Fear from Art Institutions: Participatory Art and Its “Hierarchies”
Understanding MySpace
by Suzana Milevska
The shift from establishing relations to and between objects towards relations between subjects and the public that recently took place in the field of art has been highly influenced by philosophical or sociological theories of democratisation of art and its institutional structures. [1] The main aim of participatory art in great deal overlaps with a kind of deconstruction of the renowned hierarchies between “high” and “low” art. However, I want to point to a certain paradox: that such “participatory shift” in arts simultaneously creates new hierarchies and differentiations, new fears and obstacles.

This is not the same as to say that participatory art is overrated, or as to criticise it for overemphasising the social and ethical values over the aesthetical and formal components. The debates that recently sparked over these issues mostly overlooked one of the most important impacts of the participatory art that has less to do with any discussion of the inner art structures or art relations, but rather is focused on the differentiation of the art audiences. [2]

On the one hand aiming to open the art institutions towards a more profound involvement of art audiences in the process of artistic practices and productions, on the other hand such tendency towards participation produces new distinctions and “elites” by inviting the audiences in different levels of direct involvement. Such differentiation of audiences can lead towards developing more diversified art and cultural policies among curators and art administrators but also towards a greater awareness among the “elitist” museum and gallery audiences of the existence of “other” publics/participants.

In the time of YouTube, art blogs, video game patches and other ways of interaction between the artists, audience and media, culture becomes a fluid, dispersed and relational phenomenon that can not be controlled by a centralized state apparatus. . On the other hand, the computerised and centralized systems of control can be used for ever more strong biopower and cultural control. Therefore, it is not surprising that there are still many state governed museums, commercial galleries or other art institutions that still perpetuate the system of art exhibitions based on the presentation of work of art put on pedestal. Even though the ethnic, cultural and gender identity and self become un-fixed, transformative and mobile phenomena that enter and transform the inherited cultural values from the past, there is still a spectre of some obsolete fixed identities hunting from some hidden spaces and frightening relations of power.

That is why it is so important to state that the art processes and projects that include participation of different audiences simultaneously include a certain doing away with the hierarchies. By deconstructing of the hierarchies that have always already been established among different social and economic classes and cultures participatory art deconstructs its own power.

Additional novelty in contemporary participatory driven art is that while many similar phenomena from the past that dealt with or fought for social and economic well being of different communities were commissioned in order to strengthen the central power of the commissioner (the state, the private benefactor, or the funding agency) today artists initiate such projects on their own.

However, there are many contradictions at work in participatory art practices. One of the main critiques of the impact of relational theory is the questions to which extent it is applicable to art influenced by postcolonial critique. Namely, it is obvious that the participatory art projects can easily be captured in the vicious circle of criticism without taking into account the positive perspective or without giving any proposition for 'real' participation. This kind of projects can easier be welcomed by the society as a preferred mild social critique instead of a more direct political critique of the social inequalities and injustices.

There is another problem with participatory art in the activist circles, when art is understood as a call for revolution and its success or failure is measured according to its revolutionary prerogatives. The interpretation of art as agency that should circumvent the main societal and ideological obstacles that artists face outside of European democracy prescripts and expects all too big impact of art activism projects.

At the end I want to argue that art has yet to find a position that would reconcile the contradictions between these two radical ends: between 'critique for critique's sake' and art turned into revolutionary means. The question about the relation between reality and art cannot be resolved by taking a stand and establishing a steady hierarchy between two of them. Reality and art have always worked together, only the ways in which they are entangled differ. One thing that one can agree with is that the participatory art projects establish a new and more productive context for such entanglements and open up new potentialities for a bigger social impact of contemporary art processes in general and for overcoming of the fear from art institutions among common public.


[1] For different views on participatory art practices:
Maria Lind, “Actualisation of Space: The Case of Oda Projesi,” 10.2004, 15. Aug. 2006
Claire Bishop, “The Social Turn: Collaboration and its Discontents,” Artforum, Feb 2006, vol. XLVI, no. 6, pp. 178-183
Suzana Milevska, “Participatory Art: A Paradigm Shift from Objects to Subjects,” springerin, 2/2006, 25 April 2006
Shana Lutker, “Not-Art: Every garden a munition plant”, 1 Sept. 2006
[2] Claire Bishop, "Aesthetic/Ethical - Critical Modalities"
Maria Lind "Tactical/Agnostic Artist - Ted Purves” 10 Sep. 2006