All the world's a stage... No, really — Claire Bishop on participatory art and Artificial Hells

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Claire Bishop, author of Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, writes for the Guardian this week on the history and current popularity of participatory art. Bishop contextualises where Tino Sehgal’s latest work These Associations, which opened to the public this week as the 13th Unilever Commission in the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern gallery in London. 


ArtReview editor-at-large and Independent art critic Laura McLean-Ferris writes that These Associations reignites the idea “that the electricity that crackles between people is the most powerful energy of all.” Indeed, as Bishop notes, there is something more to the show than previous installations to have graced the pavements of London’s Southbank:

Visitors to Tate Modern in the past week will have noticed strange activities in the Turbine Hall. Rather than the usual flurry of cranes, cherry-pickers and engineers that signal the arrival of a new installation, there were 50 people of different shapes and sizes running around the concrete expanse: spiralling in loops, gathering in clusters, hurtling up and down the ramp. In the middle of them was the British-German artist Tino Sehgal, fine-tuning his performance – or as he prefers to call it, "constructed situation" – which opens to the public on Tuesday.

Sehgal's These Associations is a far remove from the overblown visual spectacles that usually make up the annual Unilever commission. At first sight you barely see anything. Then you notice strange ripples of movement across the concrete expanse as the 50 choreographed performers come into view. If you stand by and watch for a while, one of them might come up and talk to you, recounting a personal experience of when they felt they belonged.

Sehgal is well-known for participatory performances in which groups of non-professionals are trained to engage in conversation with the public. For this commission, more than 100 people have been recruited: the youngest is 16; the eldest are in their 70s.

Bishop also comments on the trajectory of participatory art, aligning it to the rise in popularity of reality television and the social network explosion, a factor that led Guardian writer Charlotte Higgins to label it “Twitter Art”. Bishop writes:

Participatory art has proliferated in tandem with the feedback loops of Web 2.0 and social networking, while its fascination with eccentric laymen parallels the populism of reality television. All three tread a very fine line between cultural democratisation and incessant banality.

Bishop locates the source of recent UK popularity of participatory art in research conducted by New Labour thinktanks during the mid-90s, which linked it to the reduction of “isolation by helping people to make friends, developing community networks, helping offenders and victims address issues of crime, encouraging people to accept risk positively, and transforming the image of public bodies.” Bishop explains the next step:

For better or worse, these pro-participation studies became the foundation of New Labour cultural policy and led to a climate in which participatory art and education became a privileged vehicle of the social inclusion agenda. Culture was valued because it created the appearance of social inclusion, even while government continued to erode those institutions that actually assure this – education and healthcare.

Since David Cameron leapt out of the bath to scream “Big Society!” – perhaps not, but we imagine this Eureka moment was equally jubilant – in 2010, though, “the terms of engagement have shifted once more.” Bishop writes:

The Tories have little interest in the political uses of art, preferring to hand it over to the dictates of the market… Mass creativity is supported only to the extent that it is self-generated – and self-funded. In keeping with big society doctrine, wageless volunteers are asked to pick up where the government cuts back. In this climate, participatory art acquires a different resonance, more akin to the sacrifices of unpaid labour.

But according to Bishop, Sehgal’s art is crucially different to the “do-good community-based participatory art so rife in the Cultural Olympiad”, Bishop tells us:  

Sehgal isn't particularly interested in empowering people; those who work for him are paid performers who serve his ends (an enigmatic work designed to reflect on the museum as a space of simultaneously individual and mass address). But what Sehgal does have in common with the majority of participatory artists is a tendency to place an emphasis on everyday (rather than highly skilled) forms of performance.

In so doing, his pieces, like so much other participatory art under neoliberalism, serve a double agenda: offering a popular art of and for the people, while at the same time, reminding us that today we all experience a constant pressure to perform and, moreover, this is one in which we have no choice but to participate.

Visit the Guardian to read the article in full.

Claire Bishop launched Artificial Hells at London’s Whitechapel Gallery last Thursday with a lecture on social practice.

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