The turn towards participatory paradigm in arts is based on the main assumption that the audience does not take active part in the creative process of production and presentation of art, but wants and needs to. Participatory art hence offers an approach to making art in which art is considered incomplete without the viewers’ involvement; thus the audience members become co-authors, editors, or active performers who complement and round up the artist’s concept.
However the main intent behind the emergence of participatory art is not to simply add a new genre to already existing art genres and media. It is also instrumental for challenging the dominant forms and relations in the art world as we know it: as a small protected class of professionals that have the monopoly over making and defining art while the audience is considered the ‘other’ that takes on the role of passive and marginal observer celebrating the results of the creation. In this respect participatory art is closely related to institutional critique – the art practice of different generations of artists who called for revealing, critiquing, and dismantling of the elitist and exclusivist art policies. According IC art based on institutionalised authorities and hegemonic hierarchies enables and even fortifies the inner contradictions of the art world, and thus it maintains the status quo of problematic systemic art structures.
The shift that has been recognised recently in the field of art from establishing relations between objects towards establishing relations between subjects was however not the result of an overnight turn. It has been greatly influenced by philosophical or sociological theories, and by deliberative and participatory tendencies in democratic politics. It is therefore relevant to follow the trajectory of participatory turn along with various theoretical methodologies and cross-disciplinary concepts (e.g. phenomenology, intertextuality, intersubjectivity, post-structuralism, deconstruction, dialogical and critical theory, post-Marxism, institutional theory, constructivist feminist critique, relational aesthetics, postcolonial critique, etc.) and to locate the gaps between the promise of participation in theory and its shortcomings in concrete art projects in different contexts.
Today participatory art is linked with post-conceptual, conversational and relational art, or with contemporary socially and politically engaged art (often dabbed ‘artivism’), but it’s often forgotten that similar art discourses and practices existed before, already in the early 1960s. Hence along the theoretical background of participatory art practices as cultural shift, there have been some other overlooked related art phenomena – art discourses, media, and individual artists who contributed to the emergence and applying of the participatory paradigm in arts along the relevant democratic shifts towards participation in research and education.
All art phenomena that preceded participatory art in the efforts to expand the field and definition of art as a modernist and formalist category already involved interactions between the artist(s) and the audiences in various phases or parts of the creative process. For example, the inclusion of the audience in the artistic events and during the production process could be related to the tradition of some early Avant-Guard performances (e.g. of Russian Futurism and constructivism, Dada, and neo-Dada, Bauhaus/Oscar Schlemmer), or later to the International Situationists, public art, community based art, feminist critique, and socially engaged and activist practices. A few examples are obvious: the video art practice of the independent and guerrilla TV stations (e.g. Top Value TV), participatory theatres such as The Living Theatre, the early happenings and environments by Alan Kaprow and Mike Kelly from the 60s, as well as the ‘new genre public art’ coined by Suzanne Lacy.(1) Participatory art was also advocated by Augusto Boal in his Theatre of the oppressed.
Participatory art continues to promote the understanding that art work is not just an object that you passively enjoy while quietly looking at – it is something in which creation you actively participate so it creates a dynamic collaboration between the artist, the audience and their environment in which the non-specialised audience members are invited to a close collaboration side by side the professional artists all through the creative process. Moreover participatory projects often aim to initiating the emergence of new communities.
Often there are also objects produced in such projects, however they are not the main intent and priority of participatory art because the establishing of the relational, interactive, and collaborative structures and platforms are considered also art. Therefore although the results may be documented with photography, audio, video, broadcasted, or otherwise, the artwork is really the interactions and relations that emerge from the audience’s engagement with the artist and the situation. Nevertheless even participatory art cannot always overcome the societal contradictions, and besides the attempts to erase the division between the artist as a producer, and the audience as participant often new hierarchies are created depending on class, ethnicity, access, etc.
(1) In one of the earliest usages of the term appears in photographer Richard Ross wrote, ‘These artists bear the responsibility to the community. Their art is participatory.’ Richard Ross, “At Large In Santa Barbara,” LAICA Journal 28 (September-October 1980): 45-47.
Bishop, Claire (ed.). 2006. Participation: Documents of Contemporary Art. London: Whitechapel; Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Bishop, Claire. 2012. Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship. London-New York: Verso Books.
Milevska, Suzana. 2006. “Participatory Art: A Paradigm Shift from Objects to Subjects” Springerin Vol. 12, 2 (Spring):18-23. https://www.springerin.at/en/2006/2/partizipatorische-kunst/
Milevska, Suzana. 2016. “‘Infelicitous’ Participatory Acts on the Neoliberal Stage.” p/art/icipate: Kultur aktiv gestalten 07 (October). Accessed January 23, 2016. https://www.p-art-icipate.net/cms/infelicitous-participatory-acts-on-the-neoliberal-stage/