The awarding of the prestigious Turner Prize to the English architect collective Assemble in December 2015 turned the public eye onto a branch of participatory art that continues to remain misunderstood. In her discussion of this artistic practice, which is more a part of the social sphere than the art world, Estelle Zhong Mengual draws on the example of Lone Twin, an English collective (Gregg Whelan and Gary Winters) who from 2011 to 2012 collaborated with volunteers to build a sailboat out of 1221 pieces of wood gathered from across England. Today, the boat can be hired by anyone, for any use. Building on ideas by John Dewey, Estelle Zhong Mengual sees in this practice a chance to experience the democratic ideal, in the sense of a “community of action” comprised of heterogeneous individuals.
Mark Brown, “Urban regenerators Assemble become first non-artists to win the Turner Prize”, The Guardian, 7 December 2015. Available online here.
See the reactions to the announcement of the Turner Prize results reported by Charlotte Higgins in the article “Turner Prize Winners: ‘Art ? We’re more interested in plumbing’”, The Guardian, 8 December 2015. Available online here.
For an overview of some typical facets of participatory art, see Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells. Participatory Art & the Politics of Spectatorship, London, Verso, 2012.
Thank you to Bruno Latour for turning me on to this idea during a SPEAP seminar in May, 2016.
Pierre Dardot, Christian Laval, Commun. Essai sur la révolution au XXIe siècle, Paris, La Découverte, 2014, namely « L’activité de “mettre en commun” comme institution du commun », p. 234-240.
Estelle Zhong, La communauté de singularités. Réinventer le commun dans l’art participatif britannique (1997-2015), doctoral thesis in art history, 2015.
We are much obliged to the Belgian artist François Hers, creator of the Nouveaux Commanditaires, for calling attention to this kind of solitude which is specific to contemporary artists. François Hers, Xavier Douroux, L’art sans le capitalisme, Dijon, Les Presses du Réel, 2011. We also owe a lot to Alistair Hudson, whose radical stance contributed to changing how we see the role of the contemporary artist.
Via personal correspondence, March 2011.
Estelle Zhong, “La reconstitution comme pratique artistique: les faux souvenirs dans la fabrique de l’Histoire. Etude des reconstitutions de Nikolai Evreinov, La Prise du Palais d’Eté (1920) et de Jeremy Deller, The Battle of Orgreave (2001)” in Revue Française d’Histoire des Idées Politiques, n°39, Paris, Editions Picard.
Excerpts from the project description www.theboatproject.com
The description here is from my own experience of the Boat Project in March, 2011.
Lone Twin, The Lone Twin Boat Project, Dartington, Chiquita Books, 2012, p. 11.
The sailboat is currently available for rental, leaving from Hamble and Chichester Harbour. The money raised will be used for maintenance and repairs.
John Dewey, Le public et ses problèmes (1915), Paris, Gallimard, 2010, p. 243-244.
Ibid., p. 246.
An art prize won by non-artists
On December 7, 2015, the Turner Prize, one of the most prestigious prizes for contemporary art, was awarded to the collective Assemble before the incredulous eyes of the art world. The Guardian ran an article the next day entitled: “Urban regenerators Assemble become first non-artists to win the Turner Prize1”. The qualifier “non-artist” may simply emphasize that they are architects – an anomaly in the history of the Turner Prize which traditionally only rewards visual artists – but the term points to a much more incisive “anomaly”: that Assemble’s work is not what one would call “art”. Indeed, the Granby Four Streets project that garnered the award for the collective does not seem to possess any of the qualities associated with contemporary art: it is neither an object nor displayed in a museum, nor can it be sold on the art market – it is less destined for being looked at than for being done.
Even more surprisingly, the piece was not imagined and conceived by the architects alone, rather in collaboration with the inhabitants of Toxteth, a neighborhood in Liverpool. Assemble offered to lend a hand to the residents of this neglected neighborhood by turning their housing spaces into living spaces. Granby Four Streets consists therefore of an intervention by Assemble within a reconstruction process initiated by the inhabitants themselves. Together, they built a winter garden and several homes, acting far outside the generally held conceptions of contemporary art. So what should we think about the Turner Prize being awarded to such a project? Is it simply a momentary disparity in the history of art, or is it a sign that art is over, as has been diagnosed2? Our hypothesis is that Assemble’s victory constitutes a more precise and far-reaching symptom: that the institutional art world now recognizes an entirely new branch of contemporary creation that, until recently, only interested a handful of people — participatory art.
What is participatory art?
The term participatory art is used by art historians to designate extremely varied forms of participation, from mobilizing extras for a few minutes of a performance (like in some pieces by Tino Sehgal, for example) to co-production processes between artists and volunteers that may last several years3. The latter is what interests us, namely, creating in the social sphere rather than in a studio, with others rather than every man for himself, in a collective way rather than demiurgically, and over extended periods of time.
This is how you get Jeremy Deller asking former Orgreave miners to participate in a historical reenactment of the 1984 riot (The Battle of Orgreave, 2001). During the second Iraq war, Michael Rakowitz teaches American middle school students how to cook his mother’s Iraqi recipes: on their aprons reads “Enemy Kitchen” (Enemy Kitchen, 2006). Together with patients from the Tijuana psychiatric hospital, Javier Téllez organizes a human canon to fire someone over the US-Mexico border (One Flew Over The Void. Bala Perdida, 2001). Thomas Hirschhorn invites residents from the Forest Houses projects in the Bronx to build a monument in honor of the Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci (Gramsci Monument, 2013). Lone Twin enlists volunteers to construct a sailboat out of 1221 wooden objects contributed by participants (The Boat Project, 2011-2012).
All of these projects belong to a very specific branch of participatory art in which participation is not just characterized by the occasional invitation or request to do something in an exhibition or a performance, but by a longstanding collaboration integrated into the spaces of daily life. By doing so, the nature and objectives of participation also change. One might be tempted to distinguish and define this unique branch of participatory art as an art of the commons4, one that questions how to reinvent the conditions and possible forms of collective doing. In this context, participation is about making a commons of everyone’s expertise and experience, creating new commons of both immaterial (symbols, knowledge, rituals, communities) and material nature (collectively-managed properties or spaces 5).
The emergence of this art should be understood through the lens of local artistic and social histories6. Though the artists come from different origins and artistic backgrounds, they share a characteristic that allows us in part to understand this phenomenon: dissatisfaction and even disinterest in the role that the art world has automatically assigned them.
Participation as a new way of being an artist
What does it mean to be an artist for most contemporary artists? Working alone in a studio, exhibiting work and showing it to a few people for a few days and, in the best case, selling a piece that will be locked away in a private or public collection only to be shown on the rarest occasions. The social life of artworks in this scenario is very limited and, from a certain standpoint, that of the artists is too, as they frequently only talk to other professionals from the art world7. A kind of isolation, operating within a vacuum, with little effect, characterizes how the fine arts are most commonly practiced today: it doesn’t condemn a piece to inanity, no more than it guarantees any quality. If this way works for some artists, it certainly does not for those who feel somehow “disconnected from the world”. And disconnected from any effectiveness in this world. By having non-artists participate in an artistic project, or as Assemble has done, to offer others a chance to get their hands dirty, is a solution that creators have found to escape the rigid spaces and functions assigned to them.
From this perspective, co-producing an artwork with others constitutes a liberating way of being an artist that would not have been possible otherwise: “I don’t make people participate. They are the ones who allow me to participate in the world8” affirms Gregg Whelan of Lone Twin.
Creation itself ends up completely changed. It is enriched through the practices, expertise, challenges, virtuosities and energies of others: in a way, the inhabitants of Granby Four Streets, through their own experience, initiative and skills, are the ones affording Assemble the opportunity to put a strong artistic piece into place. The musical and human skills of a Northern England brass band are what allow Jeremy Deller to create Acid Brass (1997), just as the skilled practitioners of Napoleonic history reenactments enabled him to raise the worker’s strikes in The Battle of Orgreave (2001)9 to the ranks of a historical battle for contemporary England. Creating with others, in the world, puts artists down creative paths enriched by the totality of human practices and skills, pathways that were beyond reach until now, for lack of living several lifetimes.
Inventing forms that do not seem artistic
One can only refuse to label Assemble and participatory art as “art” if one considers the dominating way of creating art today as the essence of art. Granby Four Streets or other participatory projects correspond to the further reaches of art, for example in the historical legacy of the artistic avant-garde. What the avant-gardists have in common is that where others see Art, they see only a corpus of historical habits, a certain way of creating in the artist, a certain kind of receptiveness to the artwork in the spectator. The avant-garde could therefore be seen as a vast undertaking to “dehabituate” our way of evaluating Art, in other words, everything that corresponds to a pre-established canon (a definition of Beauty, this or that technical skill, certain media…). Thus resulting in the emancipated forms that were characteristic of those movements: collage, ready-made, performance, conversation, etc. – all of which are forms that, at the time of their emergence, did not seem artistic.
Participatory art, when taken as an art of the commons, can be analyzed as one of the most recent incarnations of the avant-garde. It shares with them a taste for uncategorizable forms that disrupt our customary manner of making and receiving art. But they also share the same foundational compass: “to change art and life”. In the end, redefining the habits of art aims to reconfigure our vital habits – otherwise why bother? Changing how art is made transforms our way of relating to the world. By following this compass, an entire branch of participatory art is asking the question: “How can we change life, by which we mean, truly affect society and politics in the current democratic context?” With regard to this concern shared by the avant-garde yet updated for today’s socio-political situation, participatory art, in the sense of an art of the commons, wagers that artist-participant collaboration constitutes the best mode of action for reconfiguring creation into a way of being together and collective doing. In other words, the art of the commons reactivates an emancipation from forms specific to the avant-garde and offers the invention of forms that are unique, to say the least: the invention of forms of politics.
Between February and August 2011, through newspaper adverts, posters and by word of mouth, English artists Lone Twin (a collective made up of Gregg Whelan and Gary Winters) launch a call for contributions: they’re looking for pieces of wood. But not just any pieces: “From pencil to piano – exotic wood like zingana or common wood like pine – we want something that is a piece of your life, something that tells a story10.” If you were interested by the call, you could either wait for Lone Twin to pass through your city to collect the donations, or take your own weekend trip to the boathouse at the Emsworth marina. Visitors to the Boat Shed are welcomed by Gregg Whelan and Gary Winters. They ask you to tell the story of your piece of wood. They listen, ask questions. The conversation is recorded, a photo of you with your piece of wood is taken, and everything is carefully numbered and archived. A total of 1221 donations are collected. The sailboat is therefore made out of a very unlikely combination of objects: a guitar, a hanger, paper pencils, a hockey stick, a spoon, a closet, a mask…
The objects are grouped together and cast in resin, in order to create smooth wood panels to cover the hull inside and out. Except that alas, the artists do not know how to build a boat: they have to call in a ship builder, Mark Covell, who heads the construction from start to finish. Artisans are also mobilized to participate in the project, on equal footing with the donators. And to whomever wishes to get their hands dirty, Lone Twin opens the Boat Shed every day of the week for an entire year.
In the shed, nothing is staged: artisans and builders are busy there each day. Entering on a rainy afternoon, you are easily welcomed by Jesse, who asks how you know the project, explains the work, shows you the donated objects, etc.11. But your visit interrupts the activity in the shed: they were in the middle of gluing together slats for the bottom of the hull. The natural course of things leads you ten minutes later to put on a pair of blue work gloves, and you find yourself helping to glue those famous slats, alongside everyone else. It isn’t strictly speaking an introductory workshop to boat-making, presented and organized as such: you enter, you help wherever help is needed, you stay, you leave, you come back, you drink a tea, you discuss, you leave again. You can come every day, every week, or every month, as you see fit, for a year. Lone Twin thereby invents a new place for local inhabitants to work collectively on the construction of a sailboat or to simply make small talk and see how things are moving along. I met a regular, Jenny, 70 years old, who came every day to “lend a hand”. She managed to find several ways to occupy herself according to her own abilities: making tea, filing the donation papers, dusting the objects. When she talks about the boat, she calls it “our boat”.
And yet Lone Twin makes a point of clarifying: “Since the beginning, it was very clear for us that this would never be our boat. And if we were to ask any member of the team that invested so much energy to making this boat float […] they would admit that they built it, but would probably insist on the fact that it isn’t their boat. They don’t feel like it’s theirs 12.” This apparent contradiction reveals the nature of the sailboat: it emerges as a common, an object resulting from shared energies, imaginations and skills, by virtue of which it belongs to everyone, without being the property of anyone. “Our boat belongs to no one,” is how one could summarize the paradox that applies to this making of a commons13.
Experiencing the idea of democracy
Philosopher John Dewey can help us understand the true scope of what was being built in the Boat Shed. In The Public and its Problems, he insists on unfolding the idea of democracy, as opposed to democracy as a system of government. He offers a striking thesis: for him, the idea of democracy should not be understood as one option for associated living equal to other options. It is not one possible principle of associated living amongst others: it is “the very idea of community itself”, which means it is the very foundation upon which an ideal collectivity rests. Dewey defines ideal as “the tendency and movement of some thing which exists carried to its final limit, viewed as complete, perfected.” Insofar as facts cannot attain such a level of completion, we cannot and will never be able to talk of democracy as a fact, to the same extent that the idea of “a perfect community constituted of alien elements” cannot occur as a matter of fact. But for John Dewey, the impossibility of going from democracy as a collective living ideal to its actualization as a fact should not be taken as a sign of its inherent failure nor limitation. Quite the contrary, the very strength of democracy is that it is an ideal, that is, a trend and a movement capable of guiding and vectoring our action. Although it may not be possible to completely actualize democracy as a fact, it does remain possible to experience it, that is, to live the ideal of associated life, of living as a community: “The idea or ideal of a community presents, however, actual phases of associated life as they are freed from restrictive and disturbing elements, and are contemplated as having attained their limit of development. Wherever there is conjoint activity whose consequences are appreciated as good by all singular persons who take part in it, and where the realization of the good is such as to effect an energetic desire and effort to sustain it in being just because it is a good shared by all, there is in so far a community. The clear consciousness of a communal life, in all its implications, constitutes the idea of democracy14.”
What is surprising in this excerpt is the absent notion of identity in order to define community. It is even more so coming from an American philosopher, since ethnic and religious communities united by a shared identity have always been essential political players in the United States. Perhaps it is precisely because he belongs to a democracy conceived as an aggregation of communities that Dewey senses the urgency in formulating a possible community not founded on identity, and to thus imagine another democratic model.
He suggests thinking of community as founded on the notion of activity, in opposition to definitions centered on identity as belonging, as is the case with collectives that we are used to calling communities, be they ethnic, sexual, religious, etc. In order to be a community, we must do something together (“conjoint activity”): “People together doing something”, as Lone Twin puts it, when qualifying the collective. But that isn’t enough, since “ […] no amount of aggregated collective action of itself constitutes a community15.”
Dewey points to other necessary elements. Amongst them are some of the founding characteristics of the Boat Project: recognizing individual singularity by donating pieces of wood and recording their stories (“singular persons”), the collective aspect of what is produced (as Jenny noted, “shared by all”), attributing value to this activity which signals the repeated involvement of volunteers (“realization of the good”).
In The Boat Project, this good is identified with a goal that is greater than oneself. The idea of something greater than oneself can mean many things: first that “I” (the “I” of artists just like the “I” of participants) could never have produced these effects in the world by myself. Next, that “I” alone could never have imagined these effects were possible (like building a sailboat out of recounted stories). From this perspective, a goal that is greater than oneself is a goal that goes beyond what one thinks is possible. But also, and perhaps more decisively, the proposed goal elevates people: it is a goal that does not fulfill a need, but invents a desire. It is a goal in which “I” am not the intended recipient: the sailboat does not belong to me, it is not for me and it is not built to satisfy something within me.
The “I” is more a kind of collateral recipient. Of course, the pursuit of a goal produces a positive effect on me, but that is not the aim of the project. The goal seems, however, superior in intensity to the goals I might have opted to work toward all alone: this superior intensity may be difficult to qualify in precise words, but it is possible that the symbolic power of the artistic object under construction plays a decisive factor in the intensity of this experience.
Finally, for Dewey, a community is not merely the result of a collective feeling, but of a “clear consciousness” of what is at stake in collective living, manifested through judgment and awareness (value judgment/awareness of the consequences). This clear consciousness of the stakes is the fruit of building a sailboat or even the concern brought to it over time. The lengthy time period allows for weeks to go by, leading to the emergence of a collective which we can now qualify as a community. To the extent that participation is entirely voluntary, it is built upon a kind of commitment that is continuously rechanneled: the renewed presence of volunteers, day after day, establishes a dependable symptom of the way in which these volunteers judge the value of what is made and how it is made. A kind of continual evaluation of the activity’s consequences is thus put into place. We see that a project’s duration, stretched over time, constitutes an essential condition for the instauration of literal community. A shorter project would be less likely to establish this community of action that turns into an awareness of the cause. The collective’s duration and activity appear therefore to be two conditions necessary for creating community in participatory art.
If the characteristics of Dewey’s notion of community are not specific to participatory art and can be found in other forms of community (for instance in political activism), other attributes are, on the other hand, particular to the form and sketch the contours of a community specific to a certain kind of participatory art: the absence of the question of identity as a foundation for community, replaced by the notion of conjoint activity related to a recognition of individual singularity.
The missing democracy
The Boat Project and more generally, an entire branch of participatory art16, allow us to consider this political chimera: a non-identitarian community. Because community always seems to result from a constellation of identity traits, this notion is often seen as problematic, threatening to dissolve the republic, to turn the citizen body united under common and universal values into fragments. Participatory art shows that we can take another look at the issue of community, one that ventures outside the question of identity and stays in close relation with the idea of democracy. It shows how these two terms are not contradictory, rather on the contrary: they are inseparable – but only if community is conceived of as founded on the proposition of shared doing, carried out over an extended period of time.
This branch of participatory art, which we have identified as an art of the commons, marks the inauguration of a new kind of activist art: one that is no longer about art as a critique, condemning certain scandals or political injustices from the outside, but about creating and experiencing political constructs. And to be even more precise, constructs that rarely play out on the stage of instituted politics. This kind of participatory art allows one to experience “the idea of democracy” through the experience of community: a community of action between individual and non-homogenous persons, brought together because they judge the consequences of the undertaking to be good and desirable, and are therefore ready to invest their time and energy.
However, experiencing the idea of democracy is not the same as living a utopia: the experience does in fact take place, it has an effect on the participants, it instills in everyone the conviction that associated life is possible amongst heterogeneous individuals. It may perhaps even kindle the hidden intuition of a more complete or intense form of existence. We may ask ourselves if the revitalization of democracy as a democratic regime must in fact pass in part by the possibility of experiencing democracy – that is, experiencing a community based on action as described by John Dewey – and if artistic practices that aim to revitalize these experiences of democracy might not in fact nourish a renewal of creative politics in our democracies. A renewal that would be capable, for example, of getting citizens to occupy a public square in a national capital for an entire night, in order to collectively re-think the republic as a common action. This is how participatory art opens new forms of politicization: the search for community based on action as a political value and goal.
Translation by Maya Dalinsky
Thanks to François Hers