Object vs. Experience and the Institution’s Role in Participatory Art

Recently, I’ve been increasingly interested in art as a participatory experience– an interactive performance, a meal, an exchange, art as play, rather than simply art as an object– a painting, a sculpture, a photograph, a print.

Andrzej Liguz' "MORE" in the FIGMENT interactive sculpture garden on Governors Island

Art Object as Commodity

Edvard Munch's "The Scream"

The art object is easily commodified; it’s a prize for public or private collections. Indeed, despite the downtrodden economy, the art object appears to be doing well. This past year, auction houses saw an increase in high-end contemporary art sales, with Sotheby’s and Christie’s selling $1.7 billion of contemporary work in 2011. Sales of modern and postwar work were also successful. The trend should continue this year. Christie’s recently received £4 million for Gerhard Richter’s “Abstract Pictures.” Sotheby’s expects that it could get more than $80 million for a version of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” that will be auctioned on May 2nd. Blue chip galleries are also doing well. Several seem to celebrate the concept of art as commodity: last year Gagosian held a worldwide exhibition of Damien Hirst’s spot paintings, across all of the gallery’s eleven locations. Hirst is an artist who celebrates luxury, excess and decadence. In 2007, he unveiled “For the Love of God,” a platinum cast skull studded with over 8,000 diamonds, with an asking price of £50 million.

The Experience as Art: Art as Social Practice

Yet, perhaps as a reaction to the valuing and arguably over-valuing, in fact the fetishization, of these art objects, as the one percent bids on abstract paintings, many artists seem increasingly interested in the concept of the experience as art, in art as social practice. These experiences include games, play, collaborative performances, environmental interventions, and the creation of situations that challenge social constructs. In experiential projects, one is not simply a viewer, but a participant, and ultimately a collaborator in the work. Therefore, a more democratic exchange between art and audience is initiated than the if one were merely looking at a work created by the largely mythical self-sufficient artist-genius figure. An interactive project is not a completed piece without a participant, which allows the viewer/ participant to feel a sense of ownership in the artwork. And, the experience is necessarily ephemeral. It isn’t an object that can be collected (although depending upon the work, it can be documented, or re-performed). It’s a moment, and it’s unique to each participant, based upon what that person brings to it.

Participatory Art as Community

More and more, as elected officials call for decreased cultural funding, and the hierarchical system of culture producers that includes the auction houses, wealthy collectors, and museum directors trumpets 20th century paintings, jewel-encrusted sculptures, and similar art objects, there is a movement toward a more populist and alternative arts community that exists outside of the institution. Indeed, Kickstarter, a crowd funding site, reports that they are on track to distribute more funding to creative projects this year than the National Endowment for the Arts, which means that in large part, artists are funding artists, creating their own opportunities rather than hoping that their proposals are picked among thousands from the large grant-givers. And, although some of the projects on Kickstarter are participatory, and some are more traditional, such as documentaries or music albums, the process of raising money through Kickstarter is largely a participatory experience. FIGMENT, a group I’ve been involved with for the past three years, is a non-profit dedicated to promoting participatory and interactive art by emerging artists. Since FIGMENT’s inception in 2007 as a one-day participatory event on Governors Island, it’s grown to a series of multi-day, multi-city events with hundreds of projects that tens of thousands of people participate in. Swimming Cities is an artist collective that creates sculptural watercraft and then travels to different cities throughout the world to present music, performance, art, and interactive projects. Improv Everywhere is a self-identified “prank collective” that orchestrates scenes and social interventions, including “Spontaneous Musicals“, in which choreographed musical performances unexpectedly break out in public places, and “Meet a Black Person,” in which African American comedian Colton Dunn greeted people in Aspen, Colorado, which has an African American population of 0.44%.

Let me be clear: I am not anti-object. I have a background in printmaking, and I continue to make prints, drawings, sculptures, and textiles, in addition to participatory works. When I create an object, it’s an expression that’s meant to provoke emotion, dialogue, and spark conversation. However, I find myself increasingly drawn to participatory, experiential art because these sorts of projects more explicitly do and express what I strive for when making an object.

The Impact of the Institution

"Live Personal Museum Soundtrack," an intervention by Machine Project

Participatory art is not new. However, museums and academic institutions are increasingly embracing it. New MFA programs in social practice, social design, and public art have been cropping up– at Portland State University, California College of the Arts, Otis College of Art and Design, the School of Visual Arts, and Parsons The New School, among others. The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) recently showed Rirkrit Tiravanija’s Untitled (Free), in which the artist prepares and serves thai curry for free. Machine Project, an Echo Park-based collective, just ended a year-long residency at UCLA’s Hammer Museum, in which they executed a series of interventions, including micro-concerts, needle-pointing group therapy sessions, and an overnight “Dream-In,” in order to engage visitors and transform the museum into an interactive space. In 2010, Guggenheim exhibited Tino Sehgal’s “This Progress,” a performance piece in which each visitor to the museum was greeted by a child, who then passed the visitor along to a teenager, then to an adult, and finally to a senior, with each performer questioning and conversing with the visitor about progress.

This institutional interest in participatory art is particularly intriguing for two reasons. First, museums, by definition, collect objects. Is it possible to also collect experiences? And, if museums are now collecting non-materials, does dematerialization equal decommodification, which I believe is in part what many artists strive for when they create participatory work?

Second, participatory art has typically taken place outside of the museum, and has been, in part, a reaction against, and an alternative to “high art” and the traditional white walls of the art-world institution. An early happening, “Yam Festival,” organized by Allan Kaprow, Robert Watts and George Brecht, included performances, poets and a picnic, and took place at George Segal’s farm in New Brunswick, New Jersey in 1963. Mail Art used and uses the postal system, and in addition, remote, “non-art” venues to disseminate work. Fluxus had a largely anti-commercial, anti-market-driven sentiment, and encouraged a DIY and often collaborative approach to creating interdisciplinary and participatory creative experiences. How does the institutionalization of these works change them? One obvious example is the aforementioned Rirkrit Tiravanija “Untitled (Free)” work that MoMA presented earlier this year. In addition to the $25.00 admission fee for MoMA making the curry decidedly not free, the curry was also prepared in MoMA’s kitchen, not in the gallery space, and served by a member of their restaurant staff, not the artist. Yet, the participatory aspect still remains. The art is not the curry; it’s the experience of waiting in line for the curry and the discussions that occur there, and then consuming it at table where one may be sitting and speaking with a stranger, or chatting with a friend. However, bringing this social experience into a museum does fundamentally change the experience– the demographic of participants, the implicit message that “THIS IS IMPORTANT ART” because the museum has chosen to exhibit it. Ultimately, I’m encouraged by the attention that museums and more traditional arts organizations are giving to interactive works, but the community-building that comes from participatory art is going to take place outside of the institution.


1 Comment

Filed under Art, Museum, Political Art, Social Implications

One response to “Object vs. Experience and the Institution’s Role in Participatory Art

  1. An interesting, inspiring article. Me, I also think that art can be any moment we chose to make (as) it – in life, and in our own consciousness and moment by moment experience – that being a personal, private experience which can be taken into a virtual and/or real world, and abstractly or obviously brought to an audience – blurring boundaries between fantasy and reality. Interactivity and inclusivity are, as you point out, are a precious and important movement…what IS art? …plenty to ponder.

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