Capsule) is a hollow, matte black, wheel-less shell of a Chevy C10. Tapes from the travels of the 1971 incarnation screen on the van's back windows, placing the analog era quite literally in the rear view. Passengers can pile inside and upload a random file from their own digital devices into the media "Hookah," a multi-tentacled USB port. A conveniently placed docent helps everyone figure out how to participate. The arbitrarily surrendered files save to a digital archive to be opened in 2030 and the participants get receipts for their contributions - good for 10% off at the museum gift shop. The transformation reads a bit sinister: a feel-good, anti-establishment, utopian vehicle finds a new life as a cold, institutional, surveillance machine imploring patrons to follow directions, surrender and consume. The Media Van update begs the question: what does it mean to participate and why might one want to do it? 1_MediaVan2.jpg Chip Lord, Curtis Schreier, and Bruce Tomb, Ant Farm Media Van v.08 (Time Capsule), 2008; The Art of Participation, installation view at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; photo: Ian Reeves, courtesy SFMOMA Curator Rudolf Frieling's exhibition is an ambitious mapping of "the genealogy of participation in the museum context"(2) with the clear intention of establishing a lineage from conceptual and performance art practices of the 1960s and 70s to artists using digital technologies and Web 2.0. While the show makes a gesture to this new generation, the exhibition is primarily historical and its strongest pieces are documents of past performances and happenings. These works model what participation might be and why it matters. Yoko Ono's Cut Piece from 1964 is shown along side its 2003 re-performance. In both videos, the artist sits motionless on a stage, a pair of scissors at her side. An announcement invites audience members to come up and cut away a bit of her clothing. The audience dutifully and methodically disrobes Ono until she is clinging to the last scraps of her cover. Without the audience being present - and, moreover, going along with the prompt - the piece would be nothing to talk about. The audience could have acted differently - refusing to intervene or prohibiting others from doing so. Cut Piece models a social relationship and dramatizes the process of objectification and the titillation of power. Valie Export similarly invited spectators engage directly with her body in Tap and Touch Cinema (1969). A bare-chested Export wore a curtained box over her shoulders and offered passer-bys the opportunity to reach in and touch her. No one has to play along. In both cases, the audience must choose to participate, or else the work doesn't come into being; it remains a mere scenario. The choice to engage comes with ethical or social price. There are real risks and real bodies. While these works do truly call the audience to action, none of these experiences are available to the SFMOMA visitor. The performances are part of the archive, playing back on video monitors. This is not to say that these that these works don't fold the present day viewer back into the problematic moments of their creation. Ant Farm may leave the analog era behind, but it is in these early ethical negotiations between performer, audience, and institution that we still find the most powerful political statements about how and why we participate and what happens when the audience is implicated the work. It is beyond a sharing of authorship or information - it is a sharing of responsibility. Hans Haacke's News (1970/2005) takes this responsibility even further: the exhibition opens with a dot matrix printer spewing out reports from a RSS news feed. The endless spool of paper piles up on the gallery floor, threatening to consume the entire room with reports of bombings in Gaza, political corruption, and other daily tragedies. One must wonder if the audience is participating here too - are their actions or inactions authoring the output and how can they intervene to change the outcome? 2_Haacke_News.jpg Hans Haacke, News, 1969/2005; OKI Microline 590N 24 pin printer with newsfeed on table, roll of paper, dimensions variable; courtesy the artist; photo: Ellen Wilson, installation view at Paula Cooper Gallery, New York; 2008 Hans Haacke/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Most of the works that the present day audiences can engage with are just as prescriptive and rely on the community as much as Ono and Export, but with much lower stakes: visitors can become objects of art by holding a variety of household items in Erwin Wurm's One Minute Sculptures (2006), have a free beer on artist Tom Marioni's tab (The Act of Drinking Beer with Friends Is the Highest Form of Art, 1970-2008) or contribute their portraits to Jochen Gertz's The Gift (2000) and get a stranger's picture in return. These works suggest that "participation" is when art and audience are in a symbiotic relationship, mutually calling each other into being and giving each other purpose. And it cannot be an audience of just one; there has to be a crowd/collective/community for the works to find form. 3_Wurm.jpg Erwin Wurm, One Minute Sculptures (detail), 1997; thirty-two chromogenic prints, each: 26 3/4 x 20 1/2 in. (framed); collection of the artist; photo: Kuzuyuki Matsumoto; 2008 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VBK, Vienna But this core proposition thins out around the conceptual edges of the show. The exhibition expands to include works that, while historically important, barely seem participatory at all. Andy Warhol's Do It Yourself (1962) is a drawing of a half-finished paint-by-numbers illustration. Painting-by-numbers is surely a base form of participation, prescriptive to the point that one might only do it "wrong" or "right." The authors of the exhibition catalog contend that that title, combined with the "unfinished" state of the work, is a call for the viewers to "complete" the drawing (if only in their imaginations) (3). If this is how we participate with drawings and paintings, when are we not participating? The inclusion of John Cage's 4'33'' (1952), points to a similarly boundless concept of interactivity - the minimalist master scored 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence to be performed on piano. The work draws the listener's attention to the ambient sounds of the room rather than to the composer's intentional actions. Surely, Cage's gesture is a radical reformulation of the concepts of music and performance, but to cast the perceiver's role as actively participatory or collaborative risks including all moments of active listening - and, maybe, music in general - in the participatory family. The most engaging works in the exhibition are the ones that prescribe the least, the ones that don't have a gallery guard directing the scene. Matthias Gommel's Delayed (2002) needs no explanation. Two microphone headsets dangle from the high ceiling, waiting to be worn. Participants face each other and try to speak, but a several second delay destroys the possibility of easy communication. Their words overlap and establish what feels like a physical distance with what is only a temporal one. No matter how close the participants are to each other, they appear to be screaming across a canyon, hearing only echoes. Participation, interactivity and communication are not easy, and technology does not necessarily help. Gommel makes one long for the fraught physical contact of Ono and Export's work. Raphael Lozano-Hemmer's Microphones (2008) establishes a similarly transparent and poetic system: a circle of spot-lit microphones wait for voices to awaken them. Each time a participant speaks, he or she is answered back by the voice of a person who once stood in the very same spot and issued a similar call to an unknown other. Rather than being for the others in the room, Microphones links past, present, and future performers in a curious collapse of space and time. It is as if each puts a message in a bottle and throws it out to sea, only to have it wash up upon the same beach. 4_Hemmer.jpg Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Microphones, 2008; The Art of Participation, installation view at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; photo: Ian Reeves, courtesy SFMOMA It might be easy to reduce Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz's Hole in Space (1980) to technological novelty, but it's documentation makes one wish SF MOMA had commissioned a update of this piece rather than the Media Van. For 3 days in November 1980, Galloway and Rabinowitz connected a sidewalk in Century City with Lincoln Center via a real-time video link. Passers-by came face to face with life size images of their cross-country counterparts. They spoke with each other, flirted, sang, danced, and met up with old friends. The artists set up a formal possibility, but left the direction and content up to the participants. The documentation of the event - displayed as facing wall-sized projections of the two groups - conveys pure pleasure of unexpected and open interaction. 5_HoleInSpace.jpg Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz, Hole-in-Space (photographic documentation), 1980; live two-way telecommunication event between New York and Los Angeles; courtesy the artists; photo: courtesy Sherrie Rabinowitz; 2008 Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz These formal pieces offer expansive and charming examples of how the museum might open up to playful experimentation and improvisation while still engaging with hefty conceptual issues of mediated interaction and audience authorship. However, the museum may not be really ready for this sort of surrender and free play. A group of particularly participatory teenagers took copies of Felix Gonzales-Torres's free poster, Untitled (1992/1993), and folded them into hats and flew paper airplanes into the museum lobby. Gonzales-Torres's unlimited edition prints are "gifts without dictating what has to be done with them." (4) The artist may not control their use, but the museum surely can: Guards intervened and the kids were told to pick up the posters and bring them home. To fully participate, one might have to get up and leave the museum. 6-paperplane.jpg The Art of Participation will be on view at SF MOMA through February 8th. Notes 1. Bruce Tomb joined original Ant Farm members Chip Lord and Curtis Schreier for the 2008 version. 2. Rudolf Frieling, "Introduction," The Art of Participation: 1950 to Now. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2008. p.12. 3. The Art of Participation: 1950 to Now, p. 10. 4. The Art of Participation: 1950 to Now, p.118.

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