In 2004 Claire Bishop crashed participatory art’s pad thai party with an essay published in October magazine ‘Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics’, a savage takedown of Nicolas Bourriaud and the relational aesthetics mafia. Cogently argued along the lines of a persuasive entreaty to readers’ commonsense, Bishop articulated what many who read Bourriaud’s book suspected but had thus far failed to point out. The idea being that an art which took ‘its theoretical horizon [from the] realm of human interactions and its social context’ (Bourriaud in Relational Aesthetics) was actually a little exploitative, aesthetically remiss, and lacking in formal and intellectual rigour. In other words, while the art world seemed content to admire the finery of Emperor Bourriaud’s new clothes, Bishop’s essay essentially revealed he wasn’t wearing any.
Since that much-needed antithetical intervention Bishop has cornered the theoretical and art historical divisions of the participation market. Her first book, Installation Art, 2005, charted the formal and critical development of its namesake, introducing readers to the strength of Bishop’s writing and her interest in the problematics of artists seeking to engage and activate spectators. A year later Bishop edited the book Participation, 2006, stipulating in her introduction to the compendium that art using human beings as both material and medium was to be explored. This streamlining of the participatory debate left installation and interactive art by the wayside. It also allowed Bishop, because her assertion went unchallenged, to demarcate the acceptable limits of the field – ie what should and should not be considered as participatory art – and, assuming the role of both gatekeeper and judge, to define a set of aesthetic criteria by which art produced in it could be critiqued.
Now with the publication of Artificial Hells, Bishop uses her caustic wit, iconoclastic tendencies and years of research in the field to produce the canonical history of socially engaged participatory art – at least according to Verso’s press release. In truth the book is too partial and fragmented to be anything approaching a definitive history (a fact Bishop admittedly addresses in the introduction). What Artificial Hells does achieve is the drawing of a plausible, if not entirely novel, genealogical line, which leads to the field of participatory art Bishop has identified as worthy of critical and institutional attention: the field ‘in which people constitute the central artistic medium and material, [now] in the manner of theatre’. If this sounds like familiar territory, it will come as no surprise to learn that the artists who currently fulfil this criterion still include, among other usual suspects, Santiago Sierra, Pavel Althamer and Thomas Hirschhorn. The prospect of reading another critical reflection on these individuals may not appeal, but there are some real nuggets of information amid Bishop’s formulated pre-history for these artists’ practices.
The book itself is divided into three loose parts: a theoretical introduction, historical case studies and a reflection on the rise of socially engaged artwork in Europe after the fall of communism. Section one introduces the central concern underpinning Bishop’s critical perspective in the book. She explains that the dominance of ethical and moral judgment is killing aesthetic assessment in an ‘ethically charged climate in which participatory and socially engaged art has become largely exempt from art criticism’. This new binary (the ethical versus the aesthetic) replaces the passive-active conundrum – resolved in Jacques Rancière’s essay ‘The Emancipated Spectator’ – as the new site of contention to be duked out in the participatory debate. The problem with fighting in the corner of aesthetics, however, is that you are always trying to counter plainly observable dubiousness with the weak one-two of high theory and abstraction. The thought of artists using human beings as medium and material rings alarm bells because people are complex thinking and feeling beings, affected by the contexts and conditions they are placed in, not paint, film, brass or concrete. Bishop attempts to negate these arguments, during a reading of Jeremy Deller’s Battle of Orgreave, 2001, by stating that the use of people in theatre is not judged ethically; that the so-called ethical turn’s bias towards inclusivity is a symptom of New Labour’s policy of citizen passivity through social inclusion; and that the old argument that working-class people are used for the intellectual consideration of the middle classes (in galleries) simply reinstates ‘the prejudice by which working-class activity is restricted to manual labour’ – so far so provocative.
In the next section, Bishop fleshes out her idea that the history of participatory art is punctuated and energised by three key periods of ‘political upheaval’ – 1917, 1968 and 1989 – that ‘form a narrative of the triumph, heroic last stand and collapse of a collectivist vision of society’. What follows over several chapters are descriptions of 20th-century artistic movements and activities where attention was turned directly to activating, outraging, liberating or including the spectator – whose identity has been characterised at different times, and by different artists, as the indolent bourgeoisie, the volatile masses, the disenfranchised working class or the contemporary fragmented subject. Beginning with the Italian Futurists and Dada’s confrontational theatre, in the mid 20th century the story moves to Russia (Collective Actions Group), then Argentina, Poland, and ends with a look at the Artists Placement Group and Community Arts movement in England. For a while the figure of Alan Kaprow provides a link between countries and practitioners during the 1960s, but overall the case studies read like instances of participatory practice placed in chronological order that are nevertheless isolated. Still, for those who haven’t read Listen Hear Now! Argentine Art of the 1960s, 2004, or who are unfamiliar with Collective Actions, and Eastern European artists like Milan Knížák and Alex Mlynárčik, these stitched together, slightly muted research papers will provide invaluable and inspiring source material.
In the final part of the book it is back to business as usual. Bishop returns to critiquing, and attempting to reframe work she has seen and experienced. In a chapter on delegated performance (the hiring of non-professionals to carry out performative actions) we are introduced to the idea that the sight of subjection and objectification, which troubles ethically minded critics of Sierra, should be seen as a sophisticated manifestation of the artist’s repackaging of the oppressive modes of modern society for the victims’ own aesthetic enjoyment; the artist uses ‘the secret language of the market, which degrades bodies and objects … to reflect on this degradation’. This position, alongside the idea that knowledge through teaching (or pedagogical activity as theorists are wont to call it) is best served co-constructed, and that the resurgence of socially engaged activity in Europe came out of the absence of any ‘collective political horizon or goal’, form a trinity of forcefully argued but frankly unconvincing final positions.
Artificial Hells, then, is a challenging read written from the perspective of a critic-cum-theorist fed up with ethical objections to open-ended, morally ambiguous and transgressive participatory work. There is a lot of useful information and assertion between its pages. bBut the attempt to ‘generate a more nuanced (and honest) critical vocabulary with which to address the vicissitudes of collaborative authorship and spectatorship’ doesn’t quite come off. For Bishop it also marks something of an about face, turning, as she does, from a critic to a supporter of artists via ‘the formation of personal relationships […] that inevitably proceed to impact on one’s research’. That said, I suspect the true value of Artificial Hells will lie less in what the author maintains in its pages and more in the antithetical positions her assertions provoke. For now, though, the interpretation of participatory art, in all its manifestations, remains an open field awaiting its magnum opus.