Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 8, 2013
Claire Bishop Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship London: Verso, 2012. 390 pp. Paper $29.95 (9781844676903)

There is no other way of making sensuous man rational except by first making him aesthetic. (Friedrich Schiller, On the Aesthetic Education of Man, Twenty-third Letter)

In 2002, Jacques Rancière published an essay in the New Left Review discussing Schiller’s famous fifteenth letter from On the Aesthetic Education of Man (Jacques Rancière, “The Aesthetic Revolution and Its Outcomes,” New Left Review 14 [March/April 2002]: 133–51). Written in 1795, just after the French Revolution had turned to Terror, Schiller tried to resolve the discrepancy between nature and cultural refinement, positing that the human need to play can bridge various and sometimes destructive impulses, so that we may become fully human—and social. Schiller aimed to conserve an autonomous sphere of art, one that is at the same time pedagogically indispensable to a just state. He argued that it is through the aesthetic that humans can become free and moral.

Why is this timely? Marxists tend to see contemporary politics organized less around the production of commodities than their consumption—a politics of play with no end in sight. A shift within play promises to deal with the problem on its own ground. “We could reformulate [Schiller’s] thought,” Rancière writes, “as follows: there exists a specific sensory experience––the aesthetic––that holds the promise of both a new world of Art and a new life for individuals and the community” (“The Aesthetic Revolution and Its Outcomes,” New Left Review 14 [March/April 2002]: 133).

In Artificial Hells (the term is André Breton’s, modified from Charles Baudelaire’s paradis artificiels), Claire Bishop takes Rancière’s observation as her starting point and fleshes out an art-historical account based on this skeletal theoretical model. With a focus on spectatorship befitting this Kantian pedigree, the book redefines participatory art while historicizing it.

This redefinition occurs primarily in Bishop’s emphasis on aisthesis, and the attention paid to how individuals are addressed by art, without neglecting individual desire and pleasure (which she partly reads through Jacques Lacan). In short: the art Bishop examines is allowed to look good, to excite our senses, even to be beautiful. Moreover, art that operates “without the incapacitating restrictions of guilt” can be made socially responsible (39). Bishop sees in theatrical models and the performance art that sought to displace them the best historical genealogy for these concerns. These forms, occasionally castigated as non-art or heralded as the end of mediation and of the art commodity, can be thought of more productively in terms of intersubjective agreement and the “activation” of audiences, resulting, in theory, in viewers becoming participants in the work.

Bishop aims to show this by a fresh contextualization of art of the 1960s and 1970s, concentrating on the Situationists and their sexually obsessed satellite Jean-Jacques Lebel, and on art from Argentina, Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union, and Britain––a range of political regimes exhibiting varying levels of repression and offering wide scope for critique. This central section of the book is prepared by case studies of historical avant-gardes, in particular the Futurists and Russian revolutionary artists. The year 1989 serves as the third turning point in this history, after 1917/18 and 1968. Always in the background, and explicitly addressed in the first and the last two chapters (on delegate performance and pedagogical performance, respectively) is the contemporary art scene since roughly 2000.

The first impression of Artificial Hells is therefore breadth, not detail. Bishop swings through fascinating comparative studies easily, and is impressive in teasing out differences, mostly in how audiences are approached: dysfunctional but ever complicated cocktails of invitation, intimidation, and neglect. The details, where they emerge, often point up the social-historical background of Bishop’s ambitiously global approach. This leads both to gains in clarity and dangers of reductionism. The odd, Fluxus-influenced ceremonies of Prague-based artist Milan Knizak (the audience carried out simple tasks, e.g., arranging objects in a line, tearing out a page from a book) are discussed, rightly I think, not as dissident acts covertly opposing an unsuspecting regime, but as (no less courageous) acts of carving out subjective freedom in a surveillance state. That our tendency to read “heroic acts of dissidence” into these works is a “Western fantasy” (162) should shed a new light on the complex negotiations between the private and the public under socialist conditions, and their canonization today. Yet “Western fantasies” remain: less confrontational ceremonies enacted less than two hundred miles away in Bratislava, by the group Happsoc (the name alluding to happenings, happiness, socialism, or society), particularly the concerts of the related music group Plastic People of the Universe, “camouflaged” as a wedding band, are explained by the curious claim that “Slovaks tend to assert that their national character is one of quiet co-operation rather than heroic resistance” (146). This is chalked up to a rural, agricultural Slovakia having been modernized by socialism, and thus friendlier disposed to it. Such geographic summation puts at risk the book’s grand historical project of working out the shifts in art’s interaction with the audience, for no pattern emerges from cultural clichés. Despite the book’s length, Bishop’s examples seldom occupy more than a page; one wishes she had gone more slowly, explaining through her crisp social portraits and formal investigations of extant pictorial and narrative documents why the projects work the way they do.

It is not that the points Bishop makes are vague; on the contrary, previous essays—a version of the first chapter caused much discussion in Artforum in 2006 (“The Social Turn: Collaboration and Its Discontents,” Artforum 44, no. 6 [February 2006]: 178–83), as did her biting criticism of Nicolas Bourriaud’s theory of “relational aesthetics” in October in 2004 (“Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics,” October 110 [Fall 2004]: 51–79), where she contended that the art Bourriaud champions “collapses into compensatory (and self-congratulatory) entertainment”—made clear her impatience with crowd-pleasing participatory art. The chapter on Great Britain, in particular on the Artist Placement Group and the British community arts movement, best explains the line that Bishop draws between “contemporary and community art.” Comparing “similar projects” of the 1970s by community activists and “a single artist,” David Medalla, she dwells on the fact that in the latter case, “a critical debate was formed, established and defended” (185). The difference lies in “the entire conceptualization of his [Medalla’s] event in terms of authorship, materials . . . location . . . and final result (an installation or performance)” (186). This difference has a counterpart on the side of the public: “Community arts has no secondary audience: it has no discursive framing nor an elaborated culture of reception to facilitate comparison and analysis with similar projects, because community art is not produced with such a critical audience in mind” (190). Advocates of activist art would probably not regard this as a fair argument, since they urge the grassroots construction of alternative spaces (and thus, in a way, art-world indifference) as key to the democratic directness of their project.

Leaving this danger of playing to the canon aside, let us think through the argument. With the focus of the book on ephemeral practices, means are needed to store or rather make accessible strong experience for future aesthetic and political reflection. The obvious bridge from anarchic event to the aesthetic in Schiller’s sense of a comprehensive way of life is what Bishop calls this “secondary audience,” namely the reception of past acts through documents. This relationship between the event and its afterlife in documents, relics, scholarship, and even myth and gossipy narrative has been the hot topic in performance studies over the last fifteen years. Bishop has wise things to say on issues contemporary critics have tended to dismiss: of Vanessa Beecroft she writes that instead of blanket condemnation, her monumental cibachromes would reward study. But in the crucial debate over whether images or acts themselves are socially binding, Bishop cites (37; cf., 352 n.26) only the most overexposed voice, Philip Auslander, who in 2006 claimed with Derridean panache that performance really takes place in the photograph, i.e., that documents are all that make an event into art (“The Performativity of Performance Documentation,” PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 84 (2006): 1–10). This radical position has problems within performance studies (what to do with inconsistent documents relating to one performance?), but for a study of participation it obviously will not do, for it reduces all modes of encounter to the contemplative act of staring at a picture.

On the other hand, though it may seem counterintuitive in a study of participatory art, Auslander’s “armchair” perspective oddly resembles Rancière’s nostalgia for contemplation and the claim that it alone is political. Perhaps Bishop could travel this path, but she would have to abandon her attractive account of the complexity of the viewer’s experience in participatory, didactic, and other socially coercive contexts. What would remain would be an account of retrospective viewing, which is not how she positions her history. For instance, in discussing Sergei Eisenstein’s 1923 production of Sergei Tretyakov’s play Gas Masks, Bishop is cognizant of coming to the play late, through memoir and image (56), but compensates by imagining what it would have been like to experience it in person. Again and again, Bishop narrates radical scenarios in seeming first person, complete with shock and alienation and often police intervention. I do not deny that things may have happened this way, but there is the risk of relying on myths put forward by artists and their advocates.

This difficulty does not concern detail, but program: to clarify how participatory art reaches beyond individual performance to a secondary audience, Bishop needs to say how mediation does the same. A revealing footnote in the chapter on historic avant-gardes credits RoseLee Goldberg with “classically” reading Futurism “through the lens of visual art, while this chapter will argue for its indebtedness to theatrical models” (295 n.1). The contrast seems unfortunate. Goldberg, unlike Bishop, insists in her early studies on the inadequacy of performance documents; like Bishop, she relies on them to imagine experiences she could not have had. More attention to the theory of documentation would help bridge this gap, and that between using other people to perform and using images of one’s own body. Bishop’s emphasis on theatrical models and the capacity to disturb keeps “liveness” at the center of her study in a way counter to its stated objectives.

In the first chapters of Artificial Hells, as in the last, the hostile audience response actively sought by the Futurists and Surrealists is conceived as an “invitation” for collective action, “suggesting that destructive modes of participation might be more inclusive than those that purport to be democratically open” (49). This sentence nicely captures Bishop’s own ethical-political judgment. And, in view of Schiller and Rancière, it suggests a skeptical question: Is all experience aesthetic? This question is at the core of Bishop’s problem, both in the sense of the force of experience that so fascinates her and her difficulty in proposing criteria for such transcendent states. Discussing Tania Bruguera, whose “pedagogic projects,” especially her intense master class in Havana—a two-year, “school-as-art” course “providing a training in political and contextual art for students in Cuba” (246)—are the centerpiece of her last chapter, Bishop asks again, with refreshing candor: Why is this art? Bishop’s answer is that, in wanting to impact both art and reality, Bruguera’s practice is “reliant on an artistic imagination.” “Art is in fact integral to her conception of each project” (250). If this is right, then concept and intention play a role in Bruguera’s art independent of its ability to disturb audiences. Very complex issues are perceptively framed, but they slip away too quickly. Bishop insists that aesthetic modes of documentation are crucial, but she prefers to stay with the political-ethical question of experience. So, at times frustratingly, at all times provokingly, the book is richer in questions than in answers.

Artificial Hells is a large book, and contains a variety of excellent discussions. The chapter on delegate performance is a sophisticated account that will hopefully find its way into contemporary art syllabi, as Bishop’s refusal to praise or dismiss en masse, and her insistence on the alliance between labor and pleasure, making live presence “evidence of precarious labour” (231), is standout reading in this glutted and often polarized market of opinion. There is an insightful analysis of the equally overworked Situationist International as solipsists not really interested in a broader audience, and the chapters on Argentina and Czechoslovakia navigate not just local concerns but their relevance to art elsewhere. The book makes good reading in its at times disorderly but frequently exciting application of Bishop’s view of art as “offering a specific space of experience where . . . norms are suspended and put to pleasure in perverse ways” (238).

Mechtild Widrich
Assistant Professor, Art History, Theory and Criticism, School of the Art Institute of Chicago