Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 18, 2009
Rudolf Frieling, ed. The Art of Participation: 1950 to Now Exh. cat. San Francisco and London: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in association with Thames and Hudson, 2008. 212 pp.; 200 ills. Cloth $39.95 (9780500238585)
Exhibition schedule: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, November 8, 2008–February 8, 2009
Lygia Clark. Diálogo: Óculos (Dialogue: Goggles) (1968). Modified diving goggles, metal, and mirror. 3 × 7 × 11 1/2 in. Clark Family Collection, Rio de Janeiro. Photo: Eduardo Clark. Courtesy “The World of Lygia Clark” Cultural Association. © 2008 “The World of Lygia Clark” Cultural Association.

Joseph Beuys famously proposed that, “every human being is an artist” (Joseph Beuys, “I Am Searching for Field Character,” in Art into Society, Society into Art, trans. Caroline Tisdall, London: Institute of Contemporary Arts, 1974, 48). How, then, do we understand the relationship between artists and audience? The Art of Participation, an extremely ambitious, multifaceted exhibition and catalogue by Rudolf Frieling, curator of media arts at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, provides numerous potential inroads to considering this question, among others. Desiring to determine whether there is an inherent conflict between the institutional goals of the museum and participatory artistic practices, Frieling has chosen to showcase the work of more than forty artists who, since the mid-twentieth century, have attempted to directly engage their various publics as artistic collaborators. Their works present a curious amalgam of challenges to the ways in which we understand the function and meaning of art, its circumstantial modes of presentation, and the evolving role of the museum in the twenty-first century.

This monumental curatorial agenda—to present a comprehensive overview of participatory or “open systems” works in a museum context—is one that Frieling states, up front, “can never fully achieve its promise” (The Art of Participation: 1950 to Now, 12). Seemingly contradictory, Frieling’s prophetic words express the inevitable—that one exhibition cannot possibly represent the vast wealth of approaches to participatory art over the past sixty years. The project is bound to disappoint those viewers who are knowledgeable about the history of conceptually based, performative art practices, and to confuse much of the museum-going public who have limited experience with non-static media. However, while he acknowledges that truly participatory art is a utopian ideal—and in the context of a curated exhibition unavoidably compromised by available space and funding—Frieling nonetheless has structured a project that does, in more and less successful ways, activate viewers’ experiences of objects and situations within a museum context.

How this activated experience unfolds throughout the exhibition is complex and non-linear. While the show begins historically with a gallery centered around John Cage’s 4’33” (1952), highlighting his seminal ideas about chance and change (also exemplified by various Fluxus artists), I was initially struck by the uneven presentation of these artists’ work. For instance, although this gallery contains a small grand piano along with a video of Cage performing 4’33” in Harvard Square (filmed by Nam June Paik, 1973/76) and a framed score of this remarkable work on the wall, there is only one actual performance of the piece each day, at noon. As with many works in this exhibition, because the collaborative nature of Cage’s piece can only be understood firsthand, most museum visitors miss its point entirely. Compounding the difficulty of grasping the participatory nature of many of the historical works and the relationships between artists and approaches is a dearth of descriptive wall text. The uninitiated cannot, therefore, appreciate the direct relationship between 4’33” and Robert Rauschenberg’s White Painting (Three Panel) (1951), hung adjacent to the Cage installation. Rauschenberg’s White Paintings were part of their historic, collaborative 1952 interdisciplinary Happening at Black Mountain College and, according to Cage, inspired 4’33”.

Frieling explained to me that his empirical curatorial approach was part of a strategy to allow visitors to make their own, unencumbered connections among works and experiences. However, while I had the gift of a lengthy conversation with the curator as we walked through the exhibition and he elucidated the Fluxus and Conceptual art pathways that emanate from this genesis point, most viewers are not easily able to make these connections. Case in point: along the Conceptual art trajectory, one encounters Erwin Wurm’s One Minute Sculptures (2007/08), presented as both actions to be performed by the viewer on a white platform in the gallery and as a series of photographs of Wurm performing such actions. Humorous and reminiscent of Bruce Nauman’s early studio films (1967–68, not in the exhibition), Wurm’s methodology also gives an unacknowledged nod to Tom Marioni’s 1969 One Second Sculpture. That work is not in the show, but Wurm’s work is installed adjacent to Marioni’s installation Free Beer (The Act of Drinking Beer with Friends is the Highest Form of Art) (1970–79). The chronology of the concept is, however, not revealed, either in the exhibition or its catalogue.

Moving out from Fluxus and Conceptual art, The Art of Participation expands to embrace an amalgam of art approaches and networking methodologies that range from filling out questionnaires (Stephen Willats, A Moment of Action [1974/2008]) to Second Life (a 3-D virtual world where “residents” can create an identity, meet, and socialize). The experience is at once lively and demanding, reminiscent of the noisy interactive ambience of science and technology museums. Though there are moments that allow contemplation—for example, the performance videos of Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece (1965/2003)—much of the show is filled with instructions and demands: add a rubber band to a quilt! (Lydia Clark, Elastic Net [1973/2008]); bid on eBay for the right to alter this installation! (Blank & Jeron, 1st Public White Cube [2001/2008]); sit in this chair! (George Brecht, Three Chair Event 1961)

Unsettled in my inability to resolve my own relationship to the experiences offered by the exhibition, after several initial visits to the museum (and prior to my walkthrough with Frieling) I decided to spend as much time as might be required to participate in all of the works in one day. My hope was to understand firsthand what the experience of relinquishing myself to the “art of participation” might be. Despite approaching this occasion like an athlete might prepare for a triathlon, I immediately had to abandon my goal, as I missed the very first event on my list: the noontime performance of Cage’s 4’33” (it is, after all, only 4 minutes and 33 seconds long). While this initially upset my expectation of “total participation,” the subsequent episode of waiting in line for forty-five minutes to have my picture taken as part of Jochen Gerz’s The Gift (2000/2009) reinforced my understanding that the experience of The Art of Participation is predicated on simply being open to its possibilities. Once I accepted the reality that engagement with open-systems works necessitates the abandoning of any fixed agenda, the day became a series of unanticipated and generally pleasurable experiences. Among them were the chance to talk with the volunteers staffing Gerz’s photo booth; discussions with the knowledgeable guards overseeing Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s playful interactive sound installation, Microphones (2008); chance encounters with students, friends, and colleagues participating in the various exhibits; and observing Frieling, who seemed to be enjoying the hum of activity throughout his show.

Among the significant artists and projects deserving mention are Beuys’s visionary 7000 Oaks (1982–87) and Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz’s magical “public communication sculpture,” Hole-in-Space (1980). The artist whose work perhaps best epitomizes the participatory spectrum of the exhibition is Lynn Hershman Leeson, who is represented by past and present versions of her historic project, The Dante Hotel (1973–74). Although the original, performative installation of the fictional world Hershman Leeson created in a residential hotel in San Francisco is poorly represented as photographs and documentation installed in a case, the project has an animated presence in its Second Life incarnation, Life2 (2006–present), in which pairs of museum visitors can direct Roberta (Hershman’s original female persona-cum-digital avatar) from gallery-sited computer stations. Hershman Leeson’s work elucidates Frieling’s assertion that the proximity to technological culture in the San Francisco Bay Area, in combination with the prominence of Web 2.0, has inspired the museum to question its role in a world that has embraced the tools of social networking.

Frieling’s belief that, “when artists are doing it, the museum must do it as well” (12), also makes a case for the inclusion of a selection of web-based works, which are possible to view on computers in the museum or from remote locations. Some of these web-based works can only be experienced online, while others, such as c a l c and Johannes Gees’s communimage (1999–present), allow visitors to upload pictures to a grid system that forms a huge collective map, which contained 28,895 images on 17 September 2008, when it was printed out and installed in the gallery. Although the electronic art world is hardly a new venue, its collective presence in a museum exhibition is still a relatively recent phenomenon.

Having chosen to fully engage in The Art of Participation on a Thursday, I was rewarded at the end of my visit by Marioni’s FREE BEER salon, held weekly in the museum’s Koret Visitor Education Center, bringing the experience full circle. The real-time act of being served a beer by the museum’s director (and guest bartender for that evening), Neil Benezra, while listening to a cool reading by SFMOMA exhibitions design manager, Kent Roberts, and socializing with fellow visitors, was the most deeply satisfying experience of all. The series of role inversions provided by this lively social sculpture—Marioni as director of his salon, the museum director cheerfully working for the artist, and a museum staff member as performing Beat poet—elucidates the meaning of Beuys’s belief that, “EVERY HUMAN BEING IS AN ARTIST who—from his state of freedom—the position of freedom that he experiences at first hand—learns to determine the other positions in the TOTAL ART WORK OF THE FUTURE SOCIAL ORDER” (Beuys, “I Am Searching for Field Character,” 48; emphasis in original).

Terri Cohn
Writer, Curator, Independent Scholar