Experiencing democracy

Investigation by Estelle Zhong Mengual


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.

[ 1 ]

Mark Brown, “Urban regenerators Assemble become first non-artists to win the Turner Prize”, The Guardian, 7 December 2015. Available online here.

[ 2 ]

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.

[ 3 ]

For an overview of some typical facets of participatory art, see Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells. Participatory Art & the Politics of Spectatorship, London, Verso, 2012.

[ 4 ]

Thank you to Bruno Latour for turning me on to this idea during a SPEAP seminar in May, 2016.

[ 5 ]

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.

[ 6 ]

Estelle Zhong, La communauté de singularités. Réinventer le commun dans l’art participatif britannique (1997-2015), doctoral thesis in art history, 2015.

[ 7 ]

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.

[ 8 ]

Via personal correspondence, March 2011.

[ 9 ]

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.

[ 10 ]

Excerpts from the project description www.theboatproject.com

[ 11 ]

The description here is from my own experience of the Boat Project in March, 2011.

[ 12 ]

Lone Twin, The Lone Twin Boat Project, Dartington, Chiquita Books, 2012, p. 11.

[ 13 ]

The sailboat is currently available for rental, leaving from Hamble and Chichester Harbour. The money raised will be used for maintenance and repairs.

[ 14 ]

John Dewey, Le public et ses problèmes (1915), Paris, Gallimard, 2010, p. 243-244.

[ 15 ]

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…

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