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The Open Work: Participatory Art Since Silence

Judith Rodenbeck


In the introduction to his 1998 book, Relational Aesthetics (English translation 2002; essays dating as far back as 1992), the curator Nicolas Bourriaud writes that currently, “the liveliest factor that is played out on the chessboard of art has to do with interactive, user-friendly and relational concepts.” (8) The resulting works Bourriaud thinks of as “hands-on utopias” (9)—“the artwork of the 1990s turns the beholder into a neighbor,” he writes (43)—and it is the object of his small book to not only bring some coherence to the category they define but also to elucidate some of the terms of that category. “The artwork is presented as a social interstice within which these experiments and these new ‘life possibilities’ appear to be possible.” (43) Bourriaud’s claim is that this new work “in no way draw[s] sustenance from any reinterpretation of this or that past aesthetic movement.” (44) Neither utopian nor formalist, relational aesthetics emphasizes immediacy, contingency, service, and has at its core what Claire Bishop has glossed as a “DIY, microtopian ethos” that is fundamentally political. (Bishop 2004, 54) And for Bourriaud, “the very first question…has to do with the material form of these works. How are these apparently elusive works to be decoded, be they process-related or behavioural[,] by ceasing to take shelter behind the sixties art history?” (7)
Though the rubric of “relational aesthetics” has provided an extremely useful conceptual frame through which to understand the gambits of a number of important contemporary projects it is a frame that needs a little interrogating. I want to ask what Bourriaud’s defensive move might have obscured in that sixties work, and what it might tell us about contemporary practice, and I want to do so by putting those terms Bourriaud has retrofitted—interactive, user-friendly, relational—back into the (or an) historical perspective that Bourriaud has willfully rejected.

overview of paper
This talk will be addressed loosely to three overlapping sets of ideas: 1) participation; 2) the open work and, more specifically, what Eco calls the “work in motion;” and 3) the problematic presented by contemporary artistic autonomy.

I want first to propose a loose typology of participation. It is possible to think about participation in at least three ways, each of which proposes a different idea of competence.
Philosopher David Novitz, writing on “participatory art and appreciative practice,” provides a useful weak definition. His interest is in an underappreciated set of artworks, “those largely neglected art forms that cannot adequately be appreciated, and cannot function properly, unless the viewer is physically present in the artwork itself or a performance of it, and, while there, participates in certain activities that arise out of and are required by these works.” (Novitz, 153) For Novitz, participation is another word for a kind of immersive physiological engagement.
A second, stronger definition understands participation in a more active sense as an extension of engagement. While this kind of participation does involve some degree of conscious navigation it nevertheless lacks a sense of responsibility beyond the immediate obligation to twiddle or observe.
Finally, the strongest definition necessitates a more precise and active notion of participation. Under this rubric participation involves a conscious decision-making, action-taking on the part of the participant in such a way that the structure of the work itself is shaped by that activity. This kind of participation—what Umberto Eco calls “an oriented insertion” (Eco, 19)—yields the actual reconfiguration of the work. The work is iterable; no two performances will be the same. The artist’s embrace of chance extends itself to the received form of the work itself.

Cage & Silence
I’d like to retell a familiar story. It is the story of John Cage’s silent piece, 4’33”, which was composed (or rather, given a score) and first performed in 1952. 4’33” was premiered one rainy evening in 1952 in Woodstock, New York. The piece—three strictly measured movements of silence—marked an endpoint to certain compositional explorations, introducing indeterminacy into the compositional repertoire. Though chance operations (reading a modified tarot) were used to determine the duration of each movement, the performance of the piece—for it was a piece to be performed—was left to the performer. As the sound of the everyday crept in to fill the measures of Cage’s score it became clear to his audience that the three precisely timed measures of chance-determined length, framed by the concert-hall, designated a “content” that would always be indeterminate.
Cage’s silent piece, in part because it was so dramatically visual, presented to visual artists a new understanding of the field of relations available. From 1957 to 1958 Cage intermittently taught a composition class at the New School for Social Research in New York. Two of the most extraordinarily productive outgrowths of the Cage course at the New School were the time-based arts that emerged under the aegis first of happenings and then of Fluxus. Both were rule-bound intense investigations of time and its spatialization (as well as of the definition of art, materials, production) radically material, immersive, hybrid, and performative; they were funky, amateurish, and fundamentally social.
Out of these two practices and their engagements with process and, importantly, with behavior, grew the twinned projects of conceptual and systems art. Charlie Gere has suggested that the latter disappeared for a complex of reasons involving failures of quality, of exhibitions, skepticism about industrial & technocratic linkage, problems with instrumentalism, and the difficulties of commodifying such work. And arguably a similar array of problems taxed conceptual art projects throughout the 1970s as they morphed over time from critical to bureaucratic to, finally, institutionalized practices, gradually losing their urgency.
The question is: to what degree had these developments already been forseen in neo-Dada collective and collaborative projects of the 1960s? To what degree had Eco’s concept of the “work in motion” been a kind of prophylactic against precisely the kind of bureaucratizing, institutionalizing, and devitalizing--the taming--that took place? And finally, most poignantly, to what extent has the theorizing of “relational aesthetics” obviated critical address to those difficulties?

Works Cited
Bishop, Claire. “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics,” October 100 (Fall 2004): 51-79.

Bourriaud, Nicolas. Relational Aesthetics (Paris: Les Presses du Reel, 2002)

Eco, Umberto. The Open Work.

Gere, Charlie. Digital Culture.

Novitz, David. “Participatory Art and Appreciative Practice,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism (2001): pp tk.

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