How, then, do we judge the value of participation versus that of a painting? Everyone who looks at a painting sees more or less the same thing. What the painting actually means to a viewer may depend on an infinite number of variables, from the power structures operating within the representational system to the street-vendor goat curry wending its way through her intestinal track, but the picture doesn't change.On the other hand, Tino Sehgal's This Progress (2010)—in which "interpreters" ranging from childhood to old age engage museum-goers in semi-scripted dialogues about the meaning of progress — provides a highly subjective experience, with the form of the work changing dramatically depending on how you respond to the interpreters. And in the case of many exhibitions of participatory work—for example, the archive of Paul Chan's 2007 outdoor production of Waiting for Godot in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, on view at MoMA last year—what we see is documentation of something experienced elsewhere by other people. As a result, we tend to resort to solipsism (how the work made me feel) or speculation (how the work effects people in theory).
For Ms. Bishop, one way out of this conundrum can be found in art that concentrates on negation rather than providing precious moments of individual fulfillment or models for democracy. The paragon is Santiago Sierra, a Spanish artist who is renowned for stripping away the pieties of participatory art in favor of brutal displays of wage labor. Mr. Sierra is best known for 250cm Line Tattooed on Six Paid People (1999), which features six out-of-work young laborers standing shoulder to shoulder in a gallery, the eponymous line spanning their backs. At first the piece may seem repugnant, ethically and physically. But then you wonder how much the workers were paid, even as you watch them, and sense them monitoring you. Were they paid by Mr. Sierra? As part of his fee? Were they paid much more than their normal wage? Enough to make this exploitation worthwhile, even pleasurable? And is this much more exploitative, or banal, than the work they do otherwise? How does it compare to the work anyone does, the exploitative situations in which people place themselves for money? Is it any different categorically?
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